Changing the Conversation

Changing the Conversation

Over the course of the typical school year students ask a myriad of “what do I need to do for an A on this assignment?” questions. This year the conversation changed in our classroom.  Instead the questions became “how do I explain molecules to first graders?” and “Can first graders even understand what a molecule is?” Students became teachers, teaching their own mastery of the content. Changing the audience changed the conversation which changed the focus of their learning.

How Did the Conversation Change?

Traditionally science lessons begin with a lecture of content material, such as the amount of energy in a given state of matter. Students dutifully write down the concept, the vocabulary, work on the worksheet, and the lesson is learned.  This is way I learned it, so this is the way you learn it; its tradition. Although this may be tradition, it may not be the way to learn, to remember, and be engaged with the science in the world around us. We are science do-ers, we learn by doing. Watch any toddler figure out the world around them–they try, experiment, re-try, and then show us what they have learned. The same applies to us and our students. Once we try something for ourselves, we master what we learn by showing or explaining it to others. Students are excellent teachers. And when students have technology as a tool, they are immeasurably creative when it comes to teaching others. Kids get a kick out of watching, reacting, and listening to their voices. It’s a powerful tool of teaching.

Science Teaching and Learning

A major focus of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is science is central to our lives. The key to science education is to develop in-depth science content understanding and develop skills of communication, collaboration, inquiry, and problem solving. There are many ways to help students deepen their science thinking and understanding. Over the summer I participated with the Partnership for Ambitious Science Teacher Leaders (PASTL) whose goal is to support teachers in developing rigorous and equitable science learning in their own classrooms.

Over the course of this year, I have been working to help students make their thinking and understanding visual.  Students have to begin with a science wondering or question and then build on their ideas, build on their understanding. Student talk is essential to this process of learning. Students become engaged in the science. Through a series of online simulated labs, such as those found at ExploreLearning Gizmos or University of Colorado’s PhET interactive simulations, students begin to build their foundational understanding. Add a few in-class labs, such as working with oobleck (corn starch and water) or with heat, dry ice and water, and students see for themselves all three states of matter in a few moments.

Students as Teachers, Changing Their Questions

So what did we do to change the conversation? Instead of the traditional lecture and notes, my 7th grade students created states of matter science lessons for 1st graders. They changed the conversation by first mastering the content for themselves and then creating interactive visual lessons for a different audience. They began asking questions like “What will a younger audience understand?” “How could they explain the difference between a solid and liquid to a 1st grader?” “Would the 1st graders understand what they were trying to teach?” “Would it make sense to them?” and “How can we explain it better?”

Utilizing Technology to Master Science Concepts

We are fortunate to be a 1:1 laptop school where each student receives a district issued device for the school year. The fact that we have technology at our fingertips made it easier, but what we did could be accomplished in a computer lab as well. We utilized Skype for communications with the 1st graders, made videos or used Microsoft Sway and PowerPoint Office Mix as presentation tools, and as a platform for sharing. After discussing and reviewing the key concepts about the states of matter, students made a list of learning objectives and determined the “story” or theme they would utilize to teach solids, liquids, and gases. We Skyped with our 1st graders, introduced ourselves, and the 1st graders asked a few questions. Then we went to work, thinking of ways to engage and hook our young audience. Students had to come up with examples to demonstrate different states of matter and how the energy of the particles change between states.  Finally, students had to figure out how best to stay scientifically correct but simple enough for a 1st grader to understand. Once the video, Sway, or Mix was finished, students posted their work on to share with our young audience.

We Skyped again after the 1st graders watched and talked about our lessons. We learned which lessons they liked best, we answered their questions about how an object could change from a liquid to solid, and we also learned that sometimes 1st graders understand that a rock is just rock and we shouldn’t make it too complicated. The outcomes were positive; the 7th graders mastered their understanding of states of matter and the 1st graders reported they loved our lessons and the variety and creativity.

The Conversation Has Changed

This concept is codified in a 2012 NPR story, Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool, in which the professor realized his students were not learning effectively from his lecture but instead responded well to real-world demonstrations. The same is true for my students using technology to teach others. The classroom landscape has been slowly evolving over the last few years, the conversations have changed. Students are doing more to master their own learning.


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