Learning From My Students

Two of the advantages to the way that our fourth grade team has structured the teaching of science and social studies are that I get to teach both subjects and I have one prep for two classes. I only teach science in the winter trimester, but the units happen to fall within my wheelhouse of interests. While the trimester is a month past, I spent time earlier today (our last day of Spring Break) looking over student reflections of their science experiences and their Design Thinking organizers for our culminating engineering challenge. Themes jumped out at me, and I wanted to be sure to grab them in writing.

For students’ overall science reflection, I created a chart with each of our topics (Energy, Engineering, Simple Machines, Earth Science) and the individual activities or demonstrations that we explored. I asked students to identify for each topic what they liked best and what they were wondering about now that the unit is over.  Five themes emerged in their identified favorites: making posters, choosing partners, building or having hands on experiences, facing challenges, and choosing topics.

Did any of these surprise me? Not at all! In fact their preferences and desires reinforced for me many of the choices that I’ve made in classroom and instructional design. First and foremost is choice. Having opportunities to choose a partner and/or a topic of research helps students become more engaged. As we’re about to begin a small research project in History this week, it’s timely for me to consider how to structure the assignment of topics and partners to determine if I need to manage their teams this time, or if this is a place to give them more choice.

Making posters and building/creating with their hands remind me that my instructional activities need to encompass multiple modes of learning. Unfortunately, history can be dry depending on how it’s presented and explored. My 13 Colonies unit is new for me, and I have intentionally sought out suggestions and ideas from other teachers and resources for ways to incorporate active modes of learning. I’m excited to share them with the students and discover alongside them how effective the activities are.

Finally, facing challenges. Yes! I love seeing evidence that students want to be challenged and pushed. Particularly gratifying is seeing how students have taken their classroom experiences with engineering challenges to inform how they interacted with our high school robotics team. The end of our engineering unit coincided with the robotics team coming to visit us, share their competition robot, and explain their process. We spent 45-60 minutes together, with most of that time directed by fourth graders’ questions. Certainly they had material and task-specific questions similar to: How does it work? What does that part do? How high can it throw a ball? However, they also asked questions that evidenced their comprehension of the design process and wondered how a large team (30-40 students, completely unimaginable to the fourth graders!) was able to collaborate on the robot. My favorite question was How many times did you fail? The fourth graders have hands on experience facing failure in their attempts to meet engineering challenges, so they expected to hear that the high schoolers failed a lot.

IMG_8141Because I wanted my students to explicitly see the stages of Design Thinking in action, for their culminating challenge I created a worksheet to guide them. After I presented their challenge, they all wrote any questions that they had. Then we talked about their questions and refined the parameters of the problem. Next students independently drew or wrote their ideas for a solution,  recording their initial ideas and prototypes. After this, students learned who was on their team and met together to talk about all ideas and to plan a course of action. Only after this step, could students receive any materials to begin building and testing their ideas. This lined up well with learning from the robotics team that for their 6-week build period, they spent the first 7-10 days hashing out different plans before they began to build their robot.

What did fourth graders’ thinking look like on paper? A delightful variety of forms emerged in their organizers and represented different personalities or learning styles:

  • complete sentences
  • jotted or random ideas
  • doodles
  • detailed drawings
  • ordered steps
  • shapes to code their thoughts to the provided prompts
  • questions about process
  • questions about materials

This was the first time that I’ve used an organizer for our littleBits design challenge, and I loved how successful it was. Spending time in these steps really allowed all students to engage with the process and come to their respective groups with ideas to contribute.

I love learning from the students. I look forward to returning to school this week and letting them know that I value their comments and pay attention to their ideas. I admit that I’m also grateful to find affirmation for my teaching and curriculum design choices reflected in their comments.

My favorite discovery in the students’ work? This insightful comment: “Working is learning and trying new things. What is not working is when you just sit there.” Wisdom indeed from a ten-year-old.