One Way to Avoid Wasting Student’s Time

Good idea, gone bad: my definition of science fair projects.  For those of you that are parents and have had to endure the process of helping your student with this obligatory ritual that has become a rite of passage for all adolescences you may share this definition and for those of you who haven’t survived this experience, let me explain. …..

 When my son Jack was a seventh grader he was really excited about the science fair because rather than conducting an experiment using the scientific process he could opt to “investigate” a science concept. Initially, I was elated when I heard about this option. What is better than inquiry learning? Jack would be developing an in depth question around a scientific concept, conduct research, synthesize information, draw conclusions, create models and communicate his results—21st century learning at its best, right? 

 The reality was this—Jack wanted to create a model of the Transamerica building in San Francisco because it was built to be earthquake proof.  I immediately panicked when he shared this idea with me. First, this sounded like a seriously hard project to pull off and my husband and I are both handyman challenged (meaning we practically pay workers to replace light bulbs in our house) and second, I had no idea Jack had an interest in earthquakes. (My working mother guilt was in high gear, when did I miss this?) When I questioned Jack about his topic choice he told me the teacher had suggested this would make a good project! Upon further probing I asked Jack what he wanted to learn by doing this project (that’s what he gets for having an educator as a mother). His reply, in a condescending tone that is second nature to a middle schooler addressing their oh so dense parent, was not to worry about it, that was really beside the point, he would look something up on the internet and be good to go! And here lies the intersection of good idea gone painfully wrong.  Jack really has no idea what scientific ideas or concepts he was interested in investigating, he just thought it would be really cool to build a building and then shake it a lot to show that it is earthquake resistant. There was no focus question driving his learning—the activity is the driver. Once again product trumps process and ultimately learning.

 Unfortunately, Jack’s experience is not unique; our jobs as educational leaders, however, are to make sure this same scenario doesn’t play out for the students in our care.  How do we do that?  We focus on standards, purpose, and process. Notice my list doesn’t say we integrate technology (although that may be an outcome of planning for the learning it should never be the driver, see last weeks post). 

 Common Core Standards- While standards aren’t the end all be all the common core standards provide a starting point, identifying skills and topics that are worthy of students’ time and attention.  One of my favorite quotes from Lauren Resnik is, “Knowledge and thinking are intimately joined.”  The  Common Core helps us join knowledge and thinking by providing  specific content learning that requires our students to think deeply about a topic.  When working with teachers reviewing lesson plans or teaching activities go back to the standard. Are the students learning the skills and knowledge they need?

 Purpose- Starting with the standards can help us narrow our purpose, but teachers still need to really plan what they want their students to learn each and every day. What do they want their students to walk away with after in engaging in learning activities? When conducting walkthroughs and talking with students about their work ask them one of my favorite questions—“What did you learn by doing this assignment that you didn’t already know?” Their answers will provide great insight into how your staff is doing with purpose.

 Process–  Think about the difference in Jack’s learning if instead of sharing science fair ideas the teacher had reviewed some of the concepts and big ideas the students had learned this year and then asked them to reflect on what questions were still circling in their minds.  This one important step could have changed the whole tenor of the project.  The focus would be on learning, not building.  We have to help teachers plan for the how as much as the what. 

 Jack’s project was a bust, but we can salvage learning for those in our charge if we focus on standards, purpose and process.

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