A schoolwide science experience

I demanded of Shay Noonan, principal of Morrinsville School, that he write up one of his schoolwide science experiences as I knew they exemplified in practice the main elements of the holistic. The schoolwide science experiences, along with other kinds of experiences the school provides, are powerful examples of open education, calling on principles long established in New Zealand – timeless – therefore inappropriate to be called ‘modern’ or ‘21st century’ or automatically associated with the tools and architecture connected to those labels (though computers were lightly used). The schoolwide experiences, however, directly confront the present-day obsession with that almost invariably puny, fragmented, and thought-numbing practice of ‘inquiry’ learning.

Show me the science

What started out as a discussion at a board of trustees meeting on the topic of sugary drinks and healthy drinking, evolved into a range of diverse science experiences for our children.

At the subsequent staff meeting I asked teachers to give consideration to creating a set of activities to help children explore ideas about the school’s drinking fountains.

I knew there was a possibility that it would veer off to a language experience rather than a science one.

But my catch cry in response, as ever, would be ‘show me the science’.

Teachers were asked to identify the science in children’s activities. To frame a viewpoint, teachers informally collaborated within their teams, or with colleagues, to identify science elements within potential activities the children might engage in. Teachers came up with ideas like children gathering information; sharing their ideas; interpreting what they were observing; surmising about things they observe, intuit, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

The expectation was that children would make their own suggestions about how to undertake their observations; make up stories about what they had observed; and work out ways of telling those to others.

And so it began.

There they were, children, including five-year-olds, determinedly setting out on walkabouts to find, reflect on, and tally drinking fountains.

In other words, as scientists they were observing and finding out.

The children shared their ideas first in groups, then in their class; made up charts; summarised observations; explained the observations and summaries; and acknowledged what still puzzled them about fountains and needed to find out.

Three five-year-old junior classrooms worked together and produced a video about where they thought the water came from, how it got into the taps, and what they found good and bad about the fountains.

The usability of the fountains became an issue.

It was interesting to see the children working in pairs or threes, chatting away about fountains, and what worked for them, and what didn’t, for instance, being able reach the top of the fountain to get a drink, or press the water button down hard enough to get more than a dribble.

The three five-year-old scientists were using the evidence they produced, that is photographs and videos of themselves using the fountains, to demonstrate the deficiencies as far as they were concerned.

The teachers shared amongst themselves their view of how the children were responding. The immediateness of the study, they agreed, was compelling to the children, allowing teachers to gain regular and open access to children’s personalities, behaviours, and thought patterns.

When the y. 6-y. 8 children explored the drinking fountains their engagement was based on questions they collectively built up in class such as ‘why do some of the fountains give you more water than others?’, ‘how can we find out which are the best drinking fountains?’, ‘how will we know?’, ‘how will we find out?’.

These kinds of questions produced an array of random, potentially fruitful, responses.

The y. 7-y. 8 children with typical ebullience decided all this was no problem for them, they would just measure the water when they pressed the fountain button.  But then they discovered they had to find ways of measuring that made sense. After a time they came to a conclusion that they had to be able to compare the water they gathered from all the drinking fountains.  What the teachers noticed was that as one solution was proposed, further obstacles were created that had to be overcome. This was genuine science.

Direct teacher interventions occurred in maths activities with volume and measurement.  Some children suggested turning on each fountain for a set time then making comparisons.  This led to further discussion, even argument, as the children tried to work out a manageable way.

It was noticeable at this stage that certain children’s expertise or knowledge formed the basis for others to take on to help in solving their problem, for instance, two children working together told the class that they were going to collect water, time themselves for 30 seconds, and then measure the amount of water they had in their container from the drinking fountain.  They subsequently found this solution inadequate because they had to adjust the size of the container, sort out their timing with the stopwatch, and then there was the small amount of water for the effort.

Some other children suggested they needed five minutes collecting the water from each of the taps.  Others thought that that would take too long and so the problem was tossed about among them. The eureka moment was when one girl suggested they collect the water for 30 seconds and then work out what that would be over five minutes.  This fitted in with the work they had recently done on rate, ratio, and proportion in their maths work.  The idea was cottoned on to and the class, working in pairs, collected their samples from all drinking fountains, measured them, and drew up charts for what fountains produced for five minutes based on the button being held down for 30 seconds.

Each pair worked on their charts and shared the results. They were gratified to find that most of the collected figures were consistent across their records for the nine fountains; also which were the better producers or not, or as one of the juniors said ‘two of the fountains were pakaru’.

The older children not only engaged in gathering and interpreting their data and using evidence to support their ideas, they critiqued the evidence with evermore critical eyes. They checked their results for reliability, asking each other questions about whether other groups were getting similar results to theirs. With these older children, the knowledge they established within the collaborative environment of the groups, was willingly shared to support each other in their solutions.

The experts were sitting someplace else in the room and they were not the teachers.

The y. 5 class got excited about measuring a ‘metre  container’.  They explained they wanted to make a big container to collect water and someone said a ‘metre one would be big’.  The question they had for their expert (whom their teacher suggested they needed) was how to get the metre measurement of water.

At the same time, the y. 7-y. 8 children were working on the cost of water charged by the local council ($1.28 per cubic metre).  The class had constructed from metre rulers a cubic metre.  In this way, the y. 8s became the experts and assisted the y. 5s to develop the concept of a cubic metre of water.

The thrill factor was evident as the y. 5s built their own cubic metre.  They also spent time seeing how many of their classmates could stand inside one.  But ‘how much water would this hold?’ was the question of the moment.

The y. 7-y. 8s and some y. 6s worked on how many litres fitted into a cubic metre.  A maths lesson was sustained for few days as they figured out ideas like the spoon used for medicine – 5 mls; the drink bottle – 300 mls; the 2 litre bottle of milk; and the mls-litre relationship – eventually talking about how many litres it would take to fill their cubic metre if it had sides on or was made of metal or plastic.

A group, had a moment of gigantism, and wondered what the swimming pool would hold.

The juniors mapped how they thought the water system worked in the school.

The y. 5s once again borrowed ideas from the y. 7-y. 8s and worked on the line of the underground water pipes.  Some pairs went as far as measuring the length of the line or, in the plumber’s explanation, the underground water pipes which he had laid ten years previously.  They used and followed the water line maps the y. 7-y. 8s had created for themselves.

The visit of the plumber stimulated a lot of questions, of which he was selective in answering: which way does the water travel? where does it comes from? can it go uphill? can it be made to? how is it made healthy? why does the water come out fast or slow? how big are the pipes? how did the council know how much water the school used? what happens if there are leaks? does the school have to pay? the questions kept coming.

Some classes visited the toby or point of entry for the water.  They saw the water counter clicking over as water flowed through the pipe.  They then split up and turned on some outside taps to see if the counter went faster.

One of my great memories was lifting the toby cover and observing the excitement generated amongst the children as they surveyed what lay below, and the animated questions and discussion that followed. I was relegated to that most admirable of teaching situations, redundant to children’s interested chat amongst themselves.

The toby investigation opened up new research possibilities about the school’s drinking water and water reticulation in general.

When we returned to the room, the children’s attention having been focused on getting ‘to know’, now turned to explaining it to others in other rooms. In response, ideas abounded about how water pressure was created and works.  Questions often remained unresolved though the curiosity remained.  Some explanations were not particularly accurate but they served the purpose of moderating and satisfying the children’s thinking, allowing them to move on.

‘The water is collected up the hill and flows down the high pipes and flows out the tap when you turn it on’ … ‘What does that mean?’ ‘What?’ ‘Turn it on? ‘You just turn it on …’ with a look of ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you get it?’ ‘But what do you mean?’ and off they went again.

Others suggested further explanations for pressure, ‘We use a pump on my dad’s farm …’ ‘What do you do?’  ‘The pump takes the water to the paddock.’  Another child tunes in ‘It pushes it from the river …’ ‘So is that what happens here?’ another one asked.  ‘We don’t have a pump,’ someone remarked.

These snippets would hardly make sense outside the social context of the science being learned.  It was situational ‘good oil’.

What followed were mini-experiments with water in a jar and a tube … bird feeder (water).  Question: ‘How come all the water doesn’t come out?’

It would be difficult to plan for any of this I thought as I watched what was going on during these encounters [Shay teaches mathematics or science every day].  There were times when children became frustrated with either trying to find information or how to turn a problem into mathematics, for instance, tracking the underground water pipe lines and figuring out their actual length.  Finding the solution to this question resulted in them seeking information from a group of children in another room who had just completed the same kind of activity.  The older children thought it would be interesting to know in more detail about the layout of the pipes so that they could locate on their map of the school where exactly they wanted the new drinking fountains placed.

Classes were tasked with identifying possible options for improving the school’s water fountains.  The designs for this were creative and in some cases radical but they were an indication of how the children’s imaginations had been stimulated. The children also accessed their chromebooks to extend their ideas about various drinking fountains found around New Zealand.

The younger children were particularly fond of their designs.

‘Show me the science’ – in answer I saw it in the final designs the children were making, in the gathering and interpreting information, pictures, websites and, above all, in the evidence they had gained in a science way (observing, thinking, and weighing things up). I also saw it in their ideas for designs, and asking each other how do these work, that is, deliver water?

I am reminded of the five-year-olds who made numerous trips around the school assessing the drinking fountains and recording their ideas on charts.  I saw children working on improving their investigations particularly in identifying which fountains they were retaining and which to remove.  These children did not just surmise or guess but designed a scientific approach to measuring the effectiveness of the drinking fountains.  They developed their own research processes, building on the information they had gained, and demonstrating that they knew what it meant to organise a scientific test and to report on it.

The language that they used demonstrated connections within the language of the investigation.  They drew up lists of key words associated with the idea of water and drinking fountains and were heard using them during their discussions.  They were able to communicate their observations to each other and to explain their diagrams and representations of what they were doing.

It was all very noisy, very messy, but very exciting.

My intention was to provide an opportunity and context where children could engage to make connections with science in their environment, to learn how science activity affects life, indeed their life. I delighted in the idea that that in the process of undertaking this science, the children were keenly telling their parents what they were doing, why they were doing it, and the ambitions they had for the outcome.

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2 Responses to A schoolwide science experience

  1. John says:

    Fabulous! Lucky children.

  2. Chris Horne says:

    Wonderful work! Why? The principal understood that: discovery begins with mystery, the best ideas are essentially uncomplicated and readily understood, teacher empowerment must include their involvement throughout, no templates or formulaic practices, no predetermined outcomes, new learning makes sense in an integrated context ie naturally, playfully and meaningfully connected to other curriculum, children’s conversations with each other are integral to relational creativity and enough time was allowed for detailed observations and critical thinking.
    The work done at Morrinsville School fits these creativity qualities perfectly: Creativity involves:
    1. Identifying new problems.
    2. Transfer of knowledge.
    3. A belief that learning is an incremental process and involves repeated attempts.
    4. a capacity for focussed attention

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