New wine, old skins #3: The core of schooling

Middle Grades Wind Power Competition. Judges were impressed by the high quality designs of middle schoolers.

I’m hoping to get to the point today. As I said, it’s a complicated argument. All that I’ve written so far is the same thing I’ve been saying for 20 years. But my recent experiences as a long-term substitute at an urban middle school, teaching 7th and 8th grade science, lead me to conclude that not much has changed.

First of all, let me say that I was incredibly impressed with this school. The principal was a great instructional leader and support for teachers was solid. Students were strictly disciplined and at the same time in ways that met their developmental needs. This high-poverty school in a gang-dominated neighborhood was an oasis of relative safety.

At the same time, science instruction was dismal. Not more dismal than most middle school science instruction in the US. But I was disappointed to see that in this pretty darn good school where a reform-minded administration has worked to institute school-wide adherence to a reasonable set of principles (and I’m not going to identify them specifically), that the “core of schooling” was unchanged. The core of schooling, Seymour Sarason’s words, is the relationship between teachers, students and knowledge. The core of schooling is the quality and nature of interactions that occur between students and teachers, students and students, and I would add, between teachers and teachers.

When I started in my long-term substitute position at the urban school I was excited at the prospect of a school-wide focus on specific reform strategies. When I was in Georgia doing teacher education, I developed a collaboration with one of my EdS students, Karen Sinclair, to do STEM projects with her 8th graders. We continued our relationship after she graduated. She is a great teacher who instantly grasped the implications of our study of the cultural practices of schooling.

The school where Karen taught, Morgan County Middle School, was led by a dynamic principal, who committed the school to a five-year implementation of Carol Tomlinson’s differentiated instruction model. Now there are a few parts of the Tomlinson model that I take issue with, but when I visited with a cohort of middle grades teacher candidates, sitting in on a variety of classes, I could see Tomlinson’s focus on students’ experience of the curriculum was leading to engagement and critical thinking, and was in fact making positive changes in the core of schooling.

After two years (or maybe three, can’t recall exactly, but I think it was two) of this school-wide reform, Morgan County Middle School rose from the middle to the top ranks of Georgia middle schools, as measured by test scores. I personally think this was, to some degree at least, a reflection of the general mediocrity of all the other Georgia middle schools. (At least all the ones I’ve been in, which is quite a few. The highly-touted “good” schools are just those with a high SES population.) Nevertheless, just a little effort at systemic reform in Morgan County payed off big.

Who knows what would have happened had the principal remained for the full five years? But, the culture doesn’t really care if education is good. What happened is, the principal leveraged funding earmarked for other specific uses to get the program implemented. He was unceremoniously fired when the Board of Education discovered it. There was no embezzlement, he was just trying to find enough money for the reform program. I met with his replacement in order to secure her support for our grant proposal, but she was cagey. I sensed that she didn’t want to make any political missteps. So, our collaboration ended. Karen eventually left to teach high school.

The point of the MCMS story is that I came to understand that any systematic and consistently-applied reform program is likely to improve teaching and learning.

So this past year, I was excited to find myself at an urban school where such a sustained and determined effort at reform was occurring. And then I observed that the other science teachers, with one possible exception, had found ways to appear compliant with the reforms but were stolidly entrenched in deficit views of students, and engaging them in rote learning, lots of worksheets, and very direct instruction even while making it look good when the principal came by. (The principal may be savvy enough to not be fooled. This person of unnamed gender picks battles carefully, something I admire.) The teachers continued to deluge students with decontextualized vocabulary, memorization, and questions from the end of the chapter. At the principal’s insistence, they did labs, including dissecting frogs, but in a completely “cookbook” manner, following the teacher in lock step. (Dissecting frogs does require a lot of scaffolding.) The students who came to me loved coloring, but then they remembered nothing of the diagrams. Another long-term substitute complained to me that the students were not retaining anything from the lesson plans the teacher had left. But they were busy!

Listening at faculty meetings I heard about the routines for cooperative learning that were being used school-wide. I assumed that the eighth graders would have been using these practices in all their classes for at least two years. However when I announced we would be using X strategy to engage in discussion I was surprised when they didn’t know what I was talking about. The purpose of having these routines is that they facilitate quick engagement with content, since students don’t have to have explanations of what to do, explanations that take away instructional time.

When I first heard about the use of this school-wide program, I had expected a particular strategy to be part of the repertoire. It is my favorite, and very powerful for creating authentic, student-centered, problem-based learning. Alas, it was not one of the strategies on the posters that teachers obediently posted on their classroom walls.

I do regret that I tried to fit in with my colleagues, and did not use content or classroom management strategies that I believe in. I previously had a bad experience with disregarding school culture and doing things my own way. But now I see that trying to fit in with a culture I feel is morally bankrupt, bankrupt because it hurts kids, is even worse. I ended up yelling a lot because I lacked courage to be myself. Although we still did some good stuff and many students grew as self-directed learners. In the spirit of quoting Palmer, who you are is what you teach.

And that, dear reader, is why I am not overly optimistic about the results of implementation of Common Core and NGSS. And I hope I am wrong.

Old Wine in New Skins Part 2

Yesterday I didn’t get to the point of the post. Perhaps today.

NGSS and Common Core are grounded in particular assumptions about learning. These assumptions include:
* All people can learn; learning is a characteristic of humans;
* People learn by integrating new knowledge into existing knowledge;
* Asking and seeking to answer questions results in deep learning;
* Formulating arguments and evaluating evidence is more important than knowing facts;
* People learn best when they use all their senses: sight, hearing, touch, movement;
* The public space of the classroom should be used to make students’ thinking explicit rather than for evaluation of correct answers.

These ground rules are in direct and persistent conflict with longstanding practices of schooling. Cultural practices are invisible and largely unconscious. That is their purpose: We don’t have to think about what we’re doing and can concentrate on solving problems and getting our work done.

The longstanding practices of schooling include:
* Learning is a moral issue, that is, “good” people learn what they are supposed to learn;
* People learn by memorizing, and a good learner gives evidence of learning on tests;
* The goal of learning is to the facts the culture has decided are important.
* Everyone is entitled to their own opinion;
* Learning in school is accomplished through reading, writing, listening, and doing math;
* The teacher uses the public space of the classroom to evaluate how students are doing; the unintended consequence is fostering competition.

The point is, because schools are organized according to the practices of the culture, new ideas based on different assumptions are not understood. In other words, changing procedures in schooling does not change the underlying world-view of those participating in it.

Therefore the introduction of NGSS and Common Core, when viewed as procedures, as described by Brandon (in yesterday’s post) are unlikely to result in any change in students’ learning, and will probably make it more difficult for them to learn.

more next week…

Co-Teaching Physical Science for Teachers

Last night Rosalie facilitated a lecture-discussion on heat, developing students’ ideas about energy transfer and how to do problems. I noticed a couple of times students gave the "right" answer, but when Rosalie probed further, the students didn’t really understand what they were talking about. It would have been easy to accept the correct answer as proof of understanding and then move on. The extent of students’ not knowing was profound, and it took some time to uncover its true dimensions.

I’m reminded of diSessa’s construct of p-prims, which he describes (to the best of my recollection) as conclusions about phenomena which are not linked to other ideas, but remain as islands. When Rosalie asked students to make connections or to create a chain of causal reasoning, they were able to do so only with great difficulty and a great deal of prompting in the form of questions. She engaged individual students in extended questioning in order to scaffold putting together a cohesive whole.

I noticed that not all students were following the conversation and did not seem to understand that their colleagues’ were being questioned publicly in this way in order to get ideas onto the table for everyone to consider. Earlier in the evening students repeatedly focused on the right answer, and when someone came up with an answer that was judged to be correct, it was quickly passed around. At the time Rosalie announced that we were not really interested in the correct answer, which the students seemed to shrug off. I think that they don’t have any other perspective on science calculations, and the idea of viewing problems as a shorthand for science concepts is an entirely new idea for them.

At the end of Rosalie’s discussion of heat, I felt that we should call students’ attention to what we had been doing by investigating their ideas in depth. I had two purposes in doing this. One was to let students know that the structure of our lesson was deliberate, and that we had a particular pedagogical goal in mind. I also wanted to clue in those students who had not been paying attention that perhaps this was important. I reiterated that we were not interested in formulas, but that they should focus on understanding the problem; understanding makes the strategies for solving it obvious. Rosalie reiterated that she too is not interested in students memorizing formulas. I also explained that there had been several times during the lecture when students had appeared to give the correct answer, but Dr. Richards kept probing, and it was revealed that the students did not really understand. I tied this to the issue of deciding what to accept as evidence of learning, and asked whether they had run into this phenomenon in their field placements.

I will say that we started the evening with a wide ranging discussion of the role of energy in the body, and the way chemical energy of food is transferred through digestion and metabolism. I was expecting students would not relate the process of combustion from the lab of calories obtained by burning Cheetos with the breaking of chemical bonds within food substances. I discovered this some years ago in teaching high schoolers, when I would ask them why they need oxygen, and the students were unable to go beyond because you can’t breathe and you’ll die. What a shame it is that we don’t explore the big picture and assume that students have made connections such as the role of oxygen in both combustion and cellular respiration.

The conversation about heat contained within food revealed that students remember very little of any high school biology.

The previous night in one of my graduate classes we started exploring the idea of their perceived lack of connection between learning and completing assignments. Before Rosalie came in, I decided to see what the undergrads had to say about this topic. They basically said they had to choose: either do the assignment and get the points, or study and try to understand. I wondered whether the purpose of doing assignments is to facilitate learning.

We did not get very "far" in our discussion of heat, although we perhaps got deep. I came away from last night’s class with another piece of evidence I interpret as showing the need to explore ideas in depth, and the conviction that most science instruction merely papers over students’ confusion.

“Seeing” forces

This lesson was developed in a Lesson Study Project over three years. The authors are Karen Vanderheyden, Markeeta Clayton, Nikki Grimes and John Graybill. They called this lesson–

“Send in the Reinforcements” You can download it here.

The lesson is the first in a series of explorations of the way members and joints distribute load in a bridge. The original idea came from a video on the Annenberg Foundation, which I highly recommend. We have been unable to locate the video clip of the original activity, although hopefully it is still there.

The beauty of this activity is that it allows students to “see” force vectors, at least their direction. Magnitude is represented by the thickness of the paper which transmits the force.

Jet Straw Lesson on Newton’s Third Law

Jet Straw

Victoria Deneroff, PhD

I stole this idea many years ago from the NASA website, although I have adapted it to be an engineering challenge rather than a science activity. The original appears to no longer be easily available on the web.

Design Challenge

Build a jet straw air engine which produces the highest rotational speed.

What is a Jet Straw?

The jet straw is a simple engine that is powered by air released from a balloon. It is a system consisting of a balloon, bendable straw, rubber band, straight pin and pencil eraser. The straight pin is used as a pivot point around which the system rotates.

Beginning Ideas

In your journal write down what you think is the best way to construct a jet straw engine.

Stage 1: Messing Around and Asking Questions

Use the rubber band to attach the balloon to the straw so that it will rotate around a pivot point. Use your journal to record the different ways you tried to make the engine, and what you finally tried that worked. Brainstorm questions that will help you make a jet straw which rotates more quickly. Make a list of the questions, and in pairs decide on one to investigate.

Stage 2: Tests and Experiments

Decide how you are going to find the answer to your question by conducting an experiment. Each person should write down the step-by-step directions for conducting the experiment. The procedure must provide a way for you to collect quantitative data by taking measurements. What these measurements might be is up to your team. Consult with the teacher when you think you have a good procedure.

Stage 3: Observations and Measurements

Record your observations and measurements in your journal. As a class we will discuss your observations and what they mean.

Stage 4: Claims

What do you claim is the best way to design a jet straw engine, based on your tests? Write in your journal

Stage 5: Evidence

In your journal, explain how you know this is the best way.

Stage 6: Prepare a poster which explains

A. What your question is.

B. What your findings are.

C. The scientific explanation for your findings

D. What your recommendations are for others who want to build a jet straw engine.

E. We will discuss all the findings as a class.

Stage 7: Reflection

Reread your original questions. How have your original ideas changed, or grown? What do you wonder about now?

Stage 8: Redesign.

With your partner, revise your jet straw engine design, making a sketch of it in your journal. Build your revised design and record how it works.

STEM Writing Template

The Common Core Standards call for students to engage in literacy practices across the content areas. I am providing the STEM Writing Template as a model so that students can write to learn science.

The following is a workshop agenda.

STEM Writing Template (Adapted from Keys et. al, (1999:1067-1069) and also Hand, Prain and Wallace (2003:20-22)

The template provides a routine or procedure, a short-cut, if you will. By following the spirit as well as the letter of the template, you will have a classroom routine which supports students’ inquiry learning of STEM subjects.

We will conduct the Jet Straw design activity as if we were a class of K-12 students. As we turn to spaghetti bridge building, we will follow the Teacher Template.

Student Template

1. Beginning ideas – What are my questions?

2. Tests and Experiments – What did I do?

3. Observations – What did I see, hear, smell, feel? (Probably don’t ask students to taste.) How did I measure what I observed?

4. Claims – What can I claim as a result of my observations?

5. Evidence – How do I know? Why am I making these claims?

6. Conferences, Science or Math Talks, Reading and Instruction – How do my ideas compare with other ideas?

7. Reflection – How have my beginning ideas changed?

8. Redesign or Extension – How can I use my new ideas to improve my design (engineering) or investigate something new?

–Hand, Prain & Wallace (2003:21).

Teacher Notes

1. Beginning ideas: Students beginning ideas do not come from thin air, but from their prior experiences. In addition, students should have the opportunity to “mess around” with the materials in order to come up with questions and ideas. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students what questions they should have. In order to accomplish your learning goals, you choose the materials and task carefully. Direct instruction can occur in Step 6, after the students have had a chance to think about the implications of the activity. When scientists are beginning their investigations, they also use what they already know, and play around to get a feel for what kinds of questions might be interesting.

2. Tests and Experiments: Students will choose how to answer their questions. Because you have provided them with a task, and materials to use the tests students perform will be scaffolded. The teacher’s job is to consult with students to make sure they are designing studies that will answer their questions. You should also encourage students to collect quantitative data, and support them in this process by asking questions. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students what tests they should carry out. If there are flaws in testing procedures, discuss them in Step 6. The decision about how to design an experiment is part of the creative process of science.

3. Observations: Students will record data in a manner that makes sense to them. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students how to record data. If students’ data collection is problematic, discuss issues in Step 6. In Step 6 students will discuss the adequacy of designs with one another. On the other hand, this is an excellent point at which to introduce science or mathematics concepts.

4. Claims: This step is likely to be difficult for many students, especially if they are accustomed to being told what they are supposed to think. This step is actually difficult for scientists! Figuring out what data means is one of the major activities of science. The question of what data means is often not obvious. It is crucial to the process that the teacher does not tell students the correct answer at this point.

5. Evidence: This is the heart of what we want students to be able to do: Use data to support claims. It is crucial to the process that the teacher pushes students to think about what their data means and turn it into evidence. In fact, most of the conversation the teacher has with individuals and small groups should have the purpose of getting students to make sense of their findings.

6. Conferences, Science or Math Talks, Reading, and Instruction:

a. Conferences: Student groups will present their findings to the class. In order for presentations to be meaningful, students’ presentations should not all be the same, and every student should have an investment in getting the information which is provided by the different groups. In terms of engineering design challenges, this can mean distributing variables to be tested, with the class listening attentively, pointing out flaws in experimental design or data analysis.

b. Science or Math Talks: The teacher provides a prompt which asks students to make sense of the activities they have completed. The students talk with each other; the teacher steps in only when the conversation bogs down.

c. Reading: Students read textbooks or other reference material about the topic they have been investigating.

d. Instruction: The teacher explains any concepts which students are still unclear about or which have been missed in the student-centered process.

7. Reflection. Students revisit their journal entries and write about how their ideas have changed. It is crucial to the process that this opportunity for reflective inquiry be included.

Partial Research Base

This STEM Writing Template comes from several strands of research, although the work of Keys, Hand, Prain, Wallace et al. is its basis.

Hand, B., Prain, V., & Wallace, C. (2002). Influences of writing tasks on students’ answers to recall and higher-level test questions. Journal of Research in Science Education 32, 19-34.

Keys, C. W., Hand, B., Prain, V., & Collins, S. (1999). Using the science writing heuristic as a tool for learning from laboratory investigations in secondary science, Journal of Research In Science Teaching, 36, 1065-1084.

Keys C. W. (1997). Revitalizing instruction in scientific genres: Connecting knowledge production with writing to learn in science. Science Education, 83, 115-130.

Kolodner, J. L.; Camp, P. J.; Crismond, D.; Fasse, B.; Gray, J. H.; & Puntambekar, S.; et al. (2003). Problem-based learning meets case-based reasoning in the middle-school science classroom: Putting Learning by DesignTM into practice. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12, 495-547. Retrieved May 25, 2010, from

Warren, B., & Rosebery, A. (2011). Navigating interculturality: African American male students and the science classroom. Journal of African American Males in Education, 2(1). Accessed June 8, 2012 at

Teacher Template

This template contains a series of suggested activities to involve students in meaningful learning activities. More precisely, we can defined it as socio-constructivist pedagogical scenario to promote laboratory understanding. Teacher’s are of course encouraged to adapt it to their local context.

1. Exploration of pre-instruction understanding through individual or group concept mapping.

2. Pre-laboratory activities, including informal writing, making observations, brainstorming, and posing questions.

3. Participation in laboratory activity.

4. Negotiation phase I – writing personal meanings for laboratory activity. (For example, writing journals.)

5. Negotiation phase II – sharing and comparing data interpretations in small groups. (For example, making group charts.)

6. Negotiation phase III – comparing science ideas to textbooks for other printed resources. (For example, writing group notes in response to focus questions.)

7. Negotiation phase IV – individual reflection and writing. (For example, creating a presentation such as a poster or report for a larger audience.)

8. Exploration of post-instruction understanding through concept mapping.

Hand, Prain and Wallace (2003:20)

Teaching Science through Conversation/What is Inquiry? What are productive ways to use students’ ideas for instruction?

In recent months I’ve thinking about Rosebery & Warren’s (2008) concept of science talks. In addition to modeling science talk for my own students by doing it with kids, I’ve been trying it out in an undergraduate physical science course I co-teach with a chemist. The students had been given the assignment to come up with an inquiry lesson plan, which was troubling many who were unsure as to what that meant. My colleague asked me to talk with the students about what inquiry teaching is. My mind raced as I thought about finding a way not to lecture. “How about if I gave you a lecture on how to teach through inquiry?” I asked the class, trying to buy time. “That would be an oxymoron,” someone said.

I don’t usually teach off the cuff. I knew I was committed to science talk, and decided to see what would happen, and hoped it wouldn’t be too boring. I remember worrying, “Oh my God, more talk. Will they stand for it?” I should have known students would be interested. I often tell future teachers that students are always eager to talk about their thinking when the listener is genuinely interested.

I really started thinking about this approach to teaching last summer, when one of my new MAT students asked, “Well how can students learn through discussion?” The kind of discussion we were considering at that time was not teacher-led, but based on expansive consideration of students’ ideas. Reading Rosebery and Warren’s book this fall cemented those ideas.

The principle that students actually know and are able to contribute something flies in the face of the standards-based nonsense that is prevalent in education. Since open-ended discussion is unpredictable, the teacher cannot guarantee that conversation will not stray from the standard posted on the board. Limiting instruction to one a day was never the intention of those who wrote broad, rich (although flawed) standards such as the National Science Education Standards. However, since tests focus on de-contextualized minutiae and facts, this original vision has been trampled in the mud.

An episode of instructional conversation. Which brings me back to inquiry. In physical science class I posed the question, Is hands-on the same as inquiry? Can something be inquiry without being hands on? My goal in posing these questions was for students to develop a public, shared understanding that inquiry is a way of looking at the world.

Many students offered opinions, and Michael (a pseudonym) brought me to a halt by saying, Yes, it’s like what we did the first day of class (when students wrote and shared science learning autobiographies). When I started the conversation I didn’t know where it might go, but I had an instinct, based on experience, that this might be a valuable contribution. I myself didn’t fully understand what he meant, and asked whether everyone had understood Michael’s idea. I asked him to elaborate a little, and it became clear that what he was talking about was important. Others picked up on Michael’s conversational thread, and the discussion became a way for the class to look back over the semester and start making sense of what had been to some degree, disconnected episodes of hands-on activities.

After about 20 minutes I felt it was right to introduce the idea I was aiming for. “So I’ll give you my opinion of what inquiry is—it’s a very broad definition.” Anna jumped up and got ready to write my definition on the board. “I think inquiry is the position that the facts of science are the result of previously asked questions.” I actually wanted to say “stance,” but thought it might be too much jargon, one of those split-second decisions teaching requires. In spite of the somewhat awkward phrasing, we talked about what that might mean.

During the course of the instructional conversation ( See Tharp & Gallimore’s  1988 book) someone brought up our previous discussion, from earlier in the semester, about why the idea of Pluto no longer being classified as a planet had been so very upsetting to many in the class.

“What is the question to which ‘Pluto is a planet’ would be the answer? What do you think Clyde Tombaugh was asking when he proposed Pluto as a planet?… I wonder whether, if the idea that Pluto is a planet had been presented to you when you were young as the answer to a question, whether you would now be so upset?” There was a generalized murmur of “No.”

I ended saying, “There are many ways to teaching using inquiry. I can’t tell you a formula. But does that help?” The course of yeses sounded genuine.

There is a lot more to think about here: why this decision or that was made based on what instinct and experience, how this was a “just in time” kind of instruction, since the students were eager to have enough information to complete an assignment they considered at least somewhat interesting and “fun.” There are also things I could have said better or differently in responding to students’ conversational moves. I raise the issue of teaching through conversation however because I am convinced it is crucial to helping students understand science.


Rosebery, A.S. & Ballenger, C. (2008). Creating a foundation through student conversation. In A. Rosebery and B. Warren (Eds.). Teaching science to English language learners, pp. 1 – 12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Tharp, R.G & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: teaching, learning and schooling in social context. London: Cambridge University Press.