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Observations and Interpretations, Week of Nov 30

Brie Stark's picture
Observations and Interpretations

Week of November 30, 2009; Brielle Stark


Project: Chromatography, Mystery Unit


  • The subjects were in the middle of a mystery unit, trying to decipher (using many methods) who kidnapped a so-called 'giggle boy'
  • This unit focused on chromatography
    • The day before, the subjects were shown a demonstration of chomatography by the teacher; they discussed the steps to repeat the experiment successfuly
  • A prelim 'assessment' was given to the subjects (a cross word quiz with no word bank) to see how much they recalled from their chromatography lesson the day before.  Since they had been allowed to use their science notebooks to take notes, many of the subjects were confident in their answers.  I also noticed that many didn't even use their notebook and often recalled words from memory.
  • For the chromatography experiment, there were four pens collected from 'suspects' in the crime.  The four pens were all black in color, but obviously would express different patterns when put through the chromatography experiment.  The subjects split into groups, each with a different solvent (water, vinegar, salt water, alcohol).
    • Even though all of the pens' inks were water soluble, the teacher was interested in seeing the different kinds of results the subjects got from each experiment.  Noticeably, the different solvents did produce different colors, but got the same results to match the 'criminal' pen who had wrote the ransom note that they were testing
  • A big concept in chromatography revolves around the dye and the pigment.  The subjects were able to easily differentiate between the dye and the pigment, but some groups were unsure which to look at in order to compare their sample to the ransom pen sample.  Some focused on the pigment, at first, which was located in the solvent.  Over time, though, they began to notice that the dye samples were a more accurate interpretation and matched the dye samples to the ransom samples in order to find a match.
    • All of the teams acquired the same answer through their experiments.
    • The group with the alcohol solvent got a noticeably yellow pigment in one of their experiments, which the other solvents did not.  This illustrated the different properties of the solvents very well.
  • The class terminated by the question of a particularly inquisitive investigator in the class: even if found which pen matches, how do we actually tie the pen to the person we found it with?
    • The teacher used this as a nice segue into deciphering between fact and inference.  The subjects were in the midst of filling out a sheet describing a picture, using both facts and inferences, when the class time had to be stopped in order to go to gym.


Our Praxis coordinator paid a visit to the Praxis site and talked with the teacher, Emily and I.  I found the discussion to be particularly interesting, and would like to bring up a few topics that we discussed amongst us.  First, we got on the subject of a classrom being 'blame-free.'  The week before, Paul, Wil, Ruth, Peter, Emily and I had had a discussion that revolved around the concept of being 'blame-free.'  I interpret the concept of 'blame-free' as being an environment where students feel inclined to be particularly metacognitive and constructive.  I think it's necessary to bring up a concrete example to really discuss what I mean by this.  Basically, in most of the classes that I have been in, if a student receives a bad grade on the test, there is blame instantaneously placed upon the teacher, rather than upon the student.  I feel as if the student makes such excuses as 'the teacher didn't teach this well,' and etc.  I also believe that in a blame-ful environment, there is a lack of constructive conflict when it comes to things such as proofreading or even class discussions.  First, I find that there is a reluctancy for peer editing because of fear of conflict.  Second, I find that people often do not speak up in discussions because of fear of repercussions.  Or, if they do speak up, are personally hurt by arguments against their own thesis.  Let me bring this back to what I described as being a 'blame-free' environment.  I believe that this environment is almost necessary for inquiry, because it fosters a sense of personal responsibility for one's learning.   If a student feels as if they do not understand something as fully as they'd like, or would like to discuss an idea, they feel inclined to talk with another student or the teacher in the classroom without harboring a sense of guilty for their actions.  Essentially, they don't place the blame upon someone else for their lack of understanding.  Instead, they are active pursuers.

I found this to be particularly interesting in a college setting, specifically Bryn Mawr.  Bryn Mawr's strict honor code almost prevents this ability to become a blame-free environment, because students actually feel a sense of guilt in approaching another student for help, or even asking their professor for a grade on an assignment so that they can improve.  It's a good thought, in theory, to develop an honor code such as the one that Bryn Mawr has in order to assure student equality and lack of competition.  However, I also believe that it is second-guessed by the fact that Bryn Mawr still awards things such as honors, which differentiates students from each other and fosters a sense of strong competition against one another.  In the classroom, I think that being blame-free takes a lot of work, and it's not one that is particularly easy to implement in a college setting.  For one, students who enter a college with a prestige level of Bryn Mawr are basically set on one thing: success.  There is little else that surrounds a student's life that this type of college.  While learning is certainly important, I feel as if people believe that Bryn Mawr is just another stepping stone toward a greater thing (graduate school, job, etc) and it is therefore only necessary that one takes away success from the experience.  The overall experience of learning, therefore, is overshadowed by this conflict.  I believe that trying to implement a blame-free environment at Bryn Mawr might foster a sense of enjoyment of the experience, rather than students just feeling a desire to succeed (mostly over one another).  In a blame-free environment, it's basically a challenge to oneself.  These students use their peers for help in understanding, but ultimately understand that it is their perogative to learn as much as they desire.  Students not in this type of environment see their success as measured against another person.  This stark difference is something that I believe stops the overall enjoyment of the process of learning.  I wonder, too, if it actually hinders learning, in general.  I'd be interested to see studies done on this in the future.