Giving Them Nothing

Monday, my chemistry students started their semester final: a three-week, single-partner, no-outside-communication, all-hands-on-deck lab practical. I handed them a stack of papers and told them that I expected to see polished write-ups in three weeks.

Okay, so I don’t give them nothing. They can use virtually anything printed, including their lab notebooks, the textbook, the Internet… Other than people.

But I didn’t tell them exactly how to accomplish the experiments or how to write them up. This is throwing a lot of them for a loop. It’s making them think a little too hard. I had two pairs, who, after pouring a chemical in a beaker and watching it sink to the bottom of a beaker, discuss how to get a chemical to dissolve. After about 5-6 minutes of contemplating various heating implements, acids, and catalysts, I was afraid they were going to actually hurt themselves: I handed them a glass stir rod.

But the thing is, as I struggle to not talk or nudge kids in particular directions (which makes me think about how much/little I do during the rest of the year), they’re realizing how much they rely on being told what to do. They’re finally thinking about what to do rather than what I say. And to do this, they have to ask questions of themselves (and their partners).

I’m starting to think about how to give more goals, give fewer questions. It’s kind of a riff off of Dan Meyer talking about removing questions from textbook problems to make things more interesting/compelling/think-y. [Hmmm… curriculua as a state function? Many paths to get to the end?]

Cross-posted to my blog.

Implicit Procedures

My students are amazing, especially at solving big-idea-type problems, but they’ve been getting a little sloppy with some basics. Today is the first day of second semester, so (instead of worksheets) I figured they needed an activity to review significant figures and other simple skills. 

I came up with The Popcorn Lab. In small groups and the span of 55 minutes, they had to create some sort of procedure, data table, and results to answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the mass, volume, and density of a popcorn kernel before and after popping?
  2. What accounts for the differences between those values?

It was possibly one of the most beneficial things I’ve done recently in terms of getting them to ask their own questions and critique ideas (and as a side benefit, they’re using lab notebooks for, ya know, notes instead of filling in blanks). There was a lot of scratching out and revising, especially for the “after” kernels. A few kids looked up ways to measure volume of popped popcorn on their phones rather than using water displacement. 

Tomorrow, I plan to ask them about:

  1. Easy/straightforward parts
  2. Problematic parts
  3. Differences between groups’ procedures and would they get different answers/results
  4. Sources of error, and how they would be different for different groups

(Cross posting to my own blog.)


Questioning Others

Yesterday, I had students ask three people questions: what is radiation, and what can it do? I was hoping to get some preconceptions going and spark some conversations for today’s class on nuclear chemistry and radiation. 

What I got was a lot of kids who, while I checked individuals’ homework, said they got weird answers, but were afraid to be “wrong” in the group. Some has even gone so far as to only ask people they knew had accurate information. 

This is a very competitive, high-ranked school ok, and kids aren’t used to being wrong. And from my assignment I can see that most are pretty uncomfortable with the thought of possessing wrong answers that aren’t even their own thoughts. 

I had to, for purposes of conversation, bring up things people knew, and things people “knew” about radiation so that we could talk more frankly. 

Although I know that class climate is s major component of discussions and comfort of kids asking questions, this is s good reminder for me that I need to make sure that I take care of this climate, because it can make or break further questioning and discussion. 

Respectful Conversations

It’s the second week of school. I had to sub last week for an English teacher who had a family emergency. No problem! Except that I teach science, and the whole conversation-using-words-discussion-thing isn’t my forte. The teacher assured me that these sophomores had been trained last year in how to provoke and continue conversations. As freshmen? Yeah right! 

While I boggled at 15-year-olds rationally discussing (for 45 minutes!) the meaning of “human”, I kept track of what they did with each other. They carefully listened to every comment and question they generated as a class and as individuals. They respectfully agreed and disagreed with each other. They shared favorite or striking quotes from the articles they’d read. I even heard, “so I pose to the group,” more than once. These students were able to carefully consider their classmates’ opinions, yet keep their own thoughts and ideas without drama or smack downs, and with no particular ends to their conversations. 

To say I was (am!) impressed is an understatement. 
I’m posting this here, because it’s an important reminder (at least for me) that kids do need training and modeling in how to behave in academic settings. If we want more conversations, we, as teachers, need to show them how to do that. And we also have to show them how to respect answers from anyone, along with how to respond to those answers. And perhaps most importantly, we have to show them how we listen and further the conversations, rather than just finding particular answers and moving on (I definitely need more work here). 

Day 1 Labs

Instead of going through class procedures and syllabi on Day 1, I practice everyone’s names, then have all the students do labs. I set up about 5-7 stations with short discrepant-event-type things to do. Each small group of kids gets about 7 minutes to perform the experiment, then write three observations and two questions they honestly can’t answer (other than cop-outs like “how does it work?”) on a piece of paper. I’ve used this set up every year, and I love it. But what I’ve changed is what I take from the sheets of paper. 

When I taught at the high-ELL population school, I used it to gauge written English skills, vocabulary, and creativity. Other years, I’ve looked for retention of biology ideas or other science courses. This year, I looked for vocabulary, comfort with few clear answers, creativity in the questions, following directions, and general engagement with the experiments and with group work. 

Most of the questions they generate dance just outside of “how does it work”. But I love it when students already know the trick, and find it hard to think of questions they can’t answer. If they really get stuck, I ask them to think of something to change, and this is where some crazy ideas usually start (and often continue into subsequent stations). 

I don’t know if this is a good entry for this questioning blog. I don’t ask many questions of the kids, and I often get pretty repetitive student-generated questions, even year to year, for particular experiments. What if like to figure out is how to switch the kids from completing the assignment (with standard and common questions) to thinking outside the box (with outside situations and new ideas of their own). I think it would also create more buy-in and ownership of their work. 

Odd Person Out

This year marks some pretty significant changes for me: new job, return to public school, having my own room (and lab!), lots of technology in every room, and more. I may have been teaching for about a decade, but I’m feeling like a new teacher in a lot of ways. 

I’m also (ever!) grateful to the MTBoS for allowing a science person (with no math teaching) to join and rejuvenate. I’ve always felt welcome and encouraged by the organization as a whole, as well as by individuals. And along those lines, I’m eager to join this project as a science-non-math person. 

While I’m fine with variations for solving questions, this year, I’ll be consciously trying to get away from asking single-answer questions, and veer towards more open-ended ideas. This is scary for me (and, I’m told, this particular year of students), who finds comfort in finality. 

I’m not a very good conversationalist, so I enjoy reading about how wording matters and how to ask questions. Words do matter, as does intonation and inflection. I think, however, there are a lot of similarities between how teachers ask questions in any classroom, but especially between math and science. There’s definitely ways of asking complex questions (a la Bloom), but I wonder if there’s a base structure for making questions, as well as a subject-specific structure, or maybe a lab structure versus a classroom structure.