Sunday, April 21, 2013

Designing Experimental Design

For the past couple of years, the science department at Hoover HS has been engaged in data team/cycle work.  The learning targets for these data cycles are identified primarily by looking where our students are struggling on standardized tests (in our case, the ITEDS and ACT).  One skill that keeps coming up as one that needs to be addressed is designing experiments.  Students often lack the ability to identify variables, write appropriate hypotheses or supply evidence when making claims.  So, how do you teach those skills?

Our department has decided to use the tool shown below.  The Lab-O-Matic, as it has become known, is a wonderfully engaging, visual tool that students can use in a variety of ways...all to push students closer to being able to evaluate the aspects of a valid investigation and/or design an new investigation.

The Lab-O-Matic provides space for students to write about all of the "usual" aspects of a valid experiment, but adds some interesting additional prompts.  Students are asked to 1) comment on the "real world application" of an experiment and 2) how others have influenced their work to ensure a valid experimental design.  We have also developed the Mini Lab-O-Matic for our struggling learners.  It provides teachers with a more approachable scaffolded tool to get students thinking about experimental design.

If you're interested in obtaining either of these, check out my TeachersPayTeachers page using the links to the right, or CLICK HERE.

How do you teach experimental design?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Thinking Critically

"Most formal definitions characterize critical thinking as the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation" (Angelo, 1995, p. 6).

A lot of the work I've done recently with other teachers has been focused on critical thinking skills.  Much of the literature I've read in preparing for these experiences is vague.  It says critical thinking skills CAN be taught and SHOULD be taught...but lacks in a clear explanation of HOW we create critical thinkers in our classrooms.

I should be clear, there are some people who have attempted to define what thinking critically looks like in a science classroom.  But, few have articulated clearly what a teacher's role is in the fostering of these 'critical thinking experiences'.  So, how can we teach our students to think critically?

Karen Adsit of Grayson H. Walker Teaching Resource Center has a nice webpage that addresses some of these issues nicely.  She sites an article from a 1995 issue of Teaching of Psychology that offers classroom strategies that are thought to improve critical thinking in students.  That's nice...but, "using questions" or "cooperative learning strategies" (both cited by this article) alone won't get us there, I don't think

Another source I recently came across, "Thinking Strategies for Science Grades 5-12" does a nice job of laying out some ideas for teaching critical thinking skills.  It goes a step further than simply listing strategies, and discusses some frameworks for thinking that, when consistently used, should provide an environment conducive to students' critical thinking skills improving.  But, is that it?

I offer the following points about teaching critical thinking skills to students...

  1. Teachers must have a clear understanding about what critical thinking skills are, and what it looks like when students employ them in specific situations in their classrooms.  It goes without saying...if we don't know where the end is, how do we get there?  If teachers don't know what critically thinking looks like during an activity or other classroom experience, how do we know if they're doing it?  What's OUR understanding of critical thinking, and have we made it known to students?
  2. Teachers must provide experiences that allow students to think critically, and make their thinking visible to others.  Once identified, teachers need to design classroom experiences that will allow students to think critically about...stuff.  Whether its the quantum mechanical model of the atom, or which antibacterial wipe to buy at Walgreen's, we have to give kids a chance to think.  After they think, we need to provide opportunities for sharing their thoughts.  Sharing creates an awareness of how students think and provides other students the chance to "see inside the minds" of others.
  3. Critical thinking must be practiced.  It's so easy for us to write in our plan books something like "critical thinking activity", then do the activity and move on.  We have lots of reasons to worry about time being a factor in what we're able to teach, but let's face it...just like we won't get better at teaching critical thinking skills after one lesson, our students won't get better at thinking critically after one lesson.  Teaching critical thinking skills must be a commitment on our part.  Continued practice and reflection are key...both for us, and for students.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Making Instructional Choices

Happy summer, campers!

My first summer installment of Washing Glassware is about something we do all the time...many times with minimal thought.

It's Sunday night.  In 14 hours, 30 eager youngsters will come charging through your classroom doorway ready to learn, think and prepare themselves for the challenging world of adulthood...right?  Ok, maybe they won't be eager, and maybe they won't want to think.  But, you still get to teach them!

How do you decide what to teach?  Is it whatever you can find on the internet on short notice? (we hope not, of course :-))  Is it that lesson you've used for the past 7 years that you're really comfortable with?  Are you looking for something a little more challenging for yourself?  Do you go straight to your local curriculum document and do whatever it says for Monday?

I bet you probably have made instructional choices using all of these methods, haven't you?  There are so many places you can go to answer the question "what should I teach?".  It's no longer about what WE want to teach, or at least we feel that way often.  It seems as though everyone is telling us what to teach - through local curricula, building and district goals and probably state and national guidelines.  Take a look at this...

Does this graphic sum it up for you?  What do you suppose the size of the circle represents?  When I was making it, the circle areas didn't mean anything.  During a conversation the other day, though, someone pointed out that the area of each circle could represent the importance we should place on each item when planning a lesson.  What "Me" wants should play a minimal role, while our state and national curricula should play a significant role in helping us decide what to teach.

So, my question:  what do you think?  What should we use when planning lessons?  What are we required to use?  Where do we have flexibility?

Thanks for reading, and wash that glassware!


Friday, June 1, 2012

Summer Reading List - 3 Science Teacher "Must Reads"


Today was our last school day of the 2011-12 school year.  The day wasn't without a few hiccups, but we made it.  Students finished up finals, grades got posted, and a few teachers received cheesy gifts for being in our district for many, many years.  (In case you're wondering, I did not get a longevity gift this year...but, last year I received a 'padfolio')  Now, it's on to summer!

I thought I'd use this post to share some reading suggestions for your 'free time' this summer.  I time doesn't come until you get through all of your to-do list that's been stacking up for 9 months, but eventually you'll have some time to yourself, right?  All of these are books that I've read recently and have provided great insights that I use in my roles as teacher, planner and teacher leader.

#1)  SWITCH is a book I was introduced to last year by a respected colleague.  I have since referred to its principles on an [almost] daily basis.  It has fundamentally changed the way I look at moving people (students, teachers, family, you name it) toward change.  The idea is simple:  to change, you must address both a person's rational and emotional intellect (rider & elephant), and provide a clear path for both.  Sounds simple, but it's complicated.  The authors do a great job of providing examples and explaining how to get people to change.

#2)  How to Thrive as a Teacher Leader is a quick read that focuses on the 'tough parts' of being a teacher leader.  Whether it's department leader/chair, curriculum coordinator or just someone other teachers rely on for help, the author engages your thinking about how best to deal with all kinds of situations that come up. I've been a teacher leader for many years, and still found this book insightful and worthy of a two-day reading commitment.

#3)  By the same authors as SWITCH, Made to Stick is a similarly-themed book about making your ideas 'stick'.  The key, authors say, is to make good ideas 'sticky' enough so people remember and embrace them.  Why does everybody remember the urban legend about people stealing kidneys?  It's 'sticky', according to the criteria set forth in this book.  It's easy to apply the author's ideas to fact, their website ( has an entire download that accompanies this book just for teachers.  Check it out.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Kinetic Molecular Theory and Formative Assessments

My colleague and I were discussing ways to introduce gas laws today.  Our curriculum's been through several significant modifications over the last several years, and I'm still getting used to the new sequence.  We began our second semester with 'what is a mole?', mole -> grams conversions, moving into kinetic molecular theory/gas laws and eventually solution chemistry will round out the unit.  A lot, I know!

Anyway, we've had these Page Keeley books just sitting around for a few months.

We were struggling to come up with a 20-30 minute up-out-of-your-seat activity to introduce KMT and find out what students already know about it.  We started flipping through the Page Keeley collection and WOW...what a gem.  I knew basically what these books were about, but when you start reading through them and thinking about how they can be used, their significance really becomes apparent.

We decided to use 3 of Page's probes and created one of our own we called "What Goes Up...".  We also created a simple graphic organizer to use with the 4 probes, and help with the synthesis of some big ideas surrounding particle movement.  The students attacked these with relative enthusiasm!  We had them set up at 4 lab tables, so the students rotated through and recorded answers/thoughts as they went.  The follow-up discussion is yet to happen...I'll let you know how it goes!

Thanks for reading :-)


Sunday, February 26, 2012

So, you want a letter of recommendation?

Good afternoon, science teachers!

With spring right around the corner, it won't be long before we have lines of students at our desks asking for letters of recommendation.  This time of year, seniors seek out teachers they have good relationships with (and those reliable enough to get them a letter by the deadline) and ask to write a few paragraphs that will make or break their chances of getting a scholarship, attending college, or getting that summer job.  Pressure?  Nah...

I've always subscribed to the notion that a letter of recommendation isn't about what's IN the letter, it's what's NOT IN the letter.  A well-written letter can take into account all of those things that make a student a pleasure to work with...and an even better letter can do it in a way that leaves out those things that would make the student stand out from the rest in a large crowd, if necessary.  Think about it this way...

You are on a scholarship committee reviewing two candidates.  One has letters of recommendation that say great things about a student's academic ability, wonderful involvement in activities at school and even mentions some volunteering done outside of school at a local food pantry.  Good, right?  The other letter says all that AND discusses the student's 'beyond-her-years' ability to relate to peers and teachers  AND  mentions how the student is a quiet leader in her classes, helping others and respecting students even when they slow things down.

Which would you pick?  My point is that the first letter is fine, good, okay.  I might write that for a so-so student who does deserve whatever she's applying for, but doesn't quite make that gold-medal standard.  As a reader of letters, you pick up  on those things...quickly.  Especially when comparing 2+ candidates.  It's very clear what the teacher was saying by what they DIDN'T write!

So, sure.  A letter of recommendation is about what you DO say, but it's just as much about what you DON'T say.  Here are a couple of resources you might find handy when asked to write letters for students.

Thanks for reading!


This is a form I created and have students fill out prior to writing their letter.  Some students have a 'resume', but many do not...this fills the gap and makes writing a little easier.

This links to a document I reference often when writing letters.  Not my property, but a good reference.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Scientists read?

I'm interested in some feedback.  Our science department recently started a unit focused on teaching students to read in our content area.  We've all agreed on a learning target, and have developed a tool/strategy to use.  What do you think?  Our goal is to help students become better readers for information.  If given a passage that includes text and graphics (tables, graphs, etc), can students extract the necessary information to answer questions about it?

Are we teaching to a test?  Maybe.  But, let's face it...our school, our students, and ourselves are being measured by them.  Actually, I don't think it's so much teaching TO a test, as it is teaching kids skills they need to do well on them, in the context of our course work.  This last part is really important to me.  We can't teach these skills separately from what we teach in our courses, can we?  They need to be a part of the labs we do, information we sift through, and the concepts we ask our students to learn.

Lastly, to go along with the tool/strategy linked above, we have created some accessory documents.  See what you think, and please reply with some feedback!

Thanks for reading!

Eric H.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Writing to Learn Science

So...a little background. My school district has vacillated between collecting what I'll call "content-learned data" and not collecting data at all over the last 15 years. When I began teaching in 1996 we gave common "module" tests at the end of a unit of study...for reference, a typical class would have 5-7 modules during the year. Shortly after I began teaching, those tests went to the wayside and we had nothing, except the assessments individual teachers used. Now, as the accountability sun begins to rise once again, we have gone back to a common, module sort of assessment every 6 weeks. And, remember, the state of Iowa has only had common standards for about 3 years now.
Last fall (2010), my school district began the process of implementing a data collection/analysis process. It was only implemented with fidelity in a few departments around the district, though, which made communication about these common assessments nearly impossible. So, we muddled through the process as best we could.
As part of this data teaming process, our department first had to choose a learning target. What was it that we wanted kids to know at the end of our cycle (about a month long)? After some deliberation, we decided to tackle the issue of writing in the content area. Not only is it a challenge we've needed to deal with for some time, but the district had a "literacy goal" for us, too.
We focused our efforts on using an already-established framework for writing in science classes. It's called the evidence-claim-reasoning framework, and has been worked on by several experts, most notably Joseph Krajcik. I first learned about it during a workshop in Madison, WI and fell in love. It's simple and gets the point across. It can be used with any ability level, and can be used to assess nearly any lab, activity or experiment in science classes.
The first part of the E-C-R framework consists of a table the students fill out. Three columns, one for each part of their explanation (see file attached). We talk about how a quality claim is always supported by relevant evidence, and the two should be tied together with a meaningful statement of reasoning. Once the table is completed, students are asked to construct a well-written scientific explanation paragraph which incorporates the aspects of their E-C-R table. Our department created a nice "foldable" to teach the process.
Simple and straight forward...for students AND teachers! Take a look at the resources I've included and let me know what you think.