Home » Biology Rocks Edition 2.1 » 3 Classroom Cultures Your Department Should Foster

3 Classroom Cultures Your Department Should Foster


So this post is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. The title is so Internet that I assume I’m legally required to include at least one GIF or meme in the body somewhere (so I will). Despite how trite the title may come off it really does reflect a discussion I am having in my own department this semester. Every classroom is unique, but there are commonalities among good classrooms and there are other shared traits among weak classrooms.

At Olathe East we have been discussing refocusing our paradigm on what we feel are absolutely essential components of effective classrooms. As we come to define the characteristics of a rich learning environment each teacher is free to deploy those tenants in their own teaching in unique ways.

1) Competency, Not Compliance

Ask any teacher what an “A” means in their class and they will likely tell you something similar. A student fully understands and can implement their knowledge in appropriate settings. However, if you take a tour of that same teacher’s grade book there are too often times when a student is failing, but “they understand the material they just don’t do anything”. There is also the opposite phenomenon when a student has a strong grade but “they struggle but are really good about turning things in”. The application of the grading system does not match their initial description of what an “A” means.

Why are we doing worksheet #12? For seven points? Good enough for me!

Why are we doing worksheet #12? For seven points? Good enough for me!

Turn the paradigm on its head. How many tasks do you really need to evaluate to know whether a student is competent in the area being assessed? I don’t need six grades on asking scientific questions to know if Jane has the skill. I only need one strong summative evaluation and I know. So why have the other five grades? If a student has the skills you expect but does not comply with your expectations of how to complete daily work, do they deserve an “A”? Shouldn’t an “A” in your class reflect their understanding of your content and NOT how much a student agrees with you on how to achieve that understanding?

Implement the Shift

Don’t stop practicing! Do the practice with a focus on ability. Don’t incentivize the students with points or grades. Make the development of their skills visible with frequent feedback and allow them to develop those skills and understandings in whatever way is best for them. Then measure their ability once. Your grading work will plummet and you will make many fewer apologies for the grades associated with your students in the grade book.

2) Freedom, Not Prescription

Ask any student what their favorite STEM experiences are and you will quickly find that most answers involve student choices and creativity. It is rare that anyone fondly reminisces about perfectly following the orders of a superior without question or fault. Real science involves decisions, risks and hard-earned triumph after numerous failures. What subject are we teaching if we don’t model that in the STEM classroom? Instruction following? Obedience? There is a term for the idea of infusing freedom and creativity into the curriculum and it’s probably one you’ve heard: inquiry.

There are costs associated with inquiry learning, primarily time and control. It feels strange to a teacher who is familiar with control to relinquish that managerial authority to the students. It also takes much longer to complete an activity when students are debating methods, asking questions and generally mucking up what was once a sparkly clean lab. The rewards are well documented and make the mess worth it. Students will develop critical thinking skills, science practice skills (NGSS anyone?) and connections between concepts that can’t be targeted through direct instruction. They just can’t.

Dictatorial overreach of federal authority, or innovative unification of research-aligned best practices? No, there isn't a debate... it's the second one.

Dictatorial overreach of federal authority or innovative unification of research-aligned best practices? No, there isn’t a debate… it’s the second one.

Implement the Shift

Do the thing. Push your next lab experience along the inquiry spectrum. There is no Shangri-La and the best science classrooms change with the field from year to year. Take a concrete lab experience and mold it into a guided inquiry lesson. Take guided inquiry and stretch it into an open inquiry project. There are many right answers and we don’t need a reason to do something a little better each year. Just keep pushing yourself. If this sounds unfamiliar or you would like some sweet support resources to move along this spectrum… we do have some help. Check our our book of inquiry labs. You can toats download it for free, yo.

So inquiry. Much supportz. Wow. Seriously though, we worked really hard on it and it's awesome.

So inquiry. Much supportz. Wow.
Seriously though, we worked really hard on it and it’s awesome.

3) Schema, Not Curriculum

Ask any administrator and they can tell you all about curriculum timelines and topic coverage. I must ask before we move on; why do you have so many education personnel so readily available to ask these questions? I’ll assume you’re reading this at work and not that you have a random sampling of Americans chained up in your basement…

They may not be as forgiving... Your IP address: [just kidding]

They may not be as forgiving…
Your IP address: [just kidding]

It is the common paradigm to think of “getting through the material”. Sure you may cover a textbook in three quarters of a year, but does that mean your students covered it? Does just saying the words mean they understand and can apply the concepts? There is an old teaching saying that goes, “Go slow to go fast.” If you take your time and teach something well, students can build upon that understanding when they see related content later. You may move more slowly initially but you will gain momentum from that success later in the year.

Implement the Shift

Release yourself from the expectations of what should be covered. Does that mean you can teach civics in biology? No. The difference is making judicious decisions about what you’ll do in class and then spending the amount of time needed to really do that material. Students will be far more prepared for standardized tests, not to mention later STEM experiences, with meaningful competency that comes from building a schema when compared to just marching through a linear curriculum.

Each of these bullet points could fill a book (or more… check the topics on Amazon). I do hope that you’ve got something to think about and discuss in your own department. Do some research into the topic that interests you. Make a comment or tweet at us to share what you’ve discussed. Oh, and I almost forgot:



1 Comment

  1. […] in reading more about making your classroom a little more challenging? Michael wrote this post about adopting struggle in your classroom […]


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