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I have reached a watershed in my thinking about teaching and my philosophy about teaching science.
I trained and begun learning to teach in a school with a very robust academic record. Teachers were considered absolute experts in their field and students were, on the whole, very high achieving but who had high expectations of their teachers academically too.
In this environment I learned that the teacher’s fundamental responsibility was to be an an absolute expert in their field; if you didn’t know everything, and could not answer every question, the community of students would lose faith in you. Or at least that it is what it felt like.
I mentioned in my review of Ritchhart et al of comments made by an ex-colleague of mine which reinforced this sentiment.
In those formative days then learning to teach was about mastering your subject knowledge. Content was King. Delivered in lovely little powerpoint slides where students would simply copy down their notes and then memorise them.
I left that school confidently arrogant that I was an expert in my subject and in the IB. That any school was going to want to employ me after the time that I had spent in that school. And indeed I was partly right. I secured a position as Head of Biology at a prestigious boarding school. The time there was little different. I benefitted from working closely with the chemists and physicists, in a closely knit science department. However the sentiments were the same. Content was King. Our role as science teachers was to deliver the curriculums content. The learner profile was dismissed by the Head of Science as fluff.
Since moving on from that school I have been involved in setting up a school and taking it through its IB authorization process as the only Biology teacher and as one of two or, more recently, three science teachers. I cannot point to any single experience from this time that has been the catalyst but my thinking has begun to change. Perhaps it was being forced to seriously consider the IB’s other bits; the ATLs; the IB Learner profile. Perhaps it was being exposed to and challenged by the MYP. Perhaps it was teaching a new DP Biology syllabus with so much focus on the nature of science. Perhaps it was beginning to teach TOK. Perhaps it was becoming a workshop leader. Perhaps it was working with so many truly excellent IB educators. I don’t know.
But I now question the sentiment that content is king in science teaching.
I am beginning to think, to really think that more important than learning the content, my students need to learn to think. It might sound like an odd thing to write. It certainly feels like an odd thing to write.
I’m sure that many people who aren’t teachers would raise their eyebrows at what I wrote above. Surely, a teachers job is to teach students to think? But it’s not as simple as that. Teaching students to ask strong questions and to develop different thinking dispositions is no simple task. It’s much easier to focus on the curriculum delivery. What are my students supposed to know? Fill the time in with student-centred activities, and group work, debates and presentations and you are doing a good job right?
I’ve moved on from didactic lecture like teaching in my early days to worksheet, activity based teaching but has anything really changed? My students still present as apathetic. School is still something that they just do on the whole. I’m sure most of them forget what they “learn” instead of engaging with the deeper issues.
And this is what I want: I want my students to be engaged, passionate and switched on critically to the world around them and be scientifically literate.
How do I do that when sometimes I question my own scientific literacy?
Perhaps its time to really focus on the thinking and the types of thinking that are needed in science and needed to be developed in students of science. The trouble is I am sometimes not sure that I know what thinking really means…
In Making Thinking Visible Richhart et al (2011) discuss turning the content into a vehicle for teaching and framing certain thinking skills. It is argued that developing thinking skills is important because these skills are the tools that students will take forward into future life when the content is forgotten. They are the tools the future adults will utilize to navigate life.
The thing is, thinking doesn’t just happen. As teachers, we need to be explicit with students about the types of thinking that are useful in certain situations and provide strategies that help students learn to think in these ways. We can’t just leave it up to chance. After all, traditionally, we don’t leave the content up to chance (normally), instead, we are explicit with it. We need to give students the chance to think about their own thinking and what it means to them.
Ritchhart provides a list of “high-leverage thinking moves that serve understanding well”:
- Observing closely and describing what is there.
- Building explanations and interpretations.
- Reasoning with evidence.
- Making connections.
- Considering different viewpoints and perspectives.
- Capturing the heart and forming conclusions
- Wondering and asking questions
- Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things
I will be posting these “moves” in my classroom as a start as well as try to relate the activities we are doing to these types of activities.
As science teachers, we need to ask ourselves: What type of thinking is important in science? More specifically what types of thinking do we want to develop in students of science? How is thinking framed in terms of the work that scientists do? What are the essential questions of science?
Clearly, the thinking moves above are addressed by different elements of scientific enquiry. Observing closely is an important part of observational studies and also hypothesis generations so is wondering and asking questions. To generate a hypothesis requires building explanations and reasoning with evidence. When we draw our data out we try to capture the heart of a problem and draw a conclusion,
Once we have a clear idea of this then we can begin to teach the thinking alongside an understanding of the nature of science through well-planned content. The difference is that our learning objective is twinned – we have a thinking objective and a content objective.
Understanding how to teach in this way is important. Biology teacher Paul Strode has written some articles in this vein. In one he looks at reasoning like a scientist and the other deals with teaching the hypothesis. Although he still focuses on framing the content instead of necessarily framing the questioning, these are good reads. However, I feel that the questioning and thinking strategies needed to become front and centre of the teaching instead of the content.
Thinking relies heavily on questioning. In science we are trying to ask the following questions:
What do I notice?
What does that tell me?
Why does it work like this?
How can I test this idea?
How can I be sure that my findings are valid?
Or, according to strode whose list is below:
Step 1: What claim am I being asked to accept?
Step 2: What evidence supports the claim? Is the evidence valid?
Step 3: Is there another way to interpret the evidence?
Step 4: What other evidence would help me evaluate the alternatives?
Step 5: Is the claim the most reasonable one based on the evidence?
Teaching like this requires teachers to step down as the “font of knowledge” in their classrooms and have the courage to be wrong. I have worked in schools where the culture of the school would simply not allow that to happen.
As Ritchhart points out we need to be able to ask our students authentic questions, meaning that the teacher needs to not know the answer, and if teachers are worried about seemingly not knowing something how can they do this?
This academic year I am going to try and put thinking centre and front in my classroom. I just hope that the crazy timetabling and work-load pressure doesn’t push me back into easy, old habits.
I am trying to comply a list of teaching and schools related hashtags as a reference for all the #tweetchers out there. My reason for doing this was simply so that I could ensure that when I was tweeting or retweeting something that I thought was valuable to others, I wanted to ensure that my time wasn’t wasted.
As a zoology graduate I’m fairly familiar with classification of living things and the history of this classification has a lot to say about tweeting hashtags.
Currently hashtags are in a mess! Im a IBDP Biology teacher so what hashtag should I use if I want to tweet something to do with DP Biology? #IBBio? #bioed? #bioedchat? #ibdpbioedchat? These are all hashtags that have been used for the same purposes.
As a label on information the hashtag also acts as a digital repository of information. You have to label and categorize correctly if you wish the information to be found again.
The situation on the twitter space is not unlike that faced by the 19th century naturalists who, when faced with mess of different names for the same organisms, had to devise rules about how and when to name a living thing.
I wonder when the first convention on hashtagging rules will be?
If you wish to update this list then add your hashtag to the list here or email me. I will update the list either every month or term, depending on how much time I have and how many people read this!
August 2016 #tags
I recently read part one and part three of Ritchhart et al’s 2011 book “Making thinking visible”. The book espouses a methodology for promoting thinking in students and for making that student thinking visible in the work that we do as educators and is broken into three parts.
Part one deals with the philosophy, terminology and theory of putting thinking at the centre of the classroom experience for students; part two details specific strategies that can be used to promote thinking; while part three deals with advice on how to get the most out of these strategies in the classroom.
I have struggled with this question in my own professional practice for a couple of years now. How do you balance, with the limited time you have in class, the need to develop the thinking skills used in the process of doing science with the need to develop knowledge of the content?
I can think of many conversations with colleagues where we have debated this. Often the running theme amongst science teachers in my experience has been that the content is king; that student needs the building blocks that the content gives them in order develop that deeper understanding of more complex science. You can’t just jump into redox reactions and the electron transport chain if students don’t have some understanding already to work with.
Often this has been levelled as a critique against the whole idea of inquiry teaching, the philosophical backbone of the IB. In science class how can you reasonably expect a G8 student to uncovering understanding that has literally taken scientists 400 years to develop?
Often-times science is taught in spiral way; students meet similar topics through middle and high school and each time they go into more depth. This allows students to construct understanding piece by piece year by year.
This book lays a clear challenge to that type of thinking but goes further by actually providing practical steps and examples of the types of questions teachers should be asking to develop students thinking. Undoubtably developing thinking skills in our students is one of the most important things we can be doing as teachers as these skills are inter-disciplinary and underpin lifelong learning. If you know how you can learn anything.
Thus as science teachers we need to examine why we do what we do and think more cleverly about how we use our time. After all, as this book highlights, quality in education is about developing dispositions and habits of mind, not simply high grades on exams with content that is then forgotten.
Students need to see us as learners and thinker, modelling those attitudes and valuing them. learning often occurs through reflecting on mistakes. This can be a challenge in schools where the culture sets the teacher in centre stage. I remember an ex-colleague once saying to me that if he ever admitted to not knowing something then his students would lose all their confidence and trust in him.
Part one of this book details the steps to making thinking visible through modelling an interest in ideas, constructing understanding, facilitating and clarifying thinking all through questioning, listening and documenting.
Ritchhart focusses on asking questions that model an interest in ideas, construct understanding and facilitate and clarify thinking. The key is to ask authentic questions; questions to which the answer is not predetermined, and to elicit these questions from the students as well.
Questions that model an interest an ideas set the classroom culture and allow students to see teachers as learners. Essential questions fall into this category. Questions that construct understanding are ones that guide, direct and push student’s understanding forward of the big ideas and concepts. “constructive questions frame the intellectual endeavors in which students are to be engaged and point them toward uncovering fundamental ideas and principles that aid understanding. Questions that clarify and facilitate thinking enable learners to get what is in their heads out and into the teachers. For example asking students “what makes you say that?” instead of simply responding to a comment will give you insight into how the student is thinking.
We need to learn to identify the key ideas and concepts with which we want our students to struggle and engage instead of just covering the curriculum and judging our success by how much we get through. This will enable us to put students in charge of their own learning and progress not merely providing them with material for the test.
We need to draw our attention to what types of thinking we want to foster in the classroom and what we think thinking actually is. We need to highlight thinking when it occurs in class. Until students can name a process they cannot control it.
As well as questioning, listening and documenting are highlighted as essential parts of the process. Modelling listening, a vigorous and interested attention in what the other is saying, is essential for modelling group interactions for students, showing them how to work collaboratively. Documenting as well as providing evidence of the thinking that is taking place should also act as a stimulus to drive the thinking forward.
Part two introduces the reader to a set of thinking routines that are grouped as to their purpose in the type of thinking they are trying to develop. Each routine contains detailed instructions for its use and clear examples on how to deploy it. Routines are not intended to be used as stand alone activities but as repeated structures in the classroom that students can eventually gain mastery of themselves.
I haven’t yet read part two yet as I didn’t feel the time for me would right until I had spent sometime addressing challenges that part one put before me. Once I have reflected on the types of thinking that I wish to elicit in my classroom then I will plough on into part two.
Part three provides useful case studies of from teachers using these routines over time, providing an excellent guide on how to bring these routines to life.
I was once again reminded of the usefulness of mindfulness in teaching practice. Mindfulness reminds us to remain in the present with attention and this is essential for all of these skills of questioning, listening and documenting and being able to respond to our students.
This book is certainly one every teacher should read, as it provides some excellently researched food for thought about what we are doing in our day to day as educators. Are we placing thinking, and the development of thinking skills at the centre of the learning experience of our students? or are we more focussed on content and assessment?
Got me asking:
- Is memorisation and rote practice ever useful?
- Don’t people need to train and doesn’t training involve practice and isn’t practice often rote learning?
- What types of thinking do we want to encourage today?
- What types of thinking do we want to encourage in science? What types are valuable to scientists?
- How to balance the need for content knowledge vs thinking skills especially when curriculums are so broad and time is so short and universities expect a certain level of knowledge in undergrads?
- What is a quality education?
- What types of adults are we trying to develop?
- What are the essential concepts in Biology identified in the literature of teaching biology?
- What essential questions are we trying to ask in science/Biology class?
- What routines do I want to use in my classroom?
- What does our schools mission and vision say about thinking?
- How can I incorporate more non-written, non-verbal reflection into my students learning?
- What expectations do I set in my learning environments?
- Is shorter lessons a good thing to promote deeper thinking?
- How useful is individualization in developing understanding and advancing deep learning?
- What are the essential questions to propel learning in Biology?
- How do these change and morph through a teaching unit?
Earlier this year a colleague sent me a link to the getting in podcast hosted by Julie Lythcott-Haims. I was so impressed by her refreshing attitude towards the college admissions process that came across heavily in the podcast that I was moved to purchase her book: “How to raise an adult – break free of the overparenting trap and prepare your kid for success”.
Now, it isn’t without irony that I read this book as a parent of a 15 month old girl, but I didn’t initially purchase this book to read as a parent. I bought it as a teacher and college counselor who works with 14-18 year olds and their parents, and one who wanted help to get inside the heads of some parents who at best can be described as helicopter parents and worst who can be described as tiger parents. That being said, reading the book was also helpful as a parent as I became aware of many unhealthy attitudes and thought patterns that have already taken hold in my mind as a parent – I kept thinking: “I do that already!”.
The central premise of the book is that many modern parents are over involved in their children’s lives and do far too much for them. This results in a learned helplessness in young people and a disempowerment of them resulting in an inability to solve life’s problems. Parents have to step back and allow their children to practice a task, fail safely and try again.
Many of the chapters contained examples that resonated with me in terms of the conversations that I have had with parents this year and some of what I read made me question some of the practices that take place in my own school, where we actively encourage parents to become heavily involved with their children’s education. Obviously parents need to be involved and some of this is very very healthy but there is a balance to be struck here and when a parents involvement begins to have detrimental effects on the self-efficacy of the child in question then a boundary has been crossed.
The book is divided into four parts: what we are doing now as parents; why we must stop overparenting; another way of parenting; and daring to parent differently.
There were many specific elements of the book that I particularly enjoyed. In her chapter on children who leave school without basic life skills, Julie provides a checklist of eights tasks that a eighteen year old must be able to do when they leave school:
- Be able to talk to strangers (e.g. teachers, landlords, HR managers, co workers etc)
- Be able to find their way around a new environment
- Be able to manage assignments, work load and deadlines
- Be able to contribute to the running of a household
- Be able to handle interpersonal problems
- Be able to cope with the ups and downs of competition, tough teachers, bosses
- Be able to earn and manage money
- Be able to take risks
I also liked here strategy for building skills in children:
- We do it for you.
- We do it with you.
- Then we watch you do it.
- Then you do it completely independently.
At school many colleagues use the question, “What is in the best interest of the student?” as a guide to situational problem solving, but I often wonder if often-times we sometimes think that the best interest means not letting the students fail or make mistakes.
In school’s we have the chance to design opportunities for students where they have to do things on their own and make a mess of it. Looking at the list above I can think of plenty of times when parents will step up to defend students or make excuses for them, or as a school we don’t design opportunities appropriately to help students to develop these skills.
I certainly feel that in secondary schooling we should be actively working to develop students self-efficacy and independence, and any action that prevents this is stunting the development of the future adult.
Perhaps our Wellbeing programs should also focus on parenting and the effects of overparenting on the development of our future adults. I worry that to some parents, a wellbeing program means that we smooth every graze and wipe away every tear on the metaphorical school playground and that if we don’t immediately step in to support a student in the way they want then we are seen to not be doing our job. Instead at times students need to have the opportunity to solve issues with teachers and other students on their own.
One of the ways to help older students is to do less for them. This doesn’t mean not supporting them – just not doing it for them.
I am tempted to leave the careers week I run unorganised and ask parents to support their children in their internship search but to not find the placement for them. Is there a case for just providing the opportunity and letting the students get on with it under their own steam? Obviously with support in terms of letter writing and C.V. construction from the school.
The book also provides some useful checklists on how to teach life skills age appropriately, tips for teaching children how to think independently, tips on talking to children of different ages as well as for developing a strong work ethic in children.
A well written and articulate book, with a sound argument that is enough to stimulate thinking in many teachers and parents about how they go about their work.
This book got me asking the following:
- How does the parental involvement in the minutiae of school life impact on the practice of education in our school?
- How do you successfully balance healthy parental interactions via technology when the school working day is still only eight hours long?
- How can our schools wellbeing programme address the caging of students by helicopter parents?
- What exactly is learning if it isn’t memorisation?
- What is the difference between rigor and load when it comes to homework?
- How do we generate useful open questions in classrooms and allow the time for real inquiry?
- How can I help my students learn more with me doing less for them?
- Is the fact that student don’t read widely or at all evidence that they are self-absorbed?
- What is my personal purpose?
- Why do I teach?