Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

New? An Idea From Science Teachers That Suits All of Us

Did you all see this article in the Times? A new study conducted in freshman college science classes suggested that “‘As opposed to the traditional lecture, in which students are passive, this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into mental model.’” Now I don’t want to crow too much, but that seems kind of obvious — at least to any of us who have worked with kids in K-12 schools. As I’ve mentioned here, I’ve done some work with the National Park Service on student-created projects related to the theme of From Civil War to Civil Rights (and that project is going to be extended, more on that soon). Just yesterday I got an email from the person leading a group out in California, where teenagers have been writing up, and then recording, in voicethread so they can be uploaded, their vision for how they want to make changes in the future. Here’s what the email said, “Jennie had them write essays – which turned out very well; and from those, they took their information and created their storyboards for their voicethreads…. no problem. Then…. letting them loose with the technology has been an awe-inspiring adventure of watching how kids deal with reading directions, playing with technology, participating in the process…. verrry interesting. After some editing and re-recording, they’ll be great. We’ve certainly learned a bunch about how to do it better [more gracefully] next time!! But all that said, they are endearing, optimistic and very personal. ”

Learning by doing — pure Dewey. Isn’t it obvious that giving young people tools to think, to create, to investigate, to fail and learn from failure (the gaming model), makes sense? I was speaking with Marina about those terrible NAEP results and she said — why don’t we have every teenage civics group watch Congress in actual session (easy to do on CSPAN). Sure it can be boring and predictable (“whatever it is, I’m against it”). But there are debates and decisions every day that effect us, and to which students can have direct access. Why not assign them to follow some bill, any bill, trace how it got to the floor, then report on precisely what happened in the debate and vote — not the How a Bill Becomes a Law map in every textbook, but a specific case — maybe brought by the local congressperson in that school’s district.

I was moved by the stories you have all told of the tap-dancing AP teachers — trapped between coverage and depth. But their challenge is a result of previous failure. If, as one 10th grade teacher told me the other day, students come to his class having taken one European History class ever (as part of a gallop through World History) and thus having only faint knowledge of what the Protestant Reformation was and how it fits with the Renaissance — where can he possibly begin in talking about colonial US History? It seems obvious to me that we need to rethink the steps — the sequence. We need to build that learning-by-doing model in much eaerlier — but then having trained students to research, think, and write — give them more territory to explore earlier. Maybe create teams — where, say, 8th graders studying US history are paired with 9th graders doing World History, and together they write reports on, say, the world in 1700, or the Age of Revolutions, or Democracy and Slavery — with, of course, the 8th grader becoming the 9th grade world history person the following year. (I realize there is a middle school-HS split here, so 7th and 8th grade) There must be a better way. As I said in my last post — those NAEP Advanced statistics are so bad they show we are not merely failing to teach (we’d get a bell curve distribution if we just did an average job) — we are actually ensuring ignorance — we are doing a fine job of conving our best students not to care.