Can the model for great classrooms can be found in pre-k and kinder?

The 2013-2014 school year has been underway for about 3 weeks now.  I have been teaching a class of 21 eleventh and twelfth grade students, my daughter has started 4th grade and my son has been in preschool after being taken care of at home for the last two years.  My mother made a career in early child development, coordinating child care services for an urban county in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaching college courses part time.  I mention this because I was raised learning about the importance of pre-k and kinder education and how it fits in to the work done in elementary, middle, and high schools.

So before I write more about elementary and secondary classrooms, I thought I’d start with a few things worth sharing about the education of three, four, and five year-olds.  Sir Ken Robinson shared in one of his recent TED talks that tests for creativity given to five year olds produce higher scores than the tests given to 10 year olds.  In essence he argues that formal schooling reduces the ability of kids to ask questions, be creative, and learn for themselves.  This got me thinking that if inquiry, creativity, and self-directed learning are things I value in secondary students, then perhaps some reflection of what these traits look like in pre-kinder classes could help me articulate to the teachers I work with what traits we want to see in their classroom.

So in what ways are pre-k students creative?  The first thing that comes to mind is what I hear and see when kids have time to play by themselves.  Sticks can turn into swords, blocks can turn into houses, and kids can turn into talking ponies (my family has been on a My Little Pony kick for a while now).  Kids are not limited by what they have to play with, and will simply imagine that whatever they need is what they have.  There are no constraints on their creativity until an adult tells them that the time has come to stop playing.

Is there an “educational value” to this kind of creativity?  Certainly there is for pre-k and kinder students.  If they are trying to engage in this sort of play with others, then they learn important social skills as well as develop the language capabilities to communicate effectively.  If a student is engaged in creative play by themselves, then I believe that children are learning an important lesson about independence, and that the act of imagining and creating is intrinsically rewarding.

Is there a way to allow elementary, middle, and high school students to engage in this kind of creativity in their education?  A school can help support student creativity by ensuring that there is adequate time for recess, art, and music.  Clubs and organizations will often allow creative students to have an outlet for their passions.  However, I would like to see the goal of creativity embraced as an essential part of the core curriculum.  The Common Core won’t do this, and it’s not likely to be a part of any college readiness initiative like AP and IB programs.  Instead, we need the individual classroom teachers to understand what it means for a scientist to be creative or a mathematician to be creative or a social scientist to be creative or a reader and writer to be creative.  Once the classroom teacher understands creativity, then they can build it into their program.  I’ll close this section by saying this, most math and science teachers cry a little inside (sometimes very deep inside) when they hear a student say that they don’t like math or science because they are a “creative person” as though the two were mutually exclusive.

Focus: What matters in science education

In June of 2011, my school district invited Dr. Schmoker to speak to all campus administrators and gave a copy of his book, Focus, to all participants in the workshop.  Given the format of the book, I turned directly to his chapter on science and read his vision for a science classroom.  His vision is supported both by research and by interviews with science students and scientists.  However, I was very concerned with what would happen if that vision became the norm for American science education.

I found out that Dr. Schmoker is again visiting educators in my city, and will be extending his work based on the book Focus.  When I saw this news I was reminded of my reaction to his chapter about science, and decided this time to write a rebuttal to some of the points in his chapter.

As I read the chapter, these are the main arguments that stand out to me:

  1. Students are not learning enough science the way classes are traditionally taught.
  2. Science classes are traditionally based on hands on activities to generate student interest and observe phenomena and lecture to clarify concepts.  In addition science classes tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep, a popular expression for trying to cover too much material and only giving everything superficial coverage.
  3. If students instead spent the majority of their time reading, discussing, and writing about important scientific concepts they will know more science, be able to interact with the content, enjoy class more, and be better prepared for future science courses.

Within the first few pages of the chapter it is clear that Dr. Schmoker and I have very different beliefs about what it means to “learn science.”  For Dr. Schmoker learning science seems to mean filling your brain with facts and understating the models and processes that are created to explain natural phenomena.  To me learning science means learning how to create models and how to observe the facts that are written about in textbooks.

Before I explain why this difference in what it means to learn science is so important, let me explain the ways in which I agree with the science chapter in Focus.

First, science textbooks are generally underused in science classes.  For the reasons cited in the chapter, teachers need to take more time to teach students how to learn from textbooks and increase their capacity to understand news and magazine articles written about science.

Next, my experience affirms that daily writing by students is essential to allow students to make connections and understand content as well as to give teachers a concrete way to assess mastery and give students useful feedback.  It would serve students well to have 6 to 10 good short answer (three to 5 sentences) questions on a test rather than 50 multiple choice items.

Finally, I agree with the book’s primary complaints about labs.  Many, most, or all (depending on the skill of the teacher) science labs do not allow students to raise questions about how things work, they do not allow students to apply a newly learned concept to an authentic problem solving situation, and they do not allow students to make inductive connections between results measured in a lab and the natural processes in the world.

From this common ground let me raise my concern.  The most important improvement that needs to be made in science classrooms is to increase the quality of labs, the quality of student writing about labs, and the quality of teacher feedback on student lab work.  I am afraid that instructional leaders who read this chapter on science will throw out the baby with the bathwater so to speak, and in an effort to end the practice of bad labs that are not conducive to science education, they will not help teachers develop the good labs that are essential to quality science education.  Improving labs is paramount to actually making a difference in students’ attitude towards science, their ability to make sense of science content, and our nation’s capacity to produce scientists.

There are two negative trends that this Schmoker’s vision for science is intended to end. The first is that the number of young people going into STEM careers is not meeting the demand necessary for the United States to remain at the forefront of technological innovation and global problem solving.  The second trend is that other nations are scoring significantly higher than ours in international measures of science content learning.

From the chapter it would seem Schmoker thinks the reason for the first trend is that students do not have the necessary content understanding to enter those fields.  My experience with students indicates that they are choosing to not enter those fields because their science classes are either too difficult or too boring, or (sadly) for various reasons teachers mentor them away from advanced science coursework in high school.  While increasing the focus on literacy will help reduce the problems of students finding science content inaccessible, if the teacher does not regularly (40 to 50 percent of the time) include lab activities then students will not realize why being a scientist is fun and rewarding.  Although scientists may enjoy reading books and articles about their area of expertise, that is not why they entered into the field.   The fun and reward of being a scientist is in discovering that from our chaotic and complex real world, we can create and manipulate simple models.

The science chapter in Focus makes a contrasting point.  The article includes quotes from an astronomer, and biologist, and reflections from two individuals about what was lacking in their high school science preparation.  All of these quotes point to the idea that what these individuals wanted from school was a chance to read and discuss interesting science content, not “measuring, pouring, and filling in of blanks.”

A number of people who enter in teaching, do so after excelling in school and being excellent students.  They then tend to feel most comfortable teaching in the ways that they were taught and then face a moment when they realize that those “traditional” methods are not effective for a significant number of their students.  In a similar way, I think that the scientists and students in this chapter who claim to be more excited by reading about science in action rather than experimenting in the classroom represent a specific learning style, and it would be ill advised to assume that what excites them would work for low-income minority students.

The best and brightest science students at my school have grown up doing the hands-on activities with their parents or on their own and never needed a classroom to show them that science is fun and exciting.  They already get what makes science exciting, because they grew up in a culture that reinforced scientific thought.  It is very likely that students who are white, suburban, or wealthy will grow up exposed to science and do not need a science teacher to give them opportunities to do experiments and make models.  In my case, I had two uncles who were geologists and my mom’s best friend was a chemist.  I grew up with my parents teaching me to explore nature and ask questions.  I went to college after high school planning on being a research scientist.  And it did not matter whether my high school science classes were any good.

If science classes in high school focused more on having students perform authentic experiments rather than on learning the content, our students will find the subject more appealing. For students who do not grow up being taught to think scientifically by their family, this is clearly true.  I promise you that a low income inner-city school that reduced labs to 10 to 20 percent of the instructional time so that extra time could be spent on learning content through literacy would have test scores that skyrocket and student interest in the subject plummet.

To be frank, the science classroom described in Focus sounds boring.  When a student walks into a science classroom and sees the following agenda:

  1. Journal Prompt
  2. Close reading
  3. Socratic discussion
  4. Reflection

They are not going to be excited about class that day, and if what they remember most about their high school science classes is reading and discussion, they are not going to want a career as a scientist.  Pretty much every student I have taught is disappointed when they come to class if there isn’t a lab that day.

Being good at reading and writing about science is of zero use to students if they do not understand that science is a process of determining truth through experimental means and that this is what makes science fun and rewarding.  If a school is truly committed to educational equity, then they need a science program that will teach low income and minority students what it looks like and feels like to investigate scientific concepts through measurement and experimentation with classroom models.  If schools don’t include regular high quality inquiry than professional scientists and engineers will continue to predominantly be nerdy white kids who grew up getting science kits from their relatives for Christmas and taking apart their parents old computers during summer vacation.

Perhaps giving lab work half of the instructional time puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to international test scores.  However, this is where American universities have an opportunity and a responsibility.  If me and my fellow high school teachers produce students who are interested in being scientists and know how to learn science through text, writing, discussion, and experimentation then the colleges can use a core sequence that delivers all of the concepts, facts, and technical skills that are necessary for science employment.  Because honestly, it’s never been the expectation that high schools would produce workforce ready scientists.

I’m sure that there are college professors who observe students from other countries who come to our colleges as freshmen having memorized trends of the periodic table, the names of all stages of cellular respiration and reproduction, and the difference between diffraction and interference.  They are disappointed that American kids don’t seem as “well prepared” and want secondary teachers to do a better job of delivering their content so it sticks.  They are probably aware of international tests which show how little American students have memorized compared to their peers.  However, just as secondary school teachers get students from a variety of backgrounds and differentiate to meet their needs, there is no reason that college instructors shouldn’t be expected to do the same thing.  To be disappointed that American students don’t recall some science facts on international tests or in their freshmen classes is like being disappointed that a student compared Maya Angelou to Bob Dylan in high school instead of memorizing Robert Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged.”

In conclusion, we all know a great writer is not just someone who constructs pleasing sentences.  A great historian is not just someone who knows all the details about past events, and a great mathematician is not just someone who is great at solving equations.  Likewise, a great scientist is not just someone who reads and understands scientific texts and journals.  Our goal should be to produce students who are capable of being great scientists. Different schools and teachers are realizing this at different rates- indeed the educational inequity in our society seems to be that classrooms in schools for wealthy students tends to focus on the skills and ideas that produce great thinkers and problem solvers, while classrooms in poorer schools are more likely to get bogged down in learning “just the facts.”

My hope is that when well-intentioned researches and writers discuss reducing the amount lab experiences and increasing the amount of reading, science teachers and educational leaders will be able to advocate for a balanced approach: For 50 to 60 percent of class students are reading, writing, and discussing.  For 40 to 50 percent of the time students are questioning, building, troubleshooting, measuring, analyzing, and problem solving.

The book, Focus, provoked me to consider my practice and how to make it stronger and for that I am thankful.  I hope that others who read it will also be as thoughtful in considering all of the implications.  Clearly, I’ve made many generalizations and assertions based on my 14 years in the classroom rather than research.  If there’s any research that supports or refutes my claims I’d be grateful for the feedback.  Likewise let me know what you think is most important in a science classroom.