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

4 Outstanding Alternatives to Private Student Blogging

An authentic and global audience of peers and professionals–what could be more exciting when it comes to students pursuing meaningful collaboration?  Yet in the name of safety, many schools still choose to keep student blogs private, viewable only to students and their families. And while safety is an essential priority, these schools must understand the importance of digital citizenship, and its role in enhancing students’ online safety.

Meanwhile, for those teaching under such restrictions, the good news is that there are a growing number of alternatives available to still foster global connections. Here are four we’re sure your students will love!

Quadblogging

Meet the digital version of pen pals. This is a great compromise with an administration that is wary of public blogging–ask for permission to connect with just 3 other classes so they can learn about their peers in other places. Your class will become part of a Quad of four classes. You each take week-long turns as the focus class, meaning the other 3 classes visit and comment on your students’ blogs. The year I did this with my fifth graders, our quad included fifth grade classes from the U.S., the U.K., and China, and our students couldn’t get enough of seeing comments on their work from their quad friends across the globe.

The Wonderment

The Wonderment is a new creativity-sharing platform that makes me want to be a kid again. It allows students to share and connect with kids around the world using their WonderBots. Students can share their work, participate in creative challenges, and participate in discussions with other kids–all while filling up a WonderMeter that opens up the Wonderment to new locations in the world. “When we create things together, good things happen.”

 

Class Twitter Account

Twitter allows teachers to easily share snippets of student learning throughout the day in just 140 characters. A group just brainstormed phenomenal questions for a project? Just snap a photo and share on your classroom Twitter account with hashtags that will help their ideas reach beyond just the walls of your classroom (ie, #comments4kids, grade level chat like #5thchat, etc.).  Invite parents to follow your class account to give them a window into your classroom, too! To see it this in action, check out Mrs. Cassidy’s first grade class account. (For more inspiration, check out “Unlocking Twitter’s Classroom Potential“).

MysterySkype

Can your class guess the location of another over Skype?  Not only does MysterySkype give your students an opportunity to connect with kids around the world, but it allows them to cultivate communication, problem solving, collaboration, and organization.  Before you launch a session, be sure to check out how other teachers have set it up, like fifth grade teacher, Paul Solarz.

Though none of these options allow students to create individual and flexible digital portfolios like student blogging does, they are a start. Meanwhile, maintain forward-moving conversations with your administration and/or parents by making the case for public blogging, addressing safety concerns, showing them how beneficial digital connections are for us all.

What are ways you help your students build an authentic audience?

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

3 Simple #EdLeadership Opportunities with Big Impact

Thanks to 21st century resources, long-gone are the days when teachers had to wait around for admin-organized professional development and growing opportunities.  And becoming a real leader in the education world is simpler than you might think. Here are 3 ways you can make a big difference without carving out too much of your limited time!

Continue reading 3 Simple #EdLeadership Opportunities with Big Impact

5 Small Habits that Will Transform Your Classroom

Flipped classrooms.  Project-based learning.  BYOD. Homework & standardized testing overhauls.  These are some of the big-picture aspects that help define the 21st century education landscape. But when we approach it with only these kinds of large-scale changes in mind, the shift will be daunting and slow. Here are five minor 21st century habits to try out for major potential for change!

Continue reading 5 Small Habits that Will Transform Your Classroom

21st Century Teacher Cheat Sheet

We don’t know about you, but we’re pretty visual folks over here.  So here are some of the most important aspects we’ve learned about 21st century teaching over the past year of blogging, condensed into infographic form!  Enjoy!

For more like this, check out our article on becoming a 21st Century teacher!

5 Reasons to be Hopeful About Education’s Future

If you’re as passionate about improving education as we are, chances are you’ve had moments of discouragement, too.  However, lately, we’ve come across several campaigns that had us smiling. We thought we’d pass on the optimism to remind us all that positive change in education happens every day–and to let you know how you can take part!

Continue reading 5 Reasons to be Hopeful About Education’s Future

What We Really Fear: 5 Myths about Standardized Testing

Student and teacher anxiety gradually mount.  Expendable activities like art and P.E. begin to make way for multiple choice practice time.  Policymaker, administrator, and parent debates rekindle.  You guessed it, standardized testing season approaches.


Despite all the options available for more effective learning evaluations, the high-stakes, billion-dollar machine of one-size-fits-all government assessments continues to prevail in the US.  After reading dozens of articles on assessment alternatives (and their comments), we started finding clues that may help explain why things haven’t changed yet.

Myth #1: Schools need to be evaluated like businesses:

Product Testing Assessments comment

Just because some great business strategies have been positively applied to school administration does not mean all of them can or should be. In the above comment, the writer complains about the lack of “product testing” for the new performance assessments given at a district.  However, let’s consider the logistics here.  Businesses can try out ideas and products on test subjects, and if they flop, they can bring in their test subjects for another try.  Schools have no such luxury; their sample groups don’t get to repeat their 4th grade end-of-year assessments–they just move on to 5th grade.  In the end, it takes bold schools like this one in Kentucky, this group in New York, or this district in Colorado to pioneer and make way for change for the rest of us.

Myth #2: When Adopting New Strategies, the Entire District Must Shift All at Once:

As the district experiments with performance based assessments, it’s finding it an easy transition in elementary school, but much harder in the older grades. “The poor middle school and high school students have already been acclimated to this way of thinking, so to give them a performance test is agony,” Morgan said. Those “remedial thinking skills” are what Douglas County hopes to prevent for the next group of students. (“Can Schools Be Held Accountable Without Standardized Tests?“)

The above excerpt makes a very valid point–after all, we spend years training students to memorize and regurgitate content for standardized testing.  Can we blame kids if they’re a bit rusty when we suddenly ask them to access their neglected critical thinking and problem solving skills in 10th grade?

We suggest that new alternative assessment procedures be introduced in younger grades to acclimate students over time, rather than going for district or statewide plunges.  This would give us a better idea of the assessment system’s effectiveness.

Myth #3: Parents can gain more insight into their students’ learning from the quantitative feedback of standardized tests than qualitative feedback:

FB comment on testing

The above comment reveals two problems. One, the parent doesn’t seem to understand that his/her son wasn’t being tested based on opinions–rather, he was being tested on how well he could write an opinion essay. And two, what if his performance was based on someone’s opinion?  More specifically, what if parents had to rely more on teachers’ anecdotal notes and feedback than on scores from standardized tests? Do we really trust a bunch of figures generated in stressful, once-yearly conditions more than insights from a professional who spends an entire year working closely with children? Furthermore, once parents receive those solid numbers from standardized tests, do they even know what exactly it is they’re looking for to “know where you need to work on improving?”

Myth #4: Assessments provide accountability for schools–especially low demographic ones:

Without standardized testing—and lacking any other basis for comparison in their own educational experience—the students’ families had no way of knowing what I had assumed was obvious: that eighth graders on the other side of town were well past working on multisyllabic words or improper fractions. They had no way of knowing that their hardworking, solid-GPA kids were already far behind. (“The Good in Standardized Testing”)

Later in the same article, the author provided suggestions to use tests “for research, not judgement.”  She gave excellent suggestions for improving the approach, like random, testing on small groups throughout the year, and clearly seems to value tests with more substance. However, even when it comes to using the numbers for research, there still remain major shortcomings that affect the poorest schools–schools that can’t afford books from which the multiple choice questions are drawn.

Myth #5: Multiple Choice is the Only [or best] Way to Learn About their Learning:

Jasmeet via Flickr
Jasmeet via Flickr

In the end, isn’t the bottom-line for assessments getting students, parents, teachers, and administrators on the same page regarding student learning?  If that’s the case, we need to focus primarily on this objective as we think outside the box to uncover and share student learning. For your consideration:

Photo Credit:

Benjamin Chun via Flickr Creative Commons (featured image)

Jasmeet via Flickr Creative Commons