This is going to be a long one… My longest A-to-Z Challenge post so far. Though you will probably begin reading this and wonder what on Earth any of this has to do with LEGO, please keep reading. I will get to that!
I am a high school science teacher. While I have taught almost every grade level at some point in my career, I am currently teaching grades seven and eight. Even though I have been teaching for under a decade (teaching is a second career for me already), I have already found myself becoming jaded with the education system. I have found over the years that my students are disengaged, have zero attention span, and are generally under-achievers.
If I was a LEGO Minifigure, this would be me.
A lot (in fact most) of a student’s success in school is entirely up to them. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. I adhered to this belief for quite some time, and still maintain that it is true to a large extent. However, I have also spent a lot of time reflecting on my own teaching practises, and asking myself if I am doing everything that I can to engage as many students as I can, and the answer was no. It is true that you can bring a horse to water, and that you can’t make it drink. But, if you take that same horse on a stroll through the desert as you make your way to the water, you will increase the likelihood that it will drink at journey’s end.
The ultimate question for me became how do I alter the journey so that more students are likely to engage in my class? The first thing I did was incorporate my interests. I know that my students will not all care about comic book characters, sci-fi movies, and LEGO. But, the fact that I love these things and get excited about them in conversation allows my students to know me a little and develop a relationships. My excitement rubs off on them too, even if they are not all into the same things. Developing my course materials for this method of teaching has been time consuming in the initial stages, but once its done, it only requires tweaking from year to year.
Traditional lecture style teaching does not work.
The next step was a big one, and it was hard for me. I gave over control of learning to my students. When I was in school, I was lectured to and I had to take notes. I remember being bored out of my mind, and not really understanding what was going on quite a lot. As a teacher, I have found that my students become very disengaged after about 10-15 minutes. It is a fight to keep them on task, and you end up not covering much material. Studies have actually shown that this method of teaching doesn’t even really work, yet most of us experienced school in this way. I have read that only 30% of the population actually learns by hearing. 65% of people learn by seeing. While “seeing” does include notes, diagrams, and textbooks, a study done with undergraduate students found that this traditional style of teaching actually makes students 1.5 times more likely to fail. And those were undergrads, so that population does not include the students that you have already lost during or right after high school.
How am trying to fix this problem and create my proverbial desert through which I will lead my horses? Simply put, I have stopped lecturing. While there may be broad similarities in learning styles, everybody is still unique and learns in their own way. So, why not let them? The process has been many years in the making, and hugely time consuming. I have hated myself for starting this project several times. But, this past month I finally launched my pilot project with my grade seven classes. It is still in the very early stages, and I have not given them a major assessment yet. But, I am no longer fighting for attention. My students come into class and start working of their own accord. They are asking me questions. But, most importantly, they seem to be excited.
What did I do exactly? I gave them one major problem, and I made a checklist. Students have a set amount of time to complete a set number of tasks. They choose which tasks they want to do, and in what order they want to do them. I am teaching simple machines. I selected the wheel and axle as the first. I made a workbook with a text they could read and take notes on. I found YouTube videos with age-appropriate descriptions, and I made questions they could answer. I found online simulations they could complete. I designed a lab experiment for them to carry out and collect data from that illustrates the principles. I gave them word lists to use in the construction of mind maps and quiz games. I have even partnered with industry to run a pilot study in my classroom that uses virtual reality to teach science concepts. All of this is being done with the goal of designing a Mars rover that can traverse a Martian terrain. What Martian terrain, you ask? No, my students are not working with NASA. I built Mars in the center of my classroom over my March break.
I built Mars in the middle of my classroom. This is version one, it will get better and more detailed with time.
What does any of this have to do with LEGO? Well, like I said before, I incorporate my interests in my teaching. My workbook is LEGO themed, using pictures of Minifigures that I have drawn to teach concepts. I applied for a grant and I bought a crap-load of LEGO for my classroom. The lab I mentioned before requires students to build wheel and axle systems out of LEGO. The Mars rover will be built and programmed using LEGO Mindstorms EV3 sets. And one of their Mars challenges will involve using simple machines to rescue a LEGO astronaut.
All of this is still in the very early stages. Like I said, I only launched this initiative this month. I will run it until the end of the school year, and see if it makes a difference. While my preliminary observations have been encouraging, I know I will not engage every student. You will never please everyone. But, now I can say that at least I have done everything I can to try. And, I get to play with LEGO at work.
This post is a lot longer than I planned it to be, so I will sign off here. Are any of you reading this teachers? I would love to hear of your adventures with similar initiatives.
This post was written as part of the April A-to-Z blogging challenge. You can read more about the challenge by visiting the official website. Be sure to check back tomorrow for my letter “U” post. I promise, it will be solely about LEGO.
Until next time,