Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Our Experiences Shape Who We Are

Aboard about above across after against along among around at before
Behind below beneath beside between beyond by down during except for

Ok folks, rewind the tape.  I’m taking it back to 1978-1979, I was in 7th grade.  That awkward time of life when my arms and legs were long and lanky, I had metal wrapped around my every tooth with rubber bands pulling my teeth back toward my spine.  I stood 5’6” and my boyfriend Lenny stood 4’6”.  I was very unsure of myself, my stature, my place in the world.  But when asked about my favorite subject in school, I was able to squeak out the word “science.”  Why was science my favorite?  I'll come back to that later.

My second favorite was probably wood and metal shop.  My daughter uses the wooden stool I made back in 1979 everyday to reach the sink to wash her hands.  This is an actual picture of the stool I made in woodshop in 7th grade.
To adults, I’d never admit that the required “vocational educational” courses were some of my favorite learning experiences.  My third favorite was probably home economics, where we made things like English muffin pizzas and sewed a square pillow (I still have that one, too.)   In foreign language I was exposed to French, Italian, German and Spanish. Then, came our required health classes in sexual education and drug education. Back in 1979 the scare tactic was just beginning to take off and it was serious.  We watched the movie “Dead is Dead” the saddest documentary about heroine and drug abuse which completely ruined the song “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers forever.  In sex ed we learned about every venereal disease, birth control as well as how some of our more daring classmates had gotten involved in their own “investigations”.   
Back to academics, I loved my history teacher, but the middle ages? Serfdom was still so far removed from my life although I adored my teacher Mrs. Mensch who was also my homeroom teacher. English was the worst of them all where we had to memorize prepositions (aboard about above across after against along among around at before behind below beneath beside between beyond by down during except for…) I remember how the words were arranged on the page, and each week we were responsible for a new column of words offering us an easy A on a quiz for those who studied.   But this is something that remains with me, it’s etched in my mind.  I can recall the list anytime, anywhere.  Like it or not, this learning has stayed with me.   

As an educator I have often thought of this and wondered, Hmmm, why did we need to know this? The only fact I know about prepositions is that you shouldn’t end a sentence with one.  But, I don’t think I learned that in that same English class.  Memorizing prepositions was my way to make good grades. Memorize. I won’t even go into the details about Mrs. Barker who was missing some of her front teeth, had the look of a bulldog as well as a streak of white in her hair that resembled a skunk, talk about a character! In English our work included meaningless stuff so often that when we were asked to create projects that might have had some meaning, like write about what will you be when you grow up? I just looked at the teacher like what are you talking about?  And did it with the same frame of mind as memorizing prepositions, do it to get a grade.  A pharmacists?  REALLY, me?  I didn’t even know what that meant.  So, I mindlessly slapped together an essay.

We never read in English. Although I remember a student teacher reading aloud to us ONCE, some bizarre science fiction text… We got interrupted so many times that it seems she repeated the same part over and over.  I remember the words she read as she sat on the teacher’s desk as Mrs. Barker was out of the room, “Did the scientists really know?  Would it happen today? Would the sun come out today? Would it?”   It was some story, maybe even by Isaac Asimov or maybe Ray Bradbury about how the sun had been under a cloud for a long time and the people couldn’t wait until it came out… What a missed opportunity.   But then she left, and we never got to hear the end of the story.  Though curious, I was never encouraged to find the book to read on my own, the thought never even occurred to me to find it, and my mother was a school librarian!   

As I reflect on this disjointed learning in school, so disconnected to life or meaning, it seems a waste.

So why science? Well, we had Bunsen Burners and with them we burned the oxygen off of mercuric oxide to make mercury that shone in pools of slivery bubbles.  We brought home our mercury in test tubes on the bus! Ahh the 70's! We dissected sheep’s eyes and learned the names of the parts of the eye, and felt them with our own hands. We flew rockets in the field next to the school, and raced cars down the hallway.  It was a place where we were able to test out things and get our hands dirty.  

Although science was my favorite class and has lots of positives to remind us about schools and learning?  Here is a project from 1979…you are going to design a rocket that will be self reliant in space. 

We had MINIMAL knowledge!  I needed to know what shape goes up well, what we need to live up there- how that might look- elements of space that gave us challenges- to me it was an art project- I learned NOTHING about space. What could have been a useful project was a time waster.

Why was it a time waster?  I had time in school to do it… I had some information on space, I knew that they needed a lot of fuel and that the people needed water and food and oxygen, but that was it.

I was not set in a situation where I even knew what questions I needed to ask to find out what I needed to know to make it better.   I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but I knew that I didn’t know it. 

My teacher wanted us to think… “Why is the sky blue?” he would often ask.  He was always pushing us to think, but this was beyond me.  I needed more information, but was not given the resources or scaffolding to help me to get anywhere.  So I made a rocket out of shapes- including the elements that I knew.  I did well on that project, but never knew why.  This final art piece probably should have been the beginning of the study because then maybe we could have asked questions about our own, or each others, then find out the information about rockets and learned something new that we could have build understandings about space, or what humans need to live, or how rockets go, or the problem of waste, oxygen, temperature, how fuel can be stored.  The design showed me what I knew and all the MANY things that I didn’t. 

But I didn’t even know how to ask the questions that needed to be asked. I didn’t know what questions to ask. So part of that learning should have been scaffolding questioning to examine my own understanding and evaluate what I knew- what the illustration showed that I knew and what pieces, that I didn’t understand.  Maybe comparing them to real rockets, but that might have been overwhelming. 

As an educator having studied learning my entire adult life I reflect on this in different ways than my classmates might.  I see that timing is pretty key to learning in the zone of proximal development. This shows how my belief in knowing the process of inquiry really helps to accomplish deeper learning.  This leads me to realize too that WHEN you enter new content is REALLY important.  (why OPEN in inquiry is critical) Not right away- they gotta mess with the ideas first- then add new content and they can synthesize it to have some questions to ask.  Messing about with the concept is REALLY important but then to extend the messing into a rich context for learning in even deeper ways than one could on their own.

My example of the project on designing a rocket ship is one of process without meaningful content.  That isn’t worth it either. And what implications does this have of makerspaces and how impactful these are on deeper learning? It takes meaningful content, using a process that supports deeper learning that gets us somewhere that we can't go on our own. Isn't that what schools should be?

I wonder if science classes still look like that?  This is one example of why I believe in my heart of hearts that through an intentional design, like that of Guided Inquiry, we could get all of our students to deeper learning in every content area.   
Thanks for reading- see you next time! 

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