Why are we alive?

Listen first

“Daddy, you know what… I think the first bite of an apple is always the best.”

~Delaney, age 9

I’ve said it before. We need kids to teach us how to see the world anew in all its beauty. If you’re not listening, you’re missing out. This alone could easily have been the impetus to write.

Delaney Reading with Apple

See the icky wear and tear on that book? After once again questioning her (I have asked at least 4-6 times on previous occasions) she says she honestly estimates that she’s read it approximately 18 times. I actually believe this. After a more typical back and forth on the differences between Anomalocaris and Pikaia, and a bit of silence that followed, she added: “Here’s a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?

What works

The title of Delaney’s favorite book at this point in her life has clearly been “Evolution” by Hosler, Cannon & Cannon. There are a million reasons why this might be so. Included in these reasons are the facts that both Mom and Dad were upper level biology teachers for much of our lives, and that this book, among thousands of others, are titles that exist within our shelves at home. Beyond this, the answers are murkier. We never did ask her to read it. And yet, since age six, she has gone back time and time again to not only read it, but to talk about it… at the dinner table, on the deck during a 70 degree day in February, ad infinitum. Almost.

One could clearly and logically assume that the above interaction just “makes sense.” And it does. Children who grow up bathed in household discussions that revolve around the inner workings of the natural world might ask these questions. Yet, this leaves out a pretty crucial bit of the story. I would argue that the key element here is that over the past few years when she has had questions about the content of this book, she always finds one or two adults willing and able to carry on the conversation, and to poke and prod for further understanding and unanswered questions. This has led to a tapestry of questioning, understanding, reading, questioning, understanding, reading, etc. over a protracted bit of time.

Penrose triangle

The nerd stuff

Herein lies the key to deep understanding of some of the most profound discoveries of human history: it doesn’t happen in a “chapter,” a “unit,” or even the most carefully designed series of lessons in May just before culminating in state testing at the end of the year. There is a pretty clear reason we live in the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world, and yet we still have an electorate lacking even basic understanding of some of the key underpinnings of biology as we know it today. This is tough stuff. In the cacophony of tweets, Facebook posts of cats, Donald Trump election memes, competing state and national standards, and an externally-dictated, rapid-fire scope and sequence that pushes us to glaze over deep conceptual understanding… we miss it.

As a district administrator in academic services, I face a regular “Administrator Paradox,” as my former Superintendent, Todd White, referred to it. It is sometimes a “dual truth” that causes us to struggle with those things that lead to “performance” on regularly measured assessments of understanding vs. what we know to be a deeper truth on some level. I know the system needs to move along to achieve wins as agreed upon by state and national standards. Yet, I also know from a career of practice, that to achieve true conceptual understanding of the foundations of biology, we need longitudinal conversations with kids as they grapple with complex ideas at their own pace over time. We also need educators who understand this and are willing to adhere to external pressure, all the while staying true to what we know about children. And learning. And the struggles along the way.

We don’t face the same pressures at home. We don’t do benchmark assessments at home. We don’t do final exams. We don’t halt the conversations at agreed-upon artificial deadlines because we have to. As parents, we set up an overall ecosystem where learning can happen organically. We engage our children here and there and when they are ready. We don’t push when it isn’t necessary. We understand that the only true learning is that which is constructed in the minds of the little ones we are blessed to be near.

I struggle with this every day of my existence. As a school administrator, I am charged with fostering a program that delivers agreed-upon public measures of success. As a parent, I am free to act upon a lifetime of learning about learning. And as a thinking human being, I grapple with these dual truths. Not a single day goes by that I don’t try and try again to leverage my experience as a professional learner at home and at school to design the best system for our children. I listen long, and then act accordingly. I try to make the best of a complex understanding between what I can do and what I know should be.

In 2016, I know we need to break free from “third period;” from the Carnegie Unit. I know we need flexible systems that honor the fact that conceptual understanding doesn’t necessarily happen in a chapter or lesson, or even the most craftily-designed long-term unit. I know schools do not operate in a world apart from the learning that happens (or doesn’t) in our homes. Biology isn’t rocket science. It is messier.

Swimming hole - Evolve 2011

It doesn’t get easier

Seventy degrees in February. On the deck. Eating tangerines and apples. A little kid trying to understand how all of the bits and pieces of the opera of life come together. Our Daddy-Daughter conversation tonight ultimately ended with a short back and forth resulting from this question:

“Here is a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?”

The answer to this in my head is an essay. Many essays. I struggle to remember my responses to questions like this in the heat of the classroom. Tonight, however, I left it with a messy bit about how science doesn’t actually seek to answer the why of such things… but rather the how. That other schools of thought are best equipped to address the why. Religion. Spirituality. The interplay between the two, if you believe that exists, etc. My daughter and I had another in a long line of epic chats. As a science teacher, I understand the subtle differences between the scientific search for truth and other fundamental human quests for truth and understanding. Ultimately, I hope that in my lifetime we can find a way to ensure that as a system we understand these complex differences and their inherent challenges… but also that I’m guiding my little girls at home in the way they most deserve.

I know a bit of what works at home. I know a bit of what works at “school.” I wish the differences weren’t so stark. This is a paradox. Dual truths are apparent here. I wish for and commit to working toward a future where these two truths aren’t separated by an artificial wall of our own construction.

Artwork

*My iPhone photo of Delaney on the deck tonight. Eating an apple. Reading some science. Talking some science. Asking some big, fat “why?” 

*Penrose triangle by Cabrera Photo via Creative Commons on Flickr

*Swimming hole – Evolve 2011 by sand_and_sky via Creative Commons on Flickr

 

 

 

Make It Rain

Disclaimer

I apologize outright if you are from a drought-striken region desperately searching the electronic ether for a glimmer of hope, only to have arrived at this post courtesy of the title. There are no deluge-inducing instructions here. No chants. Barely a plea. But questions? Yes. This post is about questions.

Family Tree of Droplets

Droplets

While sitting on the deck taking in a beautiful early evening outside, I began my traverse of the daylight/dusk/night barrier when my five year old daughter approached me at the table on the deck, and asked to climb into my lap. While shimmying in for kitten-like comfort, she kicked up a seemingly simple conversation…

Neve: “What are you reading?”

Me: “Oh… just about about ways of thinking. Just something to help me be smart about the work I do.”

Neve: “So, can you read a book to get smarter about anything?”

Me: “Almost. Yep… If you think about something you want to learn about, or know how to do… you can probably find a book to help you. You can pretty much learn about anything you want to today.

So, yeah… if you want to learn something, we’ll find books and things to help you.”

Neve: “Can you get a book if you want to learn how to make it rain?

Me: “(pause) Well… actually yes. Probably. There are people who have been trying to make it rain for a very long time. And sometimes they’re getting pretty OK at it in small spaces. Sort of.”

The conversation from there got a little too lengthy and geeky to relay here, but you get the idea. Learning at age five has so…… so much potential. Infinite, really.

Screenshot 2014-06-16 21.01.27

Showers

I’m really not entirely certain what the segue might have been between these two events, but, fast-forward twenty minutes to when I posted this*:

“Holy cow…… the girls asked what a cardinal sounds like. I pulled up a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab on my iPhone, and seriously, our backyard is now a cacophony of cardinal music.

Why have I not done this until now?”

The comment stream below the post was rich as well, with several connections from those who had done similar things, as well as some fantastic suggestions for taking this to the next level. I get smarter, kids get smarter, rinse, repeat.

Cloudburst

Once the girls heard the cardinals come to life around us, once they saw two land on the fence directly in front of us, they were in. “What does a goldfinch sound like?” “What about an oriole?” “Does a hummingbird make a sound?” While we Googled every last question in the fading light, I tried to interject a thing of two about the limits of their quick little tests. “Maybe those other species weren’t close by.” “Perhaps this was the wrong time of day for them to respond in that way.” Maybe this, perhaps that…  but at this point they had already crossed over into trying to mimic backyard birdsongs themselves to even hear my prompts. At this point, science was bridging a wee bit into art and I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we attempt such an exploration. 

Here is my question for you: do you realize how close real, honest-to-goodness, publishable scientific inquiry is from this very point? Once you’ve asked a fascinating question (often by accident) and taken the time to muck about and explore the elements of the investigation, you are so close to real sophistication. The sophistication of the process. It is at this point you begin to take those “what ifs” and figure out the scope of what you might be able to find out next. You’re digging into what others have already discovered. You are figuring out feasibility. You are formalizing. Little kids don’t need names for these things to inquire, they just need a guide. A guide who will stay out of the way. A guide willing to intervene minimally and only when needed, but a guide that is curious and kind enough to keep pushing. Gently pushing. Ask questions to get questions. Fewer answers. More possibilities.

Science education begins quite young if you let it. Ask the questions. Keep asking them. Once you get more in return than you give…  you’re winning. Go ahead, make it rain.

Today Weather

Artwork
*”Family Tree of Droplets” by HUSO on Flickr via CC.
*”Neve and The Inchworm” by me.
*”Today Weather” by kristina Alexanderson on Flickr via CC.
 

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.

 

 

Another Thousand “Whoa” Moments

Defining whoa

A whoa moment is somewhat akin to the recently ubiquitous aha moment. And yet, there are important differences. Trolling online definitions of the “aha” moment generally returns descriptions of sudden comprehension or the “flash of insight related to a problem.” If I could be trusted to launch my own five-cent definition, I’d loft the “whoa” moment for your consideration. Allow me to stitch together a few words in defense (offense?) of such an idea…

whoa moment |wō|

exclamation
Informal in usage. Used to indicate a scope of reactions to a learning experience ranging from basic cognitive connection and mild surprise to profound respect and awe. Often uttered momentarily due to a lack of ability to define an experience at the time. Whoa moments often spur deeper future connections and learning along the original topic.


Some of these moments are certainly cerebral, but many others seem to originate deep within the limbic system. I challenge you to justify that sort of experience in today’s rather narrow description of learning. Benjamin Bloom roughly hammered out the Affective Domain of learning over fifty years ago. The affective domain is the domain of attitudes, motivation, and valuation of learning. As we move toward a more “national” definition of what should be learned, we rarely ever touch on anything beyond the cognitive domain. Even within the cognitive domain, consensus is tough to find. But really, when you can stuff so much of the cognitive domain into multiple guess questions, why bother with the rest? Characterizing the rest is just so… hard.

I’d suggest that whoa moments (beyond those of Bill & Ted fame) put the fringes of the affective domain, the elements of valuing… into something we can touch, taste, and marvel over. I’m not here today to hammer out a treatise on the whoa moment, and the value of immersion and authenticity in education. While that might be a worthwhile future endeavor, today I came here to share a bit of our recent Marine Biology field study on Andros Island in The Bahamas. This program was conceived back in 1999 and I have written about it here several times in the recent past. This was our seventeenth field study over the past twelve years, and like each of them, taught us all more than our share for one week.

whoa3

Finding a rare snow white hermit crab married to a bleached out mollusk shell, watching a lowly flatworm attack and kill a nimble crab, exploring a multitude of minute creatures in a natural reef nursery, finding a completely new and hidden crack into the chilly belly of the Earth (the locale of which is too good to mention in detail here)…  are all just a few of the subtly epic moments that were experienced during a week abroad and in the field this past April.

I’m certainly not suggesting that you aim for whoa in every single granular learning objective that falls within your curriculum. And I’m certainly not suggesting that learning out-of-doors, in the field, suits every academic pursuit. I don’t think it has to happen everywhere, but I do believe it has to happen. Somewhere.

whoa2

The world is an amazing place, and we live in amazing times. Big moments are all around us. Get on it.

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Online Learning Networks in Science – An Interview

In keeping with the concept of using this blog as not only a synthesis of what I think, but also of what I do, I add this post. Last week I recorded a telephone interview with the folks at natureEDUCATION on the topic of online learning networks in science education. The time I spent on the phone with Ilona Miko, Senior Scientific Editor for Life Sciences, made me realize why it is that she is doing the podcast and I typically stick to the printed (digitally) word. She’s a pro from the word go.

You wouldn’t think I have a fear of publishing or sharing in any way. And yet, I’ve always had a distaste for the sound of my own voice. I cherish real human communication. I thrive on face to face chats…  even virtual versions via Skype, etc. However, hearing a recorded version of my voice always reminds of of Kermit the frog with laryngitis. Perhaps even share-junkies have their Achilles heel. Now that I think about it, considering my avatar, some of you might even see the first image of my mug where I appear sane.

Nature EdCast

Scitable is an open online collaborative learning space within the nature publishing group. If you are a science teacher, or you know one, you’d be doing a favor by forwarding the link to a friend or colleague. NatureEdCast is a podcast featuring some interesting folks from many perspectives.  If you get a chance, check out some of the previous twelve episodes here.  I’m honored to have been selected to share a few minutes on this program. I think I sound like I’m having a phone conversation (complete with near giggles a couple of times), but hey… I guess I actually was. By the end I think we hit on some issues that are important to the world of education, and even science education in particular.  See what you think.

If I had to pick the one thing from the episode I’m most proud of, it would be the fact that although the title features the text “Online Learning Networks,” a significant portion of the program is about students being outdoors, on-site, in nature, and learning with all five senses. Living online is not my style. I’d never want to build a name for that. Although, if done well, extending our classrooms through space and time into the digital world can enhance learning for all students. For that, I’ll sign my name.

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