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BSIE 2010 Week 2 Observations

Jessica Watkins's picture

The past week has brought with it much talk of the brain, including discussions of the unconscious versus the conscious and the affects of both on student behavior in the classroom. Although a few of the institute participants are science teachers, it seemed as if the material Dr. Grobstein used in his lectures on neuroanatomy and the “real” story of the brain was received as fresh material. Monday’s session on the empirical brain and its conversation with the outside world (as well as the metaphor of interconnected boxes) was particularly compelling. It is nothing short of exciting to see the participants making connections between what they already know from teaching experience (such as how students should be engaged in order to absorb a lesson completely) and the science behind their observations (for example, how the brain is enriched most thoroughly when it processes information from various different media).

Overall the group has come a long way in learning to listen to each other’s thoughts completely before offering their own. I think this is actually in part due to watching Dr. Grobstein take down notes throughout the conversation so he can keep track of what he is thinking, but cannot always say. They are beginning to recognize that they might not always have the chance to say everything that is on their mind due to time/material constraints, and that it is ok to “table” something for later. Hopefully this is translating into ideas about how to apply this sort of “tabling” to the classroom: our forum can certainly serve as a model for something similar like a blog or class webpage, and journals, diaries and sketch books might prove useful as well. Admittedly, some of the participants have a hard time processing inwardly and still insist on inserting their every opinion into the discussion, no matter how tangential it may be. While usually this kind of behavior is managed well on the part of Dr. Grobstein, the conversation facilitator, occasionally the sprawling thoughts of one or two teachers dominate for quite some time and only distract the group from the matter at hand. However, most of the rest of the group remains respectful and listens attentively.

As was discussed during the week, coordination among the parts of our institute does not require a “conductor.” It feels as if authority and knowledge is spread evenly throughout the group, possibly due to the respect that each individual is given while they are speaking (i.e. each participant is given the same respect as Dr. Grobstein, our “conductor” in name). Increasingly the participants are accepting the fact that this kind of discussion format would do well in the classroom, although most of them have already spoken of how they transfer a good amount of authority into the hands of their students (for example, one of the participants tells his students on the first day of class that neither he nor the textbook are the final authorities on knowledge or are in possession of the “right answer”—instead, this is something that everybody, including the teacher, should search for together in class).

The reactions of the participants to the two guest speakers, Alice Lesnick and Ingrid Waldron, were very telling. Lesnick’s group discussion-based, hands-on laden, doodle-filled activity was a wonderful way of focusing everyone’s attention on the seemingly dense text in front of them. The contrast of the thick paragraphs on the paper in front of us and the silly doodles drawn in the margin was striking and effective in capturing and holding attention, and I am confident that the teachers realized this would be useful in their classroom. While personally I did not have an easier time focusing on key points or themes after doodling about them, I can see how this would work well for younger students whose attention might slip away after writing notes in the margin instead. The metaphor of inquiry as a horizontal plane to be walked continuously by many, not a pinnacle to be reached by few, was received very well (I think because of its beautiful simplicity and the fact that it incorporated well-known physical shapes that could be understood by all). Some main points from the discussion:

  • Fear inhibits exploration, so the classroom should be a “safe zone” for all thoughts and opinions.
  • Inquiry is an ongoing process experience by everyone; no one person is in possession of more or better knowledge than any other.
  • Transfer of authorityàbetter for both student and teacher to be unprepared (to some extent) so they can embrace problems and learn together.
  • Teachers should welcome diversity on all levels and recognize that each student’s unique perspective is a helpful contribution to classroom learning.

Waldron’s talk, on the other hand, should only remain on future institutes’ schedules as an example of what not to do in the classroom. Her lecture was not well-received at all, mainly because of her “listen and regurgitate” style that we had previously discussed as a detrimental thing. Her beginning meta-question (“What is the optimum combination of inquiry-based approaches to teaching and teacher-directed lecture/discussion?”) could have gone many places, and good ones at that, but she failed to fully follow up on this at the end or tie together the issues raised by different individuals after the hands-on activity. She was visibly uncomfortable with being even slightly “loosey goosey,” as she was during the hands-on pulse activity. But even then she constantly made rounds throughout the room and told each group that it should stick to the steps on the paper in the order they were on the paper, which went against what we had discussed previously—open-ended, self-exploratory inquiry. The only beneficial thing that came out of her visit was that the institute participants had the opportunity to compare her discussion and techniques to those of Lesnick.