Monday, June 9, 2014

Muscle Knowledge, Core Knowledge and Learning Science

Simulated Oil Spill

In a recent column, Just Another Brick in the Wall: How Education Researchers Ignore the Ends to Tweak the Means Alfie Kohn reports on a recent study of 24 kindergartners, Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad. Kohn writes:

A research assistant read to them about a topic such as plate tectonics or insects, then administered a paper-and-pencil test to see how many facts they remembered. On average, kids in the decorated rooms were "off task" 39 percent of the time and had a "learning score" of 42 percent. The respective numbers for those in the bare rooms were 28 percent and 55 percent.
As I read this 'finding' I couldn't help but think about all that sitting around in the name of science. 24 five-year-olds sitting and listening (or apparently for many, not). I get that Kohn is taking to task how we default in the US to the belief that any test offers us valuable insight and the truth. He wants us to scratch beneath that surface belief.  I'm with him on that. Just because the word assessment or test is used does not mean we should default to the belief that it offers us anything of value.

But that is not what compelled me.  I just couldn't get out of my mind those 24 kids--just 60 months on the planet--sitting.



Little Godots in the making.

Is there any wonder that they might NEED to distract themselves?

II. Doing

2nd graders in Newark thinking about
which objects might best clean up oil.
I've spent a good portion of this past year paying attention to science teaching in the early grades and loving the many ways that children respond with curiosity when permitted to move and touch and wonder. Now I'm not talking about fancy science experiments.  Rather most of what I observed was often nothing more than a few artifacts and an invitation to think.

For example a few weeks ago I watched as a class of 2nd graders hypothesized as to which objects would best clean up oil.  After thinking about this (having touched oil) which involved touching all of the materials (i.e., sand, 'fake' fur, hay, cotton, feathers), talking with one another and writing their guesses--the students took part in an investigation to see which of the objects best worked to clean up spilled oil. Later they read several different books about oil spills and did some more writing and talking.  Alongside this, students were also learning about observing--both in the natural world and within the confines of their classroom. These inquiries took them outside and they used simple tools (plastic magnifying glasses) to record what they were seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling in their notebooks.

It is important to note (more so than a test might tell) that the children in this classroom actually cheer when they 'do' science.

Second graders talking and then charting their collective insights during an investigation about oil spills.

III. Receiving

At another school, I watched first graders who were learning about "imaginary" lines such as the equator in a History of the Earth unit.  In this CCSS-approved 'literacy' program which some schools use in lieu of science and social studies curriculum, there were no globes on hand that day for the children to hold.  There was no child-to-child discussion.  There was no writing. There was no reading. There was a powerpoint playing on an adjacent wall and the teacher was reading a script--one she had taken time to read previously.  On that morning the teacher was doing what was expected and dispensing with a 60-minute lesson that was at best hard to grasp.  Imaginary lines and the North and South poles which aren't actually poles is difficult for six-years-old to conceptualize. The lines between real and imaginary when you are six are fuzzy at best.

Anticipating the difficulty, the curriculum developer provides teachers with the following note:

Explaining and reminding do not equal coming to know.

IV. Coming to Know

At each of the schools mentioned in this post, the primary grade students were set up to learn important and interesting content about the earth.  In the first and last scenarios, the children were read to and talked at. There bodies remained seated with the expectation that they would not be in motion. In the second scenario, the children handled materials, talked with one another, recorded their initial thoughts, and then actually engaged in an investigation where they attempted to use materials to absorbed oil. These actions required them to move. Some children chose to stretch out on the floor while others sat on the classroom carpet.  Bt they had free will to move.

Years ago, Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace, told us:
"The world is a text with several meanings and we pass from one meaning to another by the process of work. It must be work in which the body constantly bears a part, as for example, when we earn the alphabet of a foreign language: this alphabet has to enter into our hand by dint of forming the letters, If this condition is not fulfilled, every change in our way of thinking is illusory"  p.117).
We cannot forget that children come with bodies. We ought to let them use them.