There is no WHY in science?

Once again, blame him

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve pointed toward Michael Doyle’s blog. But if you’re a new reader, and you have yet to visit his place, you can at least thank me for that much today. In reality, the rest of this post is essentially a response to Doyle’s post, “Just because…” from this morning. There, go read it. Go read it and come right back please. Save his site and spend those three hours trolling through all of the goodness he has there for later. Doing so right now will almost certainly throw you off task. What are you waiting for? GO.

The response:

Remember, this train of thought response to Doyle’s post won’t likely make a great deal of sense on its own. You are hereby warned:

“I really like how Gary Stager refers to the way science is often taught as being more or less… Science Appreciation. He’s right.

I’d say much of my “teasing out the nature of science” occurred during the six years I was crawling around knee deep in the hanging prairies of the Loess Hills landform in NW Missouri and SW Iowa. There is something very crucial to being able to “get inside” a scientific endeavor, and really bruise your knuckles on the nuts and bolts of it. It is perhaps the only way to learn the layers of complexity in this way of “knowing” the world.

A look across a Loess Hills ridge in the extreme southern part of the range in Missouri. These hills become less forested as you move north into Iowa.

When I needed to classify and assign a latin name to everything green on a mid-grass prairie undergoing secondary succession, when I had to come to terms with the subtle mathematical ways of describing how the distribution of each species relates to the total ecosystem, when I had to figure out how I was going to then convert all of this data to warm, acceptable, humanspeak, when that humanspeak was going to happen in public and be picked apart by far wiser and more experienced peers, then… I suppose I had to come to some sort of soaked-into-the-cells understanding of the affordances and limitations of science in being able to describe what was happening on my prairie.

This takes gobs of time, and there is most certainly no app for that. As science teachers, even the best among us attempt to package up little experiences that allow for every element of the above. But there’s just something about time in this case. Perhaps it’s the weeks of thinking and reflection in between any of the “doing” that makes it a deeper experience.

I can realistically tell you this, the only students who have left me with a deep understanding of science, were students in a course we called Science Investigations. This course was from one to three years in duration and really sought to bring a true authenticity to the student experience. From the development of an authentic, self-designed (with coaching, of course) study, to the defense of said study to university professors… these kids did it all. I only had 10 to 18 students any given year, and there is truly no way I could have coached any more than that at any given time. My recollection of those days are memories of some of the best work I’ve ever done.

I say all of that because each year I also had another hundred or so students in Zoology, Botany, Ecology, Dual-Credit Biology, etc., who ultimately left us knowing quite a lot about the natural world. That might sound really great to the uninitiated, but I’m certain you see the distinction. Sure, many of those students were inspired enough to go off and become far more accomplished scientists than I ever was. But they didn’t really learn to be scientists from me. Perhaps they were ripe for this sort of learning when they arrived at the clock tower, but it was there they actually put the pieces together.

I don’t know… we require students to work deeply through the writing process from beginning to end don’t we? Don’t we expect them to be able to write independently and effectively when they leave us? (don’t get me wrong, I’m a writing-across-the-curriculum guy) But show me where we expect a similar efficacy in the processes and performance of science. We don’t. We just expect them to “*know a bunch of stuff.” Sure, we examine elements of the process, but only in chunks. Learning to write only in chunks leaves you quite short of that as well. In my opinion, it is worth getting upset about because changing this systemwide approach really wouldn’t require magic. It would just require a rearrangement of national and state priorities. Good luck, eh?

My classroom on the first night of class, August of 2003. Notice the sign in the upper-right. I might reconsider if I could go back now.

Back to the “sign wars” in your department… and your giant “WHY?” sign in the classroom. This might be one of those great minds think alike moments. Maybe curious minds is a better word. I had those four poster-board-sized characters on my wall from about 1993, on. Although, you’ll see that I, instead, used an overhead projector. Hey, I’m a font nerd. In practice, I tended to point in that direction as a “why do you say that?” in order to encourage students to provide reasoning for their claims. It was also a huge nod to the realm of wonder.

If I still had that classroom, I really think I might go in this weekend to change it from WHY? to HOW? I think your colleague is right on that one. How likely is the better word here. Although, there is also beauty in tapping into the why at the edges of what we study… even in biology class. You don’t have to be a card-carrying reverend, or the like, to at least point in another direction.

Sure, science is known by many for a set of processes it often includes. And yet, it is also truly a way of knowing. It certainly has limitations as that, but hey, so does religion, etc. Knowing a little about those limitations, and perhaps even hammering out a SCIENCE/SPIRITUALITY venn diagram on week one of class might be good.

You’re making me think too much (or at least report on such thinking) for a Saturday morning. Way to go.”

Postscript

How do you tell the difference between commenting on someone’s blog and actually attempting to hijack it? I’m not completely sure, but I bet it looks something like this:

I blogged here pretty regularly in ’08 and ’09 when I was in the classroom more. As my role has changed over the past few years, somehow that frequency died back a bit. I suppose it is easier to comment elsewhere than attempt to relocate your own “voice.” The above screen capture was the result of trying to respond to Doyle’s blog with about 2X the character count of his original post. I’m glad I was checked on this one. Sheeesh. What a blog hog.

In the end, this little reflection took me back to the roots of how I learned to be a biologist… why perhaps I was able to foster the same in a percentage of students each year… and why curriculum and philosophy matters so much when trying to help students develop a true understanding of the world in which they live.

 

 

iOS as an Art Teacher

Dad disclaimer

This blog is entitled nashworld for a reason. You can’t see the subtitle in this stripped-down theme I chose, but it reads: “to teach, to learn, to empower, this is my world.” It was only intended years ago as a place where I would share the reflections of my learning as a dad, as a teacher, as now as an instructional technology specialist. It is a quest to share my learning. In that quest, I have typically blogged about education, technology as used within our schools, and the roots of learning as it plays out in my classroom, the classrooms of my peers, others across the globe, and in the informal spaces of my home.

I have always been cautious of reading too much into the learning of my own children. They are, in some ways, an anomaly. They are growing up in the home of two devoted public educators. Therefore, their learning experiences in many ways are not typical. I try hard to separate this from my daily work. To me, this is an important distinction. If my decisions as a district employee weigh too heavily upon what happens at home, I am not acting as a representative of the 11,000+ learners in our district. Plenty of times I have seen the drawbacks of reading too much into happenings at home… and protracting that into decisions made for the masses. I am probably overcareful of that. I suppose that is my classically-trained scientific mind reflecting on the reality of such data.

The meat

Given these facts, there are still those times where open eyes at home allow insight into the workings of little brains as they make their way about our world. Today, an image my wife posted to Instagram took me back a couple of years to a learning experience by our then three-year-old that I once spilled upon this blog. You really do need to read that piece to understand the rest of this post. Go do that now, the rest of this post can wait…

Erin posted the above image including words from Delaney, our now five year old, that read: “This reminds me of that game… you know… Jackson Pollock.” This was in reference to her backyard creation of a twisted stick plunged into the top of an errant smoke bomb left over from the 4th of July.

In 2010, I wrote of her sitting upon my lap and finger scribbling within an app on my iPhone. At the time, I tied the experience to her early understanding of science concepts via an experience with music. Today I’m stopping by to record the latest in this saga… and it relates full-circle back to art and design. Yes, the above image shows a stick emerging from a smoke bomb. Big deal. And yet, the mere mention of this “creation” as something that reminded her of Jackson Pollock seemed pretty interesting to me. Something in this spontaneous little creation actually reminded her of that two-year-old experience… an experience she pinned to the artist. Do the twisted shapes of this little sculpture really mirror that of the artist’s work? Perhaps not. But in my opinion, this connection is pretty interesting for a five year old. I’m certainly intrigued.

Further, it’s not like that was the only connection to have happened since 2010. Just this past June 8th, I took Delaney and Neve to the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. In the course of that rather eventful day, we happened upon a painting in the “contemporary art” section that made her jump excitedly. Strangely enough, she ran from my hand to the painting above and read most of the display aloud. She remarked: “Wow… that’s Jackson Pollock, the app where I can paint.” Of course, I tweeted it. Actually, that particularly early Pollock painting held few of the familiar abstract paint streaks of the iOS app.  It features a bit more structure than his later works. She connected nothing of the “cells” discussion of two years ago, but she did remember the name. At the time I was impressed that she merely connected the name. Apparently, she conected perhaps a but more than the name alone.

iOS as an assistant

When young kids rummage about the yard you don’t imagine they have the names…. or the particular style of key artists… at the forefront of their brains. And yet, somehow she connected the design of this odd little yard sculpture to that of one of the many artists she has seen in the past few years. If that was an authentic connection, and it seems to have been, then I am definitely impressed by the string of experiences that led to this.

This all started with an iOS app on my phone. Did the app allow her to understand the core design nuances of Jackson Pollock? Perhaps not. I’m not much of a nuts and bolts art teacher. Do iOS apps “teach art” in a way we’ve never been able to before? I’d say no. A big, fat no. Come on, the title of this post was meant to be a little provocative. And yet, something is going on here. Something that certainly didn’t happen for me as a kid. I didn’t know who Jackson Pollock was until Art 101 as a Senior in college. Do iOS (iPhone & iPad) apps “teach” more effectively than conventional methods? Of. Course. Not. Do they quickly and easily allow access to a world the adults in the equation can take advantage of? I’d say they do. If you think this micro case study has value, then you must ask yourself: where was the turning point that led to the added value in this instance?

To me, there is little doubt that the value here lies within the synergy between attuned educator and iOS app. Would this have happened with books alone? No. Would it have happened with books + interested parent-teachers? Perhaps. However, the simple detracting fact here is that I don’t have any books that really feature the work of Jackson Pollock. Nor do we possess any titles that do a good job on abstract expressionism. We’re biology teachers for heaven’s sake. We have a pretty respectable and eclectic library at home, but it’s not the Library of Congress. Our phones, however, are windows to the world. And well, we aren’t the most unattentive parents on the planet. I don’t know, is this something?