Is It Time for Apprenticeship in Core Classes?

gardenerandthecarpenter-sm-e1475697796568I just finished reading Alison Gopnik’s brand-new book “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children” and it has my brain buzzing with ideas and questions.

Most of the thinking is around apprenticeship and the value that it brings to learning.  Humans have learned through this process of repeated trials for millennia, and it is used in many specialized classrooms like music, art, and athletics.  Yet, it’s clear we don’t do enough of it in core classes.

When I think about apprenticeship, the harsh experience of chefs on Gordan Ramsay’s reality shows always comes to mind.  Apprenticeship is often a brutal and demanding way to learn a complicated skill.  It requires the student to face the errors that they have made in real and tangible ways.  It moves the learner along slowly as they master each part of the complex task.  It demands from the student a high level of motivation.

Yet, this is not too different from the traditional grading system.  Students typical try a simpler version of the final skill and build up to the final task.  They often fail, and the best teachers give them multiple opportunities to succeed.  But, it’s the inclusion of powerful—honest—feedback and repetitive practice make this a uniquely powerful way to learn skills.

I also like the way that this ties into Dylan Wiliam’s idea that feedback should be detective work for the student.  If we give students multiple attempts and provide honest feedback in between, we are putting them in the driver’s seat of their own success.  We force them to find what was lacking in their previous attempt and correct it.  It’s the same routine as learning to play a level in a video game by playing it over and over again—dying each time—to eventually succeed.

The troubling aspect of apprenticeship for me is the idea that the teacher is a seasoned expert who alone determines whether the student has show proficiency.  While this is how education has worked in the past, it is clearly not what is needed for a future where expertise can be found in myriad places online.  We need to step away from positions of sole authority in the classroom and empower our students to assess themselves.

Can apprenticeship change learning in our schools without venerating old ideas about where knowledge comes from?

Education, Science

What science teaching should be?

“Students do the thinking. We know how to read, write, speak, and think about science, and we also know that our students won’t gain these skills if we do the work for them. We give our students the support they need to develop science literacy, analyze data, integrate mathematical and computational thinking, develop models and design solutions. We know students cannot comprehend scientific practices in depth without directly experiencing those practices for themselves; therefore, we check the ratio of teacher work to student work in each and every lesson and ensure that our students get many opportunities to be critical thinkers, readers, writers, and speakers.”

From Sara Bokhari’s description of the “vision statement” that her team at TNTP has set forth for science teaching.

Education, Science

Splitting Science Classes

Last month, in a special science education issue of the online magazine Slate, one of my favorite science writers proposed an intriguing plan for the future of science education in America.  Deborah Blum, who wrote one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction that reads like fiction, is both an author and a professor of science journalism.  Her opinion as an educator and writer is worth listening to.

Blum writes that the solution to our growing problem of a ignorant scientifically-illiterate citizenry, is to split all science education into two tracks: one for “majors” and one for non-majors.  She describes this as a plan for K-12, but I think that it would need to begin in high school.  Her primary concern is that the intensity and competitive structure of advanced science classes alienate many students into become completely untrusting and averse to science in general.  I think that she has a point.

You see, science education serves two purposes.  On one hand, we seek to make the scientific method and its fruits accessible to everyone to ensure an “informed electorate”.  On the other hand, we want to encourage and prepare future scientists (and doctors and engineers).  The problem is that combining these two goals in one course causes us to fail at both.

Two tracks of science education would allow the “non-majors” courses to focus on the critical concepts and vocabulary that the media and special interests often use and abuse to make their points.  It would go a long way toward eliminating the effect of recent anti-science bias in the Republican Party, and making this democracy of ours much more effective in the long run.

It would also allow those students with a keen interest in science to move through the courses at an accelerated pace.  They could get more field and lab experience at an earlier age.  They could intern in various research facilities, both public and private.

The advantages of a system like this are clear, but the downside is perhaps less so.  One question that lingers is this: how early is too early to put a student on one track or the other?  How do we avoid choosing children’s destinies for them before they truly understand what they are selecting?

What do you think?

photo credit: Out of Chicago via photo pin cc

Education, Science

Science is a verb

I don’t take lightly my moniker in many social networks: MrScienceTeach.  I identify myself more as a science educator than in any other way.  While I get excited about expanding my teaching horizons, I hope to always be involved in science.

Mostly this is due to my reverence for the role of science in society.  My time in science and, later, in education has taught me to value the science literacy of a democratic citizenry.  I know that a more scientifically-aware society with be better prepared to make the tough decisions that lie ahead as new discoveries bring new dilemmas.

The importance that I see in Science Education is a big part of what drives me to be a more effective teacher.  I constantly drill my students to understand the dual nature of science as a collection of knowledge about our natural world, and as a rational process for answering questions.  My students have grown tired of hearing me say, “We’re not just learning science, we’re doing science.”

And, that is a big part of why I enjoyed Cara Santa Maria’s recent piece in the Huffington Post about Martin Luther King’s attitude toward science.  Using quotes from Dr. King, she explored the importance of religion as a counter-balance to science, reinforcing the idea that science is not inherently evil or amoral, despite its goal of being objective.  At one point, she very eloquently presents the notion of science as a process:

“But, science is a verb, an activity. Being so, it is carried out by people. It does not–it cannot–exist in a vacuum. And hard as we may try, human beings are simply incapable of any behavior that carries no bias, no moral or political persuasion.”

This point is so fine and so clear that I find myself thinking that I must have heard it in my mind for years.  Science reaches for objectivity, but falls short because it is a human enterprise. This doesn’t mean that we should give up on our goal of unbiased discovery, but rather that we as a society must provide the checks and balances that will render future scientific findings valuable and relevant.

Of course, I am aware that King’s holiday is held in January each year, but I don’t think that it’s fair to recognize this great man on a single day.  And, I can think of no better way to celebrate the impact of Dr. King than to strive every day to simultaneously build integrity and curiosity in the young minds of my students.

Can you see the value of seeing science in this light?


photo credit: WilliamMarlow via photopin cc

Science, Technology

That’s What I’m Talking About: Creationism

The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity related to my “day job” and the many responsibilities that I have (voluntarily) taken on there.  I’ve spent a lot of mental time trying to figure out how to maintain the conversation here that I value so much personally and professionally, while slogging through the day-to-day joys and challenges of being a middle school teacher.

An idea that I’ve come up with is a new type of post called That’s What I’m Talking About or TWITA, for short.  I plan to use this type of writing from time to time to share the work of other authors that jives so well with my thinking that I wish I wrote it.  In each case, I’ll add some commentary of my own and try to start up some interesting conversations here.

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Looking into the crystal ball

from Flickr user just.Luc

This time of year, the blog posts practically write themselves.  Next week, I’ll have to put together a Top Ten list or two, but this week will be all about the future.  I’m not, by my nature, a retrospective person.  I don’t enjoy reading history books much and I rarely even glance in my rearview mirror while driving.  I’m a guy who likes Mondays more than Fridays because of the limitless opportunities that lie in the week ahead.  Call it blind optimism or just a sunny outlook, but I am the ultimate morning person.  The day always looks best by the light of dawn, and that’s how I prefer to view the world.  I know… it’s sick.

And so, in this spirit of forward-thinking and optimism, here are the Future Five that I plan to do in 2011.

#1: Implement WordPress ePortfolios

The incredibly awesome Sam Morris introduced me to the idea (while he helped me install WP as our school’s web platform last summer) of students blogs as electronic portfolios, showcasing their work and creating conversations leading to reflection and growth.  With his school’s Discovery Blogs as a model, I plan to roll out blogs for every student on my hallway as they arrive in July.  Staff members will teach students how to use them (working in some Internet safety lessons along the way) and will use them for assessment and student-led conferences.  Within five years, I hope to make this a school-wide initiative.  The potential is amazing!

#2: Improve traffic to Scripted Spontaneity

I’ve already seen a jump in visitors since I adopted the soon-to-be-patented Bill Ferriter method.  More visitors means my voice is heard by more and I get more push-back from commenters.  It helps me to better express myself and craft new ideas for self-improvement and professional development.  This is why I love my PLN!  How do I get there?  By posting regularly (twice weekly) and varying the length, format, and topic of my posts.

#3: Interact with Other Blogs More

This is one that I’ve already begun to work toward.  It is so important to engage the blogosphere, both personally and professionally.  I find that the conversations that arise from blog comments on various education blogs can have as powerful an effect on me as item #2 above.  By setting aside a few minutes twice a week, I can become a more generous member of my PLN and return the favor that so many Scripted Spontaneity readers have made to me.

#4: Get Published in a Professional Journal

I’ve spent several months mulling over the publication requirements for the professional magazines of several organizations to which I belong.  I have come to realize that no matter how successful #1 is, I will do much more to heighten my professional reputation and broaden my horizons by having my writing and ideas appear in print.  To this end, I plan to submit several manuscripts over the first half of the year.  I won’t give up until my name appears on a glossy page.

#5: Fully Adopt the 5E Model for my Science Lessons

The 5E model has been around for many years, and doesn’t really represent anything earth-shattering.  But, its constructivist structure is powerful and engaging for students.  I have made use of it sporadically in the past, but I plan to build every unit around this cycle that includes Exploration, Explanation, and Evaluation.  It doesn’t just teach science content, but also models the scientific method for students, which is a critical piece of 21st century instruction.

So, there it is: my plan for 2011.  Think I’m crazy?  Have some better ideas?  Feel free to share.