Teaching Science Cooperatively in Middle/High School
THINGS have changed a lot since many of us were educated to teach science in the middle or high school classroom. Why? Because the world is now more of a "hands on" place, which produces "hands on" kids.
Over the past 20 years, educational professionals have had to modify their "traditional" methodology to satisfy the American student's changing needs. The science classroom, especially, is ever evolving from a passive to an active place where lecture notes, textbook assignments, and structured tests are gradually being replaced by laboratory team investigation.
Teenagers interact physically with their world. Most don't read books for knowledge or entertainment. Instead, they log on to the Internet as soon as they get home from school or interact in cyberspace with the latest hero of video games.
They play all the "in" sports and hang out in groups that zip around in four-wheel-drive vehicles. Wild rappers on MTV, the staged chaos of violent afternoon talk shows, and the latest disaster movie provide even more stimulation.
So what happens to these '90s kids when they get stuck in a "traditional" '50s science classroom? Some goal-oriented kids meticulously take notes and read every assigned page of their boring textbook because they realize how important grades will be when they are facing parents at report-card time or trying to get into a good college.
Yet, far too many others, who find it difficult to discipline themselves to a "pencil and paper" classroom, drift through tedious lectures, skim over difficult textbooks, skip the boring questions at the end of each chapter, and finally fail highly structured tests with very fine-tuned grading scales. These are the kids who have inspired the concept of "cooperative" or "hands on" education, which is already working very well in many middle and high school classrooms.
All science teachers must realize that teaching in the new millennium will require far more of them. They will have to become adept at teaching "cooperatively" because the world of education, which was once teacher centered, has now become student centered. The teacher, who used to be infinite, has become finite and is now required to be accountable, not only to the principal, but to evermore-vocal and disgruntled parents and students.
What this means to science teachers of the new millennium is adaptation and reeducation in state-of-the-art teaching techniques. If they are to retain their current professional status, they must go into this brave, new, computerized world with the gusto of a student teacher, who believes she can do it all.
Unfortunately, many middle and high school science teachers are already intimidated by their drastically changing profession. Some really don't believe in the validity of "cooperative" education or don't believe they could ever achieve the skills to run a "cooperative" classroom effectively.
Others just don't want to make the effort to change their mentality, their methodology, and their physical surroundings to include a "hands on" approach to the science curriculum. They realize that it takes a deep love of learning, a lot of work, and true flexibility to go from the "boss" of the classroom to the "mentor" of teams of students. They are not convinced that the "team" approach really boosts individual student self-esteem along with illustrating that the concepts in science far outweigh the details.
Many principals, too, are caught in the time warp of the '50s, believing that teaching tools should be left totally in the hands of individual classroom teachers. They never even stop to consider that, without frequent updating of teaching technique, even the best of teachers fossilize.
Yet, despite all the opposition from "traditional" educators, "cooperative" learning is paving the science highway of the future. More and more studies of learning retention point to "hands on" learning as the most effective means of getting and holding the student's attention, teaching individual concepts and skills, and banking knowledge which will be recalled and used by most students all through their lives.
Teachers of the new millennium, then, must allow their students to think, discuss, experiment, and debate the validity of their conclusions if they are to be effective educators.
WHAT IT IS What is "cooperative" or "hands on" science? The best way to determine what it is is to take a peek at how it works in the classroom.
Ms. Connors is a third-year biology teacher who was fascinated by the concept of cooperative education in her college education courses. She was one of those high school biology students who despised memorizing and regurgitating facts in order to "earn a good grade." Consequently, when she became a biology teacher, she changed the rules.
At the beginning of each new semester, she informs her students that she will be their mentor, not their master. All eyes in her classroom suddenly focus on her. Even the cheaters and class clowns listen as she presents the steps of the scientific method and then asks the class to break up into modules of three students who are able to work well together.
Nobody moves for a few seconds, but finally her students rearrange themselves into small groups at lab tables while she puts this sentence on the board: "Seeds, not stones, germinate and grow." After a moment of silence, she asks her teams to think about this statement, discuss it, and then come up with a problem which they can investigate to test its validity.
She watches her students as they exchange skeptical glances. They have never had to solve a problem on their own, let alone come up with one.
Now, Ms. Connors suggests that they organize their efforts by electing a team leader, who will coordinate their group efforts and be a liaison between herself and their group. They do this.
She then suggests that the team leader assign individual tasks (like developing a problem or deciding how to set up a written procedure and present their data) to each member of her group. She emphasizes that the steps of the scientific method must guide their own steps.
Suddenly, brains storm and ideas pop up all over the classroom as every member of each team becomes an important cog in a working machine. The team leader helps her group solidify their problem and then brings it to the teacher for her approval and signature.
After getting Ms. Connors' OK, the group begins to hypothesize an answer to its problem and to discuss the merits of the procedure they wrote and data-recording tools they plan to use to solve their problem. When they refine their report, they obtain Ms. Connors' signature once again. This allows them to perform their experiment in a laboratory situation.
Each student in each laboratory group feels empowered as the actual work begins. Individual group members choose tasks to perform in the process of experimentation and agree to document the results of their tasks in the final lab report.
Peer pressure then becomes the motivating factor behind performance as group members are given the right, by Ms. Connors, to eliminate a noncooperative member from their group. This dismissal by peers soon convinces a nonworker to shape up or risk doing the experiment alone.
When the experimentation is completed, the team leader submits the collated, fine-tuned, computer-typed, group lab report to Ms. Connors. She examines the report for correct application of the scientific method, as well as for accurate research and data reporting. She checks that the conclusion of each group's report reflects a logical approach to using valid data to solve the group's proposed problem.
Finally, she grades individual groups, not according to a stringent, "traditional," percentage scale, but according to the groups' creativity, research, abstract reasoning, and, finally, their ability to coordinate tasks. All team members receive the same grade on their lab report, and individual students are always encouraged to switch to another team, if they are unhappy with their original lab group.
Making kids feel comfortable, important, and responsible is an integral part of Ms. Connors' agenda. Although there is no formal "test" at the end of a "cooperative" learning session, every member of every team has learned a lot.
How can Ms. Connors be sure of this? Perhaps by comparing her laboratory team experiences to learning a skill like riding a bicycle. There is no memorization or regurgitation of the rules associated with being able to hop on a bike, balance, and ride. Trial, mistakes, and finally success, imprints the never-to-be-forgotten skill of riding a bike onto the brain of the biker.
BEYOND THE LAB How can cooperative learning reach beyond the laboratory situation in a science classroom?Small groups of students who are willing to cooperate with one another can form modules within the science classroom and work together on assigned questions or group study projects. Teams can study together for tests and perform as a unit on teacher-administered oral quizzes. Modules can compete with other modules in their classroom in learning sessions which are patterned on the format of the game show "Jeopardy," where the teacher asks questions, selects the best answers, and again grades the working team as a unit.
Small groups of science students can also research topics together in the school library, on the computer, and on the Internet. Then they can present their research in the form of a group report or work in class with their partners on vocabulary study and concept mapping. Teams of students can make up science unit tests to exchange with other teams of students when reviewing for tests or for a final exam.
As teams work together, "crossing curriculum" will occur naturally. Those students with special talents in writing, spelling, calculator and computer literacy, mathematics, logical thinking, and organization will share their expertise with other members of their team in the process of completing a task.
And what about all this noise? It's enthusiastic, productive, and controlled from within rather than from without. It is the earmark that cooperative education is really working in a science classroom.
Perhaps the most important skill learned in cooperative learning is cooperation. Many children do not belong to a truly cooperative, functional family in our high-tech, materialistic society. They lack experience in belonging to and working within a small, tightly-knit, secure group, and so they miss the sense of self-esteem which goes along with being a truly functional member of a successful team.
RELATING TO OTHER KIDS Cooperative learning helps kids relate to other kids and provides each student with the ability to earn self-esteem among peers while teaching important lessons in how to work cooperatively together with others in order to achieve a goal. The world which has been created by teams in a science classroom will then become a microcosmic model for the working world, the one which individual members of these teams will actually enter into after their formal education is through.
There will always be books that must be read, math problems that must be done, lectures for which notes must be taken, individual homework that must be turned in, and even facts that must be memorized for written tests that must be taken. Certain scientific concepts simply are not able to be investigated, and the result of that fact is that the traditional approach to teaching science will continue to be a useful classroom tool.
Yet, until teachers make room in their science classrooms for cooperative education and judge their students' performance by more than stacks of checked paperwork, often ambiguous testing, and exacting grading scales; until educators believe that kids, when given a more "open" classroom situation, will be inspired to learn, not to cheat; until teachers approach teaching in an updated, positive way; until all this takes place, we cannot expect students to achieve their full potential and be formidable competitors in the ever-expanding world that will be there for them in the new millennium.
AUTHOR: Carole McGraw
Carole McGraw has taught in Detroit, Michigan, schools for 28 years and currently teaches science at Notre Dame Preparatory School, Pontiac, Michigan. She can be reached at 5400 Breeze Hill Place, Troy, MI 48098.
SOURCE: The Education Digest 64 no9 29-33 My '99 The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission.