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Summer Thinking

Summer has meant we’ve been a bit less ambitious about blogging as we meet our unusual schedules. While the dust has far from settled I wanted to check in to cogitate a moment on a conversation I had with some folks on the role of a learning cycle.

To the untrained eye it may appear that a veteran teacher simply compiles a list of the lessons and activities he or she knows for a particular topic and sequences them in order for the students to complete before an assessment. Students have done some things, so they should surely know some stuff right? Things lead to stuff?

Of course experienced educators know the job is far from done. A coherent unit requires exploration, practice and feedback. What I think it is worth remembering is that all those things must be done with a deliberate intention to develop greater competency in both skills and understanding throughout the process. Students can’t explore the color yellow, practice the number 3 and then get feedback on the letter ‘W’. The result would be a hodge podge of experiences and very little development. We must design a curriculum that expects and assesses for development.

A more realistic example might be a cell biology unit. Students will begin with some initial level of understanding of cell structure and microscopy. The middle school gives them some exposure so they can operate a microscope and are dimly aware of the scale of things which are viewed. They cannot, however, reliably identify cells contrasted with debris or artifact. Nor can they describe the purpose or evolutionary advantage afforded by specific organelles when given reasonable background material.

I would plan a unit in which students will have a chance to demonstrate their readiness level in both microscopy and cell structure and function analysis. We would then practice those skills with feedback throughout a unit (perhaps using the Yeast Multicellularity Lab as the context). We would stain and view cells multiple times. We would create sketches and evaluate their quality, with opportunities for revisions of course! We would also discuss some specific organelle examples and how to make conclusions regarding those organelles after peer discussion and debate.

microscope

Aim for more than doing… Aim for growth.

At the end of all this exploration, every single student in my classroom should be able to describe in surprising detail what the final assessment will require of them.

  • “Well we’ve drawn a lot of pictures from microscopes, so I bet we’ll be looking at drawings.”
  • “We talked about some organelles, so maybe we’ll see some weird cell stuff to describe.”
  • “We’ve been looking at evolution, so maybe we’ll look at it some more.”

If they can’t predict their assessment, it’s a problem. We didn’t simply do microscope work, and then expect them to be able to do microscope work. They should grow in their ability to use microscopes. They couldn’t identify cells before, but now they can. They couldn’t tell the difference between bacterial cells and eukaryotes, but now they can. We must avoid falling into the trap of thinking, “We did it, so now they can do it.”

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