Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Last summer I read the book, Visible Learning for Science: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning by John Almarode, Nancy Frey, Douglas B. Fisher and John Hattie. I was inspired by the taxonomies, pedagogies and teaching examples presented throughout the work. In fact, I'll undoubtedly commit to reading Hattie's entire series of Visible Learning texts which span instructional strategies, assessment and feedback across all disciplines and grade levels. That will become a leisure time activity, though, because I first have to deliver my interpretation and experience with his principles to my science teacher peers in the trenches!
These authors produced a work which exemplifies the idea that science transcends academics, noting that "having some understanding of science is part of being an informed citizen" and so students must "think critically about claims that are made in the media and popular culture" long after they have left the schoolyard. This philosophy is one which I had intended to realize long ago when I made the decision to embark upon a career in teaching.
As I reviewed my own live session recordings concurrent to studying this text (Remember! I teach in a virtual environment where everything is recorded and archived!), the areas in which I could improve seemed very apparent to me. Specifically, I thought I had been teaching with inquiry strategies. I was, after all, asking students questions all the time before revealing the facts related to what they needed to know. But, I came to realize that questioning alone does not constitute inquiry . . . not by a long shot! In fact, by their very nature, inquiry-based classrooms and curricula must reflect student centered learning principles:
I claimed that my students learned because the data I collected from assessments supported that fact. Perhaps, I could really reach and claim that my students reported. But, then, it was ever only the top performers who were willing and able to report their understanding. You know how they say that acceptance of a problem is the first step toward recovery?! Well, Visible Learning for Science was the intervention I needed to identify my instructional weaknesses, accept them and make a plan to move forward with fresh, new goals and motivation.
It turns out that my classroom was very teacher-centered. I provided information and visual resources; student engagement was limited to formative assessment through scaffolded questioning, and it was always directed at the whole group. I endured ten years of professional development sessions about differentiation, differentiating content, product and process, but never knew what to do with it! Now, I realize it's because my students didn't follow any processes and they didn't create any products! They had content forced upon them, that's all. Have you noticed that I have yet to use the term, "lecture"?! Let me continue believing I wasn't that far down the rabbit hole . . .
Still, my lesson plans were my pride and joy. It turns out I never really shared clear or relatable objectives, and I rarely collected artifacts that demonstrated student learning. So, I was floundering in all three main aspects of teaching: lesson planning, delivery and real-time, formative assessment.
MAKING THE SWITCH TO STUDENT CENTERED LEARNING
For the 2019-2020 academic year, I made the switch to student centered learning by setting the following goals:
prepare clear learning intentions and success criteria for each lesson I taught.
incorporate discovery components into each lesson to ensure students are aware and active during class time.
employ a variety of differentiated, instructional strategies beyond scaffolded questioning and visual imagery to ensure each student was able to achieve mastery.
LEARNING INTENTIONS AND SUCCESS CRITERIA
Effect sizes provide perspective with regard to what strategies work best and at what point in the learning process they work best; an effect size of 0.4, Hattie says, reflects a year worth of learning. Any strategies calculated to demonstrate an effect size greater than 0.4 should, therefore, produce more than one year of learning. Claiming an effect size of 1.13, I also adopted Alamarode's and Hattie's template for outlining learning intentions and success criteria. They suggest these expectations invite students into learning when they are:
based on the standard, but chunked into learning bites.
understood by the students.
demonstrably connected to the criteria of success.
long, specific and interesting.
I integrated the "Today I am ..." (learning intention) paired with "so that I can ..." (success criteria) format, but I have yet to more completely understand the complete SOLO taxonomy upon which this template relies. The learning intentions I've outlined for each lesson describe why the content is important and, potentially, how it will serve them beyond high school. For lessons that belong to a series, the learning intentions were often repeated over several days because the "why" was connected to future lessons; often, the reason to learn one concept in chemistry is to gain the prior knowledge necessary to learn another. Therefore, I used the success criteria to focus the students on the concepts and tasks they needed to master on each day. At the end of each unit in preparation for a standardized, common assessment, I was able to easily compile a list of success criteria for students to use as they prepared.
DISCOVERY COMPONENTS &
Each lesson activity -- what I like to call "Learning Experiences" -- ensures students are provided the ability to control dynamic visuals to describe phenomena we could never observe in the lab. Guiding questions and graphic organizers foster individual student note-taking skills. Literacy activities and a concerted focus on vocabulary strengthen critical reading and writing skills. Reciprocal teaching was disguised as whole-group data analysis and small groups were employed wherever the investigative scope was too broad or time was limited.
The integration of prior knowledge became a necessary component of each lesson I delivered and always required a considerable amount of time at the start of each class period. Think of the "Learning Experiences" as the "main event" in my student centered classroom, whereas "Review & Preview" activities, though similarly immersive, could be considered the "opening acts" and, in some ways, also the "curtain calls" because I have developed a tendency toward planning them in a way that not only encourages thoughtful hypothesizing but also comparing real Learning Experience outcomes to those hypothesis.
You know . . . just like we do when we use the scientific method! 🥼
You can get a great feel for the integration of all five elements of an effective interactive science lesson for student centered learning by downloading my freebie student centered interactive science lesson and coordinated digital interactive notebook on isotopes from my store.
A PROVEN DISTANCE LEARNING STRATEGY
It is important to note that the accessibility of the technologies chosen along with clear expectations for their use, allowed me to ensure that my asynchronous students (those who opted and were granted permission to abstain from attending live class sessions) participated in the same investigative experiences as those who attended my live sessions regularly. Using BookWidgets web-based software (which cleverly and conveniently integrates with Google Classroom and some other LMS platforms), I was able to create interactive web forms I call "Digital Interactive Notebooks" which allowed students to complete all the same activities, produce the same artifacts and satisfy the same learning intentions as if they had been in class with me. Their account of the experience was overwhelmingly positive and, through review of their work products, I realized I had never before been so informed of my asynchronous students' academic behaviors, content understanding or skill level.
As I type this article, we remain in the rebuilding phase of the COVID tragedy in the US. Throughout the country, there remains uncertainty related to school plans for the next academic year. For this reason, I'm doing my best to rush production of these resources so my science teacher peers can be ready in the fall and avoid the need to experiment with what works and what doesn't with regard to distance learning techniques. Soon, I hope to be launch a professional development course and coaching membership to guide teachers through the entire process of planning and executing interactive science lessons to create and foster a student centered classroom that even compliments distance learning models.
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JOIN A COMMUNITY THAT RALLIES AROUND STUDENT CENTERED LEARNING STRATEGIES!
Become a member of my professional learning community at community.labineverylesson.com . I'll be posting all of my blog content there, plus some extras! Most importantly, you'll get connected with a group of middle school and high school science teachers who are trying to achieve similar goals. It's a place where we can work together to help our students achieve Scientific Method Mastery -- not because they'll become scientists someday, but because they'll need a solid foundation of skills to make tough, well-informed decisions throughout their life.
I hope to see you there!