Standardized testing and climate change education

The climate change discussion is quite widespread and a focal point of action in the academic community, but has not yet adequately filtered down to the middle and high-school levels. This comes as a result of a number of factors ranging from the ineptitude of politicians, to teachers that are unprepared to teach the material, to a simple lack of time to discuss climate in 8th grade science classrooms. The NSF GK-12 program has helped to mitigate these issues by emphasizing climate change education and providing the resources and lesson plan ideas necessary to begin classroom implementation.

A major hurdle to climate change education in 8th grade classrooms is the standardized testing that is reserved for 8th graders that tests them on their knowledge from 6-8th grade science. As a result, 8th grade curriculum needs to encompass such broad topics as atomic structure, chemical reactions, the scientific method, mitosis and meiosis, Mendelian genetics, biological macromolecular structure, human anatomy and physiology, environment, ecology, climate, geology, planetary science, heat and energy transfer, engineering design, tools, and static truss construction. Given 9 months, with an hour of science class each weekday, these topics can be easily discussed and tested at a broad level. However, at the 8th grade level, students are required to develop an intensive science fair project all while having time for recess and for sports games and extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, the MCAS test is administered a whole 2 months early, leaving the actual classroom instruction time much closer to 6 months when vacation and shortened classes are taken into account. Within this incredibly short time frame, it is difficult to expound upon climate change within the 2 units to which it corresponds (ecology and climate).

Our strategy was incorporation of aspects of global change into each and every unit – introducing greenhouse gas molecules when talking about atoms, introducing genetic change and genetic engineering when talking about genetics, and showing an hour-long video about the impacts of global warming when talking about climate. While this has allowed students in our classroom to be consistently exposed to these ideas, it has required a significant amount of planning and curriculum reorganization. Without the impetus provided by the NSF GK-12 fellowship, this sort of large-scale planning would be daunting to an average science classroom in America.

As climate change is one of the most significant problems to be affecting humanity in the 21st century, it is up to the policy makers to a.) break up standardized testing between 7th and 8th grade and b.) implement climate change as a required topic to be covered in the 8th grade standardized exam. By implementing these changes, children will be able to learn all the required material at the appropriate pace and this issue will not be overshadowed by others due to lack of time. Without a solid understanding of climate and global warming at the middle school level, students will be set back in the timing of when they can act to analyze causes and develop solutions.

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Types of Learning in the Classroom

STEM education can be broken down into a set of four types of learning strategies that will each individually introduce students to different facets of a new concept. These four types are: discovery-based (through hands-on exploration of ideas), enquiry-based (learning through encouraging questioning), data exploration (learning by observing trends), and analysis-based (understanding through breaking into components). Of the four types of learning strategies in STEM education my teacher and I have mostly centered around the strategies of enquiry-based and data exploration learning.

I believe that discovery-based learning would be the ideal case for teaching STEM content to middle school children as they are at the optimal age for understanding general principles behind the specific occurrences they encounter in their lives. By arriving at scientific principles on their own, the students will be able to derive a solid foundation for the concepts on which to build. One potential weakness of discovery-based learning is that students may build an incorrect mental model and might find it incredibly difficult to change their thinking to the correct model. However, with the appropriate lesson to lead the students through discovery-based learning and a sufficient amount of testing, the correct model can be reinforced.

We have utilized enquiry-based learning in lessons regarding genetic inheritance and ecosystem equilibria. As genetic inheritance is a topic that excites students, we found that when a scenario was posed to the students that was relatable to their life experiences, they were driven to ask questions. For example, when given scenarios of pet cloning, or genetic modification, or eye color and hair color, students were very likely to ask many questions such as ‘how were the researchers able to clone the animal?’ and ‘is that why my brother looks like my dad but I look more like my mother?’. We sought to address these questions in a systematic manner – by making students take notes on presentations and post sticky notes with what they learned or more questions. I believe this technique was very effective as many students continue to express interest in genetics and biology after the unit was complete.

Data exploration learning is a technique particularly suitable to the study of weather and climate and evolution. Students were tasked with collecting weather data (high/low temperatures, pressure, etc.) for cities randomly distributed across the planet. Students then plotted the weather data and were able to observe how high and low weather data changes over a span of 3 weeks and that despite daily changes, the temperatures tended to hover over the expected average. During the evolution unit, students were able to collect data on the efficiency of seed collection of Galapagos Finch beaks and were able to directly observe that the different beak sizes and shapes were particularly suited for one type of seed over another. Specifically, students were able to observe that during a drought, birds with larger beaks could out-compete birds with small beaks.

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Improvisation workshop with Raquell Holmes

I recently attended a workshop intending to improve teaching delivery by introducing improvisational methods all while ensuring that there is mutual respect between student and teacher.

Raquell opened the session by reading a passage that highlighted a notion that has been brought up numerous times throughout the fall – that a teacher is not an authoritarian leader over the students. Instead, they are the guides that know the terrain of knowledge so well that they can lead the student to the truth through any path. I truly believe that this mentality in a teacher applies to almost any learning situation. Whether it is students coming from an upper class background or from low-income families, the answers and, more importantly, reasons why they learn must be approached on their own terms. Without an intrinsic motivation, it is impossible to conceive why students would care about any of the material they are hearing.

Another component of the workshop was a simulated teaching situation where I presented a recent lesson to the other participants. We went through three scenarios where: 1.) I taught in my normal style and the students were half-attentive, half-rowdy 2.) I taught as an angry 5 year old and the students were the same 3.) I taught as a calm 75 year old grandfather and the students were the same. Through these scenarios I was able to determine what parts of my delivery were effective and which wasn’t. I realized that I had a hard time motivating the kids to be engaged due to my lackluster delivery and this was improved when I was a 5 year old. On the other hand, my frustration at many things happening around me (questions, talking, etc.) was resolved by being a calm grandfather. I have taken these suggestions and adapted them to my current teaching.

Teaching is incredibly unpredictable and it is altogether too easy to be derailed from a well-planned lesson by uncontrollable events. When we meet with Racquell in January I hope she will be able to introduce techniques to improve thinking on the fly.

 

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Effective teaching modeled by an experienced teacher

The teacher I have been paired with, Jen, has been teaching for 3 years and has developed techniques to improve the effectiveness of her delivery. Middle school students are naturally incapable of paying attention, being motivated to participate, and being respectful to others. It is through the teacher’s vocal ability that these behaviors can, at least partially, be molded towards acceptability. We all have learned that various forms of vocalization lead to different responses in the audience. For example, timid delivery often elicit no response from the audience and may even contribute to disarray as the leading figure is shown to be weak. On the other hand, loud and commanding delivery is also destructive to the environment as a leader that needs to shout to be heard is ineffective at keeping focus and attention. There is a style of delivery in the middle that is capable of generating an atmosphere of trust in the teacher as well as obedience.

For Jen, the key to success has rested on two fundamental tenets – a rigid rule structure and levels of vocal delivery. During normal class time and lecturing, Jen uses a firm vocal delivery of moderate volume with short pauses between sentences. This allows students to comprehend the information provided and establishes a baseline. When students are participating, her volume rises and speed of delivery slows down which provides positive feedback to the students to result in further participation. When students are actively not participating, she does not hesitate to switch to a disciplinary delivery style. In this situation, Jen immediately switches volume level from moderate to very loud which surprises the students. Coupled with the volume change is direct confrontation which forces the students to take responsibility for their own disrespectful behavior. These two vocal delivery styles are enough to moderate behavior as the students have been previously trained to avoid evoking the stronger disciplinary response from the teacher.

In concert with the vocal delivery style is the rigid rule structure on which the students rely. They have the comfort of knowing the exact outcome for any behavior they choose to exhibit in the classroom and there are no exceptions for these rules for anyone. For example, students caught eating the classroom must immediately get rid of their food and will be reprimanded. In addition, students caught with a phone in class will have it confiscated until the end of the day. All teachers are held to these same standards as well. As long as these rules are described and enforced without question, the students simply need to be told once that they have broken a rule and will face the consequences and there is an understanding, as opposed to bargaining and whining.

These two techniques help regulate the behavior of middle school students, which in turn increases the teaching effectiveness.

 

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Introducing sequential concepts

At the beginning of the school year, at the Glacier Teacher-Fellow orientation, Jen and I devised a curriculum based on the newly written science standards constructed by the three-district partnership. These new science standards aligned with the next-generation science standards and were vague enough to construct a curriculum structured as a bottom-to-top survey of scientific theory. The idea was to take what the students had most recently studied in 7th grade (the human body) and relate this prior knowledge to the first new concept – the atom. As the semester has progressed, we have moved from the atom to the molecule to macromolecules and materials, and now to biological materials. Despite clear and observable differences between these concepts, as the lessons progress throughout the weeks, the walls between ideas seem to become more fluid. As such, it is difficult to realize when assessments are required and when ideas need to be re-taught.

For example, a lesson about counting atoms initially seemed to be very straightforward, with kids correctly answering the examples we showed them. Later, when more complicated examples were shown, the kids struggled with the basics. As there was no assessment after the first lesson, we had no clue that the kids completely missed the concepts. We’ve found that formative assessments are best given in two varieties – a large formative assessment on a weekly basis (such as a quiz) and small formative assessments given daily (such as walk-arounds to tables or sticky notes).

By pacing the introduction of new material with formative assessments, we can save time by not having to dedicate entire days to reteaching the material. Unfortunately, it may also be the case that the students have no interest in learning at all. Especially in Everett, there is no interest in learning whatsoever. I think it is very unclear to students why they are learning and how learning is accomplished (by taking small steps from the basics to the advanced). Any mention of an advanced concept leads to an immediate shut-down in their processing capabilities.

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Reflection on a recent successful lesson

A recent lesson that we taught that was particularly engaging for the students was titled “The Human Model of the Atom”. This model involved slowly setting up an atom and involving the kids as electrons. Through this lesson, we hoped to quickly teach the basic parts of the atom (e.g. nucleus, proton, neutron, and electron) and then some basic important concepts (e.g. energy levels, excitation, and electrostatics). This lesson was successful due to us moving the classroom outdoors for the activity and allowing the students to physically run around while simulating electrons. Through this set-up, the children were having fun while learning important concepts. One issue (created mostly by the very short time constraint) was how rapidly we moved through the material without any checkpoints for understanding. To improve the activity, we could have had a 5 minute quick-write session in-between each stage of the activity. But considering how it took 10 minutes to walk outside and 10 minutes to walk back inside, even a 5 minute quick-write session (requiring 5 minutes on either side to allow the kids to settle down) would have severely hampered the lesson.

 

We tried utilizing the 3-2-1 type of assessment for a homework reading. After the reading, students were asked for vocabulary, fill-in-the-blank, and then 1 question that they had from the reading. As the vocabulary and fill-in-the-blank portions were merely checking for completion of the assignment, we were not surprised to find ubiquitously correct answers. The question deriving from the reading, however, showed that the vast majority of kids were completely disinterested in the material. Although the reading was at their level and was compelling, the kids had absolutely zero interest in the assignment. We concluded that although the “flipped” classroom method can be useful for introducing vocabulary words, there is little to no chance for at-home mental connections or further curiosity with these children.

 

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First day of school impressions

I was excited to begin the first day of school as I hadn’t been to a classroom in 6 years prior to the GK-12 fellowship. As I would be teaching 8th grade students, I was under the impression that their maturity levels would be fairly high and they would be capable of some mature conversation. This notion was grossly incorrect and entirely a product of not being around children of this age in quite some time. I quickly found that 13 year old children are just growing into their bodies and their minds and while the spectrum of physical and mental growth is quite wide, all still cling onto the privileges to which they have grown accustomed as children. These include constant fidgeting, talking over others, and horseplay. Although this initially seemed daunting, I was refreshed to observe the other side of this coin – that these children have still retained some innocence that lends itself to malleability. At this stage, the children have not yet become disillusioned with the world; they do not question authority, they willingly ask and answer questions in class, and will often become quiet with merely a look in their direction. Despite their hyperactivity, teaching these children will definitely be enjoyable due to their child-like innocence. It is a task of great responsibility, as we seek to carry over their innocence into well-informed maturity as they enter high school.

The school district with which I am partnered attempts to partition the classes into levels of performance so as to achieve maximal development through customized lesson plans. This leads to each class having very distinct personalities and styles of learning. For example, the “high performance” students are often quiet and focused on being “correct”, while the “rowdy” class seems to internalize better through borderline chaotic discussions. When something new is presented in front of certain classes, there is almost no interactivity but instead a need to simply finish what is put in front of them. Others, however, are more interested in organic discussion while sacrificing time planned for other activities. After 5 classes, it appears that the “high performance” students, while apt at one facet of scientific thinking – background knowledge – are lacking in other crucial aspects such as critical argument and model development. The “rowdy” class, on the other hand, is far more outwardly curious and through their chaotic inquiry are able to quickly develop and argue for or against scientific models broached in class.

Although it is still early, it seems that by modifying my style of interaction with each class, I can be equally relatable and effective. For example, I need to constantly remind students in the “rowdy” class of proper behavior and etiquette to keep them on task while I use a hands-off approach towards the “high performance” students. I am interested to see how these early reflections change as the year progresses.

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