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Sharing our Visions: What does Great Education look like to You?

We spend so much of our energy responding to silly or downright destructive educational policies -- we rarely take the time to develop our vision of what we want instead. Our discussions over at the Teachers' Letters to Obama Facebook group have recently taken a turn towards the visionary. We have been pondering; What would an effective and wonderful education look like? Here is the response the question provoked from me:

The greatest challenge we face is in meeting our students where they are. So often we are so set on delivering our agenda, our learning targets or standards we are trying to hit, that we do not take time to understand our students, and what motivates them, what interests them.

As a science teacher I believe in the innate curiosity of the human mind. Give a child a windup toy and he is likely to pry it open to see how it works. This curiosity is rewarded by discoveries and understandings. My job as a teacher is to provoke that curiosity and give my students the tools they need to satisfy it. These are the tools of science: careful observation; taking notes; making drawings; asking questions about what we see; making hypotheses; testing those hypotheses through careful experiments; recording and communicating our results.

My favorite instance of this was an investigation into dry ice that I developed some years ago. I began by giving students a chance to explore this new material in a pretty unstructured way. I provided a few safety warnings, then handed out chunks of dry ice to every table of students. They played around for a few minutes, and then I gave them a cup with some water. That allowed them to see the gas pouring off the chunks of ice even more directly. Then I gave them ziplock bags, and triple beam balances. They were able to capture the gas, and some of them tried to weigh it. I was not expecting systematic experiments, but I thought this might help make some more provocative discoveries. I encouraged them to record their observations.

dryice1.jpg

After about twenty minutes the dry ice was gone -- vanished into thin air. I asked students to write down as many observations as they could, and then we shared them as a class. I asked them to come up with at least three questions they thought we should investigate. I collected these questions.

The next day I had about 100 questions from my students. But some of them were like "how is dry ice made?" or "why is dry ice so cold?" These are not questions we can answer with an experiment. Others, however, were more useful. For example, one student asked: "Will dry ice gas make a balloon float or sink? If it sinks, how much heavier than air is it?" There is a question we can build some experiments around! So I challenged the students to separate the 100 questions into one group we could answer with an experiment, and another group we could not. Then came the real challenge. Can you actually design an experiment to answer one of these questions?

Students got to work and developed their own procedures for answering these questions. They had to specify their hypothesis, the quantities of materials needed, the procedure, and the way in which the results will be measured. I collected their investigation plans, and the next day, the students were doing their own experiments -- following instructions developed by themselves or their classmates.

We spent several days working through the experiments they had developed, collecting data and deepening our understanding of dry ice. But as they were learning about dry ice, the students were learning something a great deal more important -- that they could actively engage with the natural world, and like "real" scientists, actually learn from their own investigations.

Great education, for me, is all about awakening the spark of curiosity in students, and giving them the chance to explore and discover for themselves. I want them to develop a strong sense that they have the ability to think and investigate for themselves. We benefit a great deal from our ability to read about discoveries that came generations before us, but for me, firsthand discovery is what brings science to life for our students.

What do you think a great lesson looks like? A great classroom? A great school? Please post your comments here, or come over and join the discussion at the Teachers' Letters to Obama group.

Juicy Sidenote: An unusual debate occured a couple of weeks ago on Los Angeles radio station KCRW, between prominent NCLB critic Dr. Richard Rothstein and the Assistant Secretary for Communications for the Dept. of Education Peter Cunningham. Rothstein pointed out that the narrowing of the curriculum has continued under Duncan. Cunningham agreed. Rothstein pointed out that charters are no better, on average, than regular public schools -- once again, Cunningham agreed. Altogether remarkable! Perhaps we are being heard after all. Listen here.

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