Throw out the books and get out of the classroom!

This video (a favorite of mine!) does such a great job of illustrating Ken Robinson’s theory that ‘our education system is outdated’. What we are teaching our children is not only hurting their ability to succeed in the future but also impacting the US economy by not producing a competent global workforce.

Back in June of last year, I posted about the seven skills students need for the future based on the research outlined in Tony Wagner’s book “The Global Achievement Gap”. Wagner’s research makes it clear that we are preparing our high school graduates for not much more than to bubble in items on a scantron.

What remains for me, however, is the question of how we can change what our schools and teachers are doing, to better prepare students for the demands of college and the workforce. And, this week, I think I just may have gotten a glimpse of the answer…

As part of the research for my upcoming book (outlining the 8 keys to Education Reform through STEM), over the last several weeks, I have been interviewing STEM teachers and program coordinators all over the US to find out more about what they see as the keys to success in improving STEM education in our education system. Yesterday, I had a call with a former science teacher, Sarah Weaver, who is now working with the educational outreach office of Scripps Research Institute‘ on an innovative research internship for elementary science teachers. Ms. Weaver has convinced me that it is possible for teachers to prepare kids for their future. She does it by getting out of the classroom!

In her previous role as a K-8 science teacher with a private school in San Diego, California, Ms. Weaver taught science to K-8 students, every day, for an hour each day. To anyone familiar with the education system, now, that in itself is unheard of. If they are lucky, most elementary teachers can only manage to fit science in once or twice a week, and even that is a challenge. So to imagine elementary students who were working on science everyday, is just this side of unbelievable.

It was a really unique experience because the students got science, every single day from me. For a full hour. That was a very interesting concept just to see how quickly we went through the curriculum. For 6th grade and below, we got through the curriculum, in a couple months. And then we were left with all of this extra time. And it just kind of goes to show just how the curriculum is designed. That it’s not designed to be taught everyday. It’s designed to be taught only once or twice a week.

But what is even more surprising is what she learned from this experience and then how she went about innovating in her teaching.

And so we were able to go into some inquiry and interest based science and bring in our own topics of engineering and technology. We went into green energy: solar power and wind power and hydroponic gardens. And it allowed me to bring in the aspects that the kids really wanted to study. And it was really interesting the topics that they picked.

Tell me, tell me! What did they want to learn?

All they wanted to do was build. They wanted to create. This is going all the way up into 8th grade. All that they wanted to do is build. So what I did a lot of the time is, as a class, we came up with an overall theme of what we were going to make and then we talked about the different concepts associated with it. Whether it was simple machines, or physics or whatever it might be. I found it really interesting, that they had this urge to build. It’s just that correlation of working with your hands and your mind developing, and playing into all of the multiple intelligences was just fabulous to watch.

Amazing! Well, now I can start to see how a focus on STEM can really open things up and allow for some authentic learning experiences. If we were to model Ms. Weaver’s daily approach to STEM, we might be able to preserve that natural curiosity that the current school system manages to hammer out of them by middle school. Weaver’s approach to science gave her students the opportunity to Solve Problems (Skill #1), to Collaborate with their classmates (Skill#2), and to Adapt to a changing agenda (Skill #3), all critical skills for the global workforce!

But Ms. Weaver didn’t stop at just daily science instruction. She and her team wanted to push the limits of what was possible with her students. So in her third year as Science Chair, Ms. Weaver decided that she would teach science… without a classroom!

That year, we put them into 5 groups. I took a different group, somewhere out in San Diego once a week. We did science outdoors. We actually incorporated science and PE together on those days. So every Monday, I might have 2nd and 3rd grade with me. Tuesday I might have 3rd and 4th, Wednesday, 5th and 6th, and 7th and 8th and so on. I was out literally every day.

And it was incredible. They would spend a full 6-hour day with me, doing science. It could be something as simple as visiting a museum, doing some sort of workshop on the grass in the park next door, building rockets. We had fabulous time doing lessons with geocaching and hiking. And looking at soil compositions while we were out. Or doing iron testing on rocks. You know anything out there.

What? I know, those of you who are teachers can not even fathom the idea of teaching without a classroom. I mean, where did she keep her textbooks? Well, I’ll tell you…. She never used any books!!

I opted not to have science books either. Because I wanted them to have to find the information on their own. I don’t want the information to be given to them. And I don’t want one opinion from a textbook. I wanted them to be able to go to the computers and say, ‘OK, we’re looking at photosynthesis. We’re going to come back and collaborate now that we have 6 different sources for photosynthesis and 6 different explanations. Let’s come up with an explanation of our own from that.’ So it was more important to me that they knew how to get the information and how to find it, rather than just memorizing it.

Well, I’ll be darned! That sounds a little bit like Dr. Wagner’s Skills #6 and 7, Accessing and Analyzing Information, and Curiosity and Imagination, two more of the most critical skills for the global economy.

So, here it is! A teacher who is trying new things, taking the risk of not knowing the answer, giving kids real problems to analyze and solve, and as a result, giving them the tools that they can use in their future. And all without the security of a science textbook OR a classroom. If I wasn’t before, I am now a believer, that education reform in STEM is possible!

Here’s what Ms. Weaver said about the experience without a classroom:

My main goal was for them to look at the world and to look at anything in front of them and say, ‘That’s Science. That’s science.’ ‘ How is that plant created? That’s science.’ ‘That waterbottle here. How did they make it? Well that’s science. ‘ I just wanted to show them that everything around them needed some computer program to design it, some sort of engineering to build the machine that makes it , a chemist to come up with the perfect composition of polymers. And to just really get them to expand their view of what science is. I think that was the biggest accomplishment of that whole program.

I am so looking forward to sharing more of the research I am gathering from innovative teachers like Sarah Weaver. But in the meantime, I think we can agree, that innovation in education IS POSSIBLE!

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This entry was published on April 7, 2012 at 12:02 am. It’s filed under AuthenticSTEM, Creativity, Innovation, Leadership, Project Based Learning, Science Education, STEM Education, Team-Building and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “Throw out the books and get out of the classroom!

  1. Christine on said:

    I’d like to hear/see examples of how the children were reporting their learning. it is about the learners after all!

  2. Terrence Allen Duncan on said:

    I love the innovation. How do we prepare kids for the state mandated tests they must take (and pass) to move to the next grade? I

  3. Dear Diana,
    I like your ideas. I and a group of young people have been doing practical work in a village in Mozambique for many years. I am now in England (I’m nearly 80) but I continue helping the group via the Internet – developing new demonstrations, writing articles, publishing a little magazine and making short films. We have a Web Page at:
    experimentalista.org. You might be interested in having a look at it.

  4. Pingback: Minds in the Making: 6 Tips to Engage Your Kids This Summer « The Mommy Rush

  5. Pingback: Jason Kardos : Update: ‘Sun, Moon and Stars Aligned’ for Julian Charter School in La Mesa

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