“It’s Not Scientific!”

“It’s not scientific,” yelled one of my students earlier this week when we were discussing whether a shadow of a groundhog in Pennsylvania could predict an early spring. I inquired further and asked what would be more scientific. Some mentioned using weather data would be more scientific. Some questioned whether the weather in Pennsylvania could even do anything in Seattle.

Then one of my students said, “You would have to pull a groundhog out hundreds of times and see if your data was just by chance or if it really matched.” I think she might have a career as a statistician some day.

That made me think about our own biases as teachers. Often we think we know what works. I’ve taught for 18 years, so when I approach a lesson a certain way, how do I know there isn’t a better way to do it? Can I randomly assign half my class to be taught the lesson one way, and the other half a different way? Can I then repeat this? Can a peer try it too? And what about the sample? We all know that each class is unique. So, even if I could do this every year, 18 years where I taught one class each year, wouldn’t yield enough reliable data. I believe experience does help us make wiser choices about how our profession, but as my students told me, “It’s not scientific!”

That’s why it’s important that we have organizations who are committed to being more scientific. I’ve heard many say that they could have told you student test scores aren’t enough to evaluate teachers, and millions didn’t have to be spent. Often our gut feelings are right, but unless it’s tested, reviewed, and analyzed, it’s not science.

Research in education can be tricky as some studies contradict each other, some are poorly executed, and while organizations may be able to take larger sample sizes, I want to emphasize that each child is unique. There may be a ‘best practice’ but a good teacher should know a few alternate practices or try new ones when they encounter a ‘best practice’ that doesn’t seem to be working. Any kind of research in human behavior is complicated.

The context for learning keeps changing (as it always has), perhaps at a much accelerated rate, but if second graders can begin to discuss whether or not Groundhog Day is scientific, then I think I’m doing an ok job.

Does Your Curriculum Allow Enough Play?

Aside

“The best questions are the ones that create the most uncertainty.”

The quote, by Beau Lotto comes from a recent TED talk called: Science is for everyone, kids included. It’s about the importance of play. Uncertainty and ambiguity are naturally uncomfortable for humans, but he says that play has helped us step into that zone of uncertainty. Science experiments are in fact games (play with rules), and scientist and creative types have always embraced this while others have been a little more wary.

In this talk, he describes working with a group of 8-10 year olds in developing an experiment from a question the students had. They are also the youngest group to have a peer-reviewed paper published. It’s an example of experiential learning at its best and includes a lot of great educational topics: risk/failure/problem-based learning/collaboration/inquiry/intrinsic motivation/etc. He also brings out Amy O’Toole (now age 12) one of the original researchers to speak about the project as well.

Here’s a link to the paper.

I’m All for Squishy Hands-On Learning

What should a five-year old know? This month’s Educational Leadership has a great article about trying to strike the balance between academic rigor and play in kindergarten. Many kindergartener teachers are moving to worksheets in order for their students to take something home to parents as evidence of learning. According to the article, there is also a much bigger emphasis on student performance and outcomes and a “rush to promote content achievement.” But what if we could do both? What if  we could integrate the natural curiosity of a child through play, and at the same time, develop important core concepts? The following TED talk is a fine example of how we can do just that. This video is less than five minutes long and shows how, using homemade play dough, you can turn little kids into electrical circuit designers.

If you like the video, you can get the recipes here.

Researchers Say They’ve Created a Synthetic Cell

My family visited this past weekend and I took my nephews (4 and 6) to the Museum of Flight. What struck me the most at the museum was the timeline from the Wright brothers first flight in 1903 to the first planes in WWI, and then onwards to aviation as we know it today. Progress happens fast and it seems to only gets faster.

With all the attention on the BP spill, I almost missed this announcement last week. What will the world look like for our children? I caught a glimpse of what the future of biotech might look like at the NAIS conference this year, and it is truly wonderful, fascinating, and awesome. Will I live to see some of the fruits of this research? Will the kids I teach see it?

The article starts,

The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell. Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines andbiofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

You can read more of the nytimes article here, or you can watch the  TED video below.