Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Importance of Modeling

Some days, I know that teaching is for me. And I had one of those days recently.

In a recent post, I was wondering about the nature of teaching, and whether teachers are actually "teaching" if their students aren't learning. I sometimes doubt my own efficacy as a professor--am I really cut out for this work? What really qualifies me to teach someone else how to teach? Am I really that effective at this business?

And then I have a moment where I see things coming together...

I have been visiting student teachers throughout this semester, and I have been so proud of my students--seeing them putting into practice the things they have learned throughout their work in our teacher preparation program is gratifying to say the least!

But recently I had an almost surreal experience on a visit one of my student teachers. She was particularly eager to have me visit for this lesson--it was a science lesson. I teach the science methods course for elementary and middle school majors, so she was right: I am always excited to see student teachers leading a science learning opportunity.

The lesson? Part of a unit she was teaching about states of matter. The third graders had already learned about solids, liquids, and gases, and how it's possible to change from one state of matter to another, and what makes these different states function as they do. And today's lesson was a chance for them to check and extend their understanding.

My student teacher began by asking questions of the students, helping them review the characteristics of the different states of matter. I was so proud already at this introduction; in science methods I had emphasized the importance of asking a variety of different kinds of questions--some basic, recall questions, but also higher-order thinking questions--and here she was, using all sorts of questions to engage her students and help conduct them in to the lesson of the day.

And then: a Magic Question...

"Can a substance be both a solid and a liquid at the same time?"

The kiddos had to think about that one a bit. Some kids began to say that they thought so, while others were not so sure. Just enough of a disagreement--without disrespect--was clear, so the students were engaged. She had them hooked.

And so, the activity: exploring oobleck. (Never heard of it? You should really read this post...) Now, you need to know that oobleck is one of the most fascinating substances you can bring into your classroom. It is a slime, which kids love (even college students...seriously, read the post linked above...) and it exhibits some really fascinating features.

My student teacher gave the students time to just play for a bit first. And the comments I overheard (and captured, typing furiously) were amazing:
"What is this anyway? Is it a liquid?"
"It gets 'dry' when I squeeze it!"
"Ewww…my hands are covered with it!"
"It's hard…and soft…at the same time!"
"I wonder if this stuff is edible?"
"Aaaah!! My pencil is sinking! How will I get it out of there??"
"It looks like a liquid…but it's NOT!"
"Hey, stick your hand under here and see if you can catch it…"
"This is SO COOL! When I stop squeezing it, it's melting!"
"This tiny piece just oozed into a giant glob."
"You know? This actually doesn't feel too bad…"
"Hey, I just learned something! When you don't disturb it, it all sucks up together into a blob of liquid. But when you squeeze it, watch what happens!"

I had to grab my phone and snap a photo of this learning opportunity!
Image by Dave Mulder [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Meanwhile, my student teacher was moving around the room, asking probing questions, prompting them with specific things to try as they were investigating, responding to their questions by asking more questions.

Several times I noted her responding to the kids questions or comments with, "Interesting!"

After a little clean up, she had the kids settle in with a "think sheet" to make sense of their work with the oobleck. (What a difference a name can make! A worksheet by another name can smell so much sweeter...) And this encouragement: "Talk with your partner if you like, to see what they found out." This is the key for scientific discourse, I think: they have to do a little thinking first, but sharing their thinking is a great way to check their understanding, reflect, and learn with a partner.

And she again moved around the room, checking in with individuals, challenging them to give evidence to back up the claims they were making, answering their questions with more questions, and responding, "Interesting!"

And finally, some whole-class thinking: "How is oobleck like a solid? How is it like a liquid?" This is the essential question, because oobleck is a weird, weird substance: it is a liquid, but the more pressure you put on it, the more solid it becomes; if you release the pressure, it instantly "melts" back into a liquid. By her questions and a few well-timed comments, she helped the 3rd graders name what oobleck is like, how it works, and why it is so strange compared to the other states of matter they had been learning about.

Now, you may be wondering why I said this was a surreal experience for me. Here is why: this is a lesson I used in our methods class as a way of modeling what teaching science via inquiry might look like. And she incorporated so many of the moves I used when modeling this lesson--asking a variety of questions, using a "Magic Question" to drive the exploration, engaging students in first-hand learning with concrete materials, responding to students questions with questions, and even my very favorite response of all in science class: "Interesting!"

A cynic might say, "Well, she was just copying you." That's fair, to a point...she was following some of my moves, though definitely putting her own spin on them.

But I took this lesson as an example of the importance of modeling.

We tend to teach as we were taught. Think on that, my fellow educators: what are you modeling for your students?

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