What We Already Know

Play is the answer to how anything new comes about. – Jean Piaget

Where do we get our ideas? Jonathan Drori (TED Talk “What We Think We Know“) says:

Children get their ideas not from teachers, as teachers often think, but actually from common sense, from experience of the world around them, from all the things that go on between them and their peers, and their carers, and their parents, and all of that. Experience.

Our Grade 3 students are inquiring into forces. As they experiment with inclined planes and friction, gravity and inertia, pushes and pulls, I realize that the students already inherently ‘know’ all about Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion because, for the last 9 years of their lives, they have being playing with cars, balls, buckets of water, and engaging in running games with each other.

We don’t need to teach them these laws.   They are already applying and proving these laws daily. They are experts. So, what is it that we want to get into the students’ heads about the laws of motion? I am not a physics teacher. I am learning with the students as we experiment and play with the laws. So, I need to be careful what I plan to ‘get into their heads.’

Drori warns us, paraphrased from Cardinal Wolsey,:

Be very careful what you get into people’s heads because it’s virtually impossible to shift it afterwards.

Maybe we don’t need to teach them. Maybe we can, instead,  provide them the opportunity to consider what they already know and provoke them with the question:

What cool things can you do using Newton’s Laws of Motion?

Show me.

And let them fly.

May 2013 update: During Grade 3 unit on forces we introduced Rube Goldberg machines to the students. My colleague, John Rinker, blogged about the success of allowing kids to create ‘cool things’ like Rube Goldberg machines here.

Teachers need feedback too!

I had asked my students to set learning goals for themselves and I wanted to set a learning goal for myself as well.

I gave my students a teacher appraisal form to get feedback from them about my teaching and their learning to help me identify areas for improvement.

On a scale from 1-6 (strongly disagree, strongly agree) the students rated me in terms of respect, care, explaining, feedback, etc. (see attached scale)

Upon tabulating the results, I saw that the kids loved learning in my class (“The teacher makes lessons interesting” – 5.8 out of 6), they loved the inquiries, they loved school BUT:

1. They felt they weren’t learning much and (4.1)

2. They felt I didn’t show that I really cared about them (4.6)

It was very surprising! I talked with my Teaching Assistant and our Grade 3 ELL teacher who both said, “If you don’t care then no one does!” and “These kids are learning so much! What do they mean?” We hypothesized as to what the results meant and then I went to ask the kids.

I shared the results with the students and asked them to help me understand how I could improve. Interesting feedback. The ones who felt I didn’t care were the very independent students. I realized that I was often sitting down and helping out the ones who needed more support and allowing those others to continue capably on their own. They need my attention too! That was easy to fix.

As well, to put the power of ‘proof’ into their own hands, I gave a class list to a student and asked her to keep a tally of who I asked questions to  and who I worked with. Kind of like a ‘don’t believe me, see for yourself’ type of data collecting. By looking at the data she collected, she soon realized she was getting more equal attention that she thought she was.

As for the students believing that they don’t learn much, we realized that ‘work’ to many students meant sitting at their desk doing pages and pages of math questions and being bored (their definition!). Because they were enjoying learning in school, they didn’t think they were learning.

We solved that problem by explicitly talking about what was being learned (e.g. “Hmm, so by doing this you learned that friction can cause a car to go faster or slower. That rubber has high friction and tiles have a lower friction. Interesting.” Or, “So, tell me what you learned today.”)

This process made me realize that as we develop students to be passionate independent inquirers, teachers are going to have to be activators, constantly reflecting out loud, asking questions, seeking feedback, giving feedback to everyone, showing they care and talking about learning.