Saturday, January 18, 2014

A paradigm shift: "How do you know?"

Before science we had language.
We trusted our tongues, our ears, our skin.
We knew trees and water and the last agonal gurgle of death.
We knew what we wanted.

Until recently, high school biology meant mostly just watching.
Children saw forests, then trees, then leaves, then the shapes of the leaves and their veins.

Children categorized animals by shapes and size, by the presence of hair or scales, by their number of toes, by their number of holes going in and going out, by how they ate others, how they got around.

A child's first contact with a frog usually involved a chase and wet feet, not a warning to wear goggles.

Francis Crick's early DNA sketch

We've wandered into dangerous ground now.
We care that a child can draw the abstract idea of a DNA molecule without noticing she can no longer sees the forests. She may be more useful to someone eventually, but there's a price to forsaking the concrete.

Grab any high school science teacher with his guard down, and ask him what's wrong. Dig deep and I think you'll hear a common refrain. Many students have lost their connection to the only world that's real, the world that's the basis for science. The abstract may make the economy hum, but it's the real that makes most of us happy.

I have been struggling the past couple of years trying to make the world real again for my students. I have wrestled with how we all use words, with how many of us use numbers, with an education culture that worships abstract measures more than knowledge, more than wisdom.

The deeper I dig, the more I've come to realize how little we can know of the abstract without some connection to the real. Science is built on models, on analogies, on mathematical relationships, but the foundation is the ground we (literally) walk on, the air we breathe, the swirling mystery of matter and movement around us.

And it truly remains a mystery, a mystery that can only be unraveled by appealing to our senses. A microscope is only useful in as far as it helps us to see things that really exist, an idea far less obvious than we realize.

Until a child can use ordinary language to describe what she sees in the microscope, she may be seeing less than I realize when she uses fancy terms prescribed by our curriculum.

Enter the Common Core, an ill-conceived attempt by monied folk and the Federal government to wrassle away local control of our schools, and its sister PARCC, a testing consortium of sorts, I suppose, but one already lined with Federal money and blessed by New Jersey.

Despite its ignominious gestation and birth, the CCSS is not quite the monster feared. (Even The Christ Himself had a less than auspicious start with a dubious conception.)

It's not going away anytime soon, and schools like mine face Armageddon next spring when our children first face the lions in the PARCC arena. I feel like the executioner's trap door (CCSS) has opened but PARCC's noose has yet to snap our necks.

Few folks get to report on the feeling one feels during a fatal fall, but I'm guessing no one worries about next month's electric bill. Since the trap door opened last year here in New Jersey, I've been trying to maintain an impossible juggling act, prepping the kids for a content-based state biology test while focusing on the language we use in a science classroom.

This week our science classes were told we're undergoing a paradigm shift, that our focus should be on the language and math skills outlined in the Core Curriculum. While we will still be rooted to the content of the curriculum, our focus shifts now to language, to fluency, to  how children show how they grasp the natural world, to how children know something.

We were asked to focus our students on this question:

 "How do you know?"

I'm running with this, and why not?
It's the heart of science.

(Still not going to feel good next spring when the PARCC noose tightens.....)


Susan Eckert said...

In other words, focus your efforts in your science classroom to improve your school's scores on a standardized high-stakes exam that does not test science.

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

That would be one way to take it. I'm going to approach this differently, though.

I am going to use this as an opportunity to focus on the nature of science using language and math. In the midst of disruption, good things can happen.

Susan Eckert said...

Dear Michael,

You can make lemonade out of lemons but science is now being used as a vehicle to cover the CC standards that focus on reading and writing informational text.

I think it's a game. The game would change if the bio state test carried weight. It doesn't matter at all. And so the school wants you to focus on improving reading/writing through science.

Any good science teacher has always stressed reading and writing, anyways.

doyle said...

Dear Susan,

Your point resonates--any decent science teacher stresses words and writing and numbers.

What better medium to use than the natural world around us?

Jenny said...

How do you know? is my favorite question. When I'm doing well I ask it of myself about the choices I make in my teaching and my parenting. When I'm doing well...

(Did you see the short piece I wrote for ASCD about this exact question?

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

Cool beans!!! Don;t know how that got by me!