Teacher’s Advisory Council

As you’ve seen on the BioRx blog, Author Shannon Ralph is 2015’s Kansas Teacher of the Year. She’s spending part of her semester traveling and speaking on behalf of Kansas teachers. Keep up with her other KTOY adventures here on the blog and on her Twitter page.

As I have traveled and presented this past year as the Kansas Teacher of the Year, I have been very aware that I represent the many teachers in this great state. I have worked to not only empower teachers, but to promote the profession as well. It has been an amazing journey for me. Recently I have had time to reflect and begin to narrow my focus to find a topic and a platform on which to continue my work after my KTOY year is over.



One of my recent experiences may be just such a platform. I was invited to be a part of a Teacher’s Advisory Council which is lead by Dr. Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education. The purpose of the Council is to build a network of educators to advocate for the teaching profession in Kansas. Our vision is to create an educational system which prepares Kansas students to enter the workforce of the 21st Century. We all know the type of jobs available in ten years will look very different than the jobs of today. The measures and systems currently in place in the educational world of Pre-K – 12 may not adequately meet our students’ needs. It is time to consider changing the educational paradigm.

So, we are ready. We had our first meeting last week. It was clear from the beginning that this group is comprised of members who are passionate about both student success AND putting an action plan in place that will lead Kansas to become a front runner in education. We have the vision, and now we will begin the work of building an action plan. I’m not sure what that will look like, but I do know it is important work and I am excited to begin. As our ideas develop I will report back!



Reflecting on Professional Development

We just finished an all day event in central Kansas, and I find myself continuing to be surprised by the creativity and dedication of my colleagues across the state. Inquiry is an exciting (but scary) prospect for teachers new to the method, differentiation is a topic that resonates with many educators, and engaging students in knowing as a distinct process from learning is a surprising revelation.

We began the day creating an experience for teacher to build a sense of empathy for the student experience and to set a culture of exploration for the coming day. As we reflected on that early experience throughout the day I found it remarkable how many teachers were honest about their feelings in the training. “Inquiry is exciting, but I am a little scared.” Change can be uncomfortable and anxiety is natural. What I loved about our time this week was the honesty and collegial support in the room. If we’re scared, then we understand the kind of paradigm shift being discussed. Fear also means we’re committed to real change and new risks. So that fear is good and we can work through the anxiety together.

I was surprised by how compelling our discussion of differentiation became. Participants were eager to consider differentiation and assessment deeper. I think we could’ve spent an entire second day talking about learning versus knowing and assessing for competency. I suspect we will prepare more materials for examining differentiation to share and to have ready to support participant discussions like this one in the future.

I had a bit of trepidation regarding the ways we were incorporating knowing practice throughout the workshop. We had the research to support our methods and we’d discussed it with other members of the professional development community. That still didn’t change the fact that we were doing something different and I also experience some fear of the unknown. It was exciting seeing our colleagues willingly engage in the process of knowing practice and we were seeing the rewards of deliberately “working our hippocampus” through re-consolidation and revision even before the end of the day. We have more to think about, but it was great to see a risk pay off.


Courtesy: Megan Waugh

I’m looking forward to our follow-up with the participating districts in several weeks. I hope they have stories to share (both good and bad) so that we can help them continue to grow in their ability to prepare inquiry lessons for their students.

Hot Off the Presses

I was quite excited this morning to check my research feed and find a great new bit of work on the efficacy of inquiry, problem-based learning and science practice. A true experiment was conducted to measure the impact of inquiry curricula on student success. They consider the NGSS, science practices, maintained control groups and used many measurement points. Wow it’s good stuff.


Bringing inquiry to your classroom is the first step. Support for inquiry in your department is even bigger.

As stated by the authors as they conclude the abstract: “The study findings suggest that curriculum materials, district involvement, and support for teachers’ implementation of new forms of instruction are important for realizing the vision and key principles of the Framework in the context of a large and diverse urban school district.”

Professional development and strong curricular support are important for success in an NGSS world. It appears we have another entry in the stack of research that supports inquiry methods in both PD and classroom content. Perhaps we didn’t need one more, but it’s good to stay current.

Empowering Students With New Tricks

The old saying goes… “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” False! But I agree with the old dogs, new is rarely easy.

I say this because I am, for the first time, differentiating my assessments. It’s a process new to me and new to my students. When I explained to them how tiered assessments would work, and the fact that they could choose their desired tier of assessment (along with its associated grade), they were thrilled. Finally! They have control over their own destiny.


Cheer up old dog! We have new tricks for you.

My students are empowered for two reasons. First, they are not locked into a tier. They can move up or down at any time. If they do not master a tier, they figure out why, learn from their mistakes and then retry. If a tier is too easy – they may take a higher tier at any time. If a tier is too hard, they can move down. The choice is theirs. The work is theirs. But more importantly, the learning is theirs as well.

I’m sure I will make plenty of mistakes with this new system. But, my goal is to make better mistakes today than I did yesterday (to quote Steve Young, my tiering assessment mentor.) If you’re ready to take your assessment to the next tier, (sorry, couldn’t help it) check out the latest edition of Biology Rocks! for some guidance.

Hoping to keep this old dog in the game!


The Spacing Effect, Why Cramming Doesn’t Work, and How Inquiry Learning Fixes the Problem

Inquiry learning is the cornerstone of my teaching philosophy, right up there with choice theory and the practices of science. Inquiry is also a powerful teaching tool and reams of data show how effective it is in helping students come to understand the world around them. What I am still trying to come to understand is all the intricate reasons why inquiry is so great. One piece of the puzzle is the intrinsic inclusion of spaced practice within inquiry design.

Spaced practice is the alternative to massed practice. Allowing a delay between learning experiences (or review sessions) allows for a process of forgetting to occur. What is surprising to many is that forgetting is essential to understanding. The process of re-consolidation, reestablishing new understanding and connections and re-storage of the information in long term memory improves conceptual understanding. The process also promotes generalization, transfer and creativity. A recently-published paper provides some of the most recent support for the power of forgetting (Vlach 2014). Massed practice, or “cramming” for a test the night before, is obsolete and ineffective.


Cramming doesn’t help students truly learn. But inquiry learning can help.

The problem teachers must address is how to promote spaced practice in the classroom. Teachers may know cramming doesn’t work, but we don’t have direct control over how students study. Inquiry learning requires spaced practice because of the diversity of ideas and skills that are needed for success. Teachers promote and reward creativity in an inquiry environment, so students recall past ideas and spiral to background knowledge on a regular basis. We as teachers reap the rewards of spaced practice as part of utilizing and exciting and effective learning modality.

So inquiry is great, and cramming doesn’t work. And now I have a better understanding why.


Vlach, H. A. (2014), The Spacing Effect in Children’s Generalization of Knowledge: Allowing Children Time to Forget Promotes Their Ability to Learn. Child Development Perspectives, 8: 163–168. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12079



The Evolution of Learning

Be more than a mouse that can read.


One of the hallmarks of evolutionary biology is imperfect design based on what came before it. The human brain gets treated like a unique and clearly-identifiable single attribute that makes humanity a snowflake in nature’s rain storm. That’s a nice story, but it just isn’t true! Our brain is built of multiple layers which originated in previous populations.

Brain parts

The most basic layer of the brain is the brain stem. The medulla oblongata, pons and midbrain work together to filter incoming information. If you were consciously aware of the temperature of your left foot, the moisture on your right shoulder, the acid levels in your stomach and the oxygenation of your blood… your perception would never reach beyond the confines of your own body. The brain stem allows you to pull your hand off a hot stove before you think, “Wow that’s too hot.” We need this filter to survive. As teachers, we must first get information past all the noise being filtered at this primitive level.

The next layer of the brain gets the information that passes the brain stem. Imagine the limbic system as the emotional center of the brain (forgive me neurologists). Emotional reactions are rudimentary algorithms that have produced, on average, more desirable consequences than negative ones. If a student is afraid, they will execute escape procedures despite whatever they may consciously think about the situation. Whatever they are told, if they are afraid or stressed, their brain is short circuiting any learning that may be occurring. A student that is afraid of failure or punishment literally can’t think about what they should be learning or doing.

Teachers sometimes lament emotional interference, but the limbic brain is our friend. It kept us alive when we were still several rungs down the food chain. Predators made us flee and food made us happy and pursue more of it. Learning also feels good. If students can perceive themselves becoming skilled at something, their limbic system will crave more progress. Competency feels good and we can USE that.


Students crave these moments of understanding just as much as teachers.

Information that passes the emotional reaction gets to the sensory cortices and the multimodal association areas that create the first instance of a thought. After all this filtering and sorting, the information has now reached the internal narrative of our moment to moment consciousness. An engaging and highly effective teacher will create an environment where students must act on that information. The transfer to action puts the thought into the working memory in the frontal lobe. Activities in the working memory lead to connections that produce learning. Yay! But hold on, we’re not done. We need to store those associations across many places in our cerebrum. The disaggregation is important to creativity, transfer and synthesis.

When students want to know information and concepts they learned in the past they must reload the working memory from the dissociated places where the concept was stored. That process is hard and we often can’t find the whole concept. Rebuilding the knowledge later is what it means to know an idea. When a person sees the incomplete idea they recalled from a previous experience they must fill in the blanks and restore the concept again. The process of rebuilding is critical and must be done MORE than the learning.

Mice can remember. Dogs have emotional reactions to treats and door bells. The unique thinking of humanity requires a deliberate process of rebuilding complex ideas from previous experience. Knowing is harder than learning and requires more time for practice. We as teachers must honor this process and scale up our formative assessment and feedback processes, by several orders of magnitude, to properly support students as they come to know the information that we too often only help them learn.

BioRx 2.2 Cover

How do we support the process of knowing in addition to learning? If I’ve got you on the why, I have some thoughts on the how also. Check out Biology Rocks! Ed2.2, which is an update focused on addressing how to differentiate for students at various points in the knowing process. The foreword lays out the pedagogy associated with supporting knowing in addition to learning, and the labs show examples of how to actually do it.


The Differentiation Update: It’s Just Like Riding a Bike

Many children can ride a bicycle. Some of those children can ride with no hands, but others still need some practice with training wheels. Parents don’t look at a child using training wheels and say, “Oh no, they’ll never ride a bicycle!” The same is true with teaching science: Students need time and practice to learn. Our reaction to student practice should be the same as riding bikes.

Biology Rocks has always provided guidance that promotes inquiry and experimentation in the life science classroom. With Edition 2.2 we have renewed our commitment to ensuring those experiences provide appropriate difficulty for every student sitting in the classroom.


Children progress at different rates. Why shouldn’t we adapt our teaching to their learning?

In what we are informally calling the “Differentiation Update”, we are providing fresh materials that will help teachers differentiate their assessments as they target specific competencies in their students. We are also helping teachers unfamiliar with the experiments get their resources with abounding hyperlinks throughout the text. Readers are never more than one click away from vendors who will ship whatever they need for a procedure. We’ve also included one new lab to revamp the animal behavior experiment, because new labs totally rock!

BioRx 2.2 Cover

Grab a copy of Biology Rocks! Ed2.2 right now and get excited to do science all over again.

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