Unpacking from SRI’s Winter Meeting

I’m on the airplane from Tucson to San Antonio as I begin this, and if all goes well I’ll be done before I’m told to “stow electronic devices.” However for this entry that may not be possible. What I would like to do is capture how my time was spent at SRI’s Winter Meeting: what I talked with others about, what I learned, and what I’m now aspiring to (in CFG work we call this What, So What, and Now What).

In general, I want my entries on this web site to help other educators think about their practice and share the ideas and actions that make a difference for students. For that to happen I understand that my writing should be brief and to the point. 20 or more paragraphs chronicling two and half days of learning is not likely to lead those who find this to urge friends and colleagues to come read what I’ve written and join the conversation in comments. So this post is for me- and maybe any supervisors who are wondering if it was a good idea to allow me to be off campus for two days to participate in the Winter Meeting.

Place

We began our conference by hearing from the principal of a charter high school in downtown Tucson. Carrie welcomed us to the meeting, shared our meeting’s theme, and encouraged us use our time well. What stood out to me from her opening remarks was her enjoyment at having so many (200? 400? 800? I couldn’t really count) of us gathered together in her hometown. She shared 5 words whose usage and meaning illuminate the Place where we were gathered. By introducing Place as a theme for our meeting a couple of big ideas about people and society were able to surface in my mind. The five words she shared with us to help us understand Tucson were mariachi, Sonoran, saguaro, roadrunner, and border.

The first big idea is that people want to be a part of a community. By this, I mean that I believe that people want to unify with those who they have something in common for the purpose of friendship, support, and inspiration. There are few things more natural for communities to form around than proximity. Though we don’t always form a community with those we live near as adults, the majority of the student population in schools is defined solely by geography. I think this point is important because it reminds me that even when students seem to have little in common and seem to be incapable of learning together there may be a common bond through the idea of Place that can be a starting point for building a classroom culture.

Secondly, the idea of Place reminded me of something I believe to be at the root of transformational education. I think transformational education is a fascinating concept to explore further, and since it likely means something different to me than it does to you, I think I should explain it a little bit more. The basic idea is that no matter what our role in the education system we all we want to make a change in a student, in a teacher, or in a system. For the change to take place it is necessary to understand the context that we want to make a change in. The discussion of Place at the opening of our conference reminded me that learning about the Place our students live and learn is essential to effectively enacting any changes.

Be Kind

Our keynote speaker was Jeanette Maré who founded Ben’s Bells Project and works to sustain and grow the project. Ben’s Bells is a project unique to Tucson that was created as Jeanette was coping with the loss of her son, Ben. As the anniversary of his passing approach she and her friends and family decided to honor Ben by creating chimes made of a bell and painted ceramic patterns that could be placed around Tucson. The bells included the phrase “Be Kind” and those who received them were asked to perform an act of kindness for another in the community and pass the kindness on. Over the years, Jennifer and Tucson have come to discuss and learn what it means to be kind. How it is an expression of love and a way to show unity that goes beyond being nice. Indeed sometimes being kind means offering critical feedback or helping someone make a better choice.

The most important piece of her talk to us was that she has found in both her work and her research on the mind that kindness is a skill to be learned and practiced. We don’t automatically know how to be kind to each other but we can learn if we have kindness modeled for us and are provided a trusting environment to practice kindness. It was fascinating to consider kindness in the context of schools. If we all aspire to have a school where students are kind to each other then what steps do we need to take to teach them how to do it?

Here are six additional points about kindness she wanted us to take away:

  • Kindness is within our power
  • Kindness honors personality and honors connection
  • Kindness builds trusts
  • Kindness is fierce
  • Kindness is intentional, it is a way of responding rather than reacting
  • Kindness is selfish, it changes us first

And finally, 3 questions for us to bring back to our schools. She began with these questions to help us focus on her presentation and make meaning of it. If you are with me still, consider answering one or more of these questions with a comment below.

  1. Is my school a kind place for all?
  2. What steps can I take for my students to be kind?
  3. What can I do to restore hope?

Who we are and what we do best

Our small group was eager to work together. From the start it was noticeable how enthusiastic the participants were to be learning from each other. A simple activity like going around the circle introducing ourselves led to praise being tossed around our table like a beach ball at an Angels’ baseball game. The affirmation continued as we moved into a norming process, discussed CFG work and protocols and prepared to have our first structured conversation- a tuning of adult work for a school leader preparing to lead her school community in a revision of the school mission statement.

The old mission statement had been created 10 years ago as the school was created. It was successful and useful for shaping and guiding the board, faculty and students who were building a community. And now that the school was ten years old its leader believed that it was time to reevaluate if the mission was still saying the right thing. Our group used a process of examining the mission statement, asking clarifying questions, comparing the mission statement to six goals and values for the school community and providing warm and cool feedback. Finally we were able to hear from the school leader and what next steps she was considering.

One of the outstanding phrases that arose from this discussion was that she wanted a mission statement that could show the community “who we are and what we do best.” Another participant in the group later used the idea of a mission statement being a gate to the community. These two ideas clicked in my mind as I thought of my classroom communities and my broader school community. My aspiration from this discussion was to try to come up with a way to succinctly summarize what takes place in my classroom. I feel like my classrooms have been lacking clarity around what the purpose for our learning is. I have a long list of performance outcomes, AP objectives and the goal that I “want students to be prepared when you take these classes in college.” But how much more powerful and useful would it be if we could have a single statement that we can point to each day that reminds us that I should take pride in the tasks I ask my students to complete and students should take pride that they are not just getting new facts in their head but are changing themselves into better mathematicians, better scientists and better citizens. This point was significantly emphasized in our closing keynote and I hope to articulate more about it.

To close this section, I love the ideas behind the school’s mission and I’d like to leave the complete statement and the goals/values here as well:

We strive to be a community of learners in which all members use their minds well and care about one another. We engage with challenging academics and the unique resources of our city and region in order to become active citizens and responsible stewards of our work.

School Goals/Values (I’ll use the school’s headings, and then give a brief statement in my own words of what it represents.)

  1. Personalization– every individual on our community matters and we will all treat each other accordingly.
  2. Challenging academic curriculum– Students will engage in meaningful tasks to learn important content
  3. Community connections– students will understand the community around them and engage in it responsibly
  4. Student leadership– students will take responsibility and show initiative to improve the school and community
  5. Diversity– we will honor the multiple perspectives that our diverse population brings and our curriculum will reflect our cultural diversity
  6. Institutional advancement– our school will use resources responsibly in a manner that supports growth and innovation.

The Issaquah

Following a brief break after our discussion using the Tuning protocol we next decided to look at school leader’s dilemma using the Issaquah protocol. I love this protocol because of a wonderful CFG leader I met in Boston last year who loved this protocol and sold me on it. Now, anytime this protocol comes up in CFG work I remember how much I enjoyed my small group in Boston 2014. So naturally when our small group facilitator asked for a volunteer to facilitate the Issaquah I volunteered.

In essence the dilemma we discussed was this. How do you give support to those educators who need it, but are already stretched to their limits and beyond in terms of time and workload? Two wonderful things happened during our discussion. First, I made a mistake in the protocol. Others in the group would probably just say that I made a choice in facilitating to depart from the protocol as written, but it wasn’t intentional and I regretted making that departure. This was wonderful for multiple reasons. I’ve learned something from this mistake. I’ve talked about it, reflected upon it and I will be more careful in reading protocols so that if I depart from how it’s written it will be a deliberate choice. Additionally, this mistake gave us a chance to talk as a group about facilitating and mistakes and to hopefully support others as they take risks in facilitating discussion.

My second wonderful thing from the discussion was the group’s kindness as I received praise from others in the group. I wasn’t sure if I would share publicly that it made me feel good for others to tell me they thought I was an excellent facilitator. It seems a little bit vain and it’s not really a surprising insight to say that telling people they did something well makes them happy. But I think there’s further implications that make me want to include it in this too-long reflection. The kind words of my group are what are giving me the courage to make my thoughts public. I want to sustain a conversation about transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence and spread the value of CFG to those who may have never heard of it. It is because of the support of those I worked with this week that I believe that I can use Complementarity to do this.

As for the dilemma we discussed, I am taking two thoughts on this back to San Antonio. The first is that even if someone is out of time, it’s worth it to force the time to be carved out if the conversation and support is authentic, collaborative, and transformational. The other thought is that as an instructional leader I need to be more sensitive to the needs of the teachers around me. Perhaps they aren’t knocking on my office door asking for help, but if I can be a greater presence in their classrooms and have a better understanding of their strengths and weakness then I can offer the right kind of support for them.

Our first day of work together ended after we discussed this dilemma, and though I’d love to share the learning that took place as a cohort of us from San Antonio ate, walked, and talked together, I’ll save it for a second reflection on the other day and half of Winter Meeting.

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.