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.”


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.



EdWeekSJSD: A Litany of Thanks

The calm after the storm

I’m beat, but delightfully so. Deep learning is hard work. Designing an ecosystem in which others can learn deeply is even tougher. Teachers know this. I mean, pick your favorite food. Then eat five heaping plates of it. Back to back. If someone treated me to a week of epic seafood meals prepared by skilled chefs, I’d eat big every day. You don’t get that opportunity very often. Well…  we did that (again), and I’m tired. Next week I’ll revel in quiet solitude, no doubt reflecting on the intense social learning of the past week. This week was EdWeek.

EdWeekSJSD is but one small construct of the larger vision of professional development in our district. Sometimes in a large learning organization you design PD events where everyone sees, hears, and performs the same thing. You have to. There are times when we all need to be on the same crucial page. We need a core of common language around learning. We need a common vision at some level, and we need norms around the central mission of our schools.

Yet, like the students we serve, teachers are all individuals with differing needs and aptitudes. We could never meet the needs of 11,000 highly individual learners with a team of 900 identically-trained educators. In subscribing to that belief, on some level you must be willing to design constructs of learning that cater to these differences. EdWeek is one of those constructs. EdWeekSJSD is a series of day-long explorations into innovative and creative approaches to learning in a modern classroom. For more detail on the structure and happenings of this week, see the wiki from the past two years, as well as an explanatory post, There’s No Week Like EdWeek, I did last year in anticipation of our first experience of this type.

Thanks are in order:

We have so many thanks to give for the success of the past week. For one, if you were there at all, thank you. Trading in an off-contract day of basking in the summer sun is admirable. If you showed up at all, I salute you. Thank you for making all of the planning and preparation worthwhile. If you showed up for all five days, I am deeply humbled by your professional commitment and love of learning and sharing. I could go on and on about each of the past five days. The new things I learned, the collaboration I witnessed, and the open and public sharing that was done. Many of those details already exist online in reflective posts by my colleagues. Do me this favor, please post links to your work in the comments below, and I will embed those directly in a future edit to this post. For sharing in a collective reflection of this week, I thank you. I’ve already read many of these posts, and I couldn’t possibly detail those days any better. Nice work, Mike.

Digital writing matters

Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop, and Because Digital Writing Matters, took us on an exploration of the broader meaning of literacy on day one. Troy challenged us to see literacy as not only the ability to make deep meaning from reading and writing text, but other forms of rich media as well. For me, he drove home the point that literacy instruction in the classroom of today must make efficient and creative use of the many forms of media that blanket our lives like never before in our history.

Silvia, I thank you again

Joining us again this year, Silvia Tolisano reminded us that any approach to innovation with technology must begin with a focus on learning first, followed by careful selection of modern tools to do the job. She pushed us to consider uses of technology beyond the automation of substitution of current tasks. We both share the belief that using technology to maintain the classroom status quo is a prohibitively expensive proposition. What is beyond mere “integration” of digital tools? Using them to transform learning events into something that would not have been possible otherwise. A wiki that includes resources addressed that day gives you an idea of the broad scope and detail of those explorations. We’ll certainly soon be seeing some amplified classroom experiences for our children.

Learning to be

Our next two leaders were neighbors from the North. Darren Kuropatwa joined us this year from Winnipeg. I deeply admire approaches to learning that are multimodal and which feature rich instances of story. I especially appreciate these things when they arise from a career of motivating students to study mathematics in this way. He’s the math teacher I always wanted. He challenged us to create an environment where students aren’t merely doing math, or history, or science. The set of resources Darren thoughtfully planned to support our day is found here. He deftly made the case for empowering students to be… a mathematician, a historian, a scientist,  a writer. Thank you, Darren.

The seriousness of silliness and play

Dean Shareski made a return trip from Saskatchewan to Joetown this year with his fun and serious allwrappedintoone approach to learning and exploring media and ideas. You can’t spend professional time with Dean without making things. Experimentation and play was the theme of the day. We created artifacts, quickly, shared them widely, and debated where the learning lies within each. Check out the seven different forms of exploration from our day together. You can’t attend a session like this without re-examining your classroom tone, nor without acquiring new lenses for seeing the seriousness inherent within play and exploration. Dean- again, many thanks.

Now batting cleanup:

Diana Laufenberg. Diana brought the perspective of a powerfully creative teacher into our little meeting room…  and allowed us to swim around in it for a day. During the first half of the day, teachers found the tables turned as they took a reflective trip through what it feels like to be a student in her classroom. Diana helped us close out the week with a close examination of the architecture of and for learning she builds into her classroom. We also explored the benefits of participatory learning in a technology-savvy way and the crucial role of failure in any approach to learning. I’d be shocked if there was a single attendee who didn’t secretly wish to have experienced a government classroom that felt the way our room felt today. Thank you dearly, Diana.

Learners AND facilitators

Participating the entire week, and helping to facilitate it is a monster. You want to dig in and explore every single challenge. And yet, your role is also to help support a diverse room full of teachers with different needs. Just a short year ago, I was the lone instructional technology specialist in the room. With a massive bloom from four to fourteen 1:1 schools, we now have a real team to tackle our district’s burgeoning needs in this area. I can’t tell you how good that feels. We are gelling as a team in short order, and will have much to offer both individually and collectively as the coming year unfolds. Participate, facilitate, participate, facilitate. Focus on the task. Bounce about the room. Support. Comfort. Archive everything. Knowing just how difficult this is fills me full of appreciation of the work of Melissa CoreyTerri Johnson, and Jennifer Gatz. You were great this week, it wouldn’t have worked without you.

The die-hards

They just kept coming back. Just over one hundred teachers, coaches and administrators took part in the week’s festivities. An untold number lurked along via Twitter, Ustream, or Today’s Meet. A total of 38 participated in even more than one event. A few came back… every. single. day. What if you took them all to a conference like ISTE, and assuming the experience was equal to such a conference, (which is severely lowballing it) think about what that would cost. Do the math. Of the 38 repeat customers, 11 completed the full meal deal. Other than those of us who were participant/facilitators, there were six die-hards. Mike DialCindy FaucettErin NashMandi TolenJason Tolen, and Chantelle Schwope attended EdWeek in its entirety… all five days from 8am to 3pm. Epic. That is not easy. I have homeland knowledge of the fact that one of these folks was also simultaneously juggling two online graduate courses.

Opt-in professional learning, off-contract and in the summer. I begged for this two years ago. Not everyone believed this would fly. It was possible that no one would attend. It works if the design is right. Thanks to Dr. Dial’s trust and willingness to carve out a chunk of resources, it finally happened for the first time a year ago. This past week, EdWeekSJSD happened again; a hypodermic shot of innovation and creativity in an increasingly standardized world. Like I said, I’m beat, but delightfully so.


*”Twins” by Jon Smith via Creative Commons on Flickr
*The remainder were taken by either Jaime Dial or I.