Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Let's Get Excited about Learning

I went to a presentation today by Christopher Emdin that was entitled "Let's Get Kids Excited about Science" -- in fact, Linda Hutchison and I took our freshman class of education majors to the presentation (in other words, we forced them to go). It had been a long day, but I felt more energized after his presentation than when I sat down at the beginning of the speech.

Although Christopher focused on science, and getting kids interested in science, what he said applies across the curriculum. He had a call and response: A stem without a root -- bears no fruit. Roots, to him, are under the ground, dirty, but full of nutrients. The dirt he likened to the lies we hear about kids in school: they are lazy, they don't care, they can't learn. He began his talk by pointing out that all the things that get kids interested in learning [choosing what to investigate, asking their own questions] are not what goes on in schools. It reminded me of a passage in The Courage to Teach when the author pointed out that kids are passive and nearly catatonic in class, but the minute the bell rings, they are suddenly alive, chatting, moving to the hall. It reinforced what I've been thinking -- we systematically seek out and destroy curiosity in kids so that when they get to middle school, they no longer remember what it was like to love learning. His point is that we need to change what we are doing in science [and by extension] in schools across the curriculum.

Another point was that our culture is anti-intellectual, but that behaviors we (teachers) perceive as anti-intellectual can be used to attract kids back to science [and for me, back to learning]. This lead Christopher to a discussion of imagination. In his view, and I agree with him, we focus on things about science (and other content areas) without taking into account what interests kids -- without helping them connect what they are learning in school with their surroundings and their lives. He had used wordle.net to create a "word cloud" illustrating the kinds of things involved in science mindedness: observation, skepticism, anti-authoritarianism, evidence-based, curiosity, creativity, reasoning, analogy, metaphor. It occurred to me that these are not characteristics limited to science mindedness. There is also history mindedness, art mindedness, language mindedness, math mindedness - and these share many of the characteristics he listed for science mindedness. If we can notice student behaviors, for example drawing or doodling during class, and instead of punishing students for not paying attention, point out the kinds of cognitive activities in evidence, for example how the doodling and daydreaming/ imagination are characteristics of science mindedness. There is a big difference between yelling at a kid for drawing in science class and pointing out that the doodle has patterns, and it took imagination to create the doodle - a characteristic of science mindedness.You've got to notice student behavior and connect it to your discipline. 

Another suggestion he made was on I've maintained for years: make believe you don't know an answer to a student question, even when you do. Instead, let the student know what a great question s/he's asked, and take the opportunity to model how to find the answer - coaching the student along in the process.

 He ended his talk with his Reality Pedagogy: the 5 Cs:
 1. Cogens (short for cogenerative dialogues among the teacher and students chosen because they represent different types of students). You begin by discussing how to make the next class better -- seek student input about how to make your teaching more effective. In this way, you and your students can co-create a classroom atmosphere that values everyone.

2. Co-teaching crews: Students become the teachers. He suggested providing students with the materials you have available for your planning and have them plan and then teach a class. Although the teacher may be the content expert, students are experts at delivering the information.

 3. Cosmopolitanism: Creating a collegial atmosphere in the classroom so that everyone is valued. The cogens helps in this regard. Connect students emotionally to your classroom and content.

4. Context: bring in familiar things to class and connect them to what you are teaching. Help students connect your content to their own lives. One great suggestion was to revive show & tell. Instead of 20 problem for homework, why not have students go out and find something in their world, bring it in and connect it to what was learned the day before.

5. Content: content is LAST. If you don't connect students emotionally to your class and to each other, if you don't create a respectful atmosphere in your class, if you don't allow students some control over their learning, then you'll never get to the content.

First you have to address classroom issues to create space for the content. He gave examples from Hip Hop and having students create Hip Hop raps (actually I'm pretty ignorant about Hip Hop and Raps, I'm guessing this is what you call them). Once you figure out what your students are interested in, learn about it -- and remember that learning is a two way street: in a classroom, you have students but they are also teachers. Sometimes, they are better than we are at teaching each other.

 I thoroughly enjoyed Christopher's talk - his book is Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation: Essential Tools for the Urban Science Educator and Researcher, but as I thumbed through it, it is a book for all teachers. Rural students and urban students alike feel alienated from school. We can help them find their way back to the curiosity and excitement they felt as kindergarteners and first graders - and become invested in their own futures - if we leave our egos at the door and focus on students as human beings that all have a gift for us. This gift is a way of looking at the world  that is unique to each student and from which we can learn -- and we can't get this anywhere else.