Watch this video, and listen to what the little girl is saying.
I am lucky enough to be taking a graduate cohort with Dr. David Jardine, an incredible scholar of hermeneutics, ecology, and pedagogy. In class the other night, Dr. Jardine was talking about measurement.
Measurement can be a dirty word in education. We cringe when we think about Provincial Achievement Test results, the Fraser Report, and merit pay for teachers based on student results. Dr. Jardine's point, though, was that we need to allow for some space around the word "measurement," or "testing." Dr. Jardine suggested we treat the word "measurement" as the truest word we could possibly say. We should let measurement be as good as it can be.
The video of the ski jumper is about measurement. It's about testing. But it's one kid's self-initiated test against herself. She is testing her own limits. She is measuring up to her own courage and bravery.
How can we liberate kids to test themselves, to measure themselves, and to feel this kind of elation in the learning they do in our classrooms?
My most memorable science class experiences were those that involved me creating my own experiment for the annual science fair. In grade four, I wanted to know if Sprite instead of water would prove to be a beneficial for bean plants, which resulted in a thorough experiment of the affect various fluids have on the growth of plants. In grade six, I was intrigued by campfires and how long wood burns, which prompted me to test the burning times of different types of soft and hard wood. I learned that teak was by far the longest burning wood, a discovery that caused me to ask another question “ why don’t we burn teak instead of pine when we have a fire?” This self-initiated inquiry prompted by a self-instigated and realized experiment led to my own uncovering of concepts of economics, supply and demand, natural resources and resource production. I was curious and I wanted to know more.
I don’t remember which units I studied in science or any of the facts I read in a textbook or printed out worksheet. Instead, I learned about variables and scientific experimentation. I learned about what it meant to be a scientist and how to live the scientific process. As a science teacher now, this is what I want my students to learn and discover.
I have worked in an inquiry based learning environment throughout my career and questions I always ask myself are “what’s worth knowing?” and “what do I want my students to take away, when we have finished this work?” I have the incredible situation of working with a teaching partner who is passionate about teaching science and is a scientist himself. The power of collaboration is evident every time we formally plan or have impromptu conversations in the hallway after class. The following is a result of our planning and work with students.
Mechanical Systems is one of five science topics in the Alberta Program of Studies in the eighth grade. “The Testable Question” project:
We began our mechanical systems inquiry with an artifact study of a simple machine. Old artifacts can be so seductive. There is something about holding a 100-year-old wooden and metal wrench in your hand, imagining the stories it might tell. This was the hook, the catalyst for our inquiry. Students began to ask, what is it used for, how old is it? Where was it made? How does it work?
Following the artifact study we explored the 6 simple machines by experiencing stations in the lab, set up by my partner teacher and myself. This exploration opened a space for students to see the simple machines in action and to use their hands to feel how a machine makes “work” easier. It was during this time in the lab that we began to hear questions from our students, some Googleable, some begging to be tested. “Does the width of the string matter?” or “What if the fulcrum of the lever was at a different height?” to name a few.
After our time in the lab it became very clear that the students needed time and space to answer their own (self instigated) questions. In order to scaffold this work my partner teacher happened upon a scientific report written by 8 –year old scientists about an experiment involving Hawthorn Bee’s. This study served as a guide both for the scientific process as well as a model for communicating their new understandings. Armed with the knowledge of variables and sample size, students began to hone their own testable question. The result was an array of experiments, all of which provide the students with answers and discoveries.
The seven strands of creative development played an integral role in this work, yet the students weren’t working through a series of steps that they were aware of. Instead, they were prompted by us the teachers to brainstorm more ideas, ensuring they had a testable question that was worth testing such as “Does the string of a pulley system affect the mechanical advantage of the machine?” They were encouraged to research different types of rope, size, price, and purpose. They made several prototypes of pulley stands and systems tweaking and adjusting along the way. They performed the experiment, documented the data, analyzed the data and wrote scientific reports in order to communicate their discoveries.
Each project was original, each project required the students to research, collaborate, experiment, revise, and repeat. The highlight for the students was that they got to work with their hands and build something that they created using a saw, hammers and nails. In my opinion, the most important learning was their experience of having an idea in mind; testing it out and realizing the first idea wouldn’t work, eventually finding success by living in the struggle and modifying their designs.
“Life is trying things to see if they work.” – Ray Bradbury
It is no secret that students learn and think more deeply when they are completely engaged. Nor it is a surprise that a real life learning context is often the most engaging for students. So, is it too daunting a task to ask Kindergarten students to plan a school wide initative to educate the community about National Sweater Day? How on earth would we do this? Outcome unknown is part of my mantra because I want the students to bring their ideas and excitement to advance the project.
We started with the concrete. A discussion about sweaters seemed like a great place to start so we combined a guided drawing lesson with shared writing. This discussion incorporated the shapes needed to draw a sweater, the patterns you could draw and also why we wear sweaters and how animals keep warm.
Letting It All Sink In:
When introducing a topic, I like to have an initial activity and then wait to see if someone takes the bait during our hour of play. Sure enough, a few students got into the art materials and made something like this:
It was my thought to create posters to display around the school so when one of my students made a poster and wanted to copy the words "Porte un chandail le 6 février." (Wear a sweater on February 6.) I just about jumped for joy! The circle at the bottom? That is our planet that we are trying to save...
The Work Begins:
A big part of the creative process in my classroom is sharing the work of others. This acts as a springboard for many students and sparks some great discussion. Our next step was to create posters as a journal activity. Journalling in Kindergarten is expressing voice through the details in drawing. There is not an expectation at this point for students to write or copy words but the suggestion is always there. The morning that we created posters, the engagement was tangible with the sun shining in, the classical music playing and the quiet buzz of productivity. The result? Informative posters to put around the school, with a clear message delivered through endearing drawings so indicative of Kindergarten.
With our posters up around the school, we moved toward planning out our final activities. We sorted all the sweaters we had made into those with patterns and non-patterns and signed up for either announcements or class visits...no pressure of course! Shared reading, writing and oral language activities incorporated the language that we needed to spread the word. So, with four days left until National Sweater Day, we will be very busy getting our school informed and on board with our initiative. To celebrate, we have decided to bake sugar cookie people on February 6...with icing sweaters, of course!
It is a lofty plan to mobilize five year olds to initiate social change. Leading up to this moment, I have established a safe environment and encouraged students to share ideas and to independently create multiple prototypes of their ideas with a range of materials. I trust them to play and work with intention and I trust the process of creative development. The result? Engagement and empowerment with curriculum learning thrown in too. How good is that?
SO, join us to support WWF Canada on February 6. Wear your wackiest sweater and turn down the thermostat by 2 degrees to save energy.