Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Big Idea

Modeling is student centered cooperative inquiry in an active constructivist classroom.*

Without a textbook.

So modeling is based on inquiry and we all know that is a good thing. I have always had trouble with implementing inquiry in my classes. I was taught that inquiry was just letting your kids explore the ideas they wanted to know more about. In a room full of chemicals, you can probably sense my hesitation with that idea. Even if you can overlook the occasional explosion that could possibly occur, there is still the nagging suspicion that my little cherubs might not actually be learning anything.

Insert a solution to this conundrum. This modeling workshop is helping me to finally see how to set up my classroom so the kids are taking charge of their learning. And it is the complete opposite of lecturing.

Each unit has a specific design that has been carefully structured in an order to help kids come to the right conclusions and then reinforce those conclusions. Instead of opening a textbook and staring, glassy-eyed at a diagram on page 713 (while thinking about what they did last weekend), the kids start out with a lab. What really stands out for me is that several of the labs we have done are labs that I already do. Kids then describe not only what they did in the lab, but also what they think happens to the particles involved. Those kids are developing a model from their lab experience instead of trying to make sense of someone else's depiction of what happened.

The ideas are first described (by the kids) after the lab, verbally. Each group gets up and tells you what they learned. This oral presentation is often accompanied by a diagrammatic explanation on the whiteboard. I'm talking a diagram at the particle level. What's really great about this presentation is that those kids have to explain and then defend their models with the rest of the class. This is where they can adjust their ideas. Their discussions are lead by them with questions from me and the other students.
Why did you do that?
How did you do that?

The idea being that if you can describe your thoughts, then you probably understand them. I have had this happen to me many times. As I am talking to my kids about some concept, something occurs to me that never has before. Suddenly, I have a new understanding and a new connection to that idea.

Now what has been impressed upon us in this class is that it is the STUDENTS' responsibility to ask for clarification. The whiteboard sessions are in place of the lectures of a traditional classroom. For some kids, this could take some time to become comfortable in this type of situation. This is where the climate of your classroom is crucial. It's all about trust. Those kids need to feel safe in your classroom. They have to know that no question is wrong and that no one is going to make fun of them for not getting it. There are a couple teachers in my workshop that I really don't see being successful with this type of curriculum simply because of their personality. I could be (I hope I am) wrong.

Then the kids present their data graphically. For example, we measured the mass and volume of substance and graphed this relationship. Traditionally, they would already know that in all matter, there is a relationship between its mass and volume and this is called density. Here, instead, we are letting kids see the linear relationship between those properties. AND (I have to admit, I had never even considered this) those kids are going to put this data into the slope format to determine the relationship. So for example, we (as do most of my kids) know that the equation for a linear relationship is y = mx + b. In this curriculum, we are actually going to plug those values in add labels to all those variables. I don't know about you, but it usually takes my kids about half a year to make the jump from what we are doing in class to what they learned in algebra last year. Here, we throw them right into it and have them create an understanding of what the slope of that line actually means.
THEN the instructor comes in and brings closure to the experiment.** Once I have an idea that the kids truly understand that relationship, then I assign the term. Something along the line of "you know, there is a name for this relationship, and it is density."

So instead of those kids (not) listening to you lecture about density, where they have no ownership in what they are learning, they are taking control and telling YOU what they know. To be able to understand and explain an idea is a powerful ability.

If they can do that, then they understand the world.

*This is my definition with as much edu-jargon as I could get in.
**What I really, really love about this is that this is one of the few times that I will be in front of the class talking to them.


Mrs. Tenkely said...

This is an outstanding model. I remember being the kid reading from page 765 in my textbook and trying to wrap my brain around what was being described. Since I had never seen the chemical processes in action, I had very little to connect to. As a result, the learning was difficult. With the inquiry model students get to see what is happening first hand and then go on to construct an understanding of what they learned with each other. Excellent!

Anonymous said...

This is great! BTW, I just got word of another blog about a chemistry modeling workshop. This one was organized by the workshop leaders:

Smiley said...

I just finished a modeling chemistry workshop and had a the same reactions as you did. It was eerie reading your blog, like I was talking to myself!! Anyway, it's all great!! I loved the workshop, am adopting the modeling this year and won't take myself so seriously. Students may find this type of teaching so different that they may mutiny at first but like our instructor asked during times of frustration: Does your head hurt? Yes, we responded. It's just your brain growing!!

Jason Buell said...

@Tracie and @mhopple You guys have me pretty jealous. Do you have any resources, other than the one Frank pointed to, on modeling chemistry examples? I think I've got a semblance of an idea how modeling physics looks based on all of frank's vids and such, chem I'm having a harder time with picturing.

Tracie Schroeder said...

Jason If you Google "ASU modeling" it will take you to the Arizona State site. There are lots of links to the research and general ideas. I haven't been through the physics, but from what I gather it is set up a bit differently than the chemistry. It was actually the first curriculum to be developed and the most refined. I would venture to guess that it would be easier for the kids to get since the concepts are not as abstract as chemistry's.

Jason Buell said...

Yeah. The physics makes sense to me because they can create models based on class experiments. I've been to that site but I think I only saw physics stuff. Not really sure how to model the parts of an atom or the patterns in the periodic table. Getting stuck there.

Anonymous said...

I went through the physics modeling workshop back in '01. I didn't realize they had materials for chemistry. Any chance they gave you the Username and PW for accessing those protected resources at ASU and that you'd be willing to give out to a select few (thinking of myself and Jason because I know he'd put them to good use)?

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