Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Let the Force Be With You - learning Physics with the Alpha Team

I know most often my posts are quick shares of wonderful things happening at SCS.  Today I hope you'll dig a bit deeper with me - as I'd like to explain and share a true celebration of growth that I've seen in our teaching of science and it requires a bit more explanation than my usual posts.   It's based around the question "What constitutes great science teaching and learning?"

An Alpha student shares her independent study of Newton's laws applied to her desire to improve her long jump
I imagine many of us remember science and other subject teaching that was based around reading the chapter in a textbook, listening to a lecture / presentation about it while diligently copying off the board into our notebook and completing the chapter questions that prepared us for the multiple choice test at the end of the unit.   Sometimes we were fortunate to have a lab that allowed us to follow clear directions to see a concept in action such as forces, or a chemical reaction or perhaps a fun hands-on project at the end to keep us interested.  That summarizes a lot of my learning experiences growing up.  Even when I first became a science teacher in Alaska back in 1985 it was the only real model that I had been exposed to.   In a good year I could "cover" the whole textbook - but honestly sometimes I covertly left off a chapter or two as I ran out of time in June.   The real challenge was honestly when the students were really interested and engaged - it threatened to really derail my progress to cover it all.  What if I didn't get to Chapter 18?

Sharing an analysis of the physics and biomechanics of show horse jumping
To help assure teachers and schools were "covering" it all, in the 90's each state developed a comprehensive list of content standards (in Vermont that was the Grade Level Expectations or GLE's)  that each teacher was expected to "cover" during their instruction that year.   We then developed tests such as the NECAP that were designed to uncover if students remembered all that GLE's said they should have been taught.   Even this May when our students take the state mandated Science NECAP, it is really a test of coverage - a test to assure that we have raced through it all in the hopes that most or at least some of it stuck.

What we have learned in the past few decades (or perhaps relearned since it's not a new idea in education) is that "covering" something is not the same as assuring that students have learned anything.   In fact often in our race to get through the standards we make it almost impossible for students to do the deep thinking and application work necessary to remember important facts or grasp even the basic principles.   Despite our great teachers pushing to cover it all - NECAP scores in all of our CSSU schools clearly show that less than 50% of our SCS students could answer basic science questions - even though they likely sat in classes where the topic was covered.  Our scores are steadily rising, and in the top 10 of all schools in Vermont, so clearly we are doing this as well as anyone.  But still - when I arrived at SCS in 2010, a huge portion of the questions I answered in the interviews focused on how our "terrible" scores on Science NECAP  might be improved.  

Cycling seems simple until you begin to try to explain the various forces that keep us from simply falling over!
My answer then and now is that we have to abandon the expectation that a teacher's primary goal is to race through a huge bucket of content and facts.   Instead we need to allow them the time to focus on critical thinking, interpreting and questioning skills that are truly the core of scientific thinking (and critical thinking in general).   When I was an Einstein Fellow at the National Science Foundation team back in 2007,  I was able to be part of the team that was drafting and reviewing the framework for the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a document known as the Science Framework for K-12 Science Education.   "The Framework expresses a vision in science education that requires students to operate at the nexus of three dimensions of learning: Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Disciplinary Core Ideas. The Framework identified a small number of disciplinary core ideas that all students should learn with increasing depth and sophistication, from Kindergarten through grade twelve. Key to the vision expressed in the Framework is for students to learn these disciplinary core ideas in the context of science and engineering practices."  (copied from the appendix of the 2013 NGSS documents) 

Lacrosse - a study in velocity, lever arms and centrifugal forces
In response to NGSS, the focus of science education at SCS has shifted significantly to focus on assuring that these eight Science and Engineering Practices are embedded in all of our work:

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering) 
  2. Developing and using models 
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations 
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data 
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking 
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering) 
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence 
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

I'm excited at how far all of our teachers have come in embracing and applying this thinking.   This framework truly makes every teacher a teacher of science,  much as all teachers teach writing and thinking.    Science learning is happening when the math teacher is working with students on measures of the mean as they analyze data, when the social studies teacher is having students model the interactions of the three branches of government, or when the language arts teacher is teaching strategies for clear thesis statements to more clearly communicate information.   We are fortunate to be part of CSSU where our entire district focus is moving to identifying core "transferable skills" - all of which clearly align with these science and engineering practices.   We are still working to define the clear learning targets to assess these practices, as well as identify the key content standards that we will focus on - but that work is well underway and continues nearly every Tuesday during our early release professional development times.

Demonstration of balance and equilibrium
If you are still reading - thanks for hanging in there - my point is to highlight some fantastically aligned science work that was shared last Monday by the Alpha team.   The event was the culminating learning celebration to wrap up their two month long physics theme "Let the Force Be With You."  As I've wandered through the team throughout the unit, the alignment with the practices has been clear - students have solved an engineering problem with catapults, modeled gravitational attractions between objects, constructed explanations for relative motion (ie. weightlessness on the ISS), and used mathematical formulas to calculate velocity and understand the coefficient of friction. At Monday's event, each student shared a summative independent project where they applied the core content standards identified in NGSS (primarily a deep understanding of Newton's laws as well as kinetic / potential energy) to an area of personal interest.   Presentations included studies on the physics of snowboarding, horses, long jump, karate and lacrosse just to name a few, and included student designed investigations to explore various elements of their topics.

Center of gravity begins to make sense as we explore how to maintain our balance as we learn a roundhouse kick
In talking with students about their learning, it was evident that not only did they grasp the core concepts that were the primary learning targets of the unit, but they had also gained a depth of understanding that only comes from that extended, thoughtful exploration that so often was lacking in my 1985 classroom.   Similar to the pride I felt recently in sharing about the Revolution or the American Dream units, I'm also proud to share that excellent science learning is happening in our classrooms on each team every day!  It was another day to be proud of the work our students do, and of the teachers that guide their work - and good reinforcement of the learning I continue make as a teacher and a leader.   So in the spirit of Yoda who says in The Last Jedi - "Always pass on what you have learned,"  - thanks for reading and "let the force be with you!" :-)    

 A study in air resistance as it applies to skiing - the power of the "tuck"

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