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Julia Steiny: Inquiring Minds Want To Know Science

Thursday, January 03, 2013

 

During their sophomore year, biology students at William M. Davies Career & Technical Center fan out in teams to swab things all over the school.

They're on a quest to address this question: Since schools are breeding grounds for disease, exactly where would you be most likely to find pathogens, the infectious agents also known as germs?

Translation to teen-speak: What is the grossest thing at school?

Welcome to "inquiry science." Yes, "inquiry" is just asking good questions, which is what scientists do anyway, right? But K-12 science has far too often depended on textbooks that pile on facts, formulae and procedures.

Adam Flynn was Chair of Davies' Science Department during the years of changes that recently yielded a fat bump in the school's test scores. He says, "When I was in school, they'd hand you a procedure. First you do this, then that. A trained ape can follow a procedure. It's not engaging."

Instead, "inquiry science" poses a question, and turns the kids loose to figure out how they're going to find ways to arrive at credible answers. And when they have data results, how they'll synthesize the information and present their findings. Very different animal.

Teaching and learning the habits of "inquiry" became more urgent in 2007 when the statewide science NECAP exam was introduced. Each year's test is roughly 60 percent multiple choice, but about 40 percent of the score depends on the students' abilities to complete an inquiry task. The test poses a problem, and expects students to hypothesize an answer, describe how they'll get their data using the tools given to them, and formulate a conclusion.

The initial results statewide were not pretty.

At Davies, by far the weakest domain was inquiry. "So we made inquiry the lens through which we teach all courses now." Flynn talks about the science department's switch from textbook dependence to backwards design. It took the form of three questions asked of each science teacher:

1. What are the desired results? What, exactly, should students know and be able to do?

2. How will you assess your teaching so you're sure the kids got it?

3. And only lastly, given numbers 1 and 2, what's the lesson plan?

The faculty started the work by taking stock of what was already in place, conducting a bit of inquiry research of their own: What standards did each teacher and each course address? How often? When addressed, were those standards formally assessed?

"We found we had lots that we were teaching and not assessing. Again, in teacher prep, we didn't focus on why you assess. If it's Friday, that's just what you do. And if the kids don't pass, oh well, we've got to move on. We realized we needed to become assessors and not activity planners."

So whole chunks of the curriculum, including some beloved units and projects, were evicted to make room for assessable units that did support desired results.

"Kids are always asking why we need to learn this. If I have to pause to answer, I'm not engaged. Better to put it on them by asking why the universe looks the way it does and let them come up with, and own, their answers."

Flynn asks his juniors: "Where will the next earthquake strike?" Some kids find the U.S. Geological Center or other online sources. Some comb through the news. They can collect their data however they like, but they have to find hard evidence to back up their prediction. It's weird to hope for a disaster, but if an earthquake does strike during that class, it speaks to the predictions. Kids have a blast with how right some of their answers are. The experience of having reasoned out a pretty good guess is educationally impressive to students.

Finding the grossest place in the school has similar appeal.

Flynn says, "It really doesn't matter what the content is, as long as they're using scientific thinking. It engages them so much more. Assignments like that help the kids to practice really good science skills. And the way we have it designed, they have to do and show their work just like they do on the NECAP test."

As a vocational school, it's not uncommon for a majority of Davies' students to enter the 9th grade reading only at a 6th-grade level. Science tests are hugely dependent on reading and writing abilities, so for Davies' students to jump 15 percentage points in a year is no small potatoes.

Flynn has since become Davies' Supervisor of Academic Instruction. Wonder why.

Okay, okay, what is the grossest thing at the school? Answer: the basketball. That was a surprise. Keyboards and mice come in second. The toilet, a common hypothesis, is one of the cleanest places in school. Why? Because -- and you knew this one already -- it gets cleaned. So that was a whole different kind of lesson in itself, prompting more inquiry and more interesting answers.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

 

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