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.



How Close Is Too Close?

One of my most respected virtual friends (who will become a “real” friend if Educon 2.3 doesn’t get snowed out) recently blogged about five reasons to avoid Facebook in the classroom.  His post was a response to another by Jeff Utecht advocating the use of Facebook in classrooms.  While it might seem a bit odd, allow me to take a position that is tenuously negative and positive at the same time.  The way I see it, in reality, Doyle’s post was less about Facebook and more about teacher-student communication in 2010.

Facebook in education

Let me start by saying that Facebook might be something interesting for education at some point.  As for now, I avoid Facebook as a purposeful classroom tool.  Do I have students and former students as “friends” on Facebook?  Yes, I do.  I do not initiate those connections, but I do reciprocate them.  I am consciously aware of the potential of the idea of the “creepy treehouse” and so I act accordingly.

a very big birdhouse

I live and work in a town/school district that has one of the more liberal filtering policies I have seen in public education.  We don’t get too hung up on tools.  Within the rule of law, we open things up and allow our local curriculum to be addressed however our professionals see fit.  That does allow students and teachers in my little corner of the world to use Blogs, Wikis, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Ning, ad infinitum, to achieve our stated goals.  That said, we do currently block Facebook and MySpace in house.  We do not forbid the use outside of the school day.  For example, the LMC at Benton High School uses a Facebook fan page (among a dozen other ways to connect the world of learning to the world of kids).

So why do we block those two entities in a sea of social connections?  The answer is rather simple as of now.  The signal to noise ratio on FB is just too low for what we are trying to accomplish locally.  This does not mean that we will not one day open FB during the school day.  What it does mean is that for now…  we haven’t yet developed rigorous educational landscapes in that realm to a value point that overcomes the bleed-off due to just being “social.”

In my own scheming toward social connectedness and global awareness, I stepped into the realm of Ning several years ago for the two courses I taught as well as for building and district-level professional development goals.  This is a direct repurposing of social tools to fit an educational goal.  In short, those networks were created by an educator for the sole purpose of learning and sharing.  FB is social space defined by the user.  Students colonized that realm before we did.  With aging demographics in the teacher ranks, that will soon change.  Herein lies an essential element of the discussion as I see it:  Many students resist the idea of being forced to relay educational “stuff” within their Facebook lifestream.  I get that.  I’m not excited about pushing my way into someone’s social space either.

He parked kinda close

Too close?

So I’m not yet an advocate of FB in the classroom.  True.  I’m not yet willing to dive educationally into a social tool currently dominated by silliness and pablum.  That said, my argument is not one of a “digital divide” between students and teachers.  I get the need for clear lines between professional and otherwise.  I’m late to Facebook.  I was a professional when I arrived there, and I am a professional in those spaces.  Sure, I connect with family and friends there.  However, one look at my profile will give you mostly a list of the blog posts I have recently written, the most current photos from my Flickr stream, and a host of distant family members I have recently befriended.

Let’s now take this one step further.  Let’s look at AT&T or Verizon, or any other entity facilitating instantaneous communication…….

During each of the past four years, I have been a building-level instructional coach.  My daily teaching duties included one course (Dual-Credit Biology) and my Marine Biology course which includes students from three local high schools and meets during 22 Monday nights throughout the year.  In general, I work with good students, but that schedule is a “21st Century” challenge if such a thing exists.  I’m most often not present in the flesh.  I potentially visit classrooms in 26 buildings.  I engage students from all corners of our town and we spend a week abroad in the Bahamas on sailboats in what could best be described as the middle of nowhere, North America.

Perhaps “trust” is already implied in those relationships.  Perhaps the fact that I meet with parents early and often tends to change the dynamic a bit.  However, at some point within our first meeting of the Summer (prior to students heading home with laptops to work on class projects) I scribble my mobile number on the board.  I don’t “teach” responsibility at that point.  I merely say:  don’t message me unless it is important.  If you’re stuck in a snowbank headed to class at 7:00pm, I want to know.  If you’re 500 yards away on a sailboat in the Bahamas, and you have an allergy medicine question…  I want to know, etc.

What emerges is good for all involved.  You’re current or former student “X.”  You’ve decided to do your Ph.D. research on…   You’re thinking about switching to university X because…  You wonder if Chilean Seabass is an environmentally-responsible menu choice.  You need someone to give you a ride to class tonight because…  whatever.  This isn’t about the device used for communication.  It IS about making things happen for kids.  It IS about being professionally available.  It IS about boundaries.  It IS about teaching those boundaries…  step by step.  Message by message.  Txt by txt.  In a comment to Doyle’s post, Alec Couros said it rather well:

“…I think a genuine type of closeness is what we are missing most in schools. This doesn’t have to come via Facebook (by any means), but the tendency to have more sterile relationships with kids is a huge detriment to any lasting relevance of our school system.”

I stand by this:  some folks freak about digital communications between students and teachers.  And yet they think nothing about the face-to-face conversation in the hall where no one else is listening.  This is merely lack of comfort with something new.  I find comfort in digital.  Let’s be honest, while any authority can check a cell or FB account, no one…  no one can check a face-to-face conversation.  Am I wrong?  Stand by your interactions as a professional and a model for children, and frankly- there’s a digital record to go along as a bonus.

iPhone 4

I care what my kids are doing.  We all do.  But when they care enough to stop and tap out a text to ask a question about whether the dish they are about to order is ecologically sustainable…  or to celebrate being the smartest kid in their Bio class half a world away…  I see value.  Life moves pretty fast in 2010.  That waiter isn’t waiting.  When you’ve acquired a resource, you use it.  I like to think I’ve instilled that in my students.  Case-in-point, a former student in my Dual-Credit Biology class sent a text to my phone out of the blue a few days ago:

hannahs txt

A day or so later I asked if I could add this to a simple little blog post (that was supposed to be 15 lines long or less before Doyle’s post).  She obviously said yes.  I’m not entirely sure of the details.  Was her friend uncomfortable with digital communications?  Was she stressed when asked to respond to a rigorous discussion?  Was it a combination of both?  I’m not sure.  There’s a better than fair chance that Hannah will grace us with that information in the comments section.  Feedback from my students of this sort helps me be the the relevant professional I strive to be today.  Regardless-  Hannah is a confident learner in these spaces, and for that I am largely thankful and a slight bit proud.  I get it if you’re in different circumstances.  That’s exactly what I’m trying to convey here:  context matters.  Rules here are different when applied there.  Your reality should dictate your professional choices.

Bullet the blue sky

If I were forced to do this post as a set of bullet points it might roll out like this…

  • Facebook isn’t evil, though in my opinion, it rarely has proven a valuable classroom tool in our world at this time.
  • Kids (and teachers) today need boundaries between professional and casual conversation.
  • Boundaries must be clear and must be maintained.  A line in the sand is a boundary.  A good boundary needn’t be a wall in all cases.
  • Relevant communication is different from what it was years (even a few) ago.
  • Be a pro.  No doubt that looks different on the surface in 2010 than in the past, though the rules are still the same.
  • You’ll never cease to be a member of your local community.  Act accordingly.
  • Relevancy.  Do smart professional values equal the need to be irrelevant in the modes of communication of today?
  • It’s not the media, it’s the boundaries negotiated by wise adults that matter.

Social media in eduction isn’t a simple topic.  There is no one answer for all.  Nothing in education escapes the powerful pull of context.  What works in one situation doesn’t in another.  What is amazing for one teacher is scary for another.  What is scary for one is freedom for an entire set of children begging for leaders.  Children look to adults for leadership.  They always have and they always will.  Those of you reading this likely know the communications landscape has changed (for better or for worse).  No matter how you feel about it, this isn’t your father’s education.  Pick your battles.  Make your choices.  Be a leader.  Make the world a better place for the children in your charge.  Be ethical.  Be smart.  Be available as only you know how.  Millions of our children need the absolute best of what you have to offer.

Take my hand


*”A Very Big Bird House” by James Gray-King on Flickr
*”He parked kinda close” by Vagabond Shutterbug on Flickr
*”iPhone 4” by Brian Wilkins on Flickr.
*”Take my Hand” by Gregory Bastien on Flickr.