"Transform Your Teaching Approach: Break Bad In Your Science Classroom"
Imagine sitting down to a grand banquet, with plate after plate of delectable dishes placed before you. While the intention is to savor each flavor and delight in the culinary experience, there comes a point when your stomach protests – the process of digestion becomes arduous, and you start to feel the weight of your choices.
Similarly, during science lectures, students find themselves grappling with an excess of information that's difficult to digest fully. They’re likely to just regurgitate those lectured facts and ideas during exams or assignments without having any deep understanding of the content and that, in turn, makes our assessment data completely unreliable. The emphasis shifts from genuine comprehension to rote memorization, akin to reciting a menu without truly savoring the flavors.
Lab day to the rescue!
Just as a well-balanced meal promotes better digestion and absorption of nutrients, a teaching approach involving scientific inquiry practice achieved through science lab activities facilitates the absorption of knowledge, leading to a deeper understanding and a more lasting impact on the students' mastery of science content and skills.
So, say goodbye to the old-school, lecture-lab routine that has been a staple since your own days as a student and that which might still be lingering in your teaching approach. It's time to break free from the norm and uncover a whole new realm of engaging and effective education techniques ...
We’re going to break bad!
But, of course, not the same way Walter White did in the early 2000's hit show, “Breaking Bad”.
That show is my guilty pleasure, though, and I’m definitely a superfan so I'm going to use it as an example to illustrate why we want to embark upon transforming our approach to teaching science.
The urban dictionary defines “breaking bad” as “to give up on the typical moral and social norm and go one's own path”. It goes to clarify that legality and ethics aren’t part of this divergence just as Walter White’s alter-ego, Heisenberg, acted neither legally nor ethically.
Suffice to say, I DON’T want you to be like Walter White … in more ways than you might think.
The Impact of Traditional Lectures on Student Engagement
The following images are an homage to Mr. White's approach to teaching science:
His is a prime example of the teacher-centered classroom. Walter is nearly always at the front of the room talking at and to his group of students instead of with and among them. He’s trying to transfer knowledge directly from his mind into theirs. As brilliant as he is, he must not know or understand that neuroscience tells us this is impossible.
As he explains the chirality of molecules, their handedness, he uses a very interesting story about the side effects of some pharmaceuticals administered in the 1950s. But, HE’S STILL JUST TALKING!
Even when he's demonstrating the flame test, using different mineral solutions to make colorful flames, he’s still explaining. Students aren't creating that phenomena, though that would have been easy enough to arrange. They are clueless as to what produces the unique observations their making. There’s no data for them to analyze and use to support any hypotheses, if they did have some.
Watch a small segment yourself and consider whether or not you’d like to be a student in his class …
In this clip, Walter is delivering an interesting science lecture. He is clearly very knowledgeable about the content and his own passion for the phenomena was evident in his soliloquy. But, his students didn't have anything to do other than listen, so they found other things to do!
Mr. White had to break up a side conversation and was left frustrated by the disrespect shown by those students. Perhaps even more impactful was the damage done to the classroom dynamic by the nonverbal message that situation left in its wake.
Then we saw Walter’s delivery change.
His passion disappeared and he became visibly and audibly grumpy! From my own experience with situations like this, I’d suspect that dealing with those short, simple interruptions (which probably happens to Walt often) takes much of the fulfillment out of his career.
Truthfully, lecturing only one day a week is enough to negatively impact our students’ interest in the content, create classroom management challenges, and hinder our effectiveness as well as our job satisfaction.
But, most science teachers lean heavily on science lecture because they just don’t know how to convey complex concepts any other way.
We know from experience and this illustrative example that science lecture and storytelling produce:
A quiet classroom - Walter was the only one making productive noise as he spoke to his students, providing commentary on his demonstration.
Apprehensive student behavior – Not one student asked a question in Walter's class. One student attempted to answer a question, but his voice clearly indicated that he was neither confident nor certain in his reply. His tone of voice, while familiar to so many of us, suggests he was very hesitant to even offer a response.
Distracted student behavior – Two students were giggling and chatting at the back of the room. While they were busy making their own chemistry, they were distracting all the others who may have been genuinely trying to pay attention. And, of course, the flow of the lecture was completely disrupted when Mr. White had to correct their behavior. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to student engagement.
But lab day looks and sounds very different:
A noisy classroom with collaboration and cooperation - Students express what they observe as they explore systems and experience awe!
Data analyses that drive discussions – Students document what they see in their own words, using evidence to create new questions and uncover the core ideas of the content.
Disciplinary skill practice – Scientific inquiry in professional practice is active learning for pay! Professional scientists make observations, ask questions, generate hypotheses, test those hypotheses, collect data and draw conclusions. They rarely do that work independently, near always benefitting from the collective understanding of a team. When students are provided with manipulatives to observe and encouraged to talk about what they see amongst themselves, they practice scientific inquiry just like the pros!
Transforming Your Approach to Teaching Science with Daily Lab Activities
Lab day rocks!
But when lab day comes only once a week, it has the ability to produce a limiting mindset rather than a growth mindset in our students. A lecture-dominant science classroom is one in which asking questions, making noise, and leaning on a team is only acceptable sometimes.
Here’s how to break bad without becoming Walter White:
Don't underestimate the challenge ahead of you.
Plan to plan … and plan again.
Know Thyself: Reflect on Your Current Teaching Approach
Just as it’s critical to know your starting location and your desired location when you’re taking a trip, it's equally important to know what your current teaching approach includes and what you’d like to include or change.
I suggest that teachers take an accurate, selfless, honest inventory of what they’ve currently got going on. The type of honestly required here can be very difficult! Part of that honesty requires that they revisit their big purpose for why they do what they do. Why did they choose to teach science? Why are they still teaching science? Why might they even be reading this article right now?! Sometimes our motivation for things really reveals a lot.
Once they know what they do and why they do it in the classroom, they need to make goals. I suggest they choose only three with the express intention to fulfill them. For me, when I transformed my teaching approach, I sought only to Increase rigor of the content, enhance my students’ growth mindset, and collect work from students every day.
It’s really just all backwards planning!
Once I wrote down my goals and committed to them, I was able to clearly understand that to meet all of them, I merely needed to ensure my students were accountable for completing a meaningful task that required scientific inquiry everyday.
Set Goals and Persevere to Overcome Challenges
There are going to be days when you’ll want to scream … just like we saw happen to Mr. White when Chad was disruptive and disrespectful. You’ll need grit and a stronghold on your goals to get through some days!
Adopt the Iterative Process of Planning and Refining Lesson Designs
This process of planning a lab in every lesson, it's an engineering process. We design and build, stand back and take in the result, make some changes, and deliver again. Expect to plan and plan and plan. Between planning sessions, expect to reflect to determine areas of the lesson plan or delivery that can be refined and improved. When you plan, reflect, and test again you might discover things that shock you.
I teach college-prep chemistry to at-risk high school students in grades 9-12. When I tested some of the activities with my seven-year-old son at home, he was able to reason through them but when I taught the lesson to my high school students, it failed; they could not complete the inquiry tasks in a way that allowed them to uncover new knowledge.
While every lesson design starts with standards, it might need to be adjusted every year … forever! Once I get to know my students each year, I know how each lesson activity needs to change or how I can alter my delivery to support more mastery.
Don't let yourself off the hook.
It’s so easy to let ourselves off the hook which is why, for me, it is really important to keep inspiration nearby. The year that I decided to commit to transforming my teaching approach, I was working in my hard cop, weekly, faith-based planner. One day I flipped the page and a bible verse appeared that simply read, “She will not fail”.
And I said to myself, “I will not fail. This is going work. I'm not going to give up. Even though I was humbled by a few encounters with students last week, I’ve got to see this through. I will figure it out if I don’t give up.”
As it worked for me, it will work for you!
Traditional lectures result in a quiet classroom with only the teacher's voice dominating the space. Students exhibit reluctance to ask questions or participate actively, affecting their confidence and engagement. Distracted behaviors, such as giggling and chatting, disrupt the lecture and hinder overall student focus.
Lab days create a lively and collaborative classroom atmosphere where students explore and express their observations. Students document observations and use evidence to generate new questions, promoting critical thinking and analysis. Lab activities mirror professional scientific practices, encouraging students to work together and practice inquiry. Students collaborate, sharing insights and collective understanding, enhancing engagement and depth of learning.
Moving beyond rote memorization, lab days overwhelmingly nurture a love for science and meaningful comprehension, but traditionally, they are offered too infrequently to sustain ongoing student engagement and interest.
Science teachers might consider transforming their teaching approach by planning daily lab activities, promoting collaboration, and providing inquiry-based learning experiences as part of their lesson planning and overall curriculum.
Questions for Self-Reflection:
How often do you stand at the front of your science classroom talking at or to your whole group of students?
Can you spend more time talking with and among your students?
What changes would have to be made to accommodate that change in your delivery?
Do you have or can you create the teaching tools to help you achieve that transformation?
If you’d like to learn which constructivist pedagogy might best suit you, your students, and your learning environment, explore your options by downloading my e-book entitled, “Unlock The Power of Constructivism”.