Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

How We Changed Our “Tone-Sets” to Inspire Students for Inquiry

From Seth “Lion” Weinberg, School Programs Manager, Westminster Woods, Occidental, California.

At Westminster Woods in the past, we used introductions to our program blocks that were designed to provide a baseline of information, and also to be fun. On our Forest Ecology day, we helped students act out a food-chain skit. For Watershed Ecology, we dressed up a kid as a watershed, complete with aquatic-themed shower curtain and spritzed water on them after explaining what makes a watershed. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, we have always felt there was room to grow. Students were involved, but they weren’t the leaders.

Students were asked questions, but they didn’t participate in meaningful discussions. Instructors provided information about the day’s adventures, but they did little to prepare students to truly engage in the learning process. Since being influenced by BEETLES and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), we now design our introductions with the following science practices in mind: Asking Questions, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, and Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

Our current style of introduction helps students recall prior knowledge, stokes curiosity, and prepares students to truly participate in their adventure. One of our best Forest Ecology introductions is centered around the question Do Trees Eat Salmon? This mysterious question, which was introduced by our talented David “Redwing” Salomon, is already written up on the whiteboard when students enter their meeting room in the morning. After a little bit of “guide-on-the-side” style prodding, we regularly witness students enter into debates with their peers regarding the answer to the question. After an appropriate amount of unguided conversation, Redwing steps in and provides some basic information about the forest and the life cycle of the salmon—just enough to further the conversation but not enough to give an answer. He then facilitates an open-ended discussion with students, using a variety of questioning strategies including broad questions and pair shares. During the discussion, he continuously turns the conversation back to students, encouraging them to speak to one another and directly engage with the information they have been given. By the end of the introduction, students are genuinely curious about the relationship between salmon and trees. Instead of providing them with an answer at the end of the introduction, we tell students that their Forest Ecology day will be an adventure focused on researching these types of questions through inquiry and investigation. Students go on their adventure ready to explore, observe, and share ideas—excited about the mysteries still unsolved in the forest.

Not all of our new introductions have been created wholly new. Some were existing introductions that we have adapted to incorporate NGSS and best practices of pedagogy. In our Wings introduction, we ask students to close their eyes and listen to the sounds created by a turkey vulture feather and an owl wing. Then, we have students open their eyes and guess which item made which sound. After a short discussion, we make the sounds again, this time with students’ eyes open. In the past, we asked a narrow question and got narrow answers. Now, we ask broad questions framed in the language of the NGSS, “Who can construct an explanation about which item made which sound?” We then ask whether anyone would like to respectfully disagree with that statement, but only if they can base their argument on evidence. After students have been hooked in by the Wings demonstration, we share a little information about the structure and function of adaptations and bring out a full taxidermy owl. Students get to observe the owl, ask questions about its structures, and construct explanations with their peers about the function of the owl’s structures. This simple change in language and questioning strategies has changed an” oldy but goody” into something that supports cutting-edge pedagogy and adoption of NGSS.

Since we changed our tone-sets, we have noticed that students are much more excited and prepared to proactively engage in their education, research the world around them, and create meaning for themselves.

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