During the course of the class experiment, we are learning to write hypotheses, collect data, graph, analyze data, and connect our findings to scientific knowledge. I’ve now done this same experiment four times and am able to be so much more intentional about every part of it. But, every year, I start to freak out a bit about how long it is taking to do one experiment. We discuss each step in uber-depth, we have long discussions about how to reduce the human error in our experiment, we try things again, we ask questions, and we cheer when we finally finish it.
And, every year, while I am freaking out about how long it is taking, I am not actually doing anything to go more quickly through the process. I repeat to myself as a mantra, “Start slow to go fast. Start slow to go fast. Start slow to go fast.” (Yes, I know it should be start slowly to go quickly grammatically speaking, but that’s not quite as catchy!). And, every year, once the kids start working on their own experiments, I high-five myself (and sometimes get a little veklempt over the kids' conversations about experimentation) that we took the time to really learn each step.
By the time I said, "okay...go!" on their own gravity-related experiments, the kids were so ready to be independent. They were enthusiastic (they are sixth graders, so that's pretty much a given), and they had really smart ideas and conversations around their experiments. The modeling had really paid off. Because they weren't worried about the structure of how to actually set up their experiments, they were able to ask interesting research questions that they were genuinely wondering about. Two girls researched density and the salinity of the Mediterranean Sea because they wanted to see if mass had an effect in salt vs. fresh water. Another group of kids researched buoyancy to see if our experimental results about mass not affecting dropping time on land still held for water. Yet another group wanted to throw paper airplanes of differing mass (a group of boys, unsurprisingly, looking for a way to throw paper airplanes in class....though I've never had a group try to do spitballs which is nice!) would fly further and then proceeded to teach themselves about flight in order to discuss their experimental results.
And, the best part, was when they got to a step that stumped them in their own experiment, I would direct them to our class experiment to use that as a reference. I'd come by in a few minutes to see if they still had the question but they would have figured it out from the model we'd spent so much time on and would have moved on without me. This is the goal as a teacher- independent learners. Learning to be and think like a scientist is much more difficult than learning a bunch of scientific facts and regurgitating them back. Spending the time to pick apart the way scientists approach problems is the way we are going to create scientifically literate citizens, not through cramming more facts down their throats. Spending time digging into ideas like sample size, human error, and good data explicitly and through actual experiences is the way we will train kids to be successful in science classes and as citizens of the world who are bombarded with scientific information daily that they have to make sense of.
When we, as teachers, are feeling rushed, we need to keep asking ourselves to think about the big ideas, important skills, and cognitive moves that are critical to our subject areas. We need to think about where we can best spend our time so that it will pay off later and in important ways. We need to remind ourselves, as I have to do every year, that the act of thinking like a specialist in a content area is not something that kids are magically able to do without some instruction, explicit modeling, and most importantly, that all too scarce resource...time. We need to let ourselves "start slow to go fast" and the payoff will continue to be worth it.
Two quick asides:
1. This is why I love sixth graders. Two girls got in an actual argument over how best to reduce human error in their experiment. I had to sit them down and we had to talk about constructive ways to discuss this with our group members and then we all had a good laugh about their "nerd fight" when they really stopped to think about their argument topic.
2. Two boys wanted to do an experiment that was actually impossible in our school because we don't have a balcony high enough to actually do what they wanted. So, we had to calculate everything theoretically after a certain point with math- the way that real scientists do sometimes. I realized that they don't know how to do algebra yet so I had to teach them how to do guess and check tables and plug in values until they found one that would work in a simple algebraic expression. By the time I got home from school and had looked at my email again, I had an email with the subject line, "I DID IT!" They had done the calculations the second they got home from school and couldn't wait to share their findings.
It may be at the sixth grade level, with 11-year-olds, but this is real scientific work happening here and the time spent to get here was definitely worth it.
And now....on to Winter Break! Hello Colorado sunshine.