The Radical Idea of Helping Students Construct Their Own Ideas

Helping students construct their own ideas is considered by some educators a subversive idea that runs counter to the present impetus of the Race to the Top and NCLB Waivers. These Federal programs, especially NCLB, have created a narrowing of the curriculum, a data-driven, test-based school culture, and the despicable use of student tests as the main criterion of teacher accountability.

The theory of learning that underlies these Federal reform efforts is behaviorism.  It’s a theory that is very good if you want to teach behaviors.  But it is a theory that tends to retard the teaching of thinking.  When we want our dog to sit, we hover a treat over the dog’s head and move it backwards so that the dog sits.  Do this a few times adding the work sit, and you have it.
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The Footprints Puzzle as a Pedagogical Tool

In recent posts, I’ve discussed the history of the Footprints Puzzle which was prompted by an article (Tracking the Footprints Puzzle) in the Journal Science Education by Ault and Dodick, and explored the relationship between approaching science as a process approach, or as a conceptual or content viewpoint.

In this post I am finishing my examination of the Footprints Puzzle by showing how the it can be used as a powerful pedagogical tool, a tool that has its roots in the origins of modern science.  Your probably saying, “give me a break.”  Try and hear me out.

On November 28, 1660, a group of 12 men in London who were in the audience to hear lecture by Christopher Wren, held a meeting at Gresham College and created a society to explore and promote knowledge.  They later became (the next year) the Royal Society, and today it is known as the Royal Society of London (the actual beginnings preceded this meeting to circa 1645).  What is significant here is that the group decided to meet regularly to discuss various topics, and with time grew to be the most important organization in science.  The Royal Society is the subject of Bill Bryson’s edited book, Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery & the Genius of the Royal Society.  An important point to make here is that science began as discussion (of ideas, inventions, experiments), and as science educators, it is important to help our students not only realize this, but to experience discussion in our classrooms.  Discussion led to the publication of proceedings, and now, the Royal Society published seven journals.

Although the research points to the notion that students need to discuss ideas in science, actual classroom behavior of students shows that small-group discussion is not the mainstay of teaching.  Indeed, Iris Weiss, and colleagues report that the lecture/textbook methodology dominates school science, and in a major study it was reported that only 10% of class time was spent in small-group, non-laboratory types of activities.  Very little time is spent in science class in which students are discussing science among themselves.

Science teachers, however, have recognized the need for student talk and discussion, and many have changed the landscape of the classroom by becoming experts at using the tools associated with collaborative and cooperative learning.  For many years I had the opportunity to conduct science seminars on cooperative learning and worked with nearly 20,000 teachers through the Bureau of Education and Research.  One of the science experiences that I used to give teachers specific models and examples of how to implement cooperative learning in their own classes was The Footprints Puzzle.  You can find complete details in the book Science as Inquiry of how I used the dinosaur activity to teach the pedagogical elements of cooperative learning, but within the context of teaching science.

Cooperative learning, as presented in my seminar, was viewed as crucial to student inquiry, and exploration.  The Footprints Puzzle, presented in the context of geology, fossils, and geologic time, provided an interesting problem that teachers could use to help students understand some fundamental aspects of working together on a team.  Team work type of research is a common approach to research in science, and as I mentioned earlier in this post, the Royal Society began as a team of 12 London intellectuals who were interested in furthering the understanding of knowledge.

Why Cooperative Learning Should Be Natural in Science Teaching

One of the major pedagogical strategies used in schools is the didactic approach in which the teacher delivers the content for the students to learn. Yet, didactic strategies have raised more questions than the benefits of this direct teaching model. Instead, over the past 20 years this old model of teaching has been replaced by cognitive theories of teaching and learning, and at the center of these pedagogies is constructivism. And at the heart of constructivism is idea that learning, in classrooms, benefits greatly from an arrangement in which the teacher encourages and supports social interaction among students. We call this cooperative learning.

It may be that there is an evolutionary basis for why cooperative learning should be a natural pedagogical strategy in science (any any other subject) learning.

Time Magazine featured an article by Sharon Begley entitled Beyond Stones and Bones. Begley says that “by analyzing the DNA of today’s humans as well as chimps and other species, scientists are zeroing in on major turning points in evolution, suggesting there may have been several more lines in the human family tree than the one that moved from monkey to man.”

The article is based on a new exhibit at the new Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in which DNA is as important as the fossils that we have about human origins. You can read the article, and go to the Museum website to explore human origins.

One of the pieces in the article that struck me was the revelation that early humans were not hunters, in the sense that we have viewed them. Rather they were the hunted—by saber tooth tigers, and other huge predators roaming the earth 7 million years ago, when the human origins story begins. Humans were prey, and as such had to figure out ways not to be lunch for a big predator. Thus being the hunted lead to the evolutionary leap to cooperate and live in groups.

In the article, Begley points out that there is a hormone in the brain called oxytocin, according to scientists promotes trust during interactions with other people, and thus to cooperative behavior. As Begley suggest, this means that people live together for the common good.

So deep into our evolutionary background is an underlying basis for humans working together in groups. Although I am not going to talk here about specific strategies that teachers might use in the classroom to promote cooperative behavior, I am suggesting that cooperative learning in the classroom should not be relegated as something to add or to do from time to time, but rather might form the basis for one’s approach in classroom learning. What do you think?

Science Teaching Research Around the World: Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education

I recently became acquainted with a relatively “young” journal of research devoted to helping us understand science teaching: The Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (EJSMT). EJSMTE has its headquarters in Turkey. It’s editor, Hüseyin BAG, is professor at Pamukkale Universitesi, TURKEY, and the Associate Editor, Mehmet Fatih TASAR, is professor at Gazi Universitesi, TURKEY.

One can feel the exuberance of the editorial team by reading the Editorial in the most recent issue. In a very short time (the journal was launched in 2005), the journal has grown (more than 10, 000 hits to its most recent issue, according to Dr. Tasar), and has received more than 400 manuscripts since its inception in 2005.

In the February 2007 issue there are 8 articles on various topics in science education. If you are a teacher, you will find these interesting because they will give you a different perspective on science teaching since most of them are written by researchers from countries including Germany, Turkey, Malaysia, Kenya, and the USA. I was particularly interested in Effandi Zakaria and Zanaton Iksan’s article, Promoting Cooperative Learning in Science and Mathematics Education: A Malaysian Perspective. As the authors pointed out “incorporating cooperative learning in science and mathematics classrooms is not without challenges.” They went on to identify some of the problem areas such as fear of loss of content coverage, do not trust students in acquiring knowledge by themselves, lack of familiarity (of teachers) with cooperative learning methods, and student lack of skills to work in groups.

Cooperative learning is a powerful teaching tool and if teachers have the background and education in how to implement collaborative methods, and if they help students learn how to collaborate in learning teams, it can be an effective method. Cooperative learning is an example of an active learning methodology, and can not only help students learn to work collaboratively, but can help students cognitively and affectively.

Cooperative learning is tool of inquiry. In the scientific community, most research is done collaboratively within the same institution, or across institutions and locations, especially with the use of the Internet. Science has always advocated itself as a community of learning, and modeling that form of learning in the classroom is another reason for using cooperative learning. Teachers can enhance their ability to implement cooperative learning by becoming aware of cooperative learning structures as well as other interactive techniques.

Cooperative learning was only one of many important issues discussed in the February issue of the Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education. Other topics included the status of science education research internationally, web-based versus paper-based homework, reform-based curriculum, environmental activism, and problem-based active learning. I recommend that you navigate to their website and read what is interesting to you. It’s an excellent journal.