Thursday, January 6, 2011

Letting Real Life Into the Classroom

Some time ago I was sitting in a 4th grade classroom. The teacher had a special treat for his students. He had invited a university professor to talk to his students. The professor was a specialist in rodents and other animals that can be found everywhere around Idyllwild.

He did two things to begin his presentation. First, he passed around about 6-8 stuffed animals – the real kind prepared by a taxidermist. These were the one’s he was prepared to talk about and every 2-3 students got one to look at.

Then he began a power point presentation that described these animals and presented facts about how they lived and survived.

That is when it happened. The students ignored the professor’s presentation and instead focused on their animals. They talked excitedly about what they were observing in low but audible voices.

The teacher was becoming very uncomfortable and after repeatedly warning students to pay attention, each warning being followed by a few seconds of silence, he finally became openly angry and kept apologizing to the professor for the behavior of his students.

Knowing what I know about how people learn naturally, I wasn’t at all surprised. Here is how things could have ended much differently.

At least a week prior to the professors’ visit I would have asked him what he planned to cover and how. Once I knew what animals he planned to bring I would have found a way to introduce the animals to the students in a way that provoked interest. This could include, for instance, a list of critters students had encountered in Idyllwild. I would invite them to “adopt” one for further study. By adopt I mean which ones would they choose to research or document. During this preliminary stage they would be encouraged to get as much information on “their” animal by using the WEB, books, interviewing local experts or reading brochures provided by local organizations.

I would encourage them to be as original as possible and also encourage them to observe or even record their animal using a webcam or video recorder of some type.

The arrival of the professor would be a special event. Here was an expert who could help them go deeper. They could have conversations with him and pepper him with questions and check their knowledge. Their enthusiasm would still have to be curtailed because listening and sharing ideas politely and respectfully needs to be developed (My students always learned how to do this right from the beginning and I modeled it).

Finally, since they only had the professor for an hour that day, students could have put all of their discoveries together in some form afterwards and send it to the professor as documentation and “thank you” for what they had discovered.

Lesson? In the age of technology it is especially important to have students begin with their own unique questions and to allow them to do their own research first. When they come to class with their own understandings, the teacher (or parent, guardian or grandparent) can ask them questions or help them deepen their own understanding about what they know but always in a respectful way. “Who are their adopted animal’s natural predators”?, “How is their animal different from those adopted by other students”? “What drives their animal to behave the way it does”? “What characteristics do the animals share”? “How might they be grouped”? How are they important to the food chain or ecosystem on the hill”? The list of possible questions is almost endless, and as long as students are allowed time to find the answers and act as a group of experts, their knowledge can deepen.

The real benefit comes in the form of research and documentation skills they acquired as they pursued answers, worked with others, and identified data and details. All are ready to be used again for other fascinating questions and puzzles related to science, history, geography or writing.

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