Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Importance of Having a Pedagogy

California scares me. They have tried to pass a law (maybe they did) that says that anyone with a college degree can teach for a few years. Sounds great on paper. You have a bunch of engineers who can't find work in Silicon Valley after the Dot Com Boom of the nineties. Throw them in a classroom and let their expertise in science and engineering drive the curriculum. This scares me. Good teaching is more than knowing the equations in the homework, or how to place a prepositional phrase in a sentence. Good teaching involves a knowledge of how kids learn.

I realize that there are many factors that go into being successful in the classroom (personality, relationships, content knowledge, confidence, and work ethic). I may hit on some of these in later posts, but today I want to discuss planning the lesson. Great teachers have a method to their madness. They have a base set of ideals and beliefs that govern how they teach. They have studied both before becoming a teacher, and more importantly while in the act, how students best learn material. They pay attention to the group as a whole, but know that there is no silver bullet that can catch every student. Their lessons do not write themselves, and rarely are written by another. They steal, develop, or create the lessons that work best for them. They talk with each other, and are open-minded enough to try something different or adapt their perception of learning with changing demographics of students. 

Let me give you the secret to my teaching. The biggest push in science right now is this thing called Inquiry Learning. What is interesting is that with all the books written, articles published, buzzwords created, standards carved in stone, and legislation passed, I can not adequately define it. Talk to two different people and they will tell you it means two different things. Here is my definition of inquiry. Any lesson that forces kids to think, is an inquiry lesson. When I say think, I mean solve problems, analyze situations, or come up with conclusions based on data. Memorization, matching, or any rote learning is not inquiry. (I don't want to downplay rote learning as there is a place for that too. Sometimes we spend too much time on having kids make inferences, and not enough time on them actually understanding premises of problems.)

The Learning Cycle

When it comes to tried and true methods of teaching, few stand up to the learning cycle. It has been around for something like 30 years, peer reviewed in numerous research scenarios, and updated through more dissertations than I can count. I was weaned on this method in college as the University of Northern Iowa's physics teaching department used it as the basis for much of their products. (PRISMS, CRISTALS, BIOMES, etc)

There are many different types of learning cycles out there. I use the simplest as it allows for the most flexibility. ALL of my lessons have these components to them, in ALL of my classes. This is how I teach, and I believe it has been successful. I have applied this from my AP Physics to workshops with kindergarten teachers who stated "Why had no one ever told us this before?!"

Step 1: Exploratory- This initial part of the lesson is where you give students a common experience. It may involve a lab in chemistry where you have students make patterns of shapes that will lead you into a discussion of the periodic table. It may be a 1st grade teacher taking her students on a walk and then having them discuss anything that they noticed that was affected by the weather. 

Step 2: Concept Development- This aspect of the lesson is where you take the common experiences that student have been given and expand them to the concepts you want them to understand. This may be a lecture, a lab activity, or any other aspect that many would say is normal teaching. More often than not, for a science classroom, it is an activity (or set of activities) that is much more pointed than its exploratory counterpart. The questions are expected to push the student towards understanding the concept. In physics, after students have made graphs of motion and recognized that the slope is related to the velocity, these activities have them calculate the slope or even look at the area under graphs. 

Step 3- Application- At this point the instructor should be fairly confident that the students understand the material. But can they apply it to a new situation? Imagine 2nd grade students who did connect the dots on a set of constellation worksheets for exploratory and learned stories behind constellations in concept development. Can these students then make their own constellation out of given stars on a sheet? Can they make their own story about how it got into the sky? This may be the most often overlooked part of the cycle (time is always and issue), but it is probably the most important.