Project Guide Sheet and Core Values

After attending the EduCon 2.1 Conference in Philadelphia, I became acquainted with the Science Leadership Academy and their core values: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation, and Reflection.  The value of using these ideas to teach biology, as opposed to the traditional value placed on transmitting content knowledge, has been nothing short of transformational for both my students and myself. To help students design projects that help them develop these skills, skills that have proven themselves indispensible to successful people throughout history, a colleague, Mike Murphy, and I created this Project Guide Sheet.  The students struggle with this document, in a positive way,  in more ways than I ever could have imagined. Working through this document with students to help them design projects has brought into my classroom some of the richest experiences that I have had in my career.  I would love the feedback of the KABT community to help me to take this idea even further.

The Project Guide Sheet is divided into the following sections: Inquiry, Plan, Collaboration, Research, and Reflection.  In the following lines, I will highlight some of the successes and insights I have gained from each section.

Inquiry: In the first part of this section, I have seen just how difficult of a time students have creating questions to guide their projects.  They are so conditioned for the questions to be asked for them that creating their own question proves to be tremendously difficult for students of all ability levels.  This section leads to great one-on-one discussions with students.  The second part of this section asks students to identify their intended audience.  I have found that this is an area students never consider.  For us, as successful educators, it is something that we do without thinking.  For students, they almost never spend time thinking about who the presentation is for, let alone put into words.  The third part of this section asks students to explain why their intended audience will find the project interesting.  This section has been mind-blowing for me, because I discovered that students almost NEVER consider why their audience might find their project interesting. Typical answers from students are along the lines of, “…this project will be interesting because my classmates will get new information”.  My students are shocked to discover that not all students find all new information to be interesting!

Plan:  This section asks students to plan their projects.  Again, this is an area students rarely consider because project plans are typically provided for them.  Helping them through the struggle of planning projects has been particularly enriching for us all in my classroom.

Collaboration:  This section asks students to collaborate with family members, other faculty, fellow students, community members and/or field professionals. This is my very favorite section because it brings the projects to life by bringing in new ideas and it expands the scope of project beyond the confines of our classroom.  One of the best examples of the power of this section involves a student who was completing a project on genetic engineering and was absolutely positive that genetic engineering was morally wrong on religious grounds.  Had she completed a traditional project, without collaboration, she would have found sources to solidify her viewpoint and that would have been the end.  Instead, one of the people with whom she chose to collaborate was her minister who SHOCKED her by sharing that he saw no problems with genetic engineering as long as it benefitted God’s children and was respectful of life.  This was earth-shattering for this student, in a very positive way.  She left the experience with the idea that this issue is much more complicated than she originally thought, and left her with more questions than answers, a hallmark of quality, meaningful learning.

Research:  This section is pretty traditional, and is an area where I would like more collaboration with colleagues in how to enrich it and make it more meaningful/useful for students.

Reflection:  This is undoubtedly one of the most important parts of the process as it provides students the opportunity to make meaning from their experience.  A successful project should leave students with new understandings, new questions, and a clear idea about how lessons learned from this project can improve the quality of projects they complete in the future, whether scholastic or otherwise.  Giving the students the opportunity for metacognition is an ESSENTIAL part of a meaningful project experience.

I have no doubt that with meaningful collaboration, this document will evolve over time.  I sincerely hope that the KABT community will play a large role in that evolution.

If you’d like to give this a try in your classroom, please feel free to modify it in any way you see fit.  My only request is that you let me know how it goes for you and your students.   🙂

Best Practice Simplified

At the EduCon 2.1 conference in Philadelphia, late this January, I came across the most profound, succinct, and employable explanation of “best practice” that I have ever seen.  I would like to make the argument that if all teachers in our schools employed this simple model, education would be revolutionized in this country.  On posters throughout one of Philadelphia’s top public schools, the Science Leadership Academy, were the following five core values, constituting what I see as the best roadmap to best practice that I have seen:  Inquiry; Research; Collaboration; Presentation; Reflection.

So often our courses focus too much on the acquisition of “important” facts” and  not enough on how to solve problems in an educated way.  I have met more than a few biology teachers who talk with pride about the way their students know all of the intermediate steps of glycolysis, and I would argue that this may not be the best use of either the teacher’s or the students’ time.  If you surveyed 100 successful adults, from custodians to theoretical physicists, and asked them whether, in the last month, they had to know any of the biochemical interactions of photosynthesis, I can not imagine one of them answering “yes”.  If you asked the same group of people whether, in the last month, they have had to collaborate, research, present, and/or solve a problem, I would be surprised if a single one of them said they had not.  If the second set of skills are the ones that successful people in all walks of life are using all of the time, would it not be best if our educational system was centered on applying those skills to our content areas, instead of trying to get as many students to understand as many facts about the content we teach?  We can argue all day about the “essential” facts within our content area, but how easily can we argue about whether students need to be able to generate their own questions, research the question, collaborate, present their understanding, and then reflect over what was learn and what else can be learned?  These are skills we use on a daily basis, and skills that can be greatly improved when they are made a daily part of the lives of our students.

Right or wrong, my litmus test for professional development is to ask whether what I have learned can be applied on Monday.  Too often with professional development, this is not the case.  With these five core values, though, it has been different.  When I returned to school from the conference on Monday, I was able to make immediate changes.  Instead of going over a homework assignment with me in the front of the class leading the review, I asked various students to go up to the whiteboard to show how to answer various questions.  Voila!  Presentation!  For work that I would typically have the students do alone, I have focused more on having students work on assignments in groups, which facilitates both collaboration and presentation for the students.  Now with various activities and tests, I ask the students to write a reflection over the experience.  “Were you satisfied with your results on the Mitosis/Meiosis Exam?  Why or why not.  Explain.”  In my Kansas Natural History class, my students have always conducted Land Use Interviews outside of class, concerning the way that people interact with land today versus 40 or 50 years ago.  This year, however, I decided to invite to our school several residents from a local retirement home to be interviewed by my students.  Perhaps I should not have been, but I was SHOCKED when I saw how enthralled my students were with the people they were interviewing.   The residents had a wonderful experience as well, and now I will be inviting these residents back so my students can present their new understandings from the interviews they conducted.  Adding this level of presentation made things so much more real for the students, and it also serves to make members of the community more aware of what we do.  We want taxpayers to collaborate with us in funding education, but we rarely bring them in and make them a part of what we do.  I argue that having students present to and/or collaborate with a wide variety of community members, on a regular basis and in a wide variety of content areas, would do more for education funding than any conceivably high set of standardized test scores that could be posted in the newspaper.  For me, this model has been proving itself no less than transformative, because it uses my content area as a means for my students to improve their proficiencies in valuable skills found in the core values, rather than an end in and of itself.  The best part from my side is that, to incorporate it, I only have to analyze my lessons through the lens of five simple core values.

One thing I am noticing with this model, however, is that students often do not like it.  They actually prefer to have facts spoon fed to them because they are a product of the system that is educating them.  It is harder to ask questions (inquiry) than it is for the questions to be assumed and the answers given to you.  All too often, we have taken kids from four-year-olds who are constantly asking “how” and “why”, to young adults who think that all of the interesting questions have already been asked and all of the important facts are already known.  There is not a knowledgeable researcher in any field who thinks this is the case.  When you ask students to ask questions about what is going on in a drop of pond water, they ask, “what do you want me to ask?”  When you ask students to reflect on their experience in the previous unit, they ask, “what do you want me to talk about?”  This frustrates teachers, but it should not because the students are only doing what they have been taught.  I believe there is a better way of educating students from kindergarten through high school by focusing heavily on these core values, a way that could make those types of questions the exception rather than the norm.

My last thought on these core values is that they should be used as a model for teacher professional development as well.  We, as teachers, know in which areas our students are weak, and professional development time should be used for teachers to bring to light these areas (inquiry); study ways they can be addressed (research); talk with each other, community members, and other experts about solving the problem(s) (collaboration); present our findings to each other, administrators, school boards, and legislators (presentation); and then evaluate the success of the plan (reflection).  I believe that coupling these core values with continued learning in our content areas (teacher knowledge of content being a key constituent in quality teaching) would be the most useful, beneficial, and enriching professional development that most of us will have ever experienced.

Thanks for allowing me this time to reflect.  If you would like to collaborate, I would love to delve further into this issue.  If we discover anything great, maybe our inquiry will lead us to new, exciting questions or maybe we could present something we discover at a conference someday.

Curriculum Corner Launch!

With the help of Brad Williamson, I am happy to announce that we now have a “Curriculum Corner” on the KABT website. My goal with the Curriculum Corner is to be a place for you as a biology teacher to have access to free and customizable curricula. My hope is that the Curriculum Corner will meet your needs whether you’d just like an idea for a single lesson on a given topic, or you’re in need of an entire curriculum. The great thing about having these curricula on the KABT BioBlog site is that each document allows for teacher feedback. Since these curricula are entirely electronic, the documents can evolve as better ideas come from you using the documents and providing thoughtful feedback. With the help, input, and better ideas of the KABT community, my hope is that the Curriculum Corner will evolve into a resource that will be of great utility to teachers in Kansas and beyond. I would also like to see the Curriculum Corner expand with the addition of Anatomy & Physiology, Zoology, Environmental Science, Genetics, Botany, etc. The usefulness of this resource will grow with contributions and feedback from teachers like you.

I have uploaded documents for the three classes I currently teach at De Soto High School: General Biology, Kansas Natural History, and AP Biology. To help see if any of these curricula can be of use to you, I’ll describe a bit about each class below. Continue reading “Curriculum Corner Launch!”

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 ssharp@usd232.org