TWIT: They Always Wonder

It's been a few months since I spent any time reminding myself why I teach.  I guess that shouldn't be a surprise.  I am, after all, a "glass is not only half empty…it's shattered on the floor in a million pieces" kind of guy.  I get lost in the battles I'm fighting and forget that there are real reasons why I love the work that I do.

They're called kids.

The past few weeks have centered me, though.  You see, we're coming to the end of a science unit on energy—studying light, sound and heat—-and each day has been a bit more amazing than the last. 

Wanting to take advantage of the full science lab classroom that I've been assigned for this nine-week period, I nearly killed myself planning a bunch of hands-on activities designed to introduce my kids to the key concepts behind the ways that sound, light and heat are transferred through our universe.  I spent hours and hours scrounging up supplies and setting up stations that were manageable for my students—not to mention dropping $100 on consumables that we didn't have in our storage room.

Then, I made a bit of a gutsy instructional decision:  I decided to place the focus of assessment in each of our stations on nothing more than the quality of the additional questions that my kids asked after engaging in each activity.   "Kids and scientists are a lot alike," I explained as we began our unit, "They both have incredibly curious minds.  It's just that scientists do a better job documenting their curiosity.

"In this unit, I want you to conduct the experiment as it is described—but then, I want you to design a new experiment testing something that you're curious about and see what happens.  Remember to write down your initial question, the steps that you take to test your predictions, and the results that you find."

Needless to say, I was pretty worried about what was going to happen next.  Turning students loose in a lab is something that most teachers wouldn't even consider.  Not only are there chances for real injury (I had nightmares about the new kid getting set on fire), but I couldn't control the content that the kids chose to study.  How could I be sure that the curriculum would be covered if I gave students the right to set direction and ask questions of their own?  Would they miss required concepts completely because I wasn't able to spoon-feed it to them?

Talk about useless worrying!

From the moment I said go, my kids were brilliant.  They understood how important it was to act responsibly in a lab and held one another accountable for behaving properly and for cleaning up their stations at the end of each period of work time. 

But more importantly, they were alive with investigation!  They asked meaningful questions connected to our curriculum, showing a depth of perception that surprised me.  Excited shouts and puzzled brows spread as groups dove into projects driven by their own sense of wonder.  Not a minute went by when I wasn't surrounded by three or four kids begging to show me what they'd discovered.  When the bell finally rang each day, I"d literally have to push my kids on to their next period to make room for a new group of motivated minds.

I found that teaching became much more organic during our energy unit because instead of standing in front of my students and telling them what they should be surprised by or interested in, I could slip content in when they least expected it.  Each group made "discoveries" that I was able to predict—-and when they made the right discovery, I could help them to understand what they were seeing.  Required concepts and vocabulary is much easier to learn when looked at through the lens of something that student groups own.

Looking back, our energy lessons were challenging for me:  Finding supplies, testing stations, making sure that each group was learning the required curriculum, cleaning up at the end of class, and keeping a close eye on safety left me exhausted most days.

But the excitement of kids filled with wonder is honestly nothing short of beautiful.  I hadn't seen that in awhile, simply because we've been moving too quickly for anyone to wonder about anything—-but I know that it's something that I want to see again. 

Wonder is why I teach!

11 comments

  1. bell

    Well now, I was searching for blogs on fitness or health when i came across this post. Although not exactly what I was expecting I will give it ****.

  2. steve whitt

    This is beautiful. My favorite part is how you “slipped content in when they least expected it.”
    This to me is the most telling part of your tale. I know you’re too modest to admit it, but that kind of teaching ability is both rare and precious. To understand the content so well that you can apply it yourself to the novel experiments your students created shows a true and deep understanding of the principles. This, I fear, is where inquiry usually fails. Too many teachers see inquiry as an excuse to not know the content. On the contrary, to do inquiry right you have to know the content so well that you can go beyond the book and really apply the concepts.
    I’m going to copy this entry and keep it as a reference. Thank you for enriching my understanding.

  3. Gail Ritchie

    Bill, I agree with Mark: This is the way science should be taught. As Selma Wassermann says in my all-time favorite book, Serious Players in the Primary Classroom, play (exploration) is the first step in inquiry. She advocates using a play-debrief-replay format for learning. Put out the materials, let students discover what can be done with/by the materials, gather as a group and share experiences, then go back and try out some of what was learned by listening to what other students discovered. Way cool! Who was one of the people she cited as a serious player in her book? Richard Feynman–who came up with one of his most brilliant ideas from playing with/spinning the plates in the cafeteria.

  4. Mark Clemente

    Bill,
    This is the way science should be taught! By thoughtfully setting up the equipment for experiments, you were controlling what the students could do and therefore what direction they would head (and they didn’t even realize it). So, in a sense, you did direct the students to certain key objectives but you did it in a way that allowed them to take ownership. That is really cool!

  5. Bill Ferriter

    @Sam wrote:
    In a world-class school system, however, such a unit would not require such an exceptional (or, rare) teacher. Standards and assessments would encourage–rather than discourage–this type of teaching. And in that same system, the structure of the school day and week would allow teachers the time to plan and teach this way. Let’s pursue the policy and program answers that will make this type of learning experience the rule, rather than the exception.
    Brilliance, Sam. Pure brilliance. Primarily because I’m not sure that the amount of time and effort that I put into my unit is something that most teachers are going to be willing to invest— especially when it isn’t evaluated—and then the disparity between the educational opportunities offered to some students compared to the opportunities offered to others becomes even more significant than it already is.
    @Sarah wrote:
    I loved reading this post. I was a little worried about you (even though we don’t know each other) after Creativity is Dead, Ken.
    Thanks for the kind words, Sarah. Honestly, my spirits have been down lately. I feel like I’m working incredibly hard and making no real progress. Every now and then, I have to remind myself that I like what I do!
    @Mrs.D wrote:
    Thanks for such a concise description of using guided inquiry to teach science with hands-on materials- I think it’s the best way to teach science…prep and setup are time intensive and the amount of thought and energy that this requires is definitely a labor of love, but you give kids a chance to learn by doing,formulate their own questions and construct their own understanding which equals real learning. It doesn’t get better than that!
    Would it blow your mind to know that I’m actually a pretty poorly prepared science teacher in the traditional sense? While I’m licensed to teach it, I’ve only done it three times in my career. It’s definitely not a real strength.
    What implications does that have for teacher preparation programs? Is content really king when I can take pedagogical principles that drive my instruction as a SS/LA teacher and translate them easily to a new subject that I don’t know well?
    Perhaps another blog post there.
    @Paul wrote:
    I have had a fantastic year mainly because I am only teaching Science, for the first time in five years. Less preps means more time to spend improving and differentiating my Science lessons, and more time to assess my students.
    You’re right, Paul…More preps can be overwhelming sometimes, so having only one is beautiful.
    Where I save time in our LA/SS model is on paper grading. Because I only have 50-55 kids when I’m on a half team—and because EVERYTHING that we do is an integrated LA/SS lesson—-I can get multiple grades (content and skill) out of one set of papers.
    For an LA teacher, that’s a huge, huge, huge time saver. When I’m teaching LA on a 4 teacher team, I’ve got 120 essays to grade. When I’m teaching LA and SS on a 2 teacher team, I’ve got 55 essays to grade. And I can get LA and SS grades from the same set of papers.
    Does this make sense?
    Maybe it only works for LA teachers, but work it does!
    Bill

  6. Sarah

    I loved reading this post. I was a little worried about you (even though we don’t know each other) after Creativity is Dead, Ken. Good to know that your spirit is intact and what an inspiring lesson you’ve been teaching. Your students will talk about their time in your class to their own kids one day. . .

  7. Sam

    Bill, that sounds like a world-class unit. It’s also one that took courage, sacrifice, and a great deal of expertise for you to teach. Courage, to devote so much time and energy to something that did not guarantee explicit coverage of the standards. Sacrifice, because preparing for and teaching the unit was so time-intensive. Expertise, as your piece describes at several points, to design such a curriculum and guide your students through it. They’re what make you a great teacher, I’m sure.
    In a world-class school system, however, such a unit would not require such an exceptional (or, rare) teacher. Standards and assessments would encourage–rather than discourage–this type of teaching. And in that same system, the structure of the school day and week would allow teachers the time to plan and teach this way. Let’s pursue the policy and program answers that will make this type of learning experience the rule, rather than the exception.

  8. Mrs.D

    Thanks for such a concise description of using guided inquiry to teach science with hands-on materials- I think it’s the best way to teach science…prep and setup are time intensive and the amount of thought and energy that this requires is definitely a labor of love, but you give kids a chance to learn by doing,formulate their own questions and construct their own understanding which equals real learning. It doesn’t get better than that!

  9. Paul C

    I feel almost guilty admitting this, but I feel strongly that the biggest reason that my school year has been such a success is not because of my new teammates (who are AWESOME), my new science curriculum (which is great fun), or even my students (who motivate me to get up in the morning). I have had a fantastic year mainly because I am only teaching Science, for the first time in five years. Less preps means more time to spend improving and differentiating my Science lessons, and more time to assess my students. You have my respect for the enthusiastic way that you prepare lessons for multiple subjects, but I am glad to be able to focus on my true passion.