BSIE 2010: Session 30

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education
K-12 Summer Institute 2010



  Session 30

Reflections ... and moving on

Brain drain of what will stick.  Click for enlargement
Reflective learning assignment


update of Science as story telling and story revision

Things (ideas, experiences, activities) that will stick

Co-constructive inquiry/conversation continues ....

  • After taking some time to mull, put "sticking things" in forum below
  • During the year ...
  • Other ideas?


Thanks all for experimenting together with open-ended co-constructive inquiry; let's keep it up/spread the word




Wil Franklin's picture

Lessons Learned

Science as story telling is a complex metaphor that I have been exploring for many years. Implicit in this conceit is the assumption that stories come from human brains that have no way of knowing what “reality” is. As corporal beings stuck perceiving and understanding only that which our nervous system allows, how possibly could we ever know truth.  If we take this premise seriously, then science is not about finding or discovering truth, rather it is about constructing understandings about that which we can observe, reflect upon and talk about with others. In this sense, science as story telling is about the empirical world. We’ve all heard that science is a process. But a process that produces what? … that behaves how? If science is only story telling in the sense that it is a human activity that functions to generate new understandings, then what makes one story better than another? As a science educator, this is the question that haunts every day of my teaching life. How do I make students better story tellers? And, if the stories of science are not about truth, how then do I grade them? It is in the context of these haunting questions that I reflect upon the Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education Summer Institute, 2010. For three weeks a diverse group of K-16 educators participated in co-constructed conversational exploration of topics around the human brain, science and the implications for education.

As an educator I am guided by one overarching goal – to empower my students. To give my students tools, skills and habits of mind that will allow them to be better problem-solvers and in turn productive, positive members of our society. As a biology instructor, this translates into helping students become better constructors of understandings about complex living systems. It is NOT to bestow some pre-ordained set of science facts upon them. First, students will become better scientists if they become aware of the tentative nature of knowledge. Second, so called facts change so rapidly that it would seem to be a disservice if I only taught them to consume facts, rather than how to generate them. If on the other hand, I can help students see facts as more or less useful constructs that solve certain problems or answer certain questions, then perhaps they will be more willing to think about all understanding as more or less useful for particular purposes.

Given this personal agenda as an educator, I found the summer institute to be full of experiences that made me think anew about science as story telling.

Conversation is a part of scientific story telling that I did not fully appreciate until the Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education institute. In previous years of teaching I have placed a lot of emphasis on helping students be “empirical story tellers”. That is, I have several introductory activities and assignments built around defining and deconstructing the meaning empiricism. I have found this to help students produce more focused and succinct lab reports.  What I now want to include is the defining and deconstruction of conversation/dialogue.  A subtle, but important component of empirical conversations is the use of math as highly formalized language. Math is not the only language of science, but is a key component.  Having tried out the careful development of dialogue in the three week summer institute, what I saw was conversation as a mechanism for making use of diverse points of view and the diverse set of understandings that all individuals bring to class.  In the science as story telling paradigm, one recognizes and embraces that all individuals have their own starting assumptions, working mental models and general belief systems that affect how and what they can make sense of. Dialogue (as defined here generally as a communal, goal oriented process) works to slow the classroom activities down with everyone sharing ideas related to the task at hand. Conversation in this sense is a kind of consensus building around a communal story that can serve to help individuals with their own personal understandings. Perhaps most importantly, from an educator’s point of view, conversation allows less useful “misunderstandings” to be diagnosed and addressed. The idea of “misunderstandings” is problematic for the science as story telling paradigm and is another issue that I grappled with during the summer institute.

The idea of misunderstanding, I think, stands in direct conflict with the idea of science as story telling and strikes at the heart of my ongoing questions about adjudicating between stories in science.  At one point in the institute I was working with some participants on designing an experiment to test a question about what factors affect heart rate. We were discussing several factors that had not been previously considered by some of the members of the group. To me this was useful, at least to them. The idea that oxygen moving throughout the body might not only be altered by rate, but also volume, seemed helpful. However, a “non-conventional” term was being used to discuss the idea and the facilitator of the activity said, “well that’s not right, it’s actually …..” Later, the interaction came up in reference to circulating throughout a classroom to clear up “misunderstandings”.   For me this experience brought into focus the question of what makes a good story in science. Several members of our group began to develop a new understanding due to our conversation, so how is that a misunderstanding. What did it miss? I guess it missed the “official” agreed upon construct of cardiac output being affected by rate and volume, but what about the individual learner’s understanding. When the facilitator interrupted to “correct” us, the conversation stopped and we did not return to how volume and rate are related. The interaction turned out to be a “missed-opportunity” for constructing new understanding, rather than a “misunderstanding”.

Looking at the idea of misunderstanding in this light, I can now look back at how conversations can be useful to an educator. Rather than diagnosing “misunderstandings”, dialogue can highlight different understandings. Then, engaging in further dialogue the use of each understanding can be assessed in the context of the problem at hand. The flat earth theory and the round earth theory is a classic example of finding use in differing understandings. For all practical purposes, most of us act as if the earth is flat. The theory has everyday use. We don’t walk up one side of the earth then down another side, rather our brains assume a flat surface stretching out in front of us. Only navigators of the sea and sky and astrophysicists really have reason to need a round earth theory.

And this brings me to what I will take away from the Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education institute of 2010. To help my students become better science story tellers, I will try to pose all of our activities in the context of a clear problem or question. Then with time and space for dialogue we, as a group with a common goal, will discuss the problem as well as the criteria by which to judge our collective understandings. After spending initial class meetings discussing empiricism and conversation much of the responsibility for judging the stories constructed by students will be in their own hands, including the use and effect of math in the stories. My hope is that careful attention to judging stories in the context of the initial problems will help individuals construct more useful as well as articulate stories. And at all cost, I do not want to miss an opportunity for individual understanding or interfere with the development of a useful communal story.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the contexts of "misunderstandings" and how to deal with them

Very thoughtful.  Thanks for highlighting the "misunderstanding" issue, as well as that of "in the context of the problem at hand."  Both should have been on my list of "sticking things."  Understandings are indeed always only valid or invalid in the context of particular problems.  And that shines a very useful light on the meaning of "misunderstanding": it exists only in the context of particular problems (often those on the mind of a teacher).  I like a lot too your offering of conversation as the appropriate way to deal with this.  See some thoughts of Alice's in a different but related context. 

Judith Lucas-Odom's picture

What is Sticking! My Story!

This year because of the unusual circumstances in my life I found solace in being involved with the inquiry.  I enjoyed how each member of the group was special and each looked at things in their own unique way.  As I watch how the group interacted the group itself created an intricate story board.  I myself found some things difficult but when I looked around others did too!  The story began to take shape.  As my story unfolded I found that part of other people's story became a part of my I was learning.  This will stick with me forever! What will stick most of all is that there are people who are still willing to take chances and explore what they think without looking at it as it being right all the time.  Some things, the its, were difficult at first, such as Sudoku but with patience I became successful at something I would not normally do.  Another sticky thought was how I finally understood how I want to think about thinking, the climax of my story.  The story telling and conversations were the things that kept me hooked during the time when my mind took a down turn.  I was encouraged by the fact that people really care about teaching still and they want to encourage others to get excited about teaching their students to tell their stories.  I really want this year to be different and I will encourage my students to seek the path of conversation through story telling.  I have already gotten some of my colleagues excited about story telling.  I agree with teal, life is a story that is worth telling and we should allow our students stories to shine through in their learning.  This is not the end but the beginning of a new chapter of teaching for me!



RecycleJack Marine's picture

Unconscious at the Shore

What I will take with me from this institute as compared to the institute in 2009 is a deeper understanding of how my unconscious affects my conscious. I really enjoy reading Susan's entries  She writes on another level of thought. I hope she appreciates having a great level of intelligence. What seems to get in my way is the unconscious that holds me down from new experiences- it holds my conscious down and won't let it push forward. I am trying to move forward, but alas I am bogged down in the clutter of things in my brain and the clutter of things in my den. I have one month to get my new classroom together, to create a plan for success by bypassing my past years (in teaching). I have too much to do through next week, but then I'll have a whole week to "learn how to be a better educator."  I have to use what we talked about in the institute more wisely in the classroom. I relish a lot of the discussions too by the participants in this summer's institute. Keith is inspiring and I will incorporate what he and a few others suggested I take back to the new (teaching) position.

What I mean by Unconscious at the Shore is that I was at Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island, New Jersey a few days ago and I was fascinated by the images as I watched the sun roll through the clouds, by the way families interacted with each other, and by the vast sand-filled beach that spread in front of me as I walked unconsciously towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Ashley Dawkins's picture


I think the most relevant piece of information that I will take away from the institute is directly related to constructing knowledge. By creating a conflict between the conscious and the unconscoius (aka disequalibrium) learning takes places. And because you are searching for some kind of "answer" there is a spark of interest. The important thing to remember is the conflict cannot be too great or frustration rather than interest will arise.


Great stuff!

Susan Dorfman's picture

What sticks, stays

What will stick with me is the ongoing discussion of the interaction of the conscious and unconscious brain and the importance for teachers to recognize and utilize that knowledge in the classroom. Both at this current Institute and the one I attended in 2006, Paul guided the groups through the realization of the importance of the flow of inputs and outputs internally in each student and externally among students and their teacher. There was much gain for me in observing and engaging with the diverse teaching styles of Paul, Wil, participant volunteers, and guests. Even though I observe teachers and candidates for teaching positions as part of my responsibilities at Baldwin School, the circumstances are different from those scaffolded by Paul. There was great meaning for me in the co-constructive dialogue of our group as we worked our way through analysis of the presentations. I will return to the classroom and my Institution with enhanced skills in guiding interactive dialogue among my students and among my colleagues. and teacher. There was much gain for me in observing and engaging with the diverse teaching styles of Paul, Wil, participant volunteers, and guests. Even though I observe teachers and candidates for position

Presently, I am staying with my son and daughter-in-law in Texas to help them organize a new home with their 8-week old daughter and gain time as my daughter-in-law begins medical school and my son transfers his graduate work in anthropology from SMU to Texas A and M.  The opportunity to spend continuous time with my sweet granddaughter has presented a wonderful experience for observing the unconscious at work. Ever vigilant of her internal environment and new external experiences, her unconscious reveals its stories in her facial expressions, tone of voice, and movements of her arms and legs. Her joy and distress are obvious to my unconscious, and my experienced conscious has a library of reactions from which to choose. The experience of being with my granddaughter is extraordinary but even more so because of the Institute. My communications with her are enhanced. Babies fall into REM sleep quickly. Her dreams appear to be recreations of each set of experiences as she smiles, coos, frowns, and cries a bit while sleeping. My son says in jest that her nightmares are about someone taking her milk. There is logic to what he says. Even more than that, she appears to be reliving all that occurred as she builds her stories of the reality she is experiencing. I reviewed the article in Scientific American about babies and thought about Jessica's presentation on how babies think. Thank you to Paul, Wil, the interns, and fellow pre-college teachers for sharing in a magnificent 3-weeks of interactive dialogue. I learned so much from all of you.

By the way, I am getting more relaxed about Sudoku. Over the course of the 3-weeks, I started completing more puzzles, went from completing one in 45 minutes to completing one in 15 minutes. Armed with a book of puzzles given to me by Joyce, I am choosing to do 1 or 2 puzzles each evening for relaxation. I can see the patterns, thanks to Paul. I worked with this skill and feel the progress. I can't help but think of a few of my students who can't work on one concept at a time. They may struggle with several concepts. I need to think more about how to give them the help, encouragement and confidence to keep trying. I need to slow down their environment while still moving ahead for those students quicker at seeing the patterns. 


Jessica Watkins's picture

A Summer to Remember

I consider myself extremely lucky to have met all of this summer's participants and to have worked with them while journeying toward a fuller understanding of the brain, culture, and education.  My own thoughts and feelings have been enriched by those of this varied group, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to interact on a level other than "student" with so many teachers.  Their insight made me appreciate my education even more after learning about the "inside story" of what goes into making a classroom what it is.  A few things that will stay with me:

  • Everybody is capable of learning, even those we label as "impaired," as long as they are given the opportunity to bring their own unique experiences to the classroom and contribute personal reflections in a safe, judgment-free environment.
  • Life, when it boils down to it, is all about storytelling.  Our brains are wired to understand this kind of explanation most easily, and it is for this reason that we interact with each other as we do and construct religions, etc.
  • The brain processes information on many levels, which is why learning comes much more easily in multiple, varied forms. 
  • Hands-on approaches that incorporate different media forms, colors, textures, etc. transfer more authority into the hands of students and allow them to apply their personal understanding to whatever they are learning.
  • Students are not the only ones learning--teachers, too, are constantly engaged in this process.  Teachers are not the final authority on any type of knowledge, and should therefore present their classroom as an environment where both they and their students can learn together.
RecycleJack Marine's picture

In, or out of the final loop?

Wil (roughly) said, "every time I know something it opens up new areas in which to explore more unknowns."

Paul said, "am I a meaningful influence on my own behavior?"

Regina entertained the idea that there is another loop of which we cannot identify. Is it randomness, or some diety,

or some altered state? What a lively discussion ensued after Regina ignited the class with her explanation of our

conscious/unconscious states.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Sticking things ...

  • co-constructive inquiry/dialogue/conversation - learning how to do it
  • science/inquiry as open-ended story/explanation/construction/conversation
  • learning based on difference - inquiry as finding new ways of thinking; education as facilitating that
  • four loops
  • unconscious learning; unconscious/conscious conversation
  • brain drain
  • interpersonal conversations and individual/cultural conversations - need more on latter
  • advanced inquiry/conversation skills - a new institute session?
  • math and "formal systems" - a new institute session?

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