Better Biology: What Needs Work?

My last post was about aspects of the program that are going satisfactorily. This one is about issues I have to work on.

1. Better use of the learning cycle.

For each new part of a unit I have my students do an engage then explore activity before they go on to explain activities. Engage activities are led by me. They can include video clips, a full-class simulation, a demonstration, a story, a Ted talk etc…something that I think will get the students interested in the topic. Explore activities can be similar things, but the students choose them from the options. The purpose of the Explore activities is to allow the students to delve into the topic – specifically in a way they are interested in – and start to demystify the concepts, deconstruct their misconceptions and build their own understandings of biological phenomena. Then when they go on to Explain activities (MOODLE lessons, web quests, textbook reading etc…), they enter with some knowledge that they have already started to develop on their own. My hope is that they can then think back to the Explore activities and say “ooooh that makes sense now!” and that they can use examples from the Explore activities to visualize or clarify the content that they are expected to explain. I want them to go into each Explain activity already having seen some or most of the vocabulary and ideas that will now have to be formalized. I’m hoping this order will make things easier for them. The problem is getting them to do these things in the correct sequence and to see the value of the learning cycle. Because there are several Explore options, most of which cannot be done directly on MOODLE, I have not been able to use completion tracking to guide the students in the proper order. I have only been giving them recommendations and suggestions in the Daily Dose and in instructions to lessons and quizzes. “Make sure you have done one of Explore 4.2-4.6 before moving on to this MOODLE Lesson!” But there’s no guarantee that they have. And then the activity becomes less meaningful as it ends up being reinforcement instead of discovery. If they can predict every outcome of the potato lab experiment because they have thoroughly studied osmosis, then really what is the point other than developing manipulative skills in the lab? I want inquiry to be at the heart of this course. So what am I going to do about this? Each Explore activity has a couple of very brief reflection questions. I don’t want these activities to be tedious – I want them to be enjoyable and fun – so I don’t have the students spend too much time answering specific questions. What I am going to do from now on is set it up as an online assignment in MOODLE. The students will input which Explore activity they have done and answer the questions there. Again, I do not want this to be time consuming – just a quick reflection on the activity that will make it clear how it links to the unit concepts. Then I can add this to their checklists and require completion before they move on to the Explain activities. We’ll see how this goes. The only problem I foresee is students that want to work ahead at home will be unable to so if Explore activities are generally lab based. This is why it is good to put the A layer activities at the beginning as they will always have that to work on.

2. There is not enough collaboration

If you walk into my classroom there is a buzz. There is noise, chatter, laughter, the occasional “ooh” and “ahh” as food coloring spreads across a tray of milk! There are few students who are just sitting quietly in front of their computers. This is important because if every class was just students going online and completing activities – what would be the point of class? They use class time to work with me which is great, but I want to encourage more collaboration with each other. I know for a fact that a lot of my students avoid any activities that involve sharing. And frankly I can relate. I was fiercely independent in high school and the words “group work” or worse – “find a partner” – made me cringe. Partly this was due to my social awkwardness, but I was always concerned that my group members wouldn’t pull their weight. I want to create more opportunities for collaboration in my units that won’t make students feel uncomfortable in either of these regards. I really liked the peer tutoring activity for one method of working together. It forced students to work with those outside their friend group, but not in an intimidating way as it was just one-on-one. I also like that students always choose to do lab activities in partners or groups of three. There are also some that choose A layer activities that involve collaboration. That’s great. But I want more! I am thinking of something fresh and new for the next unit that will involve students working in heterogenous groups that I create. Using some Google apps such as Docs and Presentations, I am going to give the students some more control over creating the notes for each unit. As opposed to fill in the blank sheets that they can use a variety of tools to fill out, I am going to simply give them the assessment statements and have them go from there. At this point I have modeled so many ways to learn the content that now I want them to figure it out for themselves. And I want them to do it together so that multiple sources are consulted, many learning styles are approached, several views and opinions are discussed and evaluated, stronger students can guide those that struggle, and hopefully they feel like they have accomplished something useful together. This also helps eliminate the other weakness with this program which is that I am too involved in designing their learning pathway and it should not be so linear. More to come on this as I plan the next unit…

There is the social side of working with others as well. I don’t want students to think that it is ok to spend your entire day alone in front of your computer or that this is acceptable every class. I don’t think face-to-face interaction can be replaced by social media or online gaming. I want students to have the chance to learn how to deal with conflict in a positive way. I want them to be able to listen to and appreciate the opinions of people who are maybe not their friends yet. And I think that some of the best learning can come from rich discussions and debates with others.I hope that they will see that collaboration, rather than competition, is a much better way to accomplish a goal.  I will have to think carefully about how I design this unit so that every student is a contributor in a meaningful way.

On the other hand, there is also absolutely ZERO collaboration with other teachers on these unit plans! I need help! I am limited by my own creativity and resourcefulness. While Twitter has proven to be a haven of ideas for me, I personally need that face-to-face interaction with other teachers who are interested in working on this or something similar (hopefully better!). I wish I had someone to help create the activities with me. This course will never be as successful as it can be because I have to do it alone. I was hoping to find someone at Learning 2.0 who might be able to work with me, but I didn’t have that chance. If there is someone out there who is reading this and interested please let me know!

3. Students writing the quiz questions

Oy vey this needs work! I gave students access to the Question Bank so that they could be the creators of the second multiple choice quiz of the unit. I definitely see the value in having students create the questions. They have to think about the content in a different way which I believe is quite useful in their learning. However, I MUST edit the questions before other students are allowed to take the quiz. Quel desastre! And also I cannot add this to the completion tracking so some students took the quiz without adding anything to it. It’s going to be time consuming, but I am willing to try it again.

4. Doing quizzes at home

It’s gotten to the point now where I have removed the password from quizzes and students can do them at home. I felt frustrated for them because there were so many disruptions lately – shortened classes due to TAP or Experience Week sessions, missed periods due to SEASAC etc…It was unfair to force the students to fall behind because they were away from school for four days. The quizzes are formative and they still can only try twice every 2 days. But if they are doing them at home, what’s to stop them from using their notes? I can’t monitor them. I can only use the honor system. I still don’t know how I feel about this. It may be something I need to discuss with the students and see what their responses are. The QUESTS though MUST be done in class – no option there.

5. Some students simply pick activities based on what they THINK is easy

Yes I predicted this would happen back when I first started this program. Honestly, that’s what I would do too! I was talking to another teacher about it and he was telling me not to worry so much. That was THEIR choice. They were given that option and I need to stop being a control freak and try to force them to do what I think are more challenging and rewarding ways of learning the material. For example, in the options for learning about parts of the cell, nobody picked the iPad App! I was shocked! I thought students were all about learning via technology! But nope they wanted to read and watch podcasts and videos. But the iPad app is SO COOL!!! Wait – stop – that is MY bias. I think the iPad app is cool. If I’m going to fully commit to this program, I have to accept the fact that not all students are going to enjoy all the activities I think are the best. My real concern though is that they are missing out on a more effective way of learning that would appeal to their multiple intelligences. This is something I never really evaluated formally. I have a general idea for some students, but not all. This is something I would do differently next time so that I can give them better guidance on what activities would help them learn best. Students are generally pretty insightful though and are aware of their strengths. But I don’t want them simply to read the textbook because it’s easy when they could use some software that animates a concept like facilitated diffusion and brings it to life. I will have to think more about this one and whether I have to intervene in some way.

These are things I will have to continue to work on throughout the year.

Coming up soon are the hot seat interviews, the test and then our next unit (my favorite!) gets underway: Genetics.

There is much work to be done!
There is much work to be done!

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