Using a flashlight, glass jar and aerosol, one of my students attempts to create a cloud.

My students have been working with the ideas of heat transfer and scientific argumentation. A big learning chunk for 12 year olds to try to chew, but they’re hanging in there.

Reflection is such a huge tool for my own learning, and I feel like I’m getting better and better at finding ways to do this with students. It isn’t that I have never used student reflections to improve my own teaching. But now I’m learning how to get students to be better at making meaningful reflection part of their own learning process.

Here’s an example of what that means for my classroom practice. As we finished the last series of labs, one of my science classes felt that while they liked their current groupings, they could do better work with a triad instead of the traditional 4-person lab team. They believed that they had too much downtime, not enough to do, and that having smaller groups would alleviate this problem.

So I’ve re-grouped students into triads with the understanding that we will, as a class, go back and re-evaluate whether this is better or not. We even picked three dimensions for comparing the first set of labs to the second set. They want to include “not being bored because we have enough to do,” which I interpret as student engagement. Cooperation is the second dimension, as they will now have to share some of the jobs. And third: brainpower. Do they have enough of it with the smaller group to solve the problem, which I’m interpreting as problem solving.

In their decision to ask for triads, and in me helping them to create that environment, I see a shift of power. It’s a next step. They first learned to own the learning (which I wrote about here), and now I see a second big change in the way students perceive learning and school. I think it might be the most revolutionary part of all this year’s growth.

They’re beginning to own the design

They aren’t just demanding something different. They are willing to experiment with how to organize themselves and to evaluate if it worked or not. Owning the learning AND owning the learning environment are two separate things. I believe having both perceptions in play is essential for students to maximize the learning potential.

As their teacher, I’m not concerned about the difference in grouping size except for the most mundane and pragmatic reason. Logistics! It’s the bane of many a teacher’s existence. I do chuckle because, as more groupings are created, you realize you must become a super-scrounger (giving Radar O’Reilly of M*A*S*H fame a run for his money). My strategy is to view the challenge of finding a way around obstacles such as equipment and expertise more as a puzzle than a barrier. I’m coming to think of it as the “sport” of lesson design.

When you turn over design of the environment to students, they really aren’t aware of all the constraints. That’s actually a good thing for me, because I think teachers can sometimes throw out good student ideas because we can already imagine all the associated problems. I found out that if I was serious about honoring my students’ ideas about improving the learning environment, I needed to think in new ways to help achieve those designs.

Solving a puzzle

Our supply of lab equipment limits us. So I had to get creative and had students help me. They brought in additional resources from home that we could recycle into lab equipment (flashlights, jars, etc.).  Because we don’t have enough computers, I decided that I would try to learn how to use mobile data collection devices called LabQuests. I don’t have any of these in my building, but I was able to borrow a set from the district’s high school teachers.

I really didn’t know the ins and outs of these intriguing handheld devices. Fortunately, we have another resource in my district that I can use: a field experience for our high school students where juniors and seniors learn about the teaching profession. So I asked if I could get some help with this lab. The CAPS student assigned to me turned out to be taking AP Physics and his teacher uses the LabQuest handhelds all the time. So he “liaisoned” our questions with the AP Physics teacher until we figured out how to use these great little tools for our own research.

Puzzle solved!

In a follow-up post, I’ll share more about how it all played out and my students’ reflections on the changes they made in our learning environment. Keep an eye on the Voices from the Learning Revolution index page. It should appear in the next week or so!

About the author
Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math, science, and sometimes social studies. To read more of her writing about her teaching practice, visit her blog Reflections of a Techie.