Six Questions I’m Asking After #NSTA17

April 7, 2017

Project based learning

Coming off the high of National Science Teachers' Association Conference (NSTA) was two-fold for me this year: leaving the fantastic company of scientists and educators, and leaving the beautiful sunshine of Los Angeles to return to rainy Portland, Oregon!

This conference was chock-full of “nuggets” of information, all of which enrich the science classroom and capture best-of-the-best advice from master teachers. And that advice has got me thinking...

1. Am I giving away the answers?

Are you asking students to discover the science itself, or simply revealing “artifacts” of science long-completed? Dr. Arthur Eisenkraft pointed out that teaching students the order of the planets isn’t science—it’s an “artiFACT” of science that’s already established. Instead, how could you recreate the process of discovering planets? How could students establish this knowledge on their own, thus forming a stronger ownership of the planetary arrangement? Don’t reveal science; discover science.

2. Am I allowing students to tag-team my explanations?

In the 5E (or 7E!) Instructional Model, keep in mind that “Explain” is tag-teamed with the students. If students have fully “Explored,” they can often co-construct an explanation alongside the teacher. One memorable example of this was put forth by Dr. Eisenkraft. When his students independently investigate the density of water, alcohol, and clay, he poses to the students, “Well, what if I have a LOT of clay? Will the density change?” “No!” they’ll say. “It’s always the same!” The students are then co-authoring the explanation of density as a constant.

3. Are students co-authoring classroom expectations?

Students should co-create project specifics, the schedule, and the rubric as early as possible.Ask the students, “How many points should be deducted for late submissions? How many traits of chemistry should be demonstrated in each experiment? How should members of the group evaluate each other?” Students will likely be more rigorous in their own requirements of each other and will take more ownership of the activity.

4. Am I raising students’ awareness of the 3 Dimensions?

Students should be aware of the standards your classroom is addressing. After an activity, ask students what Science and Engineering Practices they just engaged in. Did they have to model a phenomena? Did they have to argue from evidence? After a series of lessons on a topic, ask students which Cross-Cutting Concepts they see. "Within the cell, are there patterns?" "Cause and Effect?" "Systems?" "What do you mean?" Calling students’ attention to the standards not only asks them to identify their own science and engineering behaviors (in the practices) and themes throughout science (in the cross-cutting concepts), but it also provides the teacher with a consistent system for ensuring that 3-dimensional learning has a place in your classroom.

5. Am I calling students to justify the motions of learning?

Ask your students “why.” “Why do you think we have homework?” “Why are there chapter summaries at the end of the book?” “Is it useful?” “How are you using it?” Asking students to call awareness to things they may otherwise accept as rote or take for granted offers an opportunity to reframe their behaviors as a student. It’s possible that they didn’t see homework as a way to keep the learning momentum; they may have only seen it as giving you something else to grade. They may reveal to you that the chapter summaries are too easy, and that they’d rather make their own.

6. Are students learning or demonstrating what they’ve learned?

There is a difference between Project-Based Learning and Project-Based (Demonstration of) Learning. Are students discovering the content through a project, or are they using a project to employ what they have learned? It is possible for students to both learn and demonstrate learning—it’s also important that we as educators know our own expectations. If you want to learn more about PBL, check out the Buck Institute for Education.

What questions are you asking of your pedagogy? Anything we missed? Let us know in the comments below!