Academic journal article Science Scope

Choice: The Dragon Slayer of Student Complacency

Academic journal article Science Scope

Choice: The Dragon Slayer of Student Complacency

Article excerpt

The topic of this issue of Science Scope stems directly from the "Connecting to Students' Interests and Experiences" section of A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012). According to the Framework, "A rich science education has the potential to capture students' sense of wonder about the world and to spark their desire to continue learning about science throughout their lives" (p. 28). Therefore, developing and sustaining student opportunities for wonder, interest, and enthusiasm is critical to any exemplary science program, especially one addressing middle-level students, whose attention spans last as long as a glass of cold lemonade on a 100[degrees] day, and who constantly ask their teachers, "Why do we have to do this?" We can set this vision in motion by first asking, "What is it that effective middle-level science teachers do to capture students' interest?" Your answer may include a whole host of responses, but in this article I will focus on just three possibilities. Effective middle-level science teachers

1. differentiate instruction to suit the needs of individual students,

2. provide intrinsic motivation for learning by offering choice, and

3. engage students in the learning process.

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how middle-level science teachers can differentiate an inquiry-based investigation by modifying the level of structure within the lab and then allowing students to choose which approach best fits their unique learning needs, thereby engaging individuals more fully in the learning process.

Why choice?

Walk into a modern-day supermarket in the United States, and you'll see that American consumers like choice. At my neighborhood grocery store, in the produce department alone I have the choice of five different varieties of fresh lettuce: red tip, Bibb, romaine, endive, and of course, iceberg. However, when it comes to school, students have very little choice in how their day goes. Students are told when to arrive, when to leave, when they can eat lunch, what subjects they will study, how they will study those subjects, when they can sharpen their pencils, and when they can go to the bathroom. For many reasons, it's a pedantic exercise in instructional micromanagement. Don't get me wrong--schools need rules and regulations to safely manage a building full of preadolescents. What I will argue, though, is that if teachers truly want to foster a sense of wonder in their students, they need to rethink and redesign their science curriculum based on what motivates their consumer, the middle school student.

Unfortunately, many teachers work in an educational system filled with extrinsic rewards, one where stickers, candy, and pizza parties are used to motivate, bribe, or entice desired student behavior. Choice, on the other hand, is an authentic means to increase intrinsic motivation, where students complete a task for its own sake and their own satisfaction. Effective teachers focus on fostering intrinsic motivation that encourages self-determined and self-fulfilled autonomous students, moving instruction from "you have to" to "you can choose to" and shifting the ownership of learning from the teacher to the individual student.

One way teachers can shift the ownership of learning is to provide choice to students through differentiated science inquiry, a practice through which science teachers enhance learning by matching student needs and abilities to the presentation or investigation of a topic or concept. In differentiated science inquiry (Llewellyn 2011), science teachers value and understand individual learning styles and needs, and provide experiences and investigations that are tailored to those needs and based on student choice.

For example, as an alternative to the "one size fits all" lab, some students may prefer to work in a small group following a prescribed procedure. Others may prefer to be presented with a problem or challenge to solve, while still others may decide to focus on the variables of an investigation through "trial and error" or experimentation. …

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