Today was the opening day of Kids’ College, which is a two-week, half-day science academy for going-to-be 5th and 6th graders at Michigan State University. This is my fifth year getting to lead as an instructor. That makes this my fifth opening day. Today I was struck by some observations that I hadn’t noticed before.
First, I’ll set up the situation. After an auditorium-style presentation with the whole group (there’s 18 instructors each with a group like mine) getting through the get-to-know-you info (lasting about an hour), we split up into individual groups. This year, I am leading 10 young people. I’ve never met any of them. Only two of them have met someone else in the group. After some introductions, we have about 75 minutes to use pipe insulation, tape, a marble, and anything else at arm’s reach to build a roller coaster that met some basic common guidelines.
It is of note (at least to me) that I wasn’t going to collect anything, I wasn’t going to record any grades, truth-be-told I wasn’t going to hold them accountable at all. So, here we go.
Observation #1: Off-task behavior was shockingly absent. These kids had ideas, discussed them, and designed, reality-checked, and made predictions. I told them that I wasn’t handing them a marble until the coaster was built, stable, and ready for testing. My favorite question became “If this coaster has trouble, where do you think the trouble-spots will be?” Both teams had talked about it already. They knew. And they were both right, by the way. Also, no bathroom breaks. No kids asking to stop to eat their snacks. No kids asking what time it is and how much longer we have until we are done. I mean that. None.
Observation #2: They decided their own “good enough”. I told them the requirements. They weren’t constantly seeking my approval. They didn’t ask questions like, “are we done yet?” On the contrary, in both cases, I had to instruct them to stop after fielding “aww, just one more test run? C’mon, we just need to fix this one hill… hold on.”
Observation #3: Students developed roles within the 5-person groups quite well. One guy was the tape guy. He held the tape, ripped a piece, applied it where the designer told him to. This person was working on the loop. That person on the curve. This person’s job was to tape the insulation to the wall to create the initial hill. These kids hadn’t ever met. I didn’t see any squabbling. I didn’t see any hurt feelings. I didn’t tell them to divvy up roles. About all I said, “You better get this organized!”
Okay, now I’m already arguing with myself:
“Yeah, but these are learners who are interested in science.” Okay, perhaps, but that doesn’t explain the group dynamics. Besides, putting these kids back on the busses to go back to meet their parents was all it took to reveal to all of use that these were definitely normal 10-year-olds.
“You work with 15- and 16-year-olds. This stuff must be easier with 10-year-olds.” Is that true? I have friends who teach elementary school and they gripe sometimes, too. I’m not sure that simply supplanting my typical group of 15- and 16-year-olds with 10-year-olds magically makes a lesson plan more likely to succeed. Does it? (A bit of help in the comments would be fantastic from those readers in the elementary ranks.)
“You’ve done this activity before and it doesn’t always go this well.” Very true. I have had students in the past that are a bit tougher to motivate. I have had groups with super-dominant leaders who try to monopolize everything. (In fact, this year, I tried to get around that by adding the structured timing… first 10 minutes discussion/sketching… then no marble until the whole design is constructed.) I suppose the student selection forces-that-be may have blessed me with a good mix, but I can’t help but feel like there is something more at work here.
Here is a stand-alone lesson. Didn’t do anything to assess prior knowledge and there wasn’t an assessment following. Nothing was turned in. Nothing was graded. Science isn’t built on that stuff. LEARNING isn’t built on that stuff. Learning is built on the stuff that I saw today. Discussing, sketching, questioning, building, testing, adjusting, asking why. Perhaps we allowed for those things to increase by eliminating questions like:
“Is this going to be on the test?”
“When is this due?”
“Do we all have to turn one in?”
“How many points is this worth?”
I mean, believe me, I understand the role of assessments and obviously I have a situation where I’m not being held accountable much either, which gives me a lot more flexibility. But what if that is the key? What if all the off-task behavior that is getting in the way is being caused by grades, tests, and other stuff? What if I got a window into authentic learning? What if today I saw a formula that worked? How can I integrate the lessons that I learned today into the September-to-June environment?
All I know is that today I saw something work. I want my classroom to work like that.
I don’t know. I guess I have more questions than answers. Perhaps that is why I am asking the questions to all of you. I know that you have more answers than me. I look forward to your perspective.