September 2022 | Classroom Commentary
Small Stones, Big Mountains
By Tracy Kirsten
One of my favorite quotations about education is from the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. Docendo discimus, he observed, which means, “By teaching, we learn.”1
The pandemic has changed teachers and the art of teaching, worldwide. In early 2020, after a collective global gasp, many educators experienced a classic fight, flight, or freeze response. I was no exception — and my flight response was just edged out by fight! That victory, by the narrowest of margins, is helping to guide me on a journey of deep learning and rethinking my teaching practices.
I’ve celebrated many laps around the sun, most of them near the city of Durban, on the sunny east coast of South Africa. I’ve taught Biology and Physical Sciences for grades 8–12 for more than 30 years at several vastly different high schools in South Africa. It’s been a mercurial journey of learning, struggle, and successes. Looking back, I can see that I missed some opportunities in the classroom, and have a strong yearning to turn back the clock and start again. But I take hope in what Confucius observed more than 2,700 years ago: “The person who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”2
I believe I am a more effective and compelling science teacher now than ever before. I know this intuitively, from my students’ responses and engagement, and from the joy that has returned to my classroom. I’ve come to the realization that it is never too late to start afresh.
In this article, I’ll share some thoughts about my pedagogy and the small modifications I have made to it that have made a big difference in the way students learn science in my classroom.
In the past, I was primarily a content pusher. I was always well prepared for my lessons, and at the start of each new section, I would explain to students what certain concepts were, using scientific terminology and giving good examples. I asked questions frequently ... but I now realize they were not effective questions.
After a lesson or two of me explaining the content, we would go into the lab and delve a little into the practical aspect of the material. I tried to make the lessons interesting, and perhaps they were. But they were also teacher-centered and largely theoretical.
Much of the time, I was trying to cope with the demands of a voluminous curriculum, with my eyes on the goal of preparing students for their national examinations. Understandably, due to the pressure of curricula and standards, many of us educators are often more focused on pushing content than stimulating curiosity.
In my opinion, however, too much content pushing can lead to disengagement on the part of the students. Some students seemed to feel “helpless” and dependent on me for too much of their learning; I also think this emphasis limited my ability to instill curiosity, engagement, and critical thinking in my students. In fact, I started to realize that I was missing opportunities for helping my students drink in the wonder and awe of science.
Changing my approach
|Figure 1. The 5E model for learning.
I was introduced to the American 5E model for inquiry-based science education3(see Figure 1) by Dr. Mark Salata, a science education consultant based in San Diego, California. It made so much sense, and really appealed to me. I researched it further, joined NGSS teacher groups on social media, and followed teachers who were successfully using this methodology.
I decided to try making small modifications in my methods with my 8th and 9th grade students, using inquiry-based learning principles to transform their learning context to be more student-centered.
I have never looked back. In my school’s science department, my colleagues and I have all become more intentional in our efforts to bring curiosity back to the classroom, and we have shifted our pedagogy entirely with all our grades. This change has crystalized how we frame our lessons, and has resulted in excited and engaged students with altered mindsets and attitudes, for whom science is their favorite lesson of the day. I’ve noticed that it has provided students with greater metacognition, autonomy, and ownership of their learning. When students play a role in the learning process and the construction of their knowledge, their confidence in their scientific abilities grows.
Here are two examples of modifications I made:
1. Engagement: I now always introduce each new concept with a fun exploration task, wherein each student is fully engaged in a common experience. I let them generate their own ideas first, using their own vocabulary and terminology. This may sound intuitive, but I used to do the process backwards: explaining first (using vocabulary that the pupils couldn’t relate to or understand), and only later allowing the students to engage and explore.
By introducing new concepts using the 5E model, I help my students see the real-life value in what they are studying, and they seem more willing to invest time and effort in their learning. Another discovery I’ve made: I don’t necessarily have to do ‘wow’ experiments to engage students and get them curious and excited about science. Applying a simple inquiry-based task, with just enough guidance and well-framed questions, often brings about that lightbulb moment, and a very real sense of accomplishment — even when it involves notoriously mundane areas of learning.
- Investigating temperature change: For our 8th graders, we introduce energy transfer by instructing them to carefully drop blocks of dry ice into beakers of colored water and then note temperature differences in the beaker, before and after. The animated discussions that ensue about why the water becomes cold and what the ‘smoke’ is above the beaker, indicate a high level of student interest and engagement.
- Understanding reactions and indicators: This year we prepared weakly basic solutions, with indicators, so that when the dry ice was added, carbonic acid formed and some wonderful color changes occurred. It was trial and error finding the right concentration of the basic solution, but it all added to the fun of the assorted color changes (see Figure 2).
- Applying the scientific method: With our 9th graders, we revised the scientific method with a ‘murder mystery.’ The students came into the lab to find the outline of a body on the floor (see Figure 3), with a mysterious white powder next to it. Solubility, melting, and pH analysis of the powder using the correct steps in the investigation process helped students solve the “crime”!
- Discovering trends: Learning about periodic trends can be quite tedious and theoretical. Our 10th graders got excited about them as they discovered the trends for themselves. They did so using a simple paper plate activity in which each student modelled one of the first 20 elements using scaling with given atomic radii. They could clearly see the evidence in their creations when displayed on the board (see Figure 4).
- Learning organic nomenclature: This can be challenging, but using card sort activity for haloalkanes, chain, and positional isomers was a winner with our 12th graders. With a little help and guidance from me, and only knowing stem names, the students worked out the rules for themselves, eliciting great excitement and a sense of accomplishment (Figure 5).
|Figure 6. The results of the Shades of Purple demonstration.
2. Student collaboration: I have observed the best outcomes from inquiry-based learning when I’ve broken up the class into pairs and small groups. The so-called Think-Pair-Share strategy gives students an opportunity to brainstorm, exchange ideas, and have the courage to offer their opinion.4 I have noticed that students feel less overwhelmed when they have opportunities to be part of teams that engage collaboratively in finding solutions. This approach inspires students with greater confidence and positive messages about competence, which will ultimately lead to greater enjoyment of science. It also provides them with a solid foundation to build on when cognitively grappling with problems on their own. We can help students believe that their scientific ability is dynamic and can be developed and improved upon. For example, I did a wonderful intermolecular forces demonstration, inspired by Tom Kuntzleman's Chemical Mystery Demonstration, where I mixed acetone, sodium chloride solution, and red and blue food dye — an activity I named “Shades of Purple” (Figure 6).
Some of the concepts involved in this particular demonstration are challenging, so I put together a worksheet asking scaffolded questions. Using the worksheet as a guide, students collaborated in small groups to come up with solutions as to why we saw the layers and the various colors. I was really impressed at the level and depth of their collective responses.
In my experience, by promoting greater engagement in lessons, I can help students feel they have not only contributed to finding a solution, but that they are also stakeholders in the progression of their own scientific thought processes. I have also found that for a purposeful investigation, it is crucial for me to ask questions that are well framed or scaffolded. These questions are the building blocks of a logical sequence of incremental learning and mastery, enabling students to generate their own questions and construct their own scientific knowledge. Based on my classroom experience, I believe an activity without well-designed and clear instruction and inquiry guidelines and expectations has limited efficacy in harnessing students’ curiosity and creative thinking.
Some suggestions for best results
- Start small — The process of changing to the 5E model for learning doesn’t happen overnight, and takes time and effort. So be kind and patient with yourself and start small: choose one grade in which to apply some modifications in pedagogy.
- Reach out to other teachers — As I researched this topic, I often reached out to educators whose work appealed to me. I didn’t always get the responses I’d hoped for, but I have developed good working relationships with several educators around the world, and we regularly communicate and collaborate.
- Do some research — I have also done secondary research and read a lot of opinions on inquiry-based science education over the last few years, and l regularly get new ideas from teacher groups and posts on social media.
I want to add that I benefitted from interactions with two exceptional educators in particular: Dr. Mark Salata (who introduced me to the 5E model) and Dr. Martin Palermo, a master chemistry teacher from Long Island, New York. Both of these educators went above and beyond to help me with ideas and resources. Even after teaching for more than 30 years, I have grown and learned so much from them.
I’ve “paid it forward” as well. I presented at a national conference for science educators in South Africa, and I’m excited to be part of a panel for a workshop on inquiry-based learning for science educators. I would love other science educators to connect with me on Twitter (@mrspotassium) to share ideas. From my interactions with teacher groups and individuals, I realized that many teachers are struggling and could benefit from the help of more experienced educators in pedagogy and resources. There are many educators who are doing amazing work in this area, and reaching out to them can help a whole community.
It is never too late to learn and try new approaches to make science education more meaningful for current and future students. Be brave, take risks. Another favorite quotation I keep in mind is from Elbert Hubbard, who observed, “The teacher is the one who gets the most out of the lessons, and the true teacher is the learner.”5
Teaching in the ‘re’ era
Times have changed – drastically. We are living in the ‘re’ era: Science educators are rethinking, reimagining and recalibrating their compasses to rediscover their purpose. This need not be intimidating. Instead of dreaming big for our classroom, let’s start small. Begin with changes that align with who you are and what you want to achieve with your students, and try to be open to rethinking your methods. Courage and creativity in the classroom can be learned, and these attributes improve with practice.
Perhaps we science teachers need to think more like scientists and re-examine our old knowledge to pursue new insights. Sometimes it takes friends and well-meaning colleagues to gently persuade us to shift our thinking, helping us to see what we don’t see on our own. Even Steve Jobs admitted that he was originally resistant to the idea of evolving Apple’s iPod into a smartphone … but fortunately, his engineers persuaded him to rethink!
Let’s reconcile our science classrooms with our calling. Small changes, big differences. Small stones, big mountains.
- Seneca the Younger. Letters to Lucilius (Book 1, letter 7, section 8).
- Bybee, R. W. The BSCS 5E Instructional Model: Creating Teachable Moments. NSTA Press: Arlington, Virginia, 2015.
- Lyman, F. The responsive classroom discussion. In Mainstreaming Digest; Anderson, A. S., Ed.; University of Maryland College of Education: College Park, MD, 1981; pp 109-113.
- Hubbard, E. BrainyQuote.com. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/elbert_hubbard_386579 (accessed Aug
(article cover) Bigstockphoto.com/charactervectorart