Getting Creative With Practical Science Assessments

Hand-ons labs or inquiry-based activities are the most engaging ways to learn about science. The Quebec Education Program guides us that the main steps involved in developing practical skills are: defining a problem, developing a plan of action, carrying out the plan of action, and analyzing the results. Harry Keller, editor of Science Education @ etc Journal, says:

“Ideally, science labs should allow students to inquire, explore, and discover. Even when this goal is only partially realized, the labs should advance the goals of understanding the nature of science and of developing scientific reasoning skills.”

In order to meet the QEP expectations, students should be provided with many opportunities to perform these types of activities.

The unfortunate reality is that in many schools, there is inadequate access to lab equipment. For example:

  • School A has a limited amount of glassware, tools, and measuring devices available in the lab due to to financial constraints.
  • School B has no lab technician and therefore equipment isn’t maintained or is underutilized because teachers need assistance in preparing for their experiments.
  • School C finds it difficult and costly to ship the standard chemicals and other specialty materials because it is in a small, remote community,.

As an online teacher for LEARN, I simultaneously teach students that are in multiple locations around the province. Some of them are in remote communities. Some of them are in small urban schools. Students are doing labs without me being physically present to support and supervise them. Fortunately, there are many creative solutions to providing students with authentic lab experiences even in the face of these challenges.

Virtual labs:

There are a number of engaging, interactive, virtual labs available to students and teachers. Some of my favourites are ExploreLearning and PhET. My Science and the Environment students use ExploreLearning to investigate the effect of temperature on the solubility of a salt. My Chemistry students use the PhET simulations to investigate the effect that temperature and concentration has on the rate of a reaction. Students are involved in predicting the relationships and can even design their own investigations to discover what types of chemicals are electrolytes. Both websites have inquiry-based student guides already designed for teachers to use with their classes.

Pre-recorded labs:

My colleague Andy Ross recorded several physics labs that may be used with classes where lab equipment is scarce or unavailable. They include brief introductions to each investigation, an overview of what materials are being used, and footage of Andy actually doing the lab. Real values are given, so students can take this data to perform required calculations analyze the results, and form their own conclusions. Ray Venables, a teacher with ESSB, also recorded a collection of videos that may be used for such investigations as identifying physical vs. chemical changes, classifying substances as metals, metalloids, or non-metals, and performing acid-base neutralizations.

Using readily available materials:

There are often creative options to science labs that use relatively simple materials. Kitchen science is engaging for many students; after all, it involves materials that they are exposed to every day at home. For example, my chemistry students have predicted the amount of carbon dioxide produced when sugar is broken down and tested it using very simple materials (sugar, water, yeast, a small water bottle, and a balloon).

Three books that I have found very useful for gathering ideas are:

What are the challenges for providing authentic labs or inquiry-based activities at your school? Do you have other ideas for creative solutions to these challenges? Please add a comment to share!

A Mentoring Model for Professional Development

photo credit: Amy Loves Yah

I’ve always been interested in the way professionals learn (or fail to learn) in practice. As far back as 1998, when I worked with the South Shore School Board (yes, before the linguistic school boards!) on technology integration projects, we joked about One Day Wonders – you know, the one day workshops that are the usual offerring of teacher PD. You might get Portfolio one day, IWBs another day, Understanding by Design yet another day. These one-shot workshops are easy to organize and are a good way for a teacher to get a general sense of how something might work in his or her practice. But if you’re looking for true, lasting changes in professional practice, you need to simmer up something in the best laboratory of all – your classroom.

The Mentoring Project

I’m privileged to be working with a group of teachers who is doing exactly this in the Montreal area. When the funding for PD ran out at Concordia University’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP), researchers Larysa Lysenko and Vanitha Pillay suggested to veteran research participants that they could apply for their own grant to pursue professional development in the area of self-regulation and increasing literacy. Teachers Mary-Ellen Lynch (RSB), Tanya Bell Beccat (EMSB) and Irene Tsimiklis (SWLSB) submitted a request for a Professional Development and Innovation Grant (PDIG) called “Yes We Can: Facilitating the Use of Evidence-based Tools to Increase Cycle-One Student Literacy” with a view towards sharing the experience and expertise they have gained over time and thus building capacity in other teachers through a mentorship model.

This is the key part of the grant – the mentorship model. Teachers learn best through the experiences of other teachers AND their own experimentation. Mary-Ellen, Tanya and Irene have each found other teachers in their school or board with whom they will be working on integrating the Learning Toolkit (LTK) into their literacy practice. These teachers will also become familiar with, and hopefully use, the classroom practices associated with self-regulated learning that underpin the software suite. The grant funds will be used to release teachers to meet as a large multi-board group, as smaller board- or school-based groups and also for visiting each other’s classrooms. This means that participating teachers will not only have the opportunity to visit the classrooms of their mentors to see how things are organized, but will also benefit from classroom visits themselves at key moments when an extra pair of hands and an extra voice are needed. This model of professional development has a lot of sticking power because of the creation of shared knowledge and interdependence that are built into it.

A note about PD

The best professional development initiatives are those that rely on iterative cycles of teacher practice and reflection that are in tune with what matters to teachers, what sound research tells us and also what matters to society as a whole. We are fortunate in Quebec to have good structures in place, such as the PDIG grants, that for the most part foster such initiatives. The current professional development discourse coming from south of the border is often quite bleak, and even here flavour-of-the-month crazes take root. This is why this project makes me so happy!

First Meeting

The whole team held its inaugural meeting on October 30th at Concordia University in Montreal. At least eight teachers, along with pre-service teachers doing their practica, the three mentors and assorted consultants gathered for the first meeting of what promised to be an exciting project. Although teachers knew their mentor and possibly the other teachers from their school or board, it was the first time that they met as a larger group to chart the path ahead. It was an exciting day, with all teachers highly motivated to get started and to learn from their mentors and from each other’s experience. Just as Mary-Ellen, Tanya and Irene learned from each other over the years through discussions, meetings and at least one classroom visit, these teachers will also be sharing their new emerging expertise and their passion for literacy with other teachers. They will be implementing changes to their practice and seeing how these changes work in their classrooms and with their students. Adjustments will be made, new ideas will form and new understanding will emerge – a perfect storm of professional learning.

Each teacher received a laptop computer to take away to their school, courtesy of the CSLP. They can use these computers to gain expertise with the LTK software suite, to track their students’ work and to provide feedback. For group knowledge-management technology, the group decided to use SkyDrive (a Windows product) as a repository for files and meeting notes – so far, Tanya and I have both uploaded files to the shared space, and some of the teachers have joined it.


Your Turn

So maybe you are ready to jump in with the LTK teachers, but don’t have a group of people nearby for meaningful collegial conversations and shared plans of action. Letting consultants from your board know that you are interested in working on a long-term project is one way of making sure you are asked to participate when grants are being written. There are also many ways to reach out to a larger community of professionals nowadays. Some teachers choose to have their own blog, where they write and reflect about their practice – you can do this too. The best ones have an active comments section (for more on how to comment on blog posts, click here). You can also participate in virtual conferences such as the K-12 Online Conference, where you can connect with other educators from around the world. What other ways do you engage in meaningful professional learning? I’d love to hear from you about this or anything else that you’d like to share.

Sylwia Bielec

Related Posts

Telling it Like it Is: Action Research & Asking the Right Question

Continuing the Conversation: The Art of Commenting on Blogs

Links in this post

Teachers Should Lead Professional Development, Not Researchers

Learning with Blogs and Wikis

Best Teacher Blogs according to Edudemic

K-12 Online Conference

Continuing the Conversation: The Art of Commenting on Blogs

Photo by: Jabiz Raisdana under a CC license

I have been blogging for more than 5 years. I started because I felt, as a teacher, if I was going to ask students to write, I had to write myself. I was starting to read a number of blogs and that, too, pushed me to start one of my own. One of the unexpected things that happened was how important comments became to me. It made me realize that someone was actually reading what I wrote and that it was important enough to him/her to say something in response. It made me sit up and realize that my writing mattered to at least one other person. I had an audience. That in turn made me a more conscientious writer.

Of course, I had to reciprocate – visiting blogs, reading, commenting and always learning. Out of this relationships developed and there are a number of people I care about whom I have never met face to face. Comments start conversations, stimulate thinking and encourage growth.

If comments could do all that for me, imagine what it does for students. A post I read recently, It’s Never Just a Comment,  by Kathy Cassidy, talked about comments and her students (grade one) and what it did for them as readers and writers. Their audience outside their classroom was important to them, whether it was people they knew or strangers from other parts of the world. As a teacher, Kathy was able to moderate comments in case any came in that were inappropriate. Her students knew they were not just writing for the teacher but for the real people who are out there reading their work. When comments came from different parts of the world,  Ms Cassidy helped her students see themselves as part of a global community. Visit her classroom blog. There are links to all her student blogs – and don’t forget to leave a comment.

Receiving comments helps students become better writers. But this should be a reciprocal relationship. How do we, as teachers, help our students become good at commenting (i.e. leave comments that promote conversation, good writing and positive relationships)?

Just as we need to help students become better writers, we also need them to become better thinkers and commenting on blogs helps with that. Students learn to read blog posts with a critical eye and reflect on what they read. There are a number of educational bloggers who have written about helping students become good commenters. Some tips include:

  • asking questions to learn more
  • relating the post to something you are thinking about
  • stating what you liked in the post
  • be respectful of the writer

A much more extensive list was written by Ann Davis  back in 2006. She talked about how learning to make good comments leads to deeper thinking. Here is a link to a list based on her ideas. For some images – a great set on Flickr is available. For a delightful look at commenting done by some young students in California with teacher, Mrs. Yollis watch this video:

Their ideas, though aimed at elementary students have relevance for all. Still at a loss for what to say when reading a blog? Here is a great set of Flickr posters to inspire you.

Do you want to get comments for your students?

  • Consider joining QuadBlogging. Your class will be joined with three other classes so each can benefit from reading and commenting on each others’ blogs
  • Tweet when your students blog using the hashtag #commentsforkids
  • Find other class blogs and get your students to start commenting – usually you will get comments back:

How about adding a comment here. Let’s get a discussion going. Has this helped you think about using blogs in your classroom? How can you get your students to become better questioners? Do you think reading blogs and commenting will help your students become more critical readers and writers?