In which I post about science teaching…

I’m more about process and skills than facts, especially given that for many of my students, I’m really or practically their first science teacher, and I’d rather lay the foundation of skills to help them succeed in future science classes than pound their heads with details to memorize.  But I have to say, I’m a little horrified by the kiddies’ inability to memorize anything – I mean, there are some things you’ve just got to learn – life is not entirely free of memorization – and it’s such an uphill battle it’s ridiculous.  This week, I told them they had to learn six numbers by heart: human body temperature and the freezing and boiling points of water, in both Celsius and Fahrenheit.  I think these are good numbers for an educated person to know, and why not learn them now, while we’re studying temperature and weather?  But, oh boy, the quiz results were awful!  What they don’t know (yet) is that I’m going to give them those questions on a quiz again next week… and the week after… until they buckle down and stick the six numbers firmly in their brains.

It would probably be easier for them to remember if they had the experience of boiling water and measuring its temperature, but honestly at this point I’d rather they just put in the effort necessary to memorize from flashcards, given that they’ve been warned they need to know these things.  Sometimes I feel like above all, I’m trying to teach them some evolutionary skills that will keep them from being selected out of the educational pool: if that makes any sense as a metaphor.

Meanwhile, I’ve created a schedule and have two students from each class take a bag of weather instruments outside each day to record the temperature, air pressure, humidity, and more.  It’s only been a few days, and so far I would have to classify this as an unmitigated disaster.  The first day, a student ran up and jumped on her friend, who happened to be making observations at the time, and of course when she landed, she landed squarely on one of the two barometers, crushing and twisting it.  We had one day of more-or-less success, and then today, I got the bag back after lunch to find that the plastic lid had come off the thermometer – which would be fixable except that the metal ring that snaps over it was gone, along with the cap to the marker I’d put in the bag for them to write with.  I’m irritated with the kids because I don’t think it’s that hard to do this task without breaking or losing anything; I’m irritated with FOSS for giving us cheap instruments that break so easily.  I don’t have enough time to go outside with the kids everyday to make sure they are responsible, and since I’m not there, no one claims responsibility when things get lost or broken.  Grrr.

But it’s not all frustration; we did a fun experiment today, building a balance out of straws, then attaching two balloons and bursting one, to show that air has mass.  I thought it was too difficult to pull off with kids when we teachers struggled with it in FOSS training, but it turned out to work very well (the kids were supposed to design the balance idea themselves, which almost none could do, but once I showed them my set-up, they seemed to understand the concept well and enjoyed building it).

And we also started choosing topics for the science fair.  I gave them a list of about thirty questions to choose from, to make the fair more manageable and to ensure that they have testable questions.  In the past, I’ve had them come up with their own questions, but given this group’s extremely limited experience designing experiments, I think this will simplify things in a helpful way.  I’m  pretty excited about the whole thing!  If you live in NYC and want to be a judge and are not a crazy person or pedophile, please drop me a note in the comments and I’ll send you our judge recruitment email.  We need something like 20 judges, so I could really use some help (and most people I know are also teachers and can’t just take the day off to come to my school).



Filed under science, teaching

3 responses to “In which I post about science teaching…

  1. 15 more years

    We have done our kids a serious disservice by not requiring them to memorize anything. It never ceases to amaze me that kids don’t know basic facts like 1) there are 365 days in a year, 2) the days the seasons change, and 3) there are 24 hours in a day.

    I agree wholeheartedly that they need to learn process skills, so they can design and test hypotheses, etc. But there are some things that they simply just need to know, and there’s no crime in trying to give our kids those skills.

  2. Gideon

    Did you ever notice that kids can memorize thousands of lines of music lyrics. Try coming up with some mnemonic devices like poems, chants or raps, practice them as a group, and I’ll bet they can remember the facts you’d like them to memorize. Better yet, task them with coming up with the strategy that works best for them.

  3. Matt

    In reply to 15 More… above:

    It seems to me the reason to memorize things is that it makes doing things easier – and usually the “doing things” is some kind of thinking. 365 days a years helps me plan and schedule – so I remember that. The days the seasons change though – I have no idea the day and I don’t know what I would do with the info if I did.

    Yes we need to memorize things, but I think we need to be very careful what we ask people to memorize. If they can’t use it now or soon, then why memorize it now?

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