Friday, August 30, 2013

My Yearly Dose of Self-Doubt

I teach high school Biology in Minnesota.  A few years ago, the Minnesota legislature decided that it wanted to explore the idea of a standardized science test that would be required for graduation.  Instead of testing all of the science subjects students are required to study in high school, our law-makers determined to begin this process by testing the History and Nature of Science and Biology in one test of about 80 questions.  A handful of years later, the format of the test has been altered a few times, therefore it is still in the "trial" phase and does not yet affect a student's ability to graduate or a school's AYP (when this was an issue).  However, every student is still required to take the test once, in the spring of the year.  Many Biology teachers fret over how their students perform on the test, and the scores are published in the local paper the following fall.  The typical defense of standardized tests is that they will help improve teaching and learning.  The only thing I can say with certainty that this testing has provided me as a teacher is my yearly dose of self-doubt:  Are my students really learning science?

Let's just put all the cards out on the table:  My students' scores on their state science tests are typically below the state average, and this bothers me.  When the rounds of testing first started, I chalked the low scores up to flaws that are inherent to any new test.  Then my students did really well one year, and I thought, "Okay, now we've got this figured out."  The next year, the student scores were low again.  Hmmm.  I decided to volunteer to write test questions for future standardized exams, and in the process learned that the test isn't actually statistically significant.  There are too many Biology standards in Minnesota for one test to cover, so the percentage passing the test doesn't actually indicate if students have mastered the required topics.  The number of questions the test would have to ask to truly assess student knowledge of the standards is completely unrealistic.  After being told that the test was basically useless for me as a teacher and not a valid indicator of student learning, I resolved to not let the success (or non-success) of my students on this one assessment cause me to doubt what I was doing in the classroom.

Then this year's release of test scores rolled around.  And students in my high school scored below the state average.  Again.  And I experienced that niggling feeling of doubt about my effectiveness as a teacher.  Again.  You see, my science classes are very heavily inquiry-based.  My students ask questions, discuss and debate in groups, and don't memorize definitions.  I don't lecture in the classroom.  I deliver snippets of content via short, at-home videos, but the majority of content is learned through class investigations and activities.  In order to pull myself out of this black hole of doubt once again, I had to remember why I teach the way I do.  I reminded myself that:

  • The way I teach science is supported by research.  I'm not just crafting my pedagogy based on what I prefer or what is easiest for me.  I have spent A LOT of time and mental capital learning from very smart people about how to teach science.  I am constantly revising and reviewing my approach to teaching.
  • My current students leave my classroom feeling challenged, but supported, and report they like the class.  I know this because I ask them on anonymous surveys.
  • My current students know more about science when they are done with my class than they did before they started.  I know this because I give my own pre- and post-assessments for units.
  • My former students report that their college Biology courses are "easy" because the majority of what is covered is a repeat of what they learned in high school.  The one thing my former students report struggling with in college is getting used to the format of college teaching.  They're just not used to science lectures.
  • I listened to an interview with the MN Commissioner of Education (Brenda Cassellius) this summer in which she stated that our current state tests will be phased out within a year because they, "didn't matter to students," the tests were, "biased," and they weren't, "aligned to higher education."     
What finally put my mind to ease regarding this year's test scores (and prompted the writing of this blog entry), was a video I watched this afternoon.  In June, Innovation Hub gathered a panel of educators to discuss "College 2.0," or the direction of higher education for the future.  This almost-2 hour recording is full of gems, but there are a few in particular that really resonated with me.

#1:  "Any job that requires memorization...or rote, procedural problem-solving will go away [in the future.]"  Eric Mazur hit the nail on the head here, and went on to explain that most educational institutions, whether they are Khan Academy, MOOCs or brick and mortar schools, are still focusing on these antiquated skills.  He finishes his position by stating, "The type of skills that are required are changing."

Yes!  This is just what I needed to hear in my post-test-score slump.  Is it possible that the skills I am teaching my students are not measured on the current standardized test?  Could it be that students are scoring low on their state exam because I am preparing them to be a part of the current and future society in which those rote tasks are accomplished by robots or computers; in which jobs will require creative, collaborative thinkers instead of memorization?

#2:  "Your job, as a teacher, is to help them [students] find their purpose, to believe they can do it, inspire them to devote their life to making that happen."  Richard Miller, President of Olin College, is a proponent of project-based learning and learning by discovery.  He understands that in order for students to learn, their intrinsic motivation needs to be harnessed.  This means teachers must give students choices in the classroom and the time and support to follow their questions.  My goal is not that students leave my classroom with every structure of the cell memorized, but that they leave with at least one science experience that excited and inspired them.        

So when I return to my classroom on Monday, I will not hang my head because one measure of "education" says my students are not learning as they should be.  Instead, I will continue to engage students, pique curiosity, invite dialogue, and challenge the status-quo.  I feel as though I can now confidently answer my own question:  Yes, my students are truly learning science.          

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Flipped Classroom, in Ten Minutes.

What follows is a copy of a presentation I recently gave for a local civic organization on flipped learning.  I only had 10 minutes, so I wasn't able to get into the details of Explore, Flip, Apply, but I hit on a lot of what I feel is unique about flipped learning.  I've been meaning to get another blog post completed, so this way I've killed two birds with one stone!  (#multitaskingteacher)

How many of you have had one or more of the following experiences?:

  • As a student, you were so busy keeping up with notes in class, you couldn’t figure out your homework once you sat down to work on it at home.
  • As an adult learner, you went to the internet to figure out how to do something, like hook up your dishwasher or get a stain out of your clothes.
  • As a parent, you couldn’t help your child with the math they were doing as homework because it was different from how you learned it. 
  • As a student, you needed to hear your teacher explain something multiple times before it made sense.
These are common educational experiences for many people, including myself.  Being a teacher, I worried about those students struggling alone with their homework and thought there must be a better way.  Then, a few years ago, I came upon an educational movement that goes by the name of “flipped learning.”  Very cautiously, I started applying some of the principles of flipped learning in my classes, and quickly realized that this movement had the potential to make huge changes in student learning that address all of the experiences I just listed.

The label “flipped learning” has turned into a bit of a buzz-word in education, with all sorts of meanings associated with the phrase.  Today, I’m going to share with you what flipped learning looks like in my classroom, which is definitely my own spin on the practice.

For me, “flipped learning” is examining my curriculum to find those activities when the students need me the LEAST, and shifting them to the homework space.  The activities for which it is important or the students to interact with each other or myself are happening in the classroom space.  For example, my students don’t need me to be physically present with them when they are receiving direct instruction, such as notes on a topic.  This transfer of information requires only low-level processing skills.  Any of us who have learned something new via a YouTube are familiar with this idea.  Therefore, my students take notes for homework by watching short videos that I create and post online.  Not only can they get content for class in this manner, but they can pause me, rewind me, and watch me as many times as they need.  They also fill out online feedback for me before class so that I know what each student is struggling with before class even starts.  Other activities students might do for homework include reading an article and posting their opinion on a discussion board, or interacting with an online simulation, for example – a computer generated beating heart – and recording their observations and questions.  Because of its online format, class content can be accessed anywhere students have an internet connection:  during study hall, on the bus, at home, at the public library.

Once the direct instruction has been moved out of the classroom, what is most exciting about flipped learning is that it opens up time for all sorts of amazing things to happen in the classroom.  Students work together in peer instruction groups to solve problems and give each other feedback.  There is time for project based learning and case studies.  In the science classroom, labs can turn into long-term inquiry-based investigations.  Learning becomes more genuine and occurs at a deeper level.  The teacher is able to take the time during class to answer individual student questions and truly connect with each student on a personal level, which means more differentiated learning is taking place.  In a flipped classroom, I have the time to talk individually with each student every day.  This is allows the true craft of teaching to shine:  teachers become facilitators of learning instead of just dispensers of information. 

Students can easily hop on the internet for information.  What our 21st Century students need to learn is how to sort through all that information, how to collaborate to reach a goal, and how to be creative problem-solvers.  In my flipped classroom, these skills are the focus of the face-to-face time.

I want to give just a few examples of what students did INSIDE my flipped classroom during this first week of school.

  • Biology students investigated gummy bear volume changes as a lead-in to discuss the importance of peer critique in science.
  • College Biology students were outside sampling plant species living in different locations to compare biodiversity.
  • Chemistry students used an augmented reality app on iPads to learn about the equipment they’ll be using in the chemistry lab.

As HOMEWORK, here is what my students did:

  • Biology students uploaded photos of organisms they found along the Cottonwood River to use for food chains.
  • College Biology students watched a video clip from the movie “Avatar” and commented on aspects of the fictional ecosystem.
  • Chemistry students watched a video of [a fellow teacher] and myself at the swimming pool to introduce the idea of dimensional analysis, and then learned how to do dimensional analysis from a video tutorial.

Okay, enough of what I like about flipped learning.  What do the students have to say?  Here is just a sample from a question I put on a feedback form from last night’s homework:
  • "I could pause the video and write down notes when I needed to resulting in me not missing any of the information given."
  • "I felt that it was better than being taught in a classroom because there were no distractions. All I had to do was pay attention."
  • "Before this video experience I really didn't understand how the food chains worked. After watching this video I actually understand what every living thing goes through to live. I feel that these videos are going to make a bigger impact on my learning ability."

Now flipped learning isn’t the answer that will solve all of the challenges in education.  Some students don’t like the change, and not all students have the motivation to take care of their homework responsibilities.  But when I consider its effect on my students as a whole, its impact on learning can’t be denied. 

I want to publicly thank [my superintendent] and [my principal] for supporting this risk that I took in my classroom.  Without their trust in me and encouragement of my efforts, my classroom today would look no different from my classroom three years ago.  They have allowed me to grow and explore as a teacher, and I truly appreciate this. 

I’d like to end with a quote from one of my mentors in flipped learning, a Chemistry teacher from California named Ramsey Musallam.  He said,

"We must empower students to become intelligent researchers and investigators of information, harnessing the power of the internet and their global community, to learn in ways the traditional classroom could never have granted them. Simultaneously, we must use the classroom as a medium for critical thinking and information assimilation, rather than information transfer. As a result, students become empowered to obtain a depth of knowledge while teachers are empowered to design learning environments that value critical thinking and application."

This is what I strive for in my flipped classroom.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Braving the Rapids

One of my favorite topics to teach in Ecology class during the fall is Aquatics.  Students get the chance to muck around in our local river and collect aquatic macroinvertebrates - insects that hide out in the water.  The students soon realize that the rockiest areas of the river support the highest variety of insects.  It turns out that the churning water produced by all of these rocks mixes in oxygen from the atmosphere, creating an ideal environment for the macroinvertebrates.

Tomorrow begins my 13th year in the classroom, and as I ponder the beginning of the school year, this image of rocky stretches of water continues coming to mind.  I envision my past 13 years as a river, each year propelling me further along in my understanding of teaching, learning, and scientific inquiry.  Some years, I have coasted along straight and wide shallows of the river, untroubled by snags, making forward progress.  But other years, I have braved the rapids, and it is one of those moments I want to write about here.

This summer, I participated in an online class for Flipped Learning, and so began my tumultuous ride.  I began to expand my PLN via my class, Twitter, and the Flipped Learning Network.  Just as the rapids in a river mix much-needed oxygen into the water, my PLN contacts provided nourishment, inspiring me to change, adapt, and improve my teaching.  Each day this summer, I pushed myself to master new technology, teaching techniques, and resources that could have a positive impact on my students' learning.  

So, here's another interesting ecological tidbit about the areas of a river near rapids:  the invertebrates that live there have to be able to hang on tightly to some sort of surface, or they risk being washed downstream.  There were moments this summer during which I was worried the steady stream of new information and ideas would overwhelm me.  There was so much to learn and so little time!  Living in the rapids can be overwhelming!  But as I sit here on the evening before classes start and reflect on all the new adventures I'm taking on this year, I can proudly say that I am still hanging on with all my strength.  Here is a small sample of some of the initiatives I'm incorporating this school year:

  • My lessons will be reorganized into the Explore, Flip, Apply model.
  • I'll be using Remind 101 to keep in contact with my students.
  • My students will be using Aurasma to identify lab equipment.  They'll be making their own videos to pair with triggers for next year's class.
  • I'm using Schoology to organize videos, assignments, forms, and links for all of my classes.
  • POGILS will be used in my Biology classes as a formative assessment tool.
  • Scientific Argumentation models will be incorporated into each student investigation.
  • Each of the "flipped" videos for my classes will be accompanied by a Google form to assess student weaknesses in understanding prior to instruction.
  • Students will bring their own devices to the classroom.
  • PhETs will be used as a form of initial engagement.
  • Flipped videos will be made in response to student questions and need with a variety of tools, such as Knowmia, Touchcast, Explain Everything, and Videoscribe.
  • I'll record answers to student questions in the classroom using Educreations to create videos "on the fly" that all students can access.
  • This blog will be updated weekly, sharing all that I experience and learn throughout this pivotal year.

Many of these changes involve increased use of technology, but I truly feel like the adjustments I'm making are bigger than the tech itself.  The technology is allowing me to reshape my classroom in a way that helps more students learn at a deeper, more relevant, more personal level.  This has me excited.  I am more anxious for the start of this school year than I have been in a long time.  Those years of easily floating down the river were not bad.  In fact, every teacher needs years like this to hone their craft.  But I don't want to float for too long, and I don't want to get stuck in one of the pools on the bank that goes stagnant.  I need to brave the rapids every once awhile to get that energizing surge of oxygen that propels my classroom and student learning forward.  I am not naive enough to imagine that a year in the rapids will be easy or free of failure, but I am eager for the adventure to begin.