Sunday, August 19, 2007

UNinformed and Inflexible

LESSON 05/29/07

On May 29, 2007 Assistant Principal I.T. observed my science lesson with class 702, an honors class. Ms. I.T. found this lesson to be unsatisfactory. I disagree with her evaluation.


Ms. I.T. has misquoted me and has presented a very garbled version of the lesson. Her version shows fundamental misconceptions about the science inquiry process. I find that administrators who have not been scientists or science teachers often do have misconceptions, because they themselves were probably never taught science as inquiry, and they may not have used inquiry in their own disciplines. In November, 2006 I made an effort to inform administrators about science inquiry by giving Principal S.T. my lesson plan template aligned with the New York State Learning Standards for Science. (see attachment).

Most of us are aware of what is called “The Scientific Method”. Anyone who has ever done a science project has had to list these steps: Problem, Hypothesis, Materials, Procedure, Results, Conclusion. These steps may or may not reflect inquiry on the part of the student.

I tell my students “In science, we don’t test people, we test ideas.” True inquiry allows students to confront the ideas that they have been forming about nature since they were born. For almost every question that students are asked, there is already an idea in their heads about what the answer may be. Many of these ideas are partially or totally inaccurate—what we call misconceptions. Research has shown that these incorrect concepts will hang on in the mind despite the best efforts of teachers to explain them away. The student may learn to regurgitate the right facts on a test, but two or three months later, a similar test will reveal that old, incorrect ideas have grown back in and pushed recently memorized facts out of reach. On the other hand, research has also shown that if students state their ideas in writing, and then test them in an experiment, these young scientists are much more likely to relinquish the idea that was proven incorrect, and to permanently substitute the idea that was supported by the evidence.

The scientific method is a powerful learning strategy, because it operates on the principle that me must compare our ideas to a measurable and repeatable reality. In order to test an idea, we must begin by stating very clearly what that idea is. We call this the Hypothesis.

Traditional science education does not usually ask students to state their preconceived ideas before teaching them facts about nature. Many would argue correctly that we have discovered so many facts, that it is impossible to have students go back and discover them all, one by one, through the inquiry method. However, we can choose the most important ideas; the great theories and laws of science. We can also choose those ideas that go against common sense (a 10 pound ball and a 100 pound ball fall at the same speed). These are the concepts that students should learn by first stating a hypothesis and then testing that hypothesis by performing an experiment.

By the end of the lesson under discussion, I wanted my students to state a hypothesis about how blood flows between the heart, lungs, and brain. However, that hypothesis would not be stated in the traditional form, If……., then, ………because. Instead, my students would draw a flow chart, showing their preconceptions of the direction of flow and the connections between one organ and another.

Before committing themselves, however, I wanted them to have the opportunity to explore different options. I therefore designed a simple interactive model that would allow them to easily connect and disconnect the organs. The human body was represented by a drawing of the head and torso on chart paper. Each one of the organs: brain, heart, and lung were represented by a plastic baggie with a label. The heart was divided in half by staples and the right and left sides of the heart were labeled. Red beads represented oxygen rich blood flowing through blood vessels and blue yarn represented oxygen poor blood flowing through blood vessels. Students would attach the heart, lung, and brain to the chart paper. They would manipulate the red beads and blue yarn to show how the blood flows until they reached a group consensus and then they would draw their hypothesis. I expected the lesson to take 2 periods. The beginning of the first period would be taken up by discussing the challenge , the model, and fundamental facts of the circulatory system. Students would then explore the different options allowed by the model. During the second period, groups would finalize their hypothesis, draw their version of the blood flow, and present their hypotheses.


As I entered the room at 10:05 AM you were asking the students questions. The students had their textbook pages open to 65-69 which were the pages they had to read for the DO Now. The students read for about four minutes.


For the DO NOW, I instructed the students to scan pp 65-69 in the textbook Human Biology. I agree with the Ms. X’s version of the opening as she entered the classroom.




You asked the students,”How can a brain cell live without oxygen?” No one answered the question so you answered it by stating, “The brain cell can live 30 seconds to one minute without oxygen”. You asked, “What carries oxygen to the brain?” A student responded , arteries or veins. You then continued to ask, “What makes blood red?” A student responded, oxygen. You then asked, “What converts it really red?” No one answered the question. You then responded to the question. At about 10:15 AM you told the student that they have a challenge today. You then gave each student a sheet with facts about how blood is carried through the heart, lung and brain. You then held up a sandwich bag containing an index card labeled brain. You showed the index card to the class and stated loudly “Brain” as you pointed to the brain. You then placed it on the outline of the human head with a thumb tack. You held up another sandwich bag containing an index card labeled L-Left and R-Right for the heart and placed that on the Torso. You had a sandwich bag with an index card labeled lung and you placed it on the Torso. You then had red beads representing rich blood cells and blue yarn representing poor blood cells. You explained to the students that the blue is not the true color of the poor blood cells. It is really purplish red. You then called on individual students to read the facts.


Ms. I.T’s version of the minilesson segment is inaccurate and incomplete. Ms. I.T. claims that from 10:09 to 10:15, a period of six minutes, this exchange occurred.

Teacher: How can a brain cell live without oxygen?
Students: No response
Teacher: “The brain cell can live 30 seconds to one minute without oxygen.”

Teacher: What carries oxygen to the brain?
Students: Arteries and veins.

Teacher: What makes blood red?
Student: Oxygen

Teacher: What converts the blood really red?
Students: No response.
Teacher: Responds to question.

It is obvious that the account of the first six minutes of the minilesson is incomplete, because it takes less than a minute to read the script that Ms. I.T. has written for me.

What is more, the questions are not written as I asked them. At this point a tape recording of the lesson would help a great deal in reconstructing the first six minutes of the minilesson. In the absence of this impartial evidence, I will attempt to give a more coherent version of the beginning of the minilesson.

Teacher: How long can a brain cell live without oxygen?
Student: 3 minutes?
Teacher: Brain cells can live about 30 seconds to one minute without oxygen.

Teacher: How does oxygen get to the brain? What carries oxygen to the brain?
Student: Arteries and veins.

Teacher: What do arteries and veins carry?
Student: Blood

Teacher: What makes blood red?
Student: Oxygen

Teacher: Oxygen is part of the answer. Red blood cells are already red before they take in
oxygen. When oxygen mixes with a red substance in the blood cell, it
becomes a brighter red.

Teacher: So does anyone know what red blood cells are composed of?
What really makes them red?
Students: No answer

Teacher: The substance is called hemoglobin. It’s a red pigment that has a lot of iron in it. Oxygen easily attaches to this substance and can just as easily detach. So as the red blood cells flow through the lungs their hemoglobin takes up the oxygen. Then as the blood cells flow through the body, they give up the oxygen to the other body cells, including the brain cells. As red blood cells give up the oxygen they are still red, but they become a darker, deeper red.

There were two purposes served by this question and answer period. First of all, I wanted to arouse the curiosity of these very motivated students (How long can a brain cell live without oxygen?). Secondly, I wanted to assess their previous knowledge of the subject . There is a very strongly rooted misconception among students that blood is normally blue, but that it turns red when mixed with oxygen. It was apparent to me that many students agreed with the boy who answered “oxygen” to the question, “Why is blood red”. I made an effort to explain away this misconception. Students also failed to name “blood cells” as the carriers of oxygen; naming instead, the blood vessels that are simply pathways through which the blood travels. This is like saying that the streets carry the mail instead the mail trucks.

At approximately 10:15 AM, I introduced the challenge of the day. I told students that they would be using a model to figure out the heart/lung/brain connection. There were certain rules that they should take into consideration when making their model. I gave each student a list of “Rules”

1. The blood can’t move unless the heart pumps it.
2. The heart has a wall that separates the right side from the left. Blood never passes directly between the two sides.
3. Blood vessels are connected to the top and bottom of each side of the heart.
4. Blood enters through the top and exits through the bottom.
5. Blood leaves the heart through the arteries.
6. Blood returns to the heart through veins.
7. Veins are connected to arteries by very thin vessels called capillaries.
8. As the red blood cells move through the body, they give up their oxygen to the cells.
9. Oxygen-poor blood returns to the top right side of the heart.
10. The heart must pump oxygen-poor blood to the lungs where the red blood cells will pick up more oxygen.
11. After the blood has picked up the oxygen, it must be pumped to the rest of the body cells.

We read the facts together, and then I introduced them to the model that they would be using. An outline of the human head and torso was fixed to the chalkboard with magnets. I showed the class a baggie marked “Brain” and then placed it at the top of the outlined head. I used a small magnet to keep it in place, not a thumbtack, as Ms X alleges. I then placed a baggie marked “Heart” near the center of outlined chest. I told the students that our model would have only one lung—pretend he had the other removed, and I placed the baggie marked “Lung” to the left of the heart. I showed the students the blue yarn that would represent oxygen poor blood flowing through blood vessels and the red beads that represented oxygen rich blood flowing through blood vessels.

At this point, it was necessary to insist that even though oxygen poor blood was traditionally represented as blue—the true color of oxygen poor blood is red.

I then gave students the starting point: The blue yarn (oxygen poor blood) would enter at the top right side of the heart. Then I referred students back to the rules. If the blood is entering the top of the heart, where will it flow next (To the bottom and out). Will the blood gain oxygen before it leaves the heart? (No. It gets oxygen in the lungs). So, as the blood flows into the lungs is it still oxygen poor? (Yes). So do I use blue yarn or red beads to show oxygen entering the lung? (blue yarn). As blood exits the lung, will it be oxygen rich or oxygen poor? (oxygen rich) Then should I still be using the blue yarn? (No. we switch to the red beads).

After that introduction I challenged students to continue the flow, making sure that oxygen rich blood reaches the brain, and oxygen poor blood gets taken away from the brain. I reminded them that they had plenty of time. They had the option of using the book or trying to work it out with logic only. Although there was only one right answer for the human body, they were welcome to come with another acceptable answer. As long as their model showed a logical means to get oxygen to the brain, it would be correct.

The challenge was: “Keep the Brain Alive”


During the lesson, when you asked the students, “How can a brain cell live without oxygen?” and what converts it really red? You answered the questions without giving students the opportunity to respond. This demonstrates that the student needed prior knowledge and proper “wait time” to think about how to answer the question. In the future please, allow for proper “wait time”. You must make sure that you differentiate your instruction and questions to meet the needs of all students in your class.

Although you presented a mini-lesson, it failed to achieve its objective. You did not model for the students what they were clearly expected to do and where they were going to get their information. The objective of a minilesson is to model and/or explicitly teach students the strategy to be used during their group work or independent work time.

This lesson needs to be planned with more exciting and meaningful activities. Ten minutes were spent on reading and discussing the fact sheet you handed to the students and less time was spent on the challenge. Therefore, the students did not accomplish the stated objective. Try to carefully plan creative activities to promote effective learning.


Ms. I.T. mentions certain fundamental rules that teachers should take into consideration when questioning their students:
1. Do not answer your own questions.
2. Allow “wait time” so that students have time to think before answering.
3. Ask students questions that they are able to answer from prior knowledge.

While I agree with these rules, I would like to emphasize that these are guidelines and not dogma. It should be possible to break these rules under certain circumstances, such as the ones stated below.

1. Students are highly motivated to learn, and have good self-esteem with regard to academics.
2. The teacher is conducting a short, informal assessment of prior knowledge and understanding before giving information.
3. Students attend after-school enrichment classes and may have additional background knowledge.
4. Students are being invited to solve an intellectual challenge or puzzle, where too much prior information is an insult to the intelligence of the student.

This was an honors class, and students did not mind being asked questions that they could not immediately answer. It didn’t make them feel stupid, disrespected, or frustrated. It simply made them feel challenged to find the answer. What is more, some of the students attended weekend biology classes at Long Island City High School and they had prior knowledge that I thought they might be able to share with the class. I find that if I throw out a question that is then answered by a student from previous knowledge learned outside the class, other students will remember the information just as well as if I give it to them.

Ms. I.T. wants me to differentiate and meet the needs of all students by giving them prior knowledge and sufficient wait time to be able to answer correctly. In other words, I can’t ask a question unless the students are guaranteed to be successful in their answers. This might be true for struggling students who get upset when they are asked a question that they cannot answer. They have poor self esteem and do not always take well to challenging questions. However, class 702 was a group of highly successful students. By May 29 they had developed sufficient trust in me to know that I was not asking questions that they didn’t know just to make myself look intelligent and them look stupid. I had good reason to think that some might know the answers already.

Ms I.T. then states another rule to be followed: The goal of the minilesson is to clearly model what the students are supposed to do. I agree with this is often a primary goal of the minilesson.

I am confused by Ms. I.T.’s statement: Although you presented a mini-lesson, it failed to achieve its objective….The objective of a minilesson is to model and/or explicitly teach students the strategy to be used during their group work or independent work time.

I believe that I clearly demonstrated how to use the different parts of the model to show the flow of blood. I did not give them the answers to the challenge, because if I did, it wouldn’t be a challenge. I would like Ms. I.T. to clarify exactly how she would introduce an inquiry challenge to a group of honors students in a way that would meet the objectives of a minilesson.

I am sorry that Ms. I.T. did not find my lesson exciting and meaningful. Perhaps Ms. I.T. could direct me to a better hands-on inquiry lesson about the direction of blood flow between the heart, the lungs, and the body. I am always looking for more exciting and meaningful ways of teaching science concepts.


At 10:25 AM you started the group work period, you stated to the students “You are going to problem solve but not finish. You are not going to meet the objective today. You are going to continue for homework and I tomorrow’s lesson.” The challenge was to place the sandwich bags with index labeled brain, RL and Lung on the correct part of the body on the chart. You state that the red beads represents oxygen rich blood and the blue yarn represents the oxygen poor blood. You state, “You have to demonstrate by using the beads and the yarn on the outline of the head and torso, how the blood flows between the heart, lungs and brain using the beads and the heart. Some of the students read the book to figure out where to place the beads and yarn, other students tried to figure it out on their own.


At 10:25 AM I had monitors help me hand out the following materials:

1. The outline of a head and torso on chart paper.
2. Red beads
3. Blue yarn
4. Plastic baggies marked heart, lung, and brain

I instructed students to use their books, the fact sheet that we had read together during the minilesson, and the above materials to show the blood flow between heart, lung, and brain.

Then I circulated among the students as they tried to solve the problem.


At the beginning of the work period you stated, “You have to demonstrate by using the beads and the yarn on the outline of the head and torso, how the blood flows between the heart, lungs and brain using the beads and yarn.” I suggest, you should demonstrate what you want the children to do during the mini-lesson.

The assignment seemed easy for some students because they figured out on their own how to use the textbook and the fact sheet. The other students seemed unclear because they were trying to figure out on their own and were not sure. It was not stated during the lesson how they were going to find the answer. Students need clear directions in order to understand what is expected of them.


Ms. I.T. states that some students found the assignment so easy that they finished by 10:40, while the students were still problem solving after 15 minutes. She seems to find something wrong with this scenario. I find it very normal. Some groups finish before others. I had not expected anyone to finish in 15 minutes. I would have expected them to take this time to familiarize themselves with the information and the model. The real problem-solving would take place the next day.

There is nothing wrong with the fact that “students seemed unclear because they were trying to figure out on their own and were not sure.” The figuring out is a part of inquiry science. Everyone knew that there was no time constraint on them. They knew that they had the rest of the period, plus part of the next period to solve the problem. They were not under pressure to perform. Even so, one group out of eight solved the problem in 15 minutes. Good for them.

Ms I.T. seems to be uncomfortable with the inquiry method. She does not want to see students struggling. She wants the answers to come easily—even to the point of having them provided by the teacher. That is not how scientists operate. They have questions and they have a method. They don’t have to know all the answers right away. Student scientists are not supposed to know exactly what to do. They are set in a particular direction and are supposed to figure it out on their own.


At about 10:40 AM you stated, “We will continue tomorrow during the whole period.” You asked students, “Where is the glucose liberated?” The students did not respond to the question. You answered it by saying. It is the Mitochondria. Glucose and oxygen meet in the Mitochondria. You asked students to clean up and tomorrow they will know what materials to pick up.


Ms. I.T. did not hear a student ask me to tell her the name of the part of the cell where the energy of glucose is liberated through cellular respiration. I said, “Good question, does anyone remember where glucose is liberated in the cell? No one responded, so I responded to the student: “It is in the Mitochondria. Glucose and oxygen meet in the Mitochondria.”


You failed to engage students in the lesson when you did not allow students to go over their findings during the closing of your lesson. Please refer to specific interactive teaching techniques attached referring to the Accountable Talk Toolbox.

When students completed the work period you never addressed their findings. It is important to share what students have discovered in order to assess and check for understanding of the modeled lesson.

You asked students to clean up without summarizing your lesson. As a method of summarization and of determining if the objective have been met, ask each student to state what was learned from the material. Look for opportunities to call on selected students to establish a summary of key point. The students and teacher need to review major areas presented, in order to demonstrate that students understood concepts.


Ms I.T. says that I failed to go over the findings of my students. The problem was that after fifteen minutes, one group had the answer and the other seven groups were still searching for the answer. I preferred to wait until the next period to address the finding of all the groups. To do otherwise would have been to rush most of the students through the challenge and not allow the time to think it through.

It is very possible that those who figured out the answer then shared their findings with those who didn’t during lunch that day because by the next day, all the other groups reached the correct solution in approximately fifteen minutes. I have no problem with this. A science teacher’s best dream would be to have students discussing the circulatory system over lunch.


I have written this response within the context of the Workshop Model. However, it is obvious that my inquiry lesson did not quite fit. I think this is because the Workshop Model was originally supposed to work within a 90 minute session. Therefore, teachers were supposed to teach a twenty minute minilesson, then move to a 40 minute work session and then have a good half hour to review findings and state what students had learned from the material, and call on selected students to establish a summary of key points, and review major areas presented, and demonstrate that students understood the concepts.

When it became necessary to fit the Workshop Model into a 45 minute period, someone, I don’t know who, thought that all you had to do was cut in half the time spent on each segment. The minilesson shrank from 20 to 10 minutes, the group work from 40 to 20 minutes, and the closing went form 30 to 15 minutes.

So now, what happens when the teacher needs fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare students for an inquiry lesson? What happens if the students need a full 40 minutes to solve a problem or carry out an experiment? What happens if at the end of a 45 minute period, students are not yet ready to share. I have been asking these questions since the Workshop Model people have taken over this school system. The only answer that I get is that I have to stay within the time constraints that I have been given. This is not helpful.

I am not opposed to the Workshop Model. However, I am opposed to dogmatic, mechanistic thinking. I am trying to teach my students not to engage in that kind of thinking. That’s not science. That’s not how we got to the moon. That’s not how we are going to cure cancer.

Moriah Untamed

No comments: