Initial Project Thoughts
It seems to me that I have had a singularly difficult time sitting down to write reflections after our meetings. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I am rarely at a loss for words, but in this case I admit to needing considerable time for my thoughts to gel. The root of the problem for me is a knee-jerk reaction to our discussions that goes something like this, "Well of course that's the way science and every other subject is taught in a Quaker school...isn't it?" Friends schools have a long tradition of creating both the culture and the space necessary for teachers and students to engage in vibrant learning communities in which all members of the community learn through collaboration, reflection, and inquiry; where teachers are partners in the learning process, not dictators of content knowledge. Irene McHenry, Executive Director of Friends Council on Education, gives life to the philosophy with her eloquent words.
Of course this only articulates my initial reaction to the conversations that we have had about developing a preK-6 science curriculum. If this were the entire story, I could easily jot a note to the effect that we already do all of this, and won't it be fun to have a university of Bryn Mawr's caliber working with us to document and justify our approach with the latest brain-based research? But there's the rub, while I can articulate the beliefs that influence all of Friends education and try my best to practice these beliefs in daily interactions with students, I know that there is a significant gap between the philosophy and the practice. The remainder of this response will focus on a few of the obstacles that I sense contribute to my experience. It is important at this juncture that I stress that I this is my experience and I have no doubt that the experiences of my colleagues will be different.
I don't intend to teach the answers, instead I try to raise essential questions and support student led inquiry and process in the classroom. For a percentage of my students, this is sufficient when launching a study. These are usually the abstract, global learners and/or students who have been at a Quaker school for many years. Students with years of experience in a Friends school setting seem more comfortable with the model of teacher and student partnering in the learning process, the absence of didactic lecture, and less anxious about "what will be on the test." I admit to struggling to address the needs of students new to a Quaker environment, students who leave public schools or other independent schools in the third or fourth grade and join us as fourth or fifth graders already having internalized the way to work the school system for the grade. They have learned to read the assigned pages in their science textbook, answer the content questions at the end of the chapter, and regurgitate the information on the unit test generated by the textbook publisher. For goodness sakes, we don't even teach out of textbooks. I think our approach is disorienting for some students and these students often tenaciously pursue the teacher for the "right answer." When the answer is not forthcoming, some disengage. Far more will in the course of the school year have experiences that allow them to embrace this new approach, but it doesn't happen immediately. Their struggle, while healthy and valuable, requires a level of emotional support that can prove daunting and it may be important to consider this aspect of teaching science as we design a curriculum.
An aspect of equal importance is the need to differentiate not just across a vertically integrated classroom, but across learning needs. I'll speak to one situation here. A child with a nonverbal learning difference has difficulty generalizing previously learned information, tends to have difficulty with multi-step instructions, and makes very literal translations. These students obsess about particular ideas and are easily overwhelmed. Many of the approaches we discussed (making inquiry transparent and modeling a scientific approach for example) are positive interventions for the child with a nonverbal learning disability. The appreciation of multiple interpretations, the generation of interpretations that create new questions, and sustained observation cycles related to science if the child obsesses about history prove more challenging. My desire to meet the needs of all of my students, whether they have an identified learning difference or I am simply considering academic readiness can prove to be daunting when designing and implementing rich science education.
We have already talked at length about the challenges inherent in communicating to students and families that science as a process first that will lead to understanding of content facts is a practical approach. And we have discussed concerns around children's diminishing first hand knowledge of the world (essentially a dearth of background knowledge that they can use to make connections) as more students spend more of their time in front of television and computer screens. On the topic of computer technology, I am torn. Last year I read and shared with teachers an article that was published in Orion. An abridged version of the article can be found at http://www.orionsociety.org/pages/om/05-5om/Monke.html. I admit that much in this article resonates with me, and I would hope to have continuing dialogue on this topic as we develop the curriculum.
Well, now that I've started my response I could likely go on for pages. But I'll end here with the realization that I sense that the kind of curriculum we are talking about developing is a perfect fit for the ideal approach to Quaker education. Because integrity is an important value to me, I will want to pursue ways of turning the challenges to implementing on a daily basis this approach to science study into opportunities for further realizing what is unique about the philosophy and practice in Friends education.
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