Saturday, January 25, 2014

The clock is running!

We are now barreling into the year 2014.  Since the beginning of the current school year, students have experienced a multitude of investigative science projects and they have developed the skills and abilities necessary to solve problems, while covering concepts in chemistry and physics. Now is the time to push for real long-term research taking place in the science classroom.

The Earth Stewardship Project in physical science and the independent research projects in honors physics are the gateway into a performance-orientated approach to learning.  These long-term research projects require increased levels of autonomy and effort by students, which is inspired by a more student-centered model for learning.

The count down in days to spring break begins a rallying cry to initiate the process of science in the classroom.  Doing real science is the goal as students begin their scientific investigation as they define it within their written proposals. 

A commitment to the ideals of discovery and problem-solving are the real outcomes of student achievement.  In a student-centered model for learning, the learning process becomes untethered from the constraints of grades, quizzes and tests.  The goal is to learn, foster understanding and to become experts in their chosen field of research. Students develop timeframes and focus upon self-determined criteria that will shape the outcome of their research.  It is a liberating experience for the students and it creates a classroom climate of excitement and anticipation. 

Student intrinsic motivation to learn is now encapsulated in their research.  Since students pursue areas of personal interest, it is an easy transition from teacher-guided projects to student-centered projects.  The teacher functions as a trusted consultant on these projects helping to ensure students' successful completion. Decisions made as to the depth of their understanding and to the magnitude of their research are really up to the students themselves.  Peer-reviewed researched findings will be an important factor in the determination of both the quality of the project and the level of understanding that it provides to others.

The long-term research projects provide the means by which teachers build upon students’ abilities to work collaboratively, communicate effectively, reason out solutions to complex problems and to commit to their own ideals as learners.  The learning process, in the classroom, takes on greater meaning for the students.  It is the students themselves that provide the rigor and the relevance to their work.  Their work completed on the projects become a true reflection of the necessary attributes developed by students as productive and caring citizens in the 21st century.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

I’ve Been Schooled!

Where did the whimsy go?


The passing of the bitter cold polar vortex signaled the beginning of second semester at Streamwood High School.  It is the second half of the school year starting fresh with new concepts and renewed opportunities for students to learn science.

It was a great idea. Get the students immediately engaged in concepts in physics by the introduction of an engineering-based challenge, The Paper Helicopter Project. Motivation should run high as students work hands-on creating, constructing and flying paper helicopters in the classroom.  The scientific investigation process will take over two days and the ultimate test will be a performance-based challenge that will judge the students’ abilities to solve problems in science.

Using a framework designed from a university-level project, I reformulated the required outcomes to help lead high school students through this learning process.  My colleagues spent the same time period covering vocabulary and graphical interpretation of motion, but I was convinced that this inquiry-mode of learning could provide the greatest opportunity for my students.

The project chaos and confusion ebbs and flows as students struggle to obtain their outcomes based upon the flight performance of these paper helicopters.  The struggle eventually turns into a methodical step-by-step approach to solving the problem.  Now here enters the issue that I struggle with.  The methodical approach of changing factors (independent variables) on the helicopter to make it fly better becomes regimentation and I sensed a loss of creativity and wonder by my students.  I keep pushing for the completion of the performance tests and analysis, but the whimsy of the project clearly waned.

Motivation by students in the classroom is like experiencing acceleration, you know it when you feel it but it is a tenuous thing.  Whimsy is the result of a convolution of factors set in motion from the genius of the project.  “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead” can sometimes sink your ship. Somewhere in the course of the project design I should have infused a more creative aspect more quickly and more dramatically. Students begin to treat the experience as an after- thought. There is no intellectual curiosity.  It boils down to same old same. The routineness of the methodology killed innovation. At this point I am still asking myself the question; how do I to effectively lace these important aspects of creative thought and innovation more profoundly within a workable time frame for the project?

After three days of testing the students now have the opportunity to build their own paper helicopter, designed to their own ideal specifications. They will then fly the final product.  It is a competitive flight with rewards given to groups that yield the most highly productive final model.  I am hopeful for a rebound in motivation, curiosity and playfulness. The product they create must fit within specific design parameters introduced during the previous three days of testing. This entire learning experience provides students with an opportunity to showcase, to the entire class, what they have learned.



Monday, January 06, 2014


It begins with morning sweating and a tightening of the chest muscles. It progresses to racing thoughts and increasing level of anxiety.  Am I worried about taking an exam? Am I about to engage in some life-threatening activity?  No it is the second, then the third and then the fourth day of teaching science class at Streamwood High School.

This describes the typical daily experience of an Outlier teacher, which I consider myself.  It is typical given the level of commitment and risk-taking involved when creating a learning environment for my students.  It is not for lack of experience or even the routine of teaching that causes such anxiety (twenty years of teaching at the high school level has well prepared me for the challenges in the classroom), but it is the goal in mind and the level of engagement needed by students that breeds such emotions.

Play, Passion and Purpose drive the intrinsic motivation of my students and my effort to facilitate these personal attributes determine the whimsy created in the classroom. This is the intrinsic incentives of exploration, empowerment and play.  The learning environment that  I create to tease-out this motivation in students includes teamwork, interdisciplinary problem solving, intrinsic drives and a kind of empowerment that gives individuals the confidence they need to take risks.

To engage and intellectually challenge my students through project-based models of learning is the risk-taking goal that I embrace as an educator.  It also separates me from mainstream teaching that focus more exclusively upon content.  It is this daily schism of balancing innovative project-based and inquiry-driven science curriculum with state standards, standardized testing and a general trend toward a more strict uniformity in the science curriculum. Innovation in the science classroom requiring risk-taking ventures  for both students and teacher collide daily with testing schedules, content adherence and a general mood of resigning to the lowest common denominator in education the multiple choice standardized test.

An Outlier, I look forward to the whimsy I can create in the classroom and use it as an opportunity to engage with students in doing real science.  Science has always been a process of investigation with risk-taking being its true means to the end. I feel locked in a perpetual and repetitive nature of coming back into the science classroom again and again with renewed efforts to spark enthusiasm and motivation for this subject.  I guess that if I did not embrace this challenge as more of a vocation than a job, then I would have yielded years ago to the obsession for uniformity and complacency in science education.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Year of the Outlier

In the recently published book by Tom Wagner called Creative Innovators, he defines outlier teachers in the following way,

Outlier teachers strive to develop students’ individual voice and intrinsic motivation, while structuring projects so that students work collaboratively and use multiple disciplines to understand real-world problems” (page 288).

“These teachers create the teaching and learning environment that develop young peoples’ capacity to innovate-how expertise, creative thinking skills and motivation are best developed " (p.232).

“Once again, we see the importance of an outlier teacher whose collaborative, project-based, interdisciplinary approach to learning has a profound effect on the development of a young person.” (p.210).
This is a difficult thing to accomplish for a teacher. To become an outlier you must have years of experience and understanding just as a pre-requisite to what is truly needed by teachers in the classroom to reach students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. To be an outlier the essential personal character that I speak of, which must be brought into the classroom, is risk-taking. 
As an educator you must embrace the student experience, see what they see, question what they question and go through a process of awakening to the challenges of grappling with new ideas to investigate, new teaching methodologies to explore and implement, while pursuing investigative experiences in the classroom that can really challenge everyone's way of thinking.
Each year, faced with the fresh minds of new students full of inquiry about the world that they inhabit and their destiny in it, outliers help to mentor students on this discovery process. But not only as mentors,  but as a co-investigators in this discovery process called science.  It is a yearly new bold experiment in learning that is marked by trial-and-error and continual discoveries for all stakeholders based on who we are and how we fit into the world presented to us.

The Need for Change


In the book titled Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner, he states that essential competencies and habits of the mind in the 21st century include effective communication skills, curiosity, critical-thinking skills and innovation.  It includes knowing how to think-to reason, analyze, weigh evidence, problem-solve and master content (p. xxiii).
The problems facing our public schools is a low level of intellectual work, lack of curiosity, forgetful memorized fact regurgitation and a general lack of real challenge for students in the classroom. 
In the 21st century, students have to be engaged in the learning environment by seeing their commitment as having real meaning for them and their community.  The standard competitive grading system, that permeates the educations system, does not contribute to the development of this culture of learners. 
Our schools breed a culture of competitors with each participant vying for their own piece of education that becomes more and more unauthentic and meaningless.  Today, while technology may have reduced knowledge to a commodity, the real learning in the classroom will come from understanding derived from experience and project-based models of learning.