THROW AWAY THE WORKSHEETS AND NURTURE YOUNG SCIENTISTS

Science education in our public schools, or rather the dearth of science education in the schools, has recently been popping up in the news. This January, the NY Times featured an article that highlighted the decreasing number of science fairs in schools around the country

Twenty-five years ago, in a speech to the children of America after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, President Reagan said, “they  [the astronauts] had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths.” In his speech, he referred to “the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons.”

What a vast disconnect exists between presidential aspirations for children and experiences to encourage discovery and exploration that are often omitted from our early childhood programs. It is so easy to tap into the natural curiosity of young children and to turn 5 and 6 year olds on to the excitement of scientific discoveries. Unfortunately, it is also possible to give them a negative association with science.

My kindergarten children were scheduled for a weekly Science class. Each Wednesday, they emitted a collective groan when I told them that it was time to walk across the corridor to the science room. This confused me since they loved spending time in the many science-based centers during our choice time. They were eager to investigate what happened after they mixed up a bubble-solution and poured it into the water-play tub. They figured out how to create their own magnets and then constructed trails of paper clip magnet chains to pull around the classroom. They were natural scientists and yet, here they were, complaining about a class that should have been a highlight of their week.

I decided to begin a discussion about their responses to this class when we had our morning meeting one Wednesday. I asked them what they were learning about in science. “The body (almost moaned rather than spoken) ” “That’s such an interesting topic!”, I responded enthusiastically. No! It’s soooo boring!”  Well, as we continued this discussion, I was told that they were “learning about the body and bones” mainly through teacher lectures and, that their ‘hands on’ activity’ consisted of cutting out and then pasting together onto another paper, a worksheet reproduction of a human skeleton. I absolutely did not want them to be left thinking that this was what it meant to learn about science so I shared with them a personal memory of the time, just a few years ago, when I fractured my ankle and had a cast put on my leg. This opened up the floodgate for stories about sisters, cousins, aunts and friends who had casts and broken bones, so I asked them if they would be interested in seeing the x-rays that I saved and, of course, there was great interest.

The next day I brought in my x-rays and projected them onto the wall. The children were so excited and interested that we moved the overhead projector to an “x-ray center” at Choice Time so that they could look at them more closely and trace them. I then began collecting books on anatomy, bones, our body and we began a ‘research’ reading center.

This small exploration grew into a full-blown class inquiry study.

We collected a variety of (cleaned) animal bones, looked inside a bone, read about healthy foods to make bones strong, visited a local pediatrician’s office, and interviewed the doctor. Creating and opening a doctor’s office in the dramatic play center followed this up. I sent out a request to everyone I knew who worked in a medical office or a hospital and we received lots of contributions from stethoscopes and doctors robes to eye charts and ace bandages.

We went to the fish store across from the school and brought back fish bones to observe and draw. These delicate bones were compared to the big beef bones and chicken bones that we had collected. The computer teacher heard about this interest in animal bones and surprised us by visiting the class and bringing with her the skeleton of a snapping turtle!

As the children became more ‘expert’ on the topic, we turned the art center into a skeleton-making center. One group of children used papier maché to make a skull. Then, over the course of almost two weeks, our life-sized skeleton was constructed. A variety of recycled materials and plasticine was used. One day, I stopped by to see how the skeleton was progressing. I noticed that wooden craft sticks were used to make the fingers. I looked at the hands and then looked at my hands, bending my fingers. I really didn’t need to do or say anything else. Four ‘skeleton-makers’ began bending their own fingers and an intense discussion began about how they could make their skeleton’s fingers bend. I suggested that they return to one of their ‘research’ books and look at the diagram of a hand. Revision! My help was enlisted to break the sticks into three parts and they were once again pasted onto the mural paper.

After the skeleton was completed, the parts of the body were labeled. A group of children surveyed the class to come up with a name, which was written next to the model. Our Mr. Tall Bones was then displayed in the hallway outside the classroom along with their sketches and descriptions.  We celebrated by making Bone Soup.

This became one of those serendipitous studies, unexpected but meeting the immediate needs and interests of the children. In the course of this mini study, children had many reasons and opportunities to write, count, use nonfiction books as ‘research’ sources, listen to read aloud texts, sing (…the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone…), play in the dramatic play center, and use ‘primary’ materials such as x-rays, bones and doctor’s tools. They even spontaneously created a huge, flat skeleton using the wooden unit blocks.

What pleased me most about this study and the centers that accompanied it is that the children were developing an excited and positive attitude about themselves as young scientists. They were, as Ronald Reagan recalled, taking part in “the process of exploration and discovery” as they expanded their own horizons.

5 thoughts on “THROW AWAY THE WORKSHEETS AND NURTURE YOUNG SCIENTISTS

  1. Julie Diamond

    Wonderful teaching and learning here! So many different ways to look at these experiences.
    First – You call it seredipitous. True: it was an unknown path for the children AND for the teacher. The spirit of discovery and exploration was not only theirs, it was yours too; you were willing to see where the flood of interest in broken bones might lead.

    Second – the use of primary materials seems very important, starting with the real X-rays. Prepared commercail materials leave few hooks for children’s deepest interests. Real X-rays, animal bones, a visit to a fish store – all of these real things/places excite children’s real interest…

    Next – the central role of the teacher is clear – neither directing the end results, nor just watching and waiting. It’s worth reading and re-reading the section on the teacher looking at the craft stick fingers of the skeleton model, then bending her own fingers – followed by the children bending their fingers, and animatedly discussing what they now see as a problem. Renee’s role also makes clear the importance of teachers having a solid grasp of the subject content.

    Last – Renee writes that the children developed positive attitudes about themselves as “young scientists.” The study also, to my mind, probably strengthened their sense of themselves as strong thoughtful people. Some educators make it seem as if teachers have to choose between developing children’s “self-esteem” and pushing for competence and skill acquisition. This study shows that the choice is false: through their study – through their looking, talking, deciding, making – they gained knowledge AND saw themselves as competent and knowledgeable.

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  2. Corine Noronha

    It takes a special teacher to encourage creativity without pushing the end result, to remain in the shadow and gently guide them in their development, to provide resources to encourage their growth. Teachers play such an important role in shaping a child!
    Bravo!

    Reply
  3. Peggy Broadbent

    In my combined first and second grade, Choice Time for children’s self-initiated learning was an important part of each day, a time to participate and explore in the learning centers – a time to learn on their own. There were math, science, art, writing, and book centers. Each of five centers provided appropriate activities and materials to invite and nurture a child’s joy in discovery and excitement about learning. Concrete experiences serve as a background for new insights and understandings in the world around them. These, in turn, not only kept their minds active but provided an extra basis for abstract thought that would be a benefit throughout all academic areas. The materials in each center were enough to capture the interest of the very brightest students and yet still be appealing to slower or younger children.

    Few materials were offered at first in each center increasing as their growth in responsibility progressed. Vital to the smooth functioning of the class, the amount of freedom or choices that children were allowed to have were coexistent and contingent upon the amount of responsibility they were able to assume. Then there was great harmony. Of course, sometimes a child was disruptive or interfering with others and had to be dealt with but the ability to handle numerous choices must be apparent with most of the class. We had very few rules – no fooling around or wasting time and everyone should be busy.

    Children were involved for the first thirty to forty minutes each day (while individual students were met for writing and math) followed by an afternoon evaluation time. Projects that could be saved were put on my desk to show and explore with the whole class after lunch and recess. Those that couldn’t be saved, such as constructions in the math center, were shared and discussed just before clean-up time. During the evaluation time, a whole range of ideas were explored with positive comments, constructive suggestions offered, problems discussed and solved, new ideas and concepts introduced, and books read about the displays. In this way, the whole class was involved with others’ projects leading to more understanding for the next day’s investigations.

    Important aspects concerning concept development during Choice Time included opportunities for increasing each child’s cognitive development; that concepts developed in the math, science, and art centers overlap one another providing opportunities for cognitive development while participating in any of the three; and the concepts formed in these three centers are the very tools required for successful achievement
    in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. And there’s no limit to young children’s vast enthusiasm for learning.

    Choice Time is a time to further develop abilities necessary for good to excellent achievement in all academic areas. And opportunities in a school program are unlikely to allow such advances in concept attainment as there are in a Choice Time with learning centers.
    A complete description with materials and activities of all five learning centers are in my book, Early Childhood Programs: Opportunities for Academic, Cognitive, and Personal Success. Included is a web site where programs and activities can be downloaded for use in a classroom. Also, see 7 reviews on http://www.amazon.com

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  4. Joan Kramer

    I really can’t add anything more. This is a wonderful description of an activity that is in many ways led by the children themselves, but as stated above, guided by an oh so skillful teacher. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Joan. I think that there’s a wealth of knowledge that teachers should be sharing with each other, don’t you?
      Renee

      Reply

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