For our last two entries I have written about the need and rationale for The Elements Unearthed project. In this post, I would like to present our third and final reasoning behind this project, journeying into the nebulous and contended realm of educational theory to present the conceptual underpinnings of our project.
In the recent (Nov. 2008) issue of The Science Teacher, the editor, Steve Metz, commented on Project-Based Science instruction (PBS): “. . . learning is an active process and students learn most effectively when they are constructing a meaningful product.” He also said that “. . . individuals construct knowledge individually, through active and meaningful interactions with their environment, rather than by passively receiving transmitted information.”
Student learning activities are often charted out on a continuum or dichotomy with Passive on the left and Active on the right. Such activities as taking notes, listening to lectures, and watching a video in class are passive whereas such activities as open-ended labs (inquiry labs) and research projects, simulations, and student presentations are active. I propose that this scale is only partially complete. Beyond hands-on or inquiry activities is a whole other level of student involvement in learning: students as creators, producing their own knowledge or making content for others. As such the spectrum would place Passive activities on the left as before, but now place Active learning in the middle and Creative activities on the right, where the student becomes responsible for creating material for and teaching knowledge to other students. Instead of being consumers of content or even interacters with content, students become the producers of new content. They become the teachers.
In the diagram shown, certain educational models begin to fall into place when compared with this new scale of constructivism. On the left of the continuum, the teacher is the center of the classroom and dispenses knowledge with a focus on efficiency – pouring as many facts into the minds of the students as quickly as possible in assembly line fashion. As we move toward the middle, activities and assignments become more student-centered and involve the student actively, getting them out of their seats and into the lab or participating in a simulation. Instead of rote regurgitation of facts, student assignments become more open-ended and subjective, more imbued with meaning and interpretation; requiring evaluation and comparison on the part of the student. As we move beyond hands-on into the realm of student-created content, the student and the teacher reverse roles. The teacher becomes more of a coach or mentor, a facilitator of learning. This side of the continuum requires self-motivated students willing to dig for their own knowledge; having learned how to learn, they pursue their own lines of inquiry and even create their own experiments to uncover new knowledge. They ask questions and find answers, either through original experimentation or primary source historical research. They become scientists and teachers, training their peers and creating original content for fellow students and even for the general public. They now internalize their learning and own it; they won’t forget it or become uninterested or bored with it because they are fully engaged. Instead of writing a research paper that only the teacher will read, their work is actively critiqued and utilized by others. The focus now becomes quality and effectiveness of learning instead of efficiency.
The effect of students creating their own content and knowledge is profound. Not only do students retain the knowledge they create longer (usually indefinitely) but the motivation and excitement of the students increases. As they see that what they are creating is meaningful and relevant, as they discover the scientist and historian within themselves, not only does their ownership of the knowledge increase but so does the quality and thoroughness of their work.
I first discovered this effect by accident. As a first time teacher of chemistry at a small school in the Sierra Nevada Mountains called Tioga High School, I was presenting a unit on organic molecules and their naming conventions. Instead of lecturing on all the alkanes, alkenes, dienes, and so on I decided to let the students research this on their own and report their findings to the other students. This type of “jigsaw” activity can be useful as it puts responsibility on the students to find their own answers and learn from each other. I was also the computer teacher at this school, so I opened up the lab and had the students create their reports in the form of a Hypercard stack on the Mac Classics we had in the lab. They were required to present the information with graphics and also to create some kind of quiz or game based on their content that the other students would then take to demonstrate their knowledge. As students got into the project, I was amazed to see that instead of complaining about having to do research, they were actually asking me to open the computer lab during lunch so they could work on their Hypercard projects. They became very creative in how they presented their information but even more so on how they structured the quizzes; they wanted to do things that would be funny or surprising to their peers while also presenting accurate information. In the process, they truly learned the material. Their test scores were much higher on this unit than before.
At other schools where I have taught I have instituted some form of student-created content made with the intent of teaching other students (instead of just the instructor). At Juab High School in central Utah, students in my chemistry and physics classes created demonstrations and mini-lesson plans on the chemical elements and principles of physics to present to each other for feedback, then perfect and present to students at two local elementary schools and to the public at a back-to-school science night. At Mountainland Applied Technology College, students have been required to look up tutorials on software packages such as Adobe Photoshop, practice them, write up their own lesson plan, and then present it to the other students. In each case student motivation and retention has been excellent. The only drawback is that such activities take more time than traditional rote learning so not as much content can be “covered.” But when the focus shifts from coverage to quality, I find that less is indeed more.
Now I am not trying to say that the activities and types of assignments on the left are bad. There are times when a great deal of facts must be covered quickly and a lecture with note-taking is simply the best way of presenting the information. For students who are less self-motivated or less mature, the activities on the left and center are effective, and there are times when teachers need to have more control over the content and the direction of students. As students gain more experience and take more control of their own learning, they should naturally start moving toward the right side of the continuum.
Even in the teaching profession we see this – teachers in training gain facts first in content area courseware, then go through various stages of methods courses and lesson plan development practice before presenting lessons to fellow teachers. They eventually move up to teaching a single class of students for a limited time, then move on to full scope student teaching for a whole semester under the direction of a mentor teacher, then finally gain their credential and full-time employment. If we expect our teachers to follow this process, then why not our students as well? They can become apprentices of knowledge, progressing to journeymen students who create their own content and conduct their own research, eventually progressing to masters who are now totally in charge of their own learning.
This is what we propose for The Elements Unearthed Project. Student teams will progress from being researchers to scriptwriters to video editors, at each stage trained and mentored by experienced media professionals and local scientists and historians. Not only will they become producers of content, they will also learn to evaluate and present that content in an aesthetically pleasing and factually accurate way. Although the content they produce will be of benefit to many students and teachers worldwide, it is the student/community teams that will gain the most. Local museums will receive high quality media content that they can display in their museums and on the Internet. Local chemical plants and refineries will gain valuable public relations exposure by telling their stories to the wider community. Team members (students and mentor teachers) will gain video editing and scriptwriting skills, as well as the chance to do primary historical research. Communities will gain from increased public awareness of the history and environment of the town. In short, everyone benefits.
It is our hope that you will support this project by becoming involved directly as a sponsoring organization (a refinery, chemical plant, or museum) or by creating a team of your own to document the history of your area. You can also contribute to this project financially and receive sponsorship credits in the final podcasts and on this blog. Next week we will discuss the timeline and phases of this project and more on how you can get involved.