Sunday, December 13, 2015

Assessment Part 2: LABS

I love labs...I love 'em, I love 'em, I love 'em.  The true nature of science is to explore the unknown, question, challenge, test, critique, create, analyze, explore...I already said that one.

At one point I hated labs.  I hated them in school.  I even hated doing labs with my students.  Allow me to list the reasons why:
  • finding good labs, not just the ones with the book
  • grading
  • making sure you have the supplies for labs
  • grading
  • setting up labs takes forever, especially if teaching more than one type of science class
  • grading
  • students READING then FOLLOWING all instructions during the lab
  • grading
  • lab safety
  • grading
  • cleaning up...always a mess
  • oh, and did I mention grading?
Not only this, but most of the labs involved absolutely NO creativity.  They were all cookie cutter labs that had the following prescribed steps:  Pre-lab questions, read all instructions, do lab, answer all post lab questions.  Don't get me wrong, there were some good questions to answer, and some of the labs did offer a learning experience, but there was no real experimentation going on.  There were not multiple tests run, hypotheses were often lacking, variables were not identified, data was acquired but students merely filled in premade tables, graphs were often not generated, conclusions were made but didn't solidify understanding.  In other words, the students were doing an activity, but NOT a true experiment.

One day, an educator challenged me to let students design the labs themselves.  Well, I told him that my students could not and would not be able to do that.  I was wrong.  I was also still early in my teaching career and working with students that were a bit rough in the classroom management category.  Though I was a trained research scientist, I truly did not think that teenagers had the capacity to do actual experimentation.  I slowly warmed up to the idea and eventually developed a method for students to use in order to design their own labs.  You can get the PDF of this document HERE.

I now provide the experimental purpose (sometimes I give the question) and have the students design the labs.  LOVE THIS!  Works so amazing!  Kids love it too.  It gives them freedom of creativity and allows them to be the researcher, not just a participant in the process.  I have used it time and again, presented it at the CSTA conference, and have heard nothing but great feedback.

I wanted students to do labs all the time but I didn't want to grade a lab report every single time they did a lab, so I devised a method so that I wasn't drowning in grading.  First, ALL students must keep a lab notebook.  For every single lab they are to have the following:

  • Title
  • Purpose
  • Hypothesis
  • Variables
  • Materials
  • Methods
  • Results (table and graph)
  • Conclusions

Then, after about 6 weeks, they will self and peer grade with a rubric.  They have to have a table of contents, pages numbered, labs completed and then 1 lab is chosen to be graded in depth. I pick the lab. After they peer and self grade, it then comes to me.  I have my TAs grade the notebook then I am the final eyes.  This once every six weeks process of grading saves me a TON of time.  When I do want them to do a formal lab write-up, I use this lab report HERE.

Sometimes, the students will design a lab that isn't successful.  Students will ask, "Does this mean I fail?"  I laugh and say, "Of course not.  Welcome to the world of science.  You just found one way that doesn't work."

I believe that NGSS wants us teachers to incorporate inquiry experimentation in our classes.  We teachers need to find clever ways to deliver these types of laboratory activities, because if students are not DOING science, then what are we doing as teachers?

Regardless, labs are definitely a way to see if kids can "DO" science.  Heck, one of the Science and Engineering Practices is:  planning and carrying out investigations.  And if done well, the kids will cover the following SEPs as well:  obtaining, evaluating and communicating information; engaging in argument from evidence, constructing explanations and designing solutions, using math and computation thinking, asking questions and defining problems, analyzing and interpreting data, developing and using models.  Hmmmmm....that's all of the Science and Engineering Practices (at least with a science spin).

My point is, having kids do an inquiry style approach to an experiment will offer more learning opportunities and embodies the nature of NGSS.  Whether it is a lab practical, an original experiment, a tweak on a lab done earlier in the year, whatever...students will appreciate science more!   They will not only be DOING science, they are forced to apply their THINKING and their KNOWLEDGE.

Looky there...3 Dimensional Learning.

Would love to know others thoughts on using labs for NGSS!


Sunday, December 6, 2015

We are NOT Gatekeepers

Do you remember that one class we had in college in which the professor decided it was his job to determine who would remain in that major?  I do.

Dr. M.  Organic Chemistry.  He took great pride is making the course so impossible to understand in order to weed out premed majors.  A student asked a question one day and his response was, "Don't waste my time with such a stupid question."  We all learned not to ask questions.  He felt that it was his responsibility to show everyone how stupid they were.  Dr. M would drone on at the front of the class of 100+ students, mumbling about chiral and achiral, reactions and benzene rings.  He would write on the dry erase board, his back to us, and when he did turn around there was never a smile on his face.  The last thing he wanted to do was teach us organic chemistry.  He didn't challenge our way of thinking.  He wasn't even attempting to check for comprehension.  He was the great gatekeeper, deciding which of the college sophomores were to become scientists and doctors, and which would be forced into another major.  So many people who were passionate about science changed their major after his class.  He was successful, but not at teaching.

I often times wonder what would've happened if Dr. M would have decided to give a damn and attempt to teach the students...to facilitate a learning environment that was challenging yet attainable.  He likely scared away some great researchers, all because he didn't want to take the time to change his teaching style and care.  He only scared me away for one semester.

I have seen these gate keeping tendencies from my own coworkers, and at one point, I did this myself.  These are some of the things I have heard or witnessed from high school teachers:


  • It's my job to make sure they can handle college science (physics, chemistry, biology).
  • I don't want them in this class if they haven't taken ______________ (pick the class)
  • Kids can't do that sort of thinking, so why even try that activity?
  • Kids can't do inquiry so I won't do it.
  • Students can't design labs.  They don't know what to do.
  • Students shouldn't take this class unless they have taken ___________ (pick the class)
  • If they can't handle the course then they should get out.
  • They don't try and they never study.
  • They don't have the skills to be in this class.
  • They're GPA is too low to be in here.
  • He/she can't handle this class because _____________  (pick a random reason).
RIDICULOUS!  I don't believe that kids can't do something.  I think these are statements from teachers who don't know how to teach all kids.

I'm guilty of this.  When I first taught AP Biology, I got dumped into the course halfway through the year after the other AP Bio teacher quit.  It was my first year teaching and the school only had freshman and sophomores.  There were two sections of students, most of which had never even taken regular biology.  I didn't have any AP training, nor did I understand exactly what AP classes were all about, so I was definitely in over my head.  The following year I set up criteria:  students had to have taken biology and chemistry with a C or better in order to take AP Biology.  I felt this way I could maintain a fast moving course that was rigorous and only with students that were serious about learning. How my tune has changed.

I now teach AP Physics.  I strongly suggest that students have Algebra, Geometry and Algebra II under their belt, but I don't require it.  Who am I to tell a kid to not try?  Who am I to tell a kid they can't do something?  Who am I to act as a gatekeeper?  I don't want to be a gatekeeper. I want to be that person that allows kids to see how freakin' awesome science really is and how they can use science for the rest of their life whether they want to be a scientist or not!

Teachers...we are not gatekeepers...we should not be gatekeepers....we shouldn't even allow gates near our content.  We are facilitators and there is no better subject to facilitate than SCIENCE!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Assessments Part 1: Do we still need tests?

As teachers, we are responsible for ensuring that students are learning.  We use formative and summative assessments in order to check for understanding.  These assessments are about to change  in a HUGE way because with NGSS we must check to see what kids know (Disciplinary Core Ideas), how they think (Crosscutting Concepts), and what they can do (Science and Engineering Practices).

I've been spending a lot of time attempting to wrap my brain around assessing 3D learning.  In truth, most teachers actually teach the way they learn and assess in the manner that they were assessed.  Teachers often use the book to guide instruction, doing one chapter after the next, giving a test at the end of each chapter.  This was my personal experience as a middle and high school student.  This is what a traditional science class looks like:

NGSS is going to require that science teachers go above and beyond.  But, I don't believe this will make our job harder or more time consuming.  At first, yes, there will be more hours put in, but once this new curriculum is in place, science is where it will be at!




  • read the chapter aloud or outline chapter
  • answer questions at end of each section in chapter
  • do the worksheets that come with book,  hint:  look for the bold word
  • the occasional lecture
  • watch a boring science video
  • do one lab per chapter in which ALL instructions must be followed perfectly
  • review for test, maybe a review game
  • take a chapter test
  • start the next chapter...rinse, wash, repeat
If you are currently teaching your class like this would you please do one of two things:  STOP or QUIT.  THIS IS NOT SCIENCE!!!!!!!!!  And any teacher that says it is really does not understand what science is all about, and they need to rethink why they want to be a science teacher.

This above process is what most of my teachers did...and for the most part, I did not learn.  There was absolutely NO creativity when it came to experimentation.  Only kids who did the science fair got to design experiments.  There were very few projects, if any, worth mentioning.  We usually worked in silence, or would do popcorn reading.  What a USELESS way to deliver material: popcorn reading.

Anywho, the tests were always the ones that came with the book.  There was true/false, multiple choice, matching and a handful of short answer.  As I got older, they were almost always multiple choice.  Most of the questions were very level one, not challenging, just vocab intensive.  A few made you think, but you usually guessed your way to an answer, trying to remember the definition of a word.  These tests did not check for understanding, they assessed memorization of definitions.  These tests did a great job of testing what we knew.  If you had conquered vocabulary, you could set the curve in a class!  The tests never assessed if I could "do" science or "think" like a scientist.  And quite frankly, with the type of instruction I received, I highly doubt I could DO science or THINK like a scientist.  I don't blame my teachers.  They were teaching in the way that state assessments required.  To do anything different would be them choosing to go above and beyond and with teachers as busy as they are, they don't often have the time or energy to go above and beyond.  


So I asked myself:  What is the purpose of an assessment?  

Image result for test
Should a science test look like this?
I guess this is a philosophical question, but arguably assessments are used to make sure that kids "get it".  But what is the "get it" now?  It isn't just their understanding that we need to assess, it is also their science cognition (how they think, why they think this way, how they problem solve, etc) and application of science.  In truth, all three (think, know, do)  rely on each other, but all three might very well look and feel different when assessed.

There are lots of way to see if a kid gets it.  Whether it be by project, conversation, drawing, worksheet, diagram, lab, etc....I can see if a kid gets it without a multiple choice test.


Does this mean that tests go away?

I mean, would learning really stop if we removed "tests" from the curriculum?  What if we replaced tests with projects, papers, labs, activities, discussion?  We put so much importance on tests, because we apparently need a standard of comparison.  Even the ACT, SAT, and AP tests are standardized test that are written such that there is a right and wrong answer.  In reality, and in science, there is often times more than one correct answer so why are we forcing kids to think that there is only one right answer?  Hell, the true nature of science challenges the answers that currently exist.  

Once we leave the formal educational system and enter into the real world, most tests go away.  It's not like business men show up and take a scantron test every Monday morning.  Rather, people are constantly problem solving, reparing something, trouble shooting, paying for items including balancing accounts, using critical thinking, communicating, disagreeing or agreeing with people, making mistakes and fixing them, seeking out answers by asking question, explaining what we need/want/etc.....  Maybe, just maybe, our assessments could model the skill set needed to get through a day as an adult.  

I looked at the science and engineering practices again through a different lens:
  • asking questions, defining problems  (Why won't my car start?)
  • develop and use models  (drawing a picture to help my neighbor see how their kid did indeed hit my car with their baseball)
  • plan and conduct experiments  (Who tracked mud in the house?  Let me see your shoes.)
  • analyze and interpret data  (analyzing why the electric bill was so dang high last month)
  • use math  (will I be able to make rent if I buy that new cell phone?)
  • construct explanations and design solutions (set up a google calendar with spouse and kids in order to be more organized and not miss band concert again)
  • engage in argument with evidence  (tell my principal why his idea will not work in my classroom)
  • obtain, evaluate, comunicate information  (putting together a powerpoint to brief boss)
Maybe the reason why people seem to be lacking in common sense is because we teachers aren't generating the opportunity to develop common sense in school.  The science and engineering practices are the common sense skills that all kids need, not to become scientists/engineers, but to function in society.  

As of right now, I won't completely get rid of tests.  Why?  Because colleges still use tests to assess knowledge and I also have to prepare my students for college. Because the states still use standardized tests to assess students. But I'm not going to use tests the same way I do now.  They will be structured completely differently and might even include a lab practical.

I fear that not all teachers will think openly about this topic and will continue to give their multiple choice tests at the end of each chapter.  I feel bad for those students.