Small changes can make a huge difference

Over the past few years I have been constantly changing the way I teach due to introduction of 1:1 laptop initiatives in some classes and a continually-developing understanding of how students learn. In a lot of cases it has involved turning things upside down and completely rewriting units of work. This is tiring. Worth it but tiring. But I found out recently that small, minor changes can make a huge difference too. The Student Research Project (SRP) has been around since I was in high school. It’s an oldie but a goodie. The SRP involves students planning, doing and reporting on an experiment of their choice. It is a compulsory activity for all Year 7-10 students in NSW, Australia. Each student must do at least one SRP once in Year 7 and 8, and another one in Year 9 and 10. By doing the SRP, students learn how to design a fair experiment, a must-have skill for all scientists! See here for more info on the SRP.

It was the Year 8’s turn to do the SRP in September this year. The traditional way of doing the SRP is for students to choose an experiment, plan it, do it and then submit a written report. This year my faculty decided to revamp it and not just rehash the status quo. However this didn’t involve major changes that would stress everyone out. It involved a few tweaks that would have the most impact. Like always we gave students the choice of whatever experiment they wanted. My class were doing experiments ranging from water absorption of different types of soils to whether particular types of video games would improve people’s reaction times to using Gary’s Mod to run a simulated experiment. However instead of forcing students to do a written report, we decided to let students choose how to present their SRP findings in whatever medium they wanted. Some students still chose to submit a written report (but by sharing it as a Google document to make the feedback process more efficient) while other students chose to create Prezis or videos. Students had to justify why their chosen medium would be the most effective in communicating their findings to others. At the conclusion of the SRP, students shared their findings with their class over a two-day conference, just like real scientists.

In the presentations I would usually get students to give each other feedback (one medal and one mission) by writing it down on a piece of paper, which I will take home and collate and then give back to students. This was a really inefficient way of doing it. Students had to wait at least 24 hours to get peer feedback and it took me time to type of the students’ feedback. This time I decided to create a backchannel on Edmodo that students used to give feedback to each presenter. Students did this by using laptops. A designated student had the role of creating a post for each presenter and then the whole class will reply to that post with a medal and mission for the presenter. Doing it this way meant that the presenter got the feedback as soon as they finished presenting; they didn’t have to wait till the next day after I’ve collated the class’ feedback. Students really liked the immediacy of the feedback they got from the Edmodo backchannel. There was also one student who made a video for his SRP, but he was ill over the two days of the presentations. His video was still shown and he was able to receive feedback on it at home from his peers via the Edmodo backchannel.

A sample of the Edmodo backchannel

So just with a little of tweaking, the good ol’ SRP has been thrusted into the 21st century. I didn’t have to completely re-write it or turn it upside down. Just by adding Google docs, more student choice and Edmodo, the SRP was made a million times better for students as a learning process. From the end-of-term evaluations, many students from across all Year 8 classes identified the SRP to be their favourite activity this term because it gave them choice, it let them use technology and they learnt by doing.

Next time I’d like to have students sharing their findings with a global audience, or at least with an audience beyond their class. But one small step at a time 🙂

All high school teachers should teach primary school

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I am so lucky this year that I get to teach with my primary school colleagues from our partner primary schools. For the last two terms I taught Year 5s from Hilltop Road Public School and for the rest of this year I am teaching Year 5s at Merrylands East Public School and Merrylands Public School.

Teaching with primary school teachers have been one of the best professional learning experiences I have had. Here are the main things from primary schools that really speak to me:

-It’s all about students and learning. It isn’t about particular subjects and pushing content. Everything from what is displayed on the walls to the activities is all about the learner.
-Primary school students can do a lot more than you think. While I have never been one of those teachers who think Year 7 students are babies, the level and rigour of learning in primary schools continue to amaze me. Kids are making stop motion animations, blogging, producing their own news … The level of richness is their learning is often unknown to high school teachers.
-I learn so much from watching how primary school teachers structure learning. From how they break down complex tasks to how they use the wall space as another teacher. I have learnt so much from Brett Kent and Karlie Hindmarsh (@karliehindie)

So if you are a high school teacher, you should see whether you can teach with your primary school colleagues. It will be one of the best learning experiences. Plus you get to teach while sitting on a yoga ball. Why wouldn’t you want that experience! 🙂

What do students think of their learning?

Student voice is something that I really value. In the perfect world students would have a complete say in what they learn and how they learn. But in the meantime the confines of syllabuses I still like to give my students a say in the learning that’s happening in the classroom. What things do they like learning about? How do they like to learn? Is what they are learning too difficult or too easy? What parts of the classroom learning design do they think needs improvement? What can I do as their teacher to make learning better for them?

My Year 8 class gave their feedback on their learning this week as Term 2 in NSW, Australia drew to a close. Here’s what they thought:

infographic of evaluation results

 

The main topic we studied in Term 2 was called Water Water Everywhere, which is essentially using the particle model to explain the properties of solids, liquids and gases and why one state of matter changes to another when energy is added or removed from the system. This topic is probably one of the most difficult and often disengaging topic for students because it involves an abstract concept. The particle model lends itself to a lot of student misconceptions and is generally something students find difficult to understand, which I have discussed in a previous post. To overcome this the learning was designed so to involve lots of interesting hands-on experiences such as making quicksand and using technology for students to increase their conceptual understanding and allow their misconceptions to be picked more and addressed more frequently.

From the students’ feedback, scientific metalanguage was emphasised as an area they thought needed improvement, so next topic there will be more activities that emphasise the use of scientific metalanguage.

What I also find interesting is students’ decisions on whether they will continue with Science in the post-compulsory years of schooling. What I find particularly interesting is that quite a few students who consistently say they find the learning in Year 8 science fun, interesting and related to the real world, do not want to study science in Year 11 & 12 because their chosen career does not need science. There seems to be a perception with my Year 8s that science in Year 11 and 12 are for people who want to be scientists. This perception is also found in evaluations completed by Year 9 and 10 students.

So one of my challenges for the rest of the year is how am I going to design the learning for these students value science and view it as important to learn, even though they aren’t going to pursue a career in science.

How to challenge misconceptions of the particle model

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Calling all science teachers. I need some help. My Year 8s are currently learning about the particle model and states of matter. Like I mentioned in my previous post, many students have various misconceptions on the particle.

Today Year 8s made home made thermometers to learn how expansion and contraction (see image above)

They have already learnt about how movement of particles is related to the amount of energy they have, which then determines the state of the object. After they made their homemade thermometers and observed the liquid expanding and rising in hot water and the liquid contracting and falling in ice water, they wrote a paragraph using some sentence starters, that led them to use the particle model to explain their observations and explain how real thermometers work.

I had a one-to-one conference with each student to go through their explanations to make sure I identify their misconceptions. Here are some common misconceptions from my Year 8s:
-When particles are heated they expand
-When particles are cooled they contract
-Particles are inside matter (as opposed to matter being made of particles)

Many of my Year 8s are actually thinking that the particles themselves become larger and smaller. They are confusing the particles and the matter made out of these particles.

What can I do to challenge these misconceptions? I don’t want to just tell them to reword their explanation. I want to give them a learning experience that makes them realise their current understanding is wrong.

Using PowerPoint to tackle misconceptions and embed literacy in science

Many people frown upon PowerPoint, It has become rather unfashionable these days. Search ‘PowerPoint’ in Google and you’ll get websites with titles like:

“Be Less Boring: The 4 Best Alternatives to PowerPoint”

“Hate PowerPoint? Here are 5 Web-based Alternatives”

“5 PowerPoint Alternatives to Wake Up Your Presentations”

Anyway, since PowerPoint has been getting such a negative spin lately, I’d like to share some a learning activity that uses PowerPoint a little differently.

My Year 8 class are currently learning about states of matter and the particle model. It is one of the most conceptually difficult science topics for middle school students. The most difficult aspect is probably because the particle model is an abstract concept. There are also many misconceptions associated with this topic. Let’s take particles of water as an example. Students often think that:

  • particles in ice, liquid water and steam are physically different from each other

  • particles change in size as water changes from ice, liquid water and steam

There are also a few conceptually difficult ideas that students need to grasp such as:

  • Particles are inside objects (as opposed to particles actually making up the object)

  • One particle of water is actually two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom

  • The behaviour of the particles that cannot be seen is directly related to the behaviour of the macroscopic object they make up

  • The particle model is a model and every model has limitations in what they can explain

This is one of those topics where a lot of regular and frequent formative assessment is very  beneficial as it allows you as the teacher to identify and tackle any misconceptions as they happen with each student. This is one of those topics where you don’t want to find out your students have completely misunderstood particle model at an end-of-topic test.

So with my Year 8s I decided to use PowerPoint to identify misconceptions. Their PowerPoint task looks something like this:

This is an unfinished audio slideshow made by some of my Year 8 students

This activity was done over three lessons, spanning three weeks. At the end of each of these lessons, students upload their progress onto Edmodo and I give them feedback based on the medals and missions model.

Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean.

screenshot of feedback

And here’s my feedback to them on Edmodo.

And here’s my feedback to another group. From their progress I was able to pick up on one of their misconceptions.

screenshot of feedback on Edmodo

From my observations of my Year 8 students doing this activity, I have found that they actively engage with the text when they are finding images to match different sections of the text. In their groups they were often arguing and justifying to  each other which images were the best to use. I also think that this activity allows students to ‘talk science’, which will be particularly beneficial for students learning English as a second language. Setting aside time where students practise using scientific metalanguage to talk about science with each other is also something that is often neglected in high school science.

During this activity, it is also the students who are working the hardest to learn. It isn’t me showing pictures of circles and talking about the particle model. It is them talking about it and me regularly checking their understanding.

So don’t just think of PowerPoint as a boring presentation tool. It can be used as a very easy way to create a student-centred learning environment that frees up the teacher to tackle student misconceptions.

Hold it right there. We learn about black holes in Year 10, not in Year 8

This term my Year 8 class has been running Science News. Science News is where each student in the class takes turns in presenting a science news item that they have found interesting. They have to showcase  the science news item in a two minute presentation. The purpose of Science News is to expose students to the latest discoveries in science. I wanted them to know that science is everywhere.

However, Science News has also taught me new things and not just scientific things. One Science News item challenged how I was designing my learning for my students and how our education system designs learning for our students. Daniel talked about new discoveries on black holes. You can read Daniel’s speech to the class here. Right after Daniel finished his speech, half of the class’ hands shot up with questions.

“What exactly are black holes?”

“What happens when you go into a black hole?”

“I heard that time slows down when go inside a black hole. Is that true?”

“If we can’t see a black hole. How do we know it is there?”

“What is a light year?”

I was really happy that my students were so enthusiastic about learning more on black holes. So what did I do? I spent about 5 minutes skimming through the basics of gravity, dark matter and the speed of light and then I said, “OK. We actually learn about this stuff in Year 10. We need to stop now and continue learning about the ozone layer.”

While ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere is very important and Year 8s were also interested in ozone, I felt really guilty in almost extinguishing my students’ curiosity in black holes because the syllabus said that they should learn it in Year 10 and right now they should be learning about the ozone layer. I’m sure many teachers have faced this kind of situation before but it really got me thinking on how the current education system does so much to restrict the learning of our students.

Why do we have to learn about black holes in Year 10?

To be more accurate, students in NSW learn about black holes in Year 9 or 10 (It’s this thing we call Stage 5, which is Year 9 and 10). I understand that the need to learn age-appropriate concepts. For example, many early primary school-aged students may not have the cognitive ability to tackle abstract concepts (you know, because of all the Piaget stuff). However, I don’t see why if my Year 8s want to learn about black holes (and I know they will be able to), they can’t learn about it because the syllabus says they learn it in Stage 5. When you learn swimming, your age doesn’t determine what kind of things you learn, it’s how fast you are progressing and what you are ready to learn.

Why can’t we learn about black holes and the ozone layer?

Why couldn’t I have let my students go online on their phones and look up videos and websites that helped answer their questions about black holes and share it with the class, and then continue with the ozone layer? I wanted to, but I only have 3 hours with them a week and I only see them an hour at a time. Last year I had the same class for 14 hours a week in an integrated curriculum and I would’ve let them explore black holes and then continue with ozone layer because I had the flexibility to do so. However, now I am back to a more traditional and rigid timetable where learning starts and stops with the school bell. Previously I have blogged about the challenges of implementing project based learning in such a traditional school structure. The more I try to implement project based learning or anything that builds on students’ curiosity and passion or anything that personlises their learning, the more I want to knock down the existing school structure. A few days ago, I was in a workshop with Greg Whitby on teaching and learning in a Web2.0 world. He said the timetable is the one thing that is stopping effective learning and teaching. I couldn’t agree with that point more.

Greg also talked about agile learning spaces. I have to admit when I first heard of agile learning spaces a few years ago, I just liked the look of them. The bright colours and funky furniture looked particularly attractive when you are used to 1950s furniture in classrooms. But since I’ve started PBL, I get it a bit more. So going back to the black hole scenario … In an agile learning space style of learning, Daniel would’ve presented his science news to the whole cohort of Year 8 or a mixture of students from different year groups in one large space. The ones who were interested in learning more about black holes can go with one teacher and the others can go with the other teachers to continue to learn about the ozone layer. Teaching and learning is no longer restricted to one teacher teaching 30 students. Depending on the need, you can be teaching one student or 10 students or 80 students. The space enables you to do so. There are no walls that says you have to teach 30 students at a time. There are also no bells to tell you that you need to spend 60 minutes on learning something; you take as long as you need to. The video below gives you an idea of what learning is like in an agile learning environment.

And now I don’t how to end this post. I sort of feel disillusioned. I want to knock down the walls of my classroom but realistically that can’t happen. Not just yet anyway. So when the school week starts again, it will be back to the status quo. *Sigh*

Learning about sound waves with English Language Learners

Sound waves and waves in general are concepts that I’ve found many students have difficulty understanding. These are concepts that deal with understanding how energy is transmitted from one place to another through a scientific model. Why are these concepts difficult? Firstly it is abstract. You can’t see waves. When you speak or hear music you can’t see the waves coming out from the source and travelling to your ear. You can’t see the vibrations of particles. Secondly learning about the transmission of waves comes with a lot of academic language. Here’s just a sample of academic scientific jargon you’ll hear when you sit in a lesson learning about waves:

  • Equilibrium

  • Particles

  • Transmission

  • Transfer

  • Amplitude

  • Frequency

  • Period

  • Wavelength

  • Compression

  • Rarefaction

Due to this, learning about waves is particularly challenging for students who are also English language learners. Not only do they have to deal with difficult and abstract scientific concepts, they also have to deal with the intense bombardment of academic language.

This year I have a Year 9 class who are students learning English as a second language. I didn’t want to start the topic with a waveform diagram and pointing out what is an amplitude, etc. I planned a learning sequence that will move them from concrete to abstract, and from everyday language to academic language.

The first concept I wanted them to understand is that sound is vibration, or things shaking back-and-forth very quickly. We used the good ol’ tin can phones for this. We also did an experiment where students used a vibrating tuning forks to tickle their noses and make tiny splashes with a beaker of water (I thought they would find these experiments too boring, but they absolutely loved it). Every single student left that lesson knowing that sound is caused by vibrations.

The second concept I wanted them to understand is that we can represent sounds as waves. Students used Audacity to record their voices and experiment with how the loudness and pitch of their voice affected how the sound wave looked like on Audacity. We also experimented on whether saying “Hello, My name is ____” in English and students’ first languages had a difference in pitch.

Here’s a video on Audacity. It’s a free program that can be downloaded.

Students worked out from this Audacity activity that the higher pitched their voices were the more squashy the waves were. They also worked out the louder their voices were the taller the waves. I was happy for them to use the words “squashy” and “high” to describe the waves for the time being.

The following lesson I introduced frequency and amplitude. By now the students had a conceptual understanding of the relationship between sound and vibrations, the relationship between pitch and “squashiness” and the relationship between volume and the tallness of waves. They now just had to replace “squashy” with frequency and tallness with amplitude.

I really like the strategy of teaching a concept with everyday language first and then introducing the scientific terms after students have actually understood it. Science is hard enough without a bunch of difficult words bombarding students as well.