We began a new semester this week providing a delightful journey of working with a new group of students as they begin to find their voice as teachers of science in the elementary classroom. Common among preservice elementary teachers, many come face to face with their own limited knowledge and exposure to science. This presents us with first hand experiences with the kind of interactions commonly found within an elementary classroom. I’d like to share some of those observations in this series of postings.
A favorite activity of mine on the first night is to investigate principles of density utilizing common fruit placed in water. Our questions focus around the phenomena of floating. Will the fruit float? What position will it float in? What percentage of the fruit will be submerged? etc. After initial investigations with apples, I invite them to explore from a variety of other fruit with an expectation of formulating a prediction of each fruit before putting it in water. I visited with a pair of students just as they were investigating kiwi. When placed in water, the kiwi quickly sunk to the bottom of the basin. As i looked at the predictions documented in their notebook, they both showed the kiwi floating. I asked the student about it, she exclaimed, “But I said it would sink!”
These are the moments I long for as a teacher. Embodied within the ensuing interactions following events like this are such rich insights into the type of learning environments we are called to create, and what we might expect from our students. We grow up with a fear of failure – not wanting to be wrong in the public eye. This fear is equally present in adults and children. This particular woman thought one thing, yet when presented with the need to put the idea onto paper – to make permanent – to make public – she retreated from her thinking and put what she thought would be perceived as “correct”. In the process, her public prediction didn’t align with her actual observation of the real thing and felt disappointed. This speaks so clearly to the pressing need to establish a learning environment grounded in safety. If our students are to learn, they need to feel secure enough to take risks. An environment where mistakes are not only considered acceptable, but are welcomed and encouraged, allows the learner to honestly examine their ideas, hold them up to their observations, and go through the difficult work of accommodation. Only in this way can we create the conditions necessary for deep learning.