3 Reasons We Hate Science Fair–And How to Fix It

The day my school decided to move science fair to sixth grade instead of fifth, we all cheered–students, teachers, and parents alike. Years later, I’m reflecting on the root of our mutual animosity toward the project. And it seems to come down to three problems–and solutions!

Lack of Teacher Modeling

We ask students to dig deep. To ask questions that don’t have an answer yet. In short, to go beyond comparing popcorn brands. But how often do we model how we develop our own original questions? Share our honest, raw wonderings? Demonstrate our process of Googling to refine an idea?

Creativity and innovation are skills, and science fair projects are an advanced exercise of these skills. If we expect our students to suddenly showcase skills we’ve never helped them cultivate (or worse, that we’ve never cultivated ourselves), we are setting them up for failure–or just another diaper absorbency project.

  • SOLUTION → Metacognition: MindShift recently wrote about 5 inquiry tools to help students “learn how to learn.” These metacognitive strategies encourage students to honestly reflect on their own learning processes and emotions when facing challenges (see also “Smart Strategies that Help Students Learn How to Learn”).
  • SOLUTION → Teach questioning: If you want students to ask “measureable questions,” teach them how to do so long before introducing science fair. Strategies like frequent use of Visible Thinking protocols trains students how to develop and refine their questions. (see also Tubric).
Lack of Existing Student-Driven Project-Based Learning

The science fair should not be an isolated experience of students taking ownership over and driving their own learning process. If it is, it’s unlikely that many will rise to the freedom in ways that will fuel their passion and motivation.

  • SOLUTION → Project-Based Learning: Make it your next weekend project to create one new PBL opportunity. Guides like this one found on Edutopia can help you get started.
  • SOLUTION → Student Voice & Choice: Mindfully consider your students’ choice and voice in their day-to-day learning. When we gradually let go of control and allow our students to steer the learning, they will grow in confidence and self-understanding.
Lack of Engaged and Authentic Audience

Even if students do manage to find a passion-driven project, how often does their work ever go beyond a cardboard trifold display in the gymnasium (unless they happen to move on to regionals)? Too often, we only allow our students small sips from locally limited audiences–when we could lead them to the very fountain of global conversation with our fingertips. It’s time to throw open the floodgates and watch what happens when our students swap ideas with peers, scientists, and experts across the world.

  • SOLUTION → Student Blogging: Encourage your students to blog not only the final presentation, but their entire process along the way. Then, teach them how to ask for feedback to fine-tune their ideas.
  • SOLUTION → The Wonderment: This is an especially wonderful platform for younger students to collaborate safely online.  They can upload photos, videos, and text, asking questions and getting inspiration from kids around the world (see other excellent blogging alternatives here).

Let’s break the mold of hating science fair this year. What are some of your strategies to do so?

Featured Image: Andria via Flickr

Resources for More Authentic Reading Comprehension Strategies

As a freshly-graduated educator, I had been extensively drilled on reading comprehension strategies. Excited to try out my research-backed literary stockpile, I whipped up beautiful little guided reading packets that featured multiple copies of each comprehension strategy, complete with instructions and fill-in-the-blanks.

So I was shocked to discover that my students hated those packets. No matter how much support I offered, all I seemed to receive in return were lost pages and careless responses. After months of toiling in futility, we eventually ditched those packets and sought other ways to cultivate reading comprehension strategies.

Years later, my reflections have revisited those packets. What went wrong? Why were even my advanced readers disengaged?  Why didn’t they help students see the value of the strategies?

After further reflection, I realized we need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Imagine you’re deep in the thralls of your novel when someone comes up to you and asks you to synthesize the perspectives and settings so far.  Or to make an inference right now.  Or to come up with a question about your last chapter. Maybe you’re able to give adequate responses, but how likely are they to be genuine, meaningful reflections that enhance your reading experience?

Both my packets and this not-so-hypothetical example are missing one crucial element:  authenticity. As we examine practical ways to increase authenticity in our reading comprehension strategies instruction, we should consider how metacognition and ownership can work in this setting.

Metacognition

Research has instructed us to focus on the “what good readers do” angle as we explicitly teach these strategies.  But does that really mean telling them that good readers constantly pause for outside-mandated reflections at arbitrary times?  Of course not.

We need to build on this instruction by teaching them to notice the natural moments of self-conversation and wonderings as they read, and then to learn how to identify the strategies that are already at play. This awareness of their own thinking will enhance their authentic use of these comprehension strategies because it will gradually strengthen their ability to consciously utilize and articulate them.

Ownership

Fifth grade teacher Jessica Lifshitz shared what happened when she shifted from merely teaching the what and how of comprehension strategies toward the why (1/12/17 edit: She’s also constantly using Google Apps to create student checklists and self-assessments that packed with ownership and metacognition, such as this Revision Checklist). These conversations help students internalize the real impact these strategies can have on our individual lives, which is crucial in using them in more authentic, meaningful ways.

To further help students take the reins on their own reading experience, I realized that we need to rethink how we ask students to express their thinking, being mindful of flexibility and choice. So I created the organizer below, which encourages them to consider which strategy they’ve used and how it improves their personal understanding.  Click here for the pdf!

FlexibleStudent-CenteredReadingComprehensionPracticeAs researcher Brene Brown summarizes, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen” (The Gifts of Imperfection).  Let’s give our students the chance to make learning more honest and real for them, for reading comprehension strategies and everywhere else.  What are other measures you’ve taken to encourage authenticity in your classroom?

Featured image: Hazel Marie via flickr