When we think of school science education, almost always those thoughts revolve around what students should know. When we teach science, we want to measure how well we have succeeded in imparting that knowledge to the students.
Ron Berger, who was a small town science teacher in the back woods of Massachusetts, points to an entirely new path – like the fork in the woods of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken. Berger took his students along the road less travelled by. His strategy was arrestingly obvious and achieved stunning results. At its foundation is the ethic of excellence – what we as adults strive for in achieving recognition and promotion in our chosen careers.
Berger’s teacher salary was not sufficient to support his family, so he had a second career. He was a carpenter. In carpentry there is no higher accolade a carpenter can achieve than his work being regarded as that of a craftsman.
He says in his book An Ethic of Excellence: “I want a classroom full of craftsmen. I want students whose work is strong and accurate and beautiful. Students who are proud of what they do, proud of how they respect both themselves and others.” That is what he achieved with his fifth and sixth grade students, and classes of younger students too – even first graders.
Take the experiment with land snails. “We learned more about snails than almost anyone on Earth would want to know,” he writes. He did not know much about land snails, and his students knew even less. So they went on a journey together, each student having his or her own land snail in a terrarium.
The student-driven questions prompted the research directions. For example, what do land snails eat? The first graders uncovered a list of 140 preferred foods but testing and testing again. They wanted to know if snails had a colour preference. They were not happy to say snails preferred red over black when red was mostly selected. Perhaps there was something else, like the light from the window, or that snails are colour blind, or that the textures of the red and the black paper were different. They learned how to build a hypothesis, how to break it into steps and to test it, how to be critical of their results, weighing the evidence. These primary school children undertook real science research.
Berger’s approach resonates strongly with my own experience in Sydney, Australia – half a world away – with a group of Year 10 students from four high schools. In 2012 the students undertook NASA’s Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP), working every Saturday morning for eight months in the Thinkspace Digital Learning Studios at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
In the same way as Berger’s students, the research by the MSIP group was both original and student-driven. The aim of the students was to gain the right to acquire and research their own image of Mars from the THEMIS (Thermal Imaging System) camera on board the Odyssey spacecraft in orbit about Mars. To do that, they had to define and refine a hypothesis about a feature of Mars that was convincing and worthy of the right to acquire the image.
The MSIP students learned how to read the science literature, how to weigh evidence, how to understand spectral data, how to understand and integrate quite complex concepts, and to solve problems. They spoke with experts, in person and over Skype, and impressed with the depth of their questions and their growing understanding. They were proud of their original research. They accepted nothing but the best they could achieve. They worked together as a team, critiquing each other’s work and improving on what they could achieve as a group.
The careful scientific work of the MSIP students resulted in their abstract of that work being accepted at a scientific conference, and one of their number presenting at that conference in the planetary science session – not as high school students, but as researchers. They subsequently were asked to provide a paper for consideration in refereed conference proceedings. They wrote the paper, and rewrote parts on referee suggestions. Finally, their paper was accepted for publication. The students demonstrated an ethic of excellence.
A presentation by the MSIP students to scientists at my university (University of New South Wales) led to the comment that the MSIP students had presented their research in a way that would have rivaled a presentation from most postgraduate students.
All of the MSIP students had an outcome as a result of their own work. One student changed her subjects at school to set out along the path of becoming a scientist rather than a lawyer. Another student became a leader in teamwork instead of resisting working with others. Another student overcame extreme shyness that then helped her in her school studies. Yet another student won a scholarship for her first year of university studies.
Most teachers would say the school curriculum does not allow time for original research project-based learning. But, as Berger points out, it is not just experimental technique that his students learned. In the process of undertaking original research, the students became capable readers of science material and informational text in a myriad of contexts, learning new vocabulary and making sense of challenging material. They increased their literacy almost subliminally.
The students also became critical writers and illustrators, drafting and redrafting their results, helping each other to achieve the best that they could. The students took, recorded and analysed measurements. They did the mathematics. They become numerate in an osmotic, natural way – and not a single worksheet in sight.
These students were learning literacy and numeracy in a culture of excellence. The school did not just aspire to that outcome – the school created the culture of excellence that allowed the students to feel comfortable to achieve at the highest level that each of them was capable of reaching.
Hands-on experiments in many of our science classrooms are cookbook style -experiments intended to promote understanding of a concept rather than experimental technique. This approach is fine for that purpose, but cannot achieve the higher order thinking required in asking original questions, building a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis in keeping with real science research.
Berger demonstrates it is just not his school where this culture of excellence permeates every classroom. Across the state in another town, fourth graders designed and built their own desks. They acquired the funding to do this by growing wheat, harvesting it, building machines to separate and grind it to flour, baked bread from the flour and sold the bread. To finance all this they started a non-profit company with community investors buying shares. Imagine the learning in their drafts and redrafts, in reading, and writing, and mathematics.
Berger reiterates that education is more than textbooks and tests. He reflects on a novice carpenter fresh out of classes taught by textbook rather than by a master carpenter. Would you be happy for the novice to build your house, entirely by himself? Experience is part of the learning process. We are passing down wisdom to the next generation – a wisdom that can be found nowhere on the Internet. It is what teachers are there for and what they do best, though Berger says few teachers are taught how to carry out research.
The final paragraph of the book reminds us of what we are preparing students for in their education. It is not about remembering Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, or the three Laws of Thermodynamics. There’s a smartphone in our pockets that gives us access to more information that the human brain can remember. It is about preparing us to become adults who can master that information, who can achieve the ethic of excellence in all that they do.
Here is that final paragraph, not to spoil the end of a book, but to encourage you to read it.
“I think of my life in my small town. The policeman for my town is a former student. I trust him to protect my life; I trust him to work kindly and carefully with the young students in my school, which he does often and does tenderly. The nurse at my medical clinic is my former student. I trust her with my health. The excavator who measured and dug the foundation hole for my house, who built my driveway and septic system, is a former student. I built by home on his work. The lifeguard at the town lake is my former student; she watches my grandsons as they swim. There may not be numbers to measure these things but there is a reason I feel so free and thankful trusting my life to these people: They take pride in doing their best. They have an ethic of excellence.”
Ethic of Excellence – Building a culture of craftmanship with students by Ron Berger, (Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, USA, 2003)