No more piles of stones…

The essay mentioned in Brad’s previous post did a very nice job of conveying some of the beauty and the mystery which, I would imagine for most of us, are what draw us to the immensely vast and wonderful study of life.  It is this beauty that I know we strive to convey to our students, but I am afraid that many of us often miss the mark when we take away student exploration time and fill it with a rapid-fire barrage of facts (piles of stones, Robin Wright might call it) in hopes of “covering the material”.  In our attempts to convey all that we think is important, I think students very often miss out on time to explore and fall in love with the subject we hold so dearly.  I would venture to guess that most of us fell in love with biology by spending time outdoors and falling under the spell of the natural world, and not by conquering massive stacks of biological vocabulary notecards.  So for many of us, why does our teaching more closely resemble the latter?

There is a method of teaching that embraces the idea of letting students experience the beauty and mystery of biology, and it can be called many things, but a common one is “inquiry teaching”.  If one gas-guzzling SUV was removed from the road for each time I’ve been told that this approach is the best, I’m sure that global warming would screech to a halt.  But for all of the times that I’ve been told this, not once have I ever seen a detailed curriculum that is deeply rooted in this form of pedagogy.  If I’ve tried one way, I’ve tried a dozen, but I cannot seem to get anyone to sit down and discuss what a school year of employing this approach would really look like. 

I would like to charge KABT with convening a group of colleagues to create a curriculum that would show any biology teacher in Kansas what a quality, inquiry-based approach would look like.  I am not looking for the end-all, be-all one-size-fits-all curriculum, but rather one that would show teachers what a solid year of inquiry teaching would look like. Once teachers see a well put-together, collaboratively formed example curriculum, I think that teachers would run with it and the results would be tremendously rewarding, for teachers and their students alike.  I would like to see us create a curriculum that is focused on “essential” concepts and vocabulary, and one that maximizes student engagement with ideas and organisms that can allow them to think creatively, to challenge them, and to expose them to the beauty and the mystery that we see when we look at our world.   I have been told that this cannot be done, that teachers cannot agree on what’s essential, etc.  To that, like Barack Obama, I say, “Yes we can”!

We need to stop talking about how great an inquiry approach is and start showing what it would really look like.  To me, with feelings of anxiety to “cover material”, our current form of professional development (“cool” favorite lab-sharing) often feels like more on my plate.  Instead, if I could teach from a curriculum focused on minimal, essential concepts/vocabulary, then I can open up more time for “cool” labs which would improve the classroom for students and myself.  I would like for any teacher in Kansas to be able to access this curriculum (key vocabulary, activities, labs, and extensions), perhaps on the KABT web site, so that we stop trying to get teachers to reinvent the wheel.  If teachers know how to teach in this manner, lets pull together what we know and create a year-long curriculum that any teacher in the state can use as they see fit.   

I would be more than happy to facilitate such a meeting(s), and I think that there’s not one teacher in the state who could not benefit from looking over the end result of such a collaboration.  If you have ideas, comments, or would like to share/participate, please email me at



4 thoughts on “No more piles of stones…”

  1. All students are always interested in the world around them, but many face challenges that can inhibit learning about their world. Whether students’ challenges are physical, economic, or language-related, your challenge is to ensure that all of your students have access to the process science and the content knowledge of science. The big vision is to get kids to think like a scientist. Inquiry has become a frequently used word in science education. Unfortunately as we struggle to define what we mean by inquiry, its meaning has become idiosyncratic and often very personal to the person using the term. Often classroom teachers are left without help and wondering specifically how they can make, “Science as inquiry … basic to science education and a controlling principle in the ultimate organization and selection of students’ activities.”(NRC, 1996) for the group of educationally diverse students – who, by the way, will be sitting in their classroom five minutes from now.

    Understanding the natural world has been an enigma throughout human history as has depended on the manner in which we have attempted to answer the question, “what is the real (natural) world?” As science seeks to explain the real world, it has limited itself to defining the real world consisting of matter and energy. All scientific explanations are based on this limit (i.e. the real world). This limitation is, at least in part, responsible for the tremendous progress of science. During the nineteenth century, astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry and geology began to mature, from a primarily an observational and descriptive practice, to become increasingly rigorous and conceptual. At this point, most of the big questions in science have general answers that, although not final, have been established as true beyond reasonable doubt.

    Science now uses new techniques to ask increasingly sophisticated questions to pursue increasingly specific answers. However in some respects, the early humans at the dawn of the species probably know more about the natural world than does the average citizen of today. The rise of civilization and more recent increase in urbanization has been paralleled by decreasing personal contact with the natural world. Despite the fact that we are a part of a highly interconnected web of life, the separation of so many people from direct contact with nature has had enormous consequences. Science education seeks to overcome this separation so that all students can be lifelong learners who can use their understanding of science to make reasoned decisions that contribute to their local, state, national and international communities.
    The discussion around engaging all science students in meaningful, authentic scientific inquiry is based on the belief that students will emerge from school with a deep, rich understanding of the natural world and with critical thinking skills that will help continue developing this understanding. The use of adjectives in front of science, like meaningful and authentic, is upsetting too many scientists. Some are mildly annoyed by the redundancy; since they have a simple dichotomy – it is either science or it is not science. However, science educators understand that numerous instructional techniques are employed to help students understand science. These include valuable instructional strategies including simulations, historical reenactments, lectures, demonstrations and inquiry.

    I separate inquiry into two categories, inquiry instruction and scientific inquiry,with the hope of engaging students in meaningful, authentic scientific inquiry. Inquiry instruction (something the teacher does) has included strategies such as the 5 – E Model for Instruction (Engage, Explore, Explain, Extend, Evaluate) Learning Cycles (Exploration, Concept Invention and Application) and various inquiry programs that have included activities such as using discrepant events and even playful discovery and discovery learning. Scientific inquiry (something the student does) is science process as understood by researchers. Science education in the United States (AAAS, 1993, NRC, 1996) has strongly emphasized the skill of scientific inquiry as an essential component of general scientific literacy. The Standard on Inquiry suggests behaviors that students should be engaged in to engage the process of science.

      “Students at all grade levels and in every domain of science should have the opportunity to use scientific inquiry and develop the ability to think and act in ways associated with inquiry, including asking questions, planning and conducting investigations, using appropriate tools and techniques to gather data, thinking critically and logically about relationships between evidence and explanations, constructing and analyzing alternative explanations, and communicating scientific arguments.” (NRC, 1996, p. 105)

    The results of scientific inquiry are verifiable. Experimentation, logical analysis, and evidence-based revision clearly differentiate and separate science from various kinds of nonscientific ways of knowing. Explanations employing supernatural (outside of matter and energy) events are outside the realm of science and fall within other ways of knowing. “We do not construct the world from our experiences; we are aware of the world in our experiences. Science is a language for talking not about experience but about the world” (Browonski, 1977). Scientific inquiry engages students in a process that develops critical thinking skills and they can bring out of the classroom for life long learning. An additional opportunity of effective scientific inquiry instruction is that students can not only construct their own learning, but they can also construct their own learning environment. It is my opinion that in these activities we will achieve our goal of scientific thinking for all students.

  2. Scott,
    I’m interested in your proposal and I agree with your remarks. Eric’s comments about developing stronger connections with students through “outside” experiences also rings true in my encounters, although I have found that any out of class experience that is well developed and not for activity’s sake has fostered the connection. The essay in Brad’s post takes me back to 1975 (I think) when my high school biology teacher used an issue of National Geographic as a replacement for the cell section in the text. The expose’ had the latest information about cell processes and organelles along with some wonderful electron micrographs and illustrations. I was amazed and hooked. My biology teacher was lab focused with a healthy appetite for some outdoor exploration. The key term being exploration, translated – inquiry. He retired in Oklahoma and has been teaching middle school life science in Kansas for several years.

  3. Scott,

    I thought that you might enjoy the following experience and thoughts that I have had this semester…

    At BVN we start with the macroscopic biological concepts associated with classification, ecology, and evolution (first semester). While looking for ways to enrich my own understanding and just looking for new ways to cover classification, I happened upon the Linnean School Challenge sponsored by the Swedish Institute. The challenge was a vague open-ended challenge that suggested that student complete some environmental project documented via text, video, a website, etc… in honor of the 300th anniversary of Carl’s Birthday. The winning project would win a trip to Sweden for up to 20 students.

    Initially, I tried to think of a way to incorporate this into my existing freshman Honors Biology curriculum. But for a variety of reasons – many of which you already mentioned as being restraints to the full inquiry approach you are contemplating, I dediced that it would be easier to complete the project with students outside of class. Through environmental club (renamed the BVN Linnean Society)

    In the end 18 students (some mine and some not) spent over 300 hours outside of class helping to document Linnean named species in the area in a variety of habitats, participating in the telemetry research associated with the relocated Timber Rattlesnake population near DeSoto, volunteering in the removal of exotic honeysuckle with the KC Wildland, and visiting the Linda Hall Library rare books room and behind the scenes at the KU Natural History Museum. All in an effort to win a trip to visit the Swedish Lapland. We didn’t win the trip but we all took away so much. We developed relationships that will last some time, we developed knowledge, skills, etc… and boy we had fun the whole time.

    These students definitely got a feel for the beauty and mystery that you speak of that has inspired so many of us in our pursuit of biological knowledge. But it really was only 18 students of a total of approximately 95 student I teach and the 400 freshman that are enrolled in biology in our school.

    It got me thinking though about creating similar projects like the Linnean Challenge. How could I develop a project that that inspired motivation and work while leading students to cover the curricular objectives for a unit of semester. To make it easy on myself, I thought boy it would be nice if every nation thought highly enough about their scientists that they challenged the students of world in the way that the Swedes did my small group. Why couldn’t the NSF, NABT, etc… develop such challanges on an annual basis that promoted the essentials that you are trying to discover. Okay, KABT.

    Overall, I would be interested in such a discussion.

    But for the time being I have found two great ways to inspire students that can be generalized for your particular interests. Like the Linnean Challenge they are outside the school day.

    1) Taking students camping in association with the KHS annual spring and fall field trips (in fact this is why I never am at KATS because they most often overlap in time).

    2) Tailgating science lectures with students.

    Forgive me if I am wrong, but I bet if you were honest most of your inspired biological moments happened outside of the confines of the school day as well, and most of them did not occur in association with more than 20 other individuals (our classes).

    I must also say that when I coached track and X-C there was a certain respect that students afforded me because I had extracurricular relationships with students (even from the non-runners). Although I no longer coach, these extracurricular science experiences have led to a similar sort of respect that I think has something to do with showing that I am willing to develop more general and personal relationships with students.

    Something to think about.

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