Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

The Whole Enchilada: How We Transformed Our Program Through BEETLES

From Gregory Bahr, Principal of San Joaquin County Outdoor Education program, La Honda, California.

After many rewarding years in outdoor science schools as an instructor and director/principal, I remember feeling like what we were doing was great, but could be better. I didn’t know how, but I just felt like it could be. Most of the strategies I’d seen in different programs were not inquiry-based or student-centered. Many activities could be done in a parking lot and didn’t take advantage of the wonderful outdoor settings where they were being done. Students were not fully engaging with the environment. Using BEETLES has given us what we were missing. It teaches observation skills and brings out children’s natural sense of curiosity. It gives students permission to explore and get dirty. It enhances scientific inquiry and discussion habits. And we’ve found that our students now do this even on their own, without an instructor telling them to do it!

Defusing resistance. When I attended a BEETLES Institute, I asked a lot of questions, and I struggled quite a bit with the ideas that were new to me. By the end of the week, I was “all in,” but I try to remember the struggle I had as I work with instructors when they are struggling with new ideas. I’ve found that it takes time and that I need to be patient with them and meet them where they’re at. Now when I hire staff, I explain the teaching philosophy and practices and that the expectation is to teach using an inquiry-based, student-centered approach. I give them an example of what this looks like. If there is resistance to this, I address it head on and openly. Making small steps toward more inquiry-based, student-centered can ease resistance. When rehiring or promoting staff, I address BEETLES straight on. I let them know that BEETLES is here to stay, and everyone needs to be on board and support it. I ask a lot of questions to see where they’re at, such as, “Where are you with BEETLES and where do you need to get to? How are exploration activities going? How are Walk & Talks? Group discussions? What new things will you be incorporating weekly into your teachings? What help or questions do you have about activities or the inquiry-based, student-centered approach? What PL session do you want to lead or co-lead for the staff?”

I also support staff who are jumping on board with BEETLES-type instruction. I positively highlight and encourage those who are trying new activities. If an activity doesn’t go well, I help them analyze what didn’t work and what can be modified.

I seek out and listen to feedback. I listen to see if complaints are legitimate, or if they’re just complaining because it is something new, or if they are not sure how to make the change. I provide support to staff. This can be materials, time to create new lessons, opportunities to observe other staff, and/or more discussion time with fellow instructors. I also offer to tag along on a hike with kids and do a role-model teaching of a lesson. This can be powerful and helpful for staff to see. Interview an Organism has become my jam. Afterward, I debrief it with the staff and highlight the good, the not as good, and the things that could be done better next time. Doing this makes me vulnerable, like I’m asking them to be. I’ve found it’s important to model humility, openness, growth mindset, and all the things I’m asking them to do. I also tell them to have faith in this way of teaching, and I’d say the same to program leaders new to this approach. It can be challenging to have faith in something you are not familiar with or confident in. But have faith anyway and be observant as you and your staff implement this. Look to see what changes occur with your students. Rome was not built in a day, and neither was an overhaul of a program. Making long-lasting changes to people’s thinking and teaching is a journey, not a quick change-over. Be positive, understanding, and patient (but persistent).

BEETLES permeates our program. We use the Instructor Support for Leading Meaning-Making Discussions and Instructor Support for Guiding Exploration sheets as part of observations of instructors, including peer observations. I try to role-model teaching and thinking in an inquiry-based and student-centered way in everything I do as a director. We have tweaked and modified our student journals and supplemental materials. Our counselor-coordinator has taken the “philosophy” of inquiry-based, student-centered learning and the importance of peer discussions to our high school cabin leader 2-hour training on Monday. He incorporated Walk & Talks and discussions, covering the material so it was not lecture format any more! We have even incorporated BEETLES philosophy into our evening programs. We have a staff person host our campfires at night as a character, so during staff training I modeled doing it as Curious George. I had a knapsack of things I’d found in the forest that I shared during the banter part of the campfire. Campfire stories and songs that highlight curiosity and discovery can also encourage inquiry-based learning. A song by the Banana Slug String Band that supports the curiosity philosophy is “Singing to the Moon.”

Professional learning sessions. During our two-week staff training, we do two PL sessions every year (since we have new interns every year). The first PL session is Teaching and Learning. The reason is because the interns will need to know the basics about lesson planning, and this session is the best way to teach it to them right away. Most have never had to create a full-blown lesson plan before. It hits the needed details and some of the why’s of the Learning Cycle. During observations of instructors, we discuss their lesson plan and apply the Learning Cycle to it. This session also lays the foundation and frame of reference for further discussions during the year about lesson planning. The second session we do during staff training is Making Observations. This session teaches how to teach observation skills. When one knows how to observe properly, they are able to learn directly from nature. Students can become lifelong learners from nature. The observational skills also cut across learning disabilities and English learners. Observation is the doorway to understanding larger ecological concepts firsthand. Observational skills can be, and should be, used to teach most environmental concepts.

Usually in a month or two in the program we do Constructing Understanding. This gives field instructors a deeper understanding of how and why inquiry-based, student-centered learning is an effective way of teaching. It’s like the “Part 2” of Teaching and Learning. It’s a revisit to how we learn but takes it to a deeper level. In January or February, we will usually do Evidence and Explanations. This session provides more tools for observation-based discussions and inquiries and helps deal with students saying crazy explanations about nature that are not based on observation or evidence. Introducing “What is your source?” is also valuable for staff. It makes people think about where they “learned” their information. It also puts staff on more level ground with students—that we are also learners, just like they are. It can also empower students to know where they can find out more information about “nature.” Field Journaling with Students has been done at different times. It’s now part of what we do, so some aspects of journaling gets passed on even if the full-blown session is not done. We have also mixed in other BEETLES PL sessions.

Trail routines and activities. We emphasize and teach the following activities, and they get used throughout the year. Walk & Talk is introduced during staff training, and most field instructors make it their own pretty early on. I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of takes more encouragement and coaching in order for the staff to make it a mainstay every week. Encouragement and suggestions as to when to use it is needed. Re-explaining the importance of the activity and its versatility is needed many times. Either Decomposition Mission or Lichen Exploration is done as part of the PL sessions during staff training. Mind Pie and Case of the Disappearing Log are introduced sometime the first semester, sometimes a little more informally, during a Monday morning staff meeting, for example. Mind Pie is used, but not consistently, which I am okay with. It is a good tool to know and use from time to time.

List of some weekly staff discussion questions we’ve used. At our Monday morning staff meetings, we spend time discussing a Big Question/challenge to bring up a topic that staff apply to their instruction with students that week. It’s part of our attempt to create a year-long dialogue of what good teaching and learning is all about. The question stays on the board throughout the week as a reminder and invitation for further discussion. At the end of the program, they reflect/discuss—What was your plan? Did it work? Why/why not?

  • What are you most confident about this week? What are you most nervous and uncertain about?
  • What inquiry-based activity will you try to incorporate into your week?
  • If you were a student here for the week, what would you want to take away from the experience?
  • How will you address less telling of facts and more asking of student questions?
  • What nonfiction story can you use this week, and what fiction story can you leave out?
  • How could you incorporate a discussion on sustainability?
  • How can you connect with students on an individual level?
  • What other type of exploration will you do beside a spider exploration?
  • How can you play “20 questions” less and have more exploration on trail?
  • How are you going to get your students’ minds off of the cold?
  • How are you going to avoid the “students getting antsy to get back to campus” syndrome?
  • What theme will you use to tie in sit spots?
  • How will you use the rain as an inquiry-based activity/topic?
  • What “canned spiel” will you replace with a student-centered inquiry lesson?
  • How can you incorporate “evidence” or “assumptions” into your inquiry-based, student-centered teaching?
  • What NSI (Nature Scene Investigators) will you do this week to go with your theme?
  • How will you incorporate something you learned on our staff professional learning day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium into your teaching?
  • What open-ended questions will you use for the theme of conservation?
  • How can we increase participation and engagement within the trail group?
  • How can you foster a sustainably inquiry-based topic on trail?
  • How will you incorporate the garden into your themes?
  • What activity has changed since you started to teach it on trail?
  • How will you unearth value in little things?
  • What have you learned from your co-workers this year?
  • How are you going to help your students create a community of positive energy?
  • How are you going to encourage 100% participation from your students during discussion?
  • How will you discover students’ alternate conceptions this week?
  • What are you going to use from the Association of Environmental & Outdoor Educators conference this year? This week?
  • How will you apply positive discipline techniques?
  • What open-ended questions will you ask about the tide pools and its critters this week?
  • Where can you apply I Notice, I Wonder, It Reminds Me Of?
  • How will you use the rainy-day activities/tricks that were presented on Friday?
  • What did you do or see over the break that inspired you and that you want to bring here?
  • How will you increase inquiry fever on trail? Also, what do you consider a reliable source for information?
  • How will you use inquiry fever with regard to salamanders, newts, and fungi?
  • How are you going to expand on your group’s wildlife observations this week?
  • How will you use nature journaling on trail?
  • What will you do to develop a culture of positivity within your trail group?

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