I have been working on the syllabus for one of my classes, and I wanted to start the year very purposefully. This is, in part, taken from Making Thinking Visible (my summer read, review forthcoming).

This class will be a place where thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the daily experience of ALL students.

This class will explore properties and interactions of atomic and molecular structures of matter.

This class will explore the impact of chemistry on our local and global communities.

Context – A Personal Challenge

A while back I read through this blog post that has been circulating the math ‘sphere. If you have a few minutes, you should definitely check out the videos within the post showing students’ problem solving.  This sums it up the main idea pretty well:

In the days that followed I reflected upon what happened and I decided that my students primarily had procedural skill and fluency but very limited conceptual understanding or the ability to apply mathematics.  I realized that for my students to “understand mathematics” they would have to have a more balanced understanding that included all three.  This experience provided the foundation for why I value using real-world applications whenever possible.  They provide a context for building the conceptual understanding and procedural skill needed for rigorous mathematical understandings.

I find that this directly applies to science (especially chemistry) as well, and could become something of a personal challenge:

“I realized that for my students to ‘understand [chemistry]’ they would have to have a more balanced understanding of [procedural skill, concepts, and applications]. Using real-world applications provides a context for building the conceptual understanding and procedural skill needed for rigorous [scientific] understandings.”

Problem-based learning anyone? I know Shawn Cornally knows what I’m sayin’.

I think a further issue is the order in which these three pillars are addressed. What might seem like a logical progression (skill -> concept -> application) might cause students to focus so much on the first or second part that they miss the last piece. What would it look like to reverse this in the classroom (application -> concept -> skill)? Not sure yet. Sounds like a topic for another day.

Science Literacy

I have been reading a book (review forthcoming) and it has me thinking a lot about what “scientific literacy” means, and how we as science teachers can teach guide our students to become more scientifically literate. In particular, I have been thinking about the context of my conceptual chemistry class, which is designed for students who need to complete their required full-year science course after 10th grade biology. Many of these students are not looking to go to college, and chances are this will be the last science class they ever take. I have dedicated a lot of thinking time to how I can better prepare them to be citizen scientists; using their scientific literacy productively in their lives outside of the classroom (and hopefully continuing to use it into the future).

There are two questions in particular that I have been pondering, and I was hoping to get some feedback from some other science teachers:

1. What does science literacy look like?

My initial thoughts:

  • Being familiar with scientific experiments; their design, drawing conclusions, interpreting data, etc.
  • Understanding the relationship between science and our society
  • Approaching things with a skeptical mindset (especially the “too-good-to-be-true”), BUT ALSO
  • Being open-minded to new ideas that have sufficient supporting evidence
  • Being critical of the source and reliability of information (especially related to science)
  • Understand that there is not always a “right” answer, but that science is always seeking the best answer possible

2. What do citizen scientists do? 

  • Evaluate scientific information and sources
  • Review evidence for scientific claims, especially ones that challenge their status quo
  • Make informed  scientific decisions (everything from food to politics)
  • Interpret scientific data and evaluate others’ conclusions about the same data

What do you think? What else should be added to these lists? Any thoughts in the comments are greatly appreciated.

Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim

Call it a new-found interest in educational issues; I love reading, watching, discussing and thinking about them. I’m inclined to blame it on grad school. Regardless of where it comes from, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out this movie, with all of the (non-educator) buzz about how “amazing,” “eye-opening” and “shocking” it is. It had popped up on the Netflix instant-play list a couple of weeks ago, so a friend (who is also a teacher) and I decided to watch it. It was quite thought-provoking, so I figured I would share a few things that came up.

There were a number of issues that the movie examined, many of which involved our “broken” educational system. It mainly follows three students; all minorities living in urban areas and all showing a clear affinity for learning and a great deal of intrinsic motivation. Their story lines mostly involved their school and home life, and their struggles to find a (charter) school that would offer them more/better educational opportunities than their “under-performing” public schools. It also features a former high school teacher, Geoffrey Canada, who created and runs a charter school in an extremely impoverished area in Harlem. The film even highlights Michelle Rhee‘s controversial stint as Chancellor of Schools in Washington DC.

The Good

There is no question – our educational system is not perfect. Although the government “tried” to prevent it, students get “left behind” in our school system. But it’s not just the students that are getting left behind, it’s that some students are also being held back from achieving their full potential. There could be a variety of reasons for this, including (but not limited to) peer groups, school resources, motivation, and their classroom teacher. The movie focuses predominantly on the issues involving the school (resources & teachers), and doesn’t do much to consider the influence of other factors.

The Curious

One factor that arose only briefly was the “outdated” idea of teacher tenure, which is an increasingly contentious component of teacher contracts. It made sure to show samples of video taken by students in public high schools of teachers not doing their job while in class (reading the newspaper, etc.). While it certainly is curious that tenured teachers could “get away with it,” it certainly is not justification for removing tenure. However, I’m still considering the idea that it needs to be reformed. The jury’s still out on this one.

The Questionable

While the movie brought up a number of reasonable problems, it also based many of its conclusions on flawed information. The most prevalent flaw involved the classification of “successful” schools, that seemed to rely on only two pieces of information: test scores and graduation rates.

The easiest strike is thrown by relying on standardized test results. There’s a slew of research that shows how worthless standardized tests are at measuring student learning. Yet schools are still being classified as good/bad (or passing/failing) based on the results. There’s a reason why NCLB was a flop!

The next strike is a bit of a screwball, and I had to think about it a bit before I realized what was happening. In the video, they show lots of fancy graphics that compare the graduation rates of “failing” schools (in some cases as low as 40%) to the graduation rates in the desired “high-performing” charter schools (all above 90%). But here’s the rub – the movie was played up the dramatics of the lottery system these charter schools use (which is the basis of another ed movie, The Lottery), showing how desperately the kids and their families want them to get in. When they do, the families are overjoyed at the idea that their student will be successful – and why shouldn’t they be? But with a student who recognizes the importance of the school and a family who will do virtually anything to get them to succeed, is it any wonder that these motivated students are graduating at a higher rate?? Of course not! I don’t mean to say that the school has nothing to do with the graduation rates, but merely to point out that the students applying to charter schools with limited spots WANT to be there – and that can make a huge difference.

But there’s one big, burning question that I still have – what about the other students? Sure, creating charter schools can provide opportunities for students to succeed (if they want to), but how do we reach everyone else? Let’s pretend for a moment that all of the students who wanted to go to successful charter schools were actually able to do so. Almost all of the charters would maintain their “high-performing” status – with students who are trying to make the most of their opportunities going on to be successful. They get to fulfill their potential as a human beings, it’s a happy ending, right?  If all of the motivated students leave, who is left in the public schools? All of the students who didn’t want to be there in the first place, and who don’t care enough (or have enough support) to try to get into a more successful school? The drop-outs, burn-outs, and slackers? Would it be the end of public education as we know it??

Uff-dah. Just thinking about working in a school like that makes my head hurt.

Winter Break Reading

One of the best parts of winter break is that I actually have large chunks of time where I can sit down and read – rather than just the 30 minutes of SSR time at school. After racing my way through The Hunger Games trilogy, I spent a chunk of time last night and today reading articles about education. Specifically, I had come across a link to an Alfie Kohn article talking about educational research and some of the ways it is used improperly. As a scientist who is always on the lookout for ways that scientific data is ignored or misrepresented in the media (teachable moments, you know!) I thought it was interesting to look at educational research in the same way. It’s kind of a long article, but if you have the time its worth reading. The last portion – a more in depth analysis of research about homework and its (lack of) benefits – was very intriguing.

After reading the article, I perused Kohn’s website for a while as well, and looked at a few of his other articles as well. I can understand conservative critics finding issue with his progressive views, but I surely appreciate his critical look at many “common sense” practices. In many ways, it reminds me of similar ideas in Ken Kumashiro’s book, Against Common Sense (which I read for class this past semester).

Another book I received for Christmas is called Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. I’ve only looked at the first few pages; I will give a more complete review when I’ve finished it!

I’ve also found a few articles about modeling in science; not sure if I will have time for them this break but they are on my list as well.


The 5TTT (5 Tech Teaching Tools) program is a new professional development program being offered by the Media Specialist at my school, and those of us that are participating are given one technology task a month to complete, through the end of the year. First up is using a blog* – which I’ve already got some experience with.

The first task is to watch and post the following video:

I’m intrigued by this video, and I agree with a lot of what they are saying. I constantly struggle with the idea of what “learning” means, especially when kids have access to such a wealth of information via the internet. It seems that the idea of memorization (which is not the entirety of schooling) is a bit outdated; if students can look something up in 5 seconds rather than spending at least 5 hours to memorize it, why should they? At the same time, memory is a key part of intelligence – and until computers and the internet are directly hooked up to our brains to store of information that can readily be accessed, it is a skill that needs to be practiced and taught to students. I am not saying we need to make students memorize facts (like the fact that Columbus sailed in 1492) but in order to synthesize information you need to be aware that the information exists.

Another piece that really stood out to me was one of the guys in the video talking about what students need to be able to do:

“…the coin of the realm will be, do you know how to find information, do you know how to validate it, do you know how to synthesize it, do you know how to leverage it, do you know how to communicate with it, do you know how to collaborate with it, do you know how to problem solve with it. THAT’S the new set of 21st century literacies.”

BOOM! (That’s the sound of my brain exploding). I couldn’t have said it better myself. We spent a lot of time in one of my grad school classes (History and Nature of Science) talking about the different ways to teach kids not only how to find GOOD information, but teaching them how to evaluate the information so they know what’s good and are able to filter through the mass of slanted/biased/crappy information that’s out there as well.

I thought a lot about a mini-project that I did with my students researching water contaminants and their effects (I even collaborated with Dhaivyd to set up a website of resources, and he gave a lesson on databases) and yet all the kids wanted to do was type their question/topic into google and copy down the first resource or resources that gave some semblance of an answer. How will they know if it’s good info? Teach them how to evaluate it.

The only statement in the video that didn’t sit well with me was when someone said something like, “a shut off device is a shut off student.” Not sure I agree with that – and if we ever get to that point, I’m very curious to see what our society is like (I’m imagining the civilization in Wall-E).

Just a quick plug as well – I’m very glad that the video took a shot at standardized testing. It seems like the only ones who don’t realize it’s hurting/hindering our students is the people who are requiring the tests (aka state and federal legislators). On a lighter note, see this article.

*This is actually a repost – I started a new blog specifically for the 5TTT; all of the blogging tasks were designed using the blogger program and not wordpress. I was surprised that some features that are quite easy to use there are not so easy here… and vice versa. Regardless, I will be posting my work from the other blog here as well.  

Some Thoughts on Teacher Education

This post was inspired by another post I read by another young teacher.

I just completed my first education class at the graduate level, where we examined the process for developing a rationale for teaching a course (yes, there’s a reason I’m teaching you chemistry!), a theme for the course (yes, the topics in chemistry are all connected!) and developing ALL of the learning objectives for the entire course (categorized into skills and cognitions and aligned with state standards). The whole purpose of this was to lay a firm foundation for the reasoning behind teaching your course – which gives a great amount of perspective and longevity to what drives the instruction, keeping the rationale and theme at the focus of everything, making it much more continuous and (hopefully) easily-digested by students.

I will be the first to admit that I am still a bit “green behind the gills” when it comes to teaching, having only completed 2 full years of teaching. But after this three week course, I feel as though I’ve learned more fundamental skills for my teaching than any single class that I took as an undergraduate. I’m not trying to make the point that the teaching program I enrolled in was sub-par; I just feel as though a class like this that teaches processes involved in laying a theoretical foundation for a course would be extremely beneficial to an undergraduate teacher seeking licensure. As I’m sure it is with many other programs, we learned the basics of lesson planning and then eventually planned a whole unit. But we never addressed how all of the units fit together. We talked about state standards, but didn’t do much to address a common theme for the course that would cover them all. Yes, these are useful* skills, but I firmly believe that understanding how to develop a rationale, theme, and objectives that are all connected within a course is an extremely worthwhile practice as an educator.

The other great benefit of this class was that we were all science teachers, so all of the work that we did was focused around science – what a concept! I realize that the feasibility of having all education classes be subject specific would be unsustainable (especially at smaller, private schools) and would also take away for the development of interdisciplinary themes, which can be beneficial to a certain extent. My argument instead is that there should be more time spent collaborating with teachers of the same discipline; my undergrad program had a single, semester long “science methods” class when all of us were together. Other than that, the only differentiation was between secondary and elementary in the second year of the program, which would be silly not to do. Perhaps it would also be beneficial to spend some time working with the elementary-level science teachers to look at doing scope-and-sequence for all levels, which we (barely) talked about. Just a thought.

Maybe someday when (if?) I become an education professor I’ll make all of these changes at my college/university and have the best, most successful teaching program ever… I can dream, right?