Tag Archives: research

Enveloped in Possibility

I love this time of the school year.  At least the part that is about my students.  (Yeah…there are too many meetings, too much drama about which students are going where for next year, too much paperwork…filling in forms, checking off boxes, signing off forms for this and that.)

As a friend of mine recently said in an email, this is a time when we get to witness a fuller blossom of our students.  We get to see what they can do when given time and space and opportunity…if we give them time and space and opportunity.

Like this slightly chewed and fully blossomed tulip, students open up at this time of the year. They dig into projects and expose their interests and thinking.  They are enveloped in possibility.

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Our students recently went to the San Diego Natural History Museum on a field trip.  Their goal was to explore the new Coast to Cactus exhibit that features San Diego’s diverse ecosystems and find something that interested them.  When they returned to the classroom. they researched this interest and then create a movie or blog post to teach someone else about what they learned.  With time and a bit of technical support from us, our students inquired, composed, and created.

Here’s a couple of examples:

Ana (a third grader) got very interested in ghost shrimp…and couldn’t wait to learn more.  She researched and wrote…working hard to explain what she learned in her own words and voice…and included her own drawing of a ghost shrimp.  Here’s an excerpt:

Moist, murky water embraces the wetlands, cattails sway in the salty breeze, lush growth is everywhere. The wetlands are teeming with life. They are homes to birds, fish, and many mammals. However, many people ignore what’s happening deep down in the mud flats. The mudflat is a home to an amazing creature, the ghost shrimp

You can see her work here.

Eli (a second grader) noticed a mouse at the museum and couldn’t wait to learn more.  And when he didn’t find the answers to his questions during his time researching in class, he went home and got his parents to help him with his research.  He has also become our residence expert on iMovie…mentoring many of his classmates, helping them record and upload their own videos.  Here’s his movie.

And those two are just the tip of the iceberg of what is happening in the classroom.  Our students have cross-pollinated, pushing each other to consider new possibilities.  Like the bee on this sunflower, they depend on each other as they reach and strive for new heights, solidify what they already know, and reach with a helping hand to lift their classmates.  They are enveloped in a community of learners that allows them to bloom, to stumble, and to get up and try again.

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And I am so lucky, because I am part of this community too…reaching and learning, enveloped in the energy and excitement of possibility.

Architecture: The Structure of Learning

We have a beautiful urban park here in San Diego.  Open space, trees, a lily pond, fountains, trails, museums and restaurants…including some ornate and historic architecture that dates back to the Panama-California exhibition in 1915.  In these storied surroundings, I’ve been spending time with a group of formal and informal educators investigating ways to improve school field trips through a project we call Intersections.  (I’ve written before about it here and here.)

As I spent the day at the San Diego Natural History Museum today, observing a group of high school students on a field trip, I found myself thinking about architecture.

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As the educator-researchers in our group discussed what we observed watching students during their field trip today, our conversation moved to the carefully planned structures that support students’ independence and dispositions toward learning.  Field trips have traditionally depended on adult-centered structures that keep students “on-task,” ensuring that the trip has documented educational value in the form of completed packets of answered questions rather than trusting students to be interested in what they find in front of them.

Over lunch, our Intersections leadership team chatted with an external evaluator–a part of our larger National Science Foundation grant– about our observations and tentative conclusions. And we found ourselves thinking about and talking about all the learning that happens that we are not able to document.  When we take students outside the classroom, what are we hoping for?  What can they learn that the classroom environment doesn’t offer?  And why then, do we keep trying to make field trips more like school?

As I look at this photo of a young woman using her cell phone to photograph an owl, I wonder how we encourage students to use tools and processes they use outside of school to support their own learning.  How will this student use this photograph?  What was she aiming for as she composed the image?  How can students’ digital lives interact in positive ways with their school lives?

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And as my colleague described her understanding of the development of social capacity, a concept important in her binational work, my understanding of the learning that happens on field trips continued to evolve.  A field trip is not a classroom lesson, it is a social event, a shared learning experience outside the school environment.  And while students certainly learn some content, they are also developing social capacity–as representatives of their school and class in a public arena.  They are navigating unfamiliar spaces, coming in contact with people they don’t usually see, interacting with adults–docents, volunteers, vendors, scientists, researchers–and exploring materials not present in their classrooms and schools.

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And in the best of situations they are figuring out how to interact with the space, people, and information in meaningful ways.  I loved this informal game I observed today…a chaperone and his group spontaneously started counting the animals they spied in this coastal sage environment.  Someone saw 9…and another saw 12, someone else saw 15.  They started pointing them out to each other, looking closely, naming what they saw.

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And another researcher watched a pair of students challenge each other on the native/nonnative quiz in the patio area.  The goal was to win…and the game was calling on prior knowledge and combining it with what they were observing in the exhibit.  And they were having fun…being social, laughing, enjoying themselves…and learning.

So what is the underlying architecture of a successful field trip…that structure that enables students to engage in learning on their own terms?  That takes advantage of the place and the richness of expertise and artifacts that aren’t present in the classroom?  And that honors the beauty and elegance of learning…not for a grade or a test, but because we are inspired and motivated to learn because we are learners–driven to make sense of our world, on our own terms.

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Learning in the Intersections

You all probably remember them, those iconic experiences of heading out on a school day with your classmates and teacher to a local museum or art gallery to extend and enhance what was going on the in classroom…a field trip!  And in the best of times, those field trips are memorable, often motivating learning beyond the school curriculum.  Maybe one of those experiences even fueled your passion for a particular field of study.

But often, field trips are fraught with conflict.  Are you heading out of the classroom to “do school” somewhere else?  Is it a free day of fun with friends where the learning is incidental and accidental…if it happens at all?  What role do teachers and museum personnel play in the field trip experience? What about chaperones?  And what about students and their interests and passions?

Through Intersectionsa project funded by the National Science Foundation through the National Writing Project and the Association of Science and Technology Centersthe San Diego Area Writing Project, in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center,has been exploring the conflicts and tensions surrounding field trips.

In our second year of investigating how to support student learning in the context of a field trip, we have learned a lot.  Most significantly, we’ve learned the power of the interaction and co-learning of formal educators (those who work in school settings) and informal educators (those who work in out-of-school spaces like museums).  We discovered that our goals for student learning are mostly the same, and through our interactions, we have reconsidered how we might achieve those goals.  But first we had to let go of all that we have no control over–including exhibit layout and signage, field trip costs and transportation, and the uneven qualifications of chaperones, especially when it comes to facilitating student learning.

We’ve decided this year to focus on ways to support students as agents of their own learning, depending less on the adults who accompany them and trusting that a rich museum experience will result in meaningful learning–even when students do not complete worksheets that ensure they have learned specific facts or answered a series of questions delineated by grade level standards.

So we have asked teachers to prepare students for their trip by asking them to explore the exhibit, noting what interests them, and taking back interesting tidbits and lingering questions for further investigation through the creation of some kind of project back in the classroom following the trip.  And to better understand how this works in action–with a variety of grade levels and school contexts–we are observing students in action through a series of field trip pilots.

Today we observed sixth graders in action.  They came with a charge–to notice adaptations of plants and animals evident in the Coast to Cactus exhibit so they could create a project displaying their learning back at school next week.

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We watched students looking closely, in conversation with each other as they observed live animals in the exhibit.

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Students working alone, taking notes from the exhibit signage.  And others in pairs and triads, some taking photos, others sketching, and some simply flipping buttons and spinning dials.

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This student seems to be under surveillance by both the researcher and the stuffed deer as he takes notes from the informational placard.

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Some students found cozy nooks to meet and write–like inside this Bambi airstream that is a part of the exhibit.  While others took a bit of time away to see how many boys would fit inside the hollow tree trunk while a classmate looked on and snapped their photo!

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And the questions linger.  How much like school should a field trip be?  Do students need to “on task” by completing forms, taking notes, answering questions…  Or can they be talking to each other, turning dials, inventing their own competitions and games related to the exhibits, crawling through tunnels and squeezing into tree trunks…and still be learning?  Do they need to “do” the museum, reading each sign, looking at each artifact from start to finish?  Or is it okay to  focus their time and attention on the areas that most pique their interests?

I’m interested in what these students will create when they head back to school.  How will the visit to the museum influence their project?  What will they remember most about this trip?  Will they come back on their own, with their families?  How would they use the museum if left to their own devices?

We are paying attention to the intersections of formal and informal learning, of writing and science…and of student interest driven inquiry and teacher/adult directed learning.  And with each pilot field trip, I have more questions about supporting student learning as we work to help students initiate and shape their own learning using field trips as a tool.

How do you view the iconic field trip?  How do you prepare your students/your own children for out-of-school learning experiences?  What outcomes do you hope for when you think field trip?  We’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!