I recently observed a high school science lesson that left me feeling like I had just swished some super-minty Listerine. I was refreshed. I was inspired… so much so, in fact, that I built and entire upcoming PD session around my takeaway from this lesson. I will return to this in just a moment.
One of the best viral YouTube sensations I’ve caught in the past few years, titled “The Difference Between Cats and Dogs”, features a Golden Retriever and its puppy. The puppy stands at the top of a flight of stairs, looking down the seemingly endless slope, not knowing what to do. The parent dog proceeds to walk up and down the stairs relentlessly demonstrating the task. Mom even pauses occasionally, nudging the pup that backtracks a step or two to the landing. After some time, the pup finally makes his way down the stairs guided every single step by mom’s gentle nose. The video then shows a kitten at the top of some basement steps that looks cautiously over the edge, and then to his mother and back at the flight again. He nervously takes a single paw and places it on the first step, only to be shoved from behind by mom’s paw. This results in the kitten tumbling loudly down the stairs.
While this video has nothing to with education, it has everything to do the student-centered learning I saw taking place in that high school science class. On this particular day, these junior and senior physics students were learning about the relationship between force and acceleration. After a very minimal background lesson was disseminated, the teacher pointed out an array of lab equipment available to the students and instructed the lab groups to design an experiment to test this relationship (force and acceleration). No worksheet. No materials list. No lab procedure. Just a goal.
While the students did not look quite as bemused as myself, it was obvious after a few minutes that they were frustrated. Some time passed and ideas began to flow. Students talked about distance of toy cars and stopwatches. They drew diagrams and talked openly, pointing out the need to control certain variables. The conversation was amazing. Being a science person myself, I could tell some of the experiment ideas were way off. However, the conversation was completely focused. The students were problem solving. They were compromising with group mates and considering multiple ideas in a collaborative solution. While the stumped groups received guiding questioning from the circling instructor, groups on the right track received encouraging words.
You see, this teacher is a cat – and, while I am by no means suggesting pushing students down a flight of stairs – this teacher set up a finish line for them and let them grapple. Her student-centered lesson ended in more than just a physics lesson. Student social interactions and critical thinking skills were piqued while they struggled through the task. Far too many teachers are Golden Retrievers too often. It is so difficult for us, educators, to let go of traditional methods and handholding. What we must understand, however, is that while our puppies are getting to the bottom of the stairs, the kittens are arriving with a greater skill base and a deeper learning experience.