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Science has a closely held secret: it is full of failures.

Failed experiments. Failed hypotheses. The experience of failure is a rite of passage, a cornerstone in every scientist’s career. To be explicit, I am referring to the day-to-day mistakes every human (scientists included) make, not blatant unethical research methods. Failure is common, and expected. Yet despite its prevalence, few scientists discuss or bring to light their mistakes. Shrouded in secrecy and shame, these mistakes are tucked away.

This perpetuates a sinister misunderstanding of science; that science, and by default, scientists are the peak of perfection in our society. As a result, young scientists are taught to fear failure, to be ashamed, and to even hide failed experiments and hypotheses. This is the fundamental breakdown between the reality of scientific research and public understanding of science.

As science educators, we serve as the conduit between science and the general population. With this unique position, we have the power to connect, disconnect or reconnect the general population with science. It is how we do this that has a lasting impact on our students. We often integrate a culture of error in our teaching, framing our mistakes as learning opportunities, yet this seems to get lost in science. Why is this? I can’t think of a better time or subject to teach failure. Through science we can teach failure as expected, respected and valued.

Failure is to be expected
Failure occurs at every level of science, but is not often seen. More often than not we only see the end results of an experiment rather than the countless failed attempts and accidental discoveries in between leaving us to assume that the entire scientific study was as flawless as the end result. This could not be further from the truth. Developing an expectation of failure is essential for young scientists to understand the scientific method.

Expecting failure more accurately reflects the reality of a non-linear scientific method. We are taught that the scientific method is a one-way road that occurs step by step when in actuality the scientific method is a complex web of steps, missteps, and redirections. When something does not go as planned it is reevaluated and immediately remediated. Bringing this process to light both in scientific communities and in the classroom promotes transparency, ethical practices, and culture of error.

Failure is valued
Failure is the ultimate teacher. By pointing out our mistakes, and providing a pathway to improvement, failure teaches us how to be the best versions of ourselves. Failed experiments and methods provide us with the greatest learning opportunities in science. Unabashedly sharing our failures and mistakes with the world allows others to prevent making similar mistakes, resulting in the advancement of science as a whole. Openly presenting the details and missteps of every failure provides insight into how and why something went wrong. At its core, science is the pursuit of explaining reality, the hows and whys of the world. It is logical then to assume that every failure is not merely a roadblock but a stepping stone bringing us closer to a more accurate understanding.

Failures can result in the accidental discoveries of cures, theories, and technologies. Take Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery for example: a failed sterilization technique and consequently contaminated experiment resulted in the discovery of penicillium mold that fought the flu virus he had been culturing. This resulted in the discovery of the antibiotic Penicillin, which saved countless lives. Many scientific discoveries have been the direct result of failures, mistakes and imperfect methods. Why should then be so afraid of failure if it has brought about so many successes?

Failure is respected
Respect for failure comes in multiple forms. From recognizing to addressing mistakes, we must respect what failure is telling us. Is this failure informing our practice? Is it pointing to an accidental discovery? Is it telling us that we are looking in the wrong direction? Each failure has a message, one we must listen to with respect if we want to grow from it.

Not only must the failure itself be respected as an opportunity to learn but the scientist who made said mistake must be too. The fear of failure comes directly from the fear of our peers’ reaction. Establishing a culture of error in our scientific communities allows our failures to be shared without hesitation, resulting in healthier, and happier scientists, and students. Respecting failure allows to us to work free of judgment or fear of failure.

Learning from failure is respected in many communities. Why would the scientific community be any different? A fundamental perspective shift must occur in our scientific communities and it starts in early science education. If we teach students to expect and value the inevitable failures of science, we have taught them to respect failure. Only after we have established respect for failure can we successfully establish a far-reaching culture of error in the sciences.

Teaching failure
microscopehelpIn teaching these practices early we can allow students to embrace science as a plastic, ever-changing subject. Breaking down the fear of failure in young scientists is essential for student growth and scientific advancement. We can teach failure by being open and vulnerable with our students when we make mistakes. Modeling the ability to adapt and reframe failures as learning opportunities is arguably the most important step in creating a culture of error. When failure occurs we must celebrate with our students. We should embrace this failure and seek to learn all we can from it.

Recognizing failures as learning opportunities requires a critical look into scientific history. Students should be shown the colorful history of accidental scientific discoveries, where apparent failure turned into unimaginable success. Instead of only teaching the end result of scientific studies, teach the in-between. Show the uncomfortable, the messy and frustrating side of science by drawing back the curtain. This result in a better understanding of the non-linear scientific methods, confident students, and who knows, maybe another accidental discovery.

  

When conducting student-led investigations in the field, the variety of questions, tools, and methods that students use can make summative assessment difficult for the instructor.  Though debriefing the experience can be a great way to find evidence of student learning, there may be students who tend not to contribute in group discussions.  Journal work, though comprehensive in some students, may be lacking in others.  I have found that requiring my students to present their research to the rest of the group not only provides excellent evidence of learning, but also gives my students the opportunity to share their work, ask and answer questions of each other, and be applauded for their achievement. 

Presentations  allow students to take ownership of their work and feel proud of their achievement, while allowing them to learn from one another through sharing knowledge and asking questions. Often, I find that student presentations level the playing field, giving every student the opportunity to share, question, and think about one another’s work in a safe environment.  Lastly, it provides an avenue for students to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of their investigation.

Here are a few tips for incorporating research presentations into your student-led investigations.

  1. Explain and Scaffold the experience.

    Let students know at the beginning of the investigation that they will be presenting their research to the rest of the group once they are finished.  This will entail two responsibilities: to present their work, and to listen and ask questions of their peers.  Explain that this is an opportunity to share their hard work with one another, ask each other questions, and hear what their teammates have been working on.  Address concerns on nervousness by giving a few guidelines. For example, I allow my students to present individually, in pairs, and occasionally in groups of three.  Encourage them to be creative and fun in their presentations! 

  2. Name the steps.
    Be explicit about what you want your students to present.  I require five components in my students’ presentations:
    1. Their question
    2. Their methods & tools
    3. Their results: data, what they found
    4. Their conclusion: what did they learn from their results?
    5. Next steps: what might have affected the accuracy or usefulness of their data, what they learned about using their tools/method, follow-up questions, etc.

      These should align with the steps they are following to complete their investigation, and so can be modified based on the instructor’s style in facilitating investigations.

  3. Give students the opportunity to prepare.
    Set aside a few minutes at the end of the investigation to give students time to prepare for their presentation. Encourage them to make their presentations unique! If some students are ready to present before others, instruct them to start thinking of good questions to ask their peers.

  4. Create a visual reminder.
    List each component of the presentation on a whiteboard or butcher paper and place it where the presenters can easily reference it.  If students lose their train of thought or freeze up, gently remind them what to say next, for example: “excellent question! What method did you use to begin answering it?”  Some students will give the entire presentation without a hitch, while others might benefit from a more conversational presentation, with prompts from the instructor. 

  5. Encourage questions.
    One of the most fruitful and interesting aspects of these presentations are the questions students ask of one another. These can lead to excellent discussions, follow-up lessons or activities, and insight for the instructor on students’ thinking. Be explicit about when it is time for student questions, particularly if you prompt students during their presentations.  Ask follow-up questions!

Student-led investigation presentations are versatile, fun, and interesting, and can be used in a variety of contexts.  They are excellent summative assessment tools, great teambuilding exercises, and a way to challenge your students to think critically, support one another, and be supported in a different way.

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers~ Voltaire

Questions are everywhere! They provide the spark for new insights along with smiles and wonder. Answers are what many seek; yet questions offer the way.  We see this natural ability to question on full display every week during our residential program.  Questions come as natural as breathing does for many children and almost as vital! Persistent inspection allows students to make sense of, pick apart, define, re-define and hopefully navigate the world around them.  We encourage young learners to ask as many questions as they can think of. Sadly, the older we become the fewer questions we ask. We do not lose the ability to question, only the desire; possibly because most bosses and teachers are often more interested in answers, not questions. 

Socrates provides an excellent role model as well as a blue print for why and how we question.

  1. To deeply probe student thinking, to help students begin to distinguish what they know or understand from what they do not.
  2. To foster students ability to ask questions along with engaging in dialogue in order to apply these skills in everyday life.

We as educators can model questioning strategies as well as creating a safe environment for practice. Further Socratic questioning highlights the importance of questioning in learning. It inspires us to dig deeper into our ideas along with improving our ability to become active and independent learners.  Socrate's method can be broken down into four steps:

Elicit What do you think at this point?
Clarify

What do you mean by x?

Do you really mean x to apply in this or other cases?

Test

How does x account for y?

How do you know? Why should I believe that?

Can that really be true given z?

Decide Can you come up with a new proposition given what you have just learned?

 

“No one can teach, if by teaching we mean the transmission of knowledge, in any mechanical fashion, from one person to another. The most that can be done is that one person to another. The most that can be done is that one person who is more knowledgeable than another, can by asking a series of questions, stimulate the other to think, and so cause him to learn for himself.” ~ Socrates.

Sources: http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1126&context=hsshonors

http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Newsletter/

Criqui SnailI have noticed something very peculiar over the past year while undergoing my teaching practicum at IslandWood. Whether we are wading through the muddy waters near the marsh or flipping over barnacle-encrusted rocks down at the harbor, children primarily use male pronouns when addressing all the critters we encounter. This bothers me, and not because I believe the animals must be referred to by their proper pronouns (non-human animals have no conceptual understanding of what gender is and couldn’t care less about the words coming from our mouths). This bothers me because this type of gendering of the natural world is a result of toxic patriarchal attitudes, particularly males being seeing as the standard and default form of humanity.

Now you may be thinking, “WOAH, don’t you think it’s kind of extreme to attribute a child calling a slug “he” to toxic patriarchy.” To which I would respond, “No.” It may be true that there are no immediate negative consequences that emerge from a group of 4th graders using male pronouns to describe the slug they just found, but the long term effects can be much more detrimental. When the idea that male is the standard gender is reinforced, it can cause an inflation of ego in young boys and a decrease in the self-esteem of young girls. It can lead to boys thinking they are the stronger/better of the sexes and to develop negative attitudes toward anything that is feminized by our culture. It can lead to girls feeling like they are limited in what they are able to achieve within our society. I believe it is my job as a queer, gender-nonconforming educator to do my part to dismantle the preconceived notions that my students have about gender. And the outdoors is a great place for this to occur.

Below are some strategies that I employ in order to get my kids thinking about gender while outside.

  1. criqui wormPronouns- While performing introductions to new students, I express what gender pronouns I use. I usually say something like, “My name is Criqui and I use he/him pronouns.” Some students may not understand why this is necessary, but just explain that sometimes you cannot tell a person’s gender just by looking at them. Even if you think your gender pronouns are obvious, you opening up about gender may make a child exploring their gender feel more secure in your presence. Have students share their gender pronouns as too.
  2. Use “She”- When I use he to talk about animals I find in nature, kids don’t typically make a peep about its sex. But when I use she, the first question is usually, “How can you tell it’s a she?” I like to point this fact out to students and ask them to think about why they so readily accepted male pronouns but feel the need to clarify when I use female pronouns. With animals that I can’t tell the sex, I’ll just say something along the lines of “I’m not sure, but there’s a 50% chance that I’m right.”
  3. Challenge Gendered Anthropomorphization- Giving human characteristics to non-human animals is probably something people have been doing since language was first invented. Anthropomorphizing can be helpful for allowing young people to better understand the natural world around them. But it can also constrain their learning when they can’t view animals outside of human framework. When discussing the sex of animals with students, make sure to challenge any assertions that rely on socially constructed understanding of gender. For example, “I think that squirrel is male because it’s gathering food for its family. The mommy squirrel is at home taking care of the kids.” In this situation I would praise the student for thinking creatively, but then ask questions that challenged this train of thought. “Do only mother squirrels take care of their young? Are we sure this squirrel has a mate? What if this squirrel is too young to have kids?”
  4. Criqui DucksTeach Sexual Dimorphism- You might want to call this something different depending on the age of your students, but sexual dimorphism is a great concept to get kids thinking critically about how sex shows up in nature. Sexual Dimorphism is the condition where different sexes in the same species have notably varying physical traits. Many birds, such as mallards or red-winged blackbirds have different colorations depending on their sex. When students are aware that of this distinction in certain species, they are more likely to remember that not all animals are male.
  5. Slugs- I have encouraged my fair share of kids to kiss a banana slug. It is extremely common for kids to circle around the first slug spotted in the week and gawk at its slow moving body and wriggling tentacula. Slugs are also a GREAT opportunity to talk about gender. Slugs don’t have a sex that can be classified as male or female. When they’re born, they’ve got all the parts to get pregnant and all the parts to impregnate others. This concept usually blows kids’ minds, and last week I had a kid repeat throughout the week, “They don’t have a gender, that’s so weird.” With those sorts of remarks I always to try to respond by expressing that’s actually really natural and happens in so many species that we’ve already seen so far (barnacles, seas anemones, worms). Sometimes I like to say how lucky the slug it since it doesn’t have to worry about gender. “This slug is my role model, but it never has to worry if something it’s doing is too girly or if it is looking too much like a boy. I do my best to be like this slug!”

I’ve found these techniques to have varying effectiveness depending on the group of students. These conversations can often lead into important discussions related to gender in humans, which are invaluable to have in the classroom setting. As issues related to transgender rights and gender non-conformity become more prevalent in our culture, we must prepare our students to live in a world with all types of people. When we engage with our students about these types of topics, we are readying them for a diverse world full of all kinds of people. Keep having these conversations and push your students to think outside of the gender box that’s been placed upon us!

Today we know with certainty that segregation is dead. The only question remaining is how costly will be the funeral.

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the beauties of being an outdoor educator is having a range of environments at your service. Here on Bainbridge Island, we have the benefit of a historical (and current) cemetery, plus an historical society that shares histories of some of the older graves with us. We have used that information to create informational cards that students can use to teach each other. This allows the students to discover at least partial stories of historical lives, often socially charged lives, with our students and helps to create discussions around those issues. I am often surprised the insights that even 9 year-olds can have when given the chance. Here are a few thoughts on how to establish a social/historical perspective in a cemetery with students:

1: First, check-in: While they can be powerful teaching tools, cemeteries sometimes expose a lot of uncomfortable baggage for students. A student may have a recently deceased relative or a cultural norm that makes a cemetery very upsetting to them. If possible, try to respect those circumstances and avoid the cemetery with those groups unless they give you the go-ahead.

2: Establish boundaries: When your students are comfortable (or relatively so) entering a cemetery, make sure they know how to respect it, and why. Clearly establish your views: do you want your group to avoid walking on the graves? Should they avoid climbing on the headstones? Can they make rubbings of the markers? What volume level is appropriate? How will you get them back to you when time is up? Do they understand why their behavior is important?

3: Let them explore, but give them a task: Send your students out into the cemetery with a mission – “Find this headstone, prepare to teach the group about it, and then explore until you hear my call” – so that they have some direction. This gives them time to notice features of the cemetery while they’re exploring, but also saves time so you don’t have to give multiple sets of direction (free explore, then assignment). Informational cards of specific graves, with pictures, are helpful for this. Be sure to wander around and check in with groups as they’re exploring to gain a sense of any discomforts, questions, and to keep them on task.

4: Hear from them: After your students have found their stones and explored the area, call them back to share out. Most of the time, students are intrigued enough by what they’ve seen in the cemetery that they’re engaged and ready to listen. Ask “what did you notice?” and if you want more, “how did you feel?”

5: Have an observation up your sleeve: Save a big observation for yourself: “I noticed some headstones that were out in the woods – not in the main cemetery. Did anyone else notice that?” * or, “I noticed the cemetery seems to be arranged in sections.” If you’ve explored the cemetery before your lesson, sometimes it’s possible to come up with observations that are both unique and unsettling for your students. WHY would someone be buried in the woods instead of in the cemetery? What does that mean? Why wouldn’t someone have since maintained that grave as part of the main cemetery?

6: Take a group tour: Beginning with your own observation that links to social inequality issues, take a group tour of the cemetery. By modeling a presentation of your chosen headstone first, the students will have a clearer understanding of what they should be thinking about during their presentation. Have each student (or pair of students) lead you to the headstone that they researched and teach the group about its highlights. Be prepared with questions like: “Why do you think that happened?” “Have you heard anything from anyone else that might add to that?” to encourage students to get creative with their answers. This can assist them in connecting more emotionally to the history of the people.

7: Debrief: I like to round out the cemetery visit with an introspective piece such as a perspective story (the students write a story from the imagined perspective of a person who once lived in the area) or an ‘I Am From’ poem (the students write a poem about their own lives and the challenges they have/strengths they have following a template and example that you have). If you’d like them to share pieces of their writing, however, be sure to tell them upfront. Sometimes students write very personal things and they’d rather not share the entire piece, so give them your expectations before they get started.

  

* Disclaimer: As of May 27, 2015, I have not yet received confirmation from the Bainbridge Island Historical Society that the grave-markers in the woods are remnants of past social inequalities. This disclaimer will either be removed once I receive confirmation or I will update the information.