Saturday, February 20, 2016

Hands-on Learning Is Engaging

7th graders engaged in reading crayfish dissection lab instructions.

Did you know that a crayfish has 3 pairs of teeth…in its stomach?

This week our 7th graders dissected crayfish, and I got to observe. It was great fun to see students so engaged in learning. Especially since just the week before I’d facilitated a secondary professional development session on student engagement. Not only does it practically eliminate issues of classroom management and incomplete work, but also students learn more effectively, remember more efficiently, and become more interested in learning in general. What’s not to love?

Two 7th grade girls identify external structures on their crayfish.

As I watched these highly engaged 7th grade science students, I wondered what lessons could be applied to other classes and disciplines.

I watched pairs of students bent over their lab tables, pouring over their directions, searching for the corresponding external and internal structures, asking questions, forming hypotheses, and rushing en masse to the lab table where a student exclaimed, “We found a fish in its stomach!” How do we replicate that focus and excitement in other classroom settings?

Two 7th grade boys call on the expert to confirm their hypotheses.

I watched students look back and forth between the black-and-white 2D diagram and the mostly reddish-gray 3D crustacean, poking and prodding. When I asked one what he was looking at, he told me tentatively, “I think this is the intestines.” How can we replicate in other classrooms that focus on understanding diagrams and finding real-life equivalents? It also occurred to me that an enduring understanding that would cross disciplinary lines and recur throughout life might be something like “How is a graphic representation like and unlike real life?”

I watched a student pull something out of what looked like the crayfish’s head. I asked what it was. He said, “The stomach.” He showed me on the diagram, “Its in the thorax, close to where its mouth is, here.” We wondered together why people’s stomachs are so far from our mouths. 

Two 7th grade boys identify internal structures in their crayfish.

I looked back at the diagram and asked, “Why is it called a cardio-stomach?” “I don’t know,” he said. I asked whether crawfish had veins to contain their blood, or whether it just circulated around freely inside their carapace, as I remembered from a long-ago 7th grade science report that spiders’ blood does. He thought it was maybe like spiders. “This is actually really interesting,” he said. That’s one student who will go back to his textbook with even more motivation because he has real questions he wants the answers to.  

The teacher told me that having already dissected earthworms, the students were much less squeamish and more experienced with the crayfish. Still, they’re honing the fine art of following directions, and when they pull off something they shouldn’t have, he points them back to their lab protocol. I can’t wait to see how they do by the time they get to the frog and rat dissections!

Going in for an even closer look

I remembered that when I visited England, as a teacher with many years’ experience of teaching British literature, the castles and cathedrals and history fascinated me precisely because I had a good bit of knowledge already. And then seeing the real thing raised many more questions and made me anxious to get back at the books find out more. Book learning and experiential learning should optimally have that virtuous cycle effect.

I also remembered that when I went to Thailand for a seminar, I had no background on the country, and the sightseeing I did had nowhere near the same effect on me.

So I’m wondering what’s the equivalent of a dissection in any other class—real-life, hands-on application of the book-learning? How do we prepare students for it? How does it drive them back into inquiry and increasing of knowledge and honing of skills? How do we give them opportunities to reflect and up their game for next time?

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