Science Fair: Crunch Time

A student ran up to me in the playground

“We just realised: the lab report is due next week. We need to get our observations done tomorrow!”

This is the advantage and the curse of sharing deadlines way ahead of time.

The advantage is that students learn to self-regulate, in a way that the usual schedule of having homework due every week never really teaches them.

The curse is that the deadlines look so small from far away, the useful activities are necessarily crunched at the end of the process.

I’ve got to say, though, I was impressed at their experimental skill and design. It looks like one doozy of a project. I can’t take any of the credit, they have flown with the idea.

Meanwhile, in the same class, I have students who find self-regulation incredibly hard, along with everything else I am asking them to do. They have good ideas for experiments and they have an idea of what they want to find out. But actually planning an experiment that would give results that could lead to a conclusion… they find that incredibly challenging.

In the end, I extended a life line and gave them some concrete ideas to work with. As much as I want my students to figure out an experiment for themselves, I think the cognitive load was too high for them. As in: they find all of it hard. Hypotheses, thinking of step-by-step plans, deciding on results to measure, working out if there are patterns, describing the patterns, explaining the patterns… even predicting results is a challenge. It was all new and all very difficult and confusing.

When things are too hard, the ego steps in to protect itself and a lot of time wasting activities will take place. Then it wasn’t because they were stupid*, it was because they wasted time or didn’t give it their full effort. (*not that finding these processes difficult as a beginner makes you stupid. But students often feel threatened by not being able to do something even though that is a normal part of learning something new)

As a teacher, it is hard to decide when to ‘give the answers’. I don’t want them to be dependent on me by any means…. But I think in this case it was the right judgement call.

What I did was: set up a usable method for their experimental aim. I did this mostly in discussion with them, so they were very much in charge of how it took shape. But I have designed a lot of experiments and it comes automatically to me. When they have designed a lot of experiments themselves, I can take a step back. We just don’t seem to be there yet.

Anyway, once the method was decided and trialled, they were able to think deep thoughts about their hypothesis and prediction. This sort of thinking is a challenge but once you have a concrete idea in your head about what the experiment will look like, it should be something that is manageable.

In my other class, with the younger students, I was hardly needed at all. They are much more independent as a group. I observed my class at work, noting their conversations and questions. The lion’s share of questions were directed at me because they were about how I would assess the work.

“Do we need an abstract in our lab report? Should we write directly on the card? How big does the poster need to be? Do I need to put the entire lab report on the poster?”

A few questions were to clarify some points

“Is THIS my independent variable? Does this go in my conclusion or my evaluation?”

But there were some really good questions and comments for the other students.

“Do you think this title is good? How would you describe the variables? Would you prefer to write the evaluation or the method in the lab report? Can you double check this measurement?”

“If they got all these questions right, this test is too easy. We listed the variables but we didn’t describe them. This is 7cm?! You are kidding me! It’s going to burn if you hold it like that. So my hypothesis WAS right! Oranges don’t work!”

Humans are social learners, so it’s great they are getting the same messages (about variables and conclusions, this lesson) from their peers.

I’ve got to say, this lesson was quite gratifying. I was useful but not centre stage. I could actually hear them learning new things and working stuff out. I gave them the mark scheme and told them how to use it: check off the parts they knew they had done and see if they could move up to the next grade band by improving on their work.

Also, the sheer volume of discussion about what they were doing and what to do next showed me that they took it seriously and wanted to be there. 

I’m not sure exactly why the quality of discussion amongst some of the older students was not as high. I can’t rule out that it was just tiredness as the lesson is right at the end of a long day. There could be other factors at play as well. Maybe they need more modelling from me, more worked examples or feedback about how to improve. I feel like I am  doing these things…. but maybe I’m not doing it enough or in a way that is helpful for them.

Next week, they will be finishing their lab reports and planning what they will do during the actual fair.

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