Day 1: Messy Labs and Learning

I am an elementary science teacher and I have decided to start a long term science lab with my 5th grade students where we created an aquaponics system. The goal is to give my students a concrete example that we will reference throughout the entire unit (1 month +) so that by the end, students will easily be able to explain how energy is transferred through an ecosystem and how organisms interact within one.

Getting 5th graders to set up an aquaponics system is no small task. It was messy.

I was limited to 6 small aquariums to split among 60 students. I decided that groups of 5 would be best, with each group responsible for ½ of the aquarium. Here is a picture of the finished aquaponics system.

While one group of 5 was prepping their half of the aquarium portion, the other was preparing the growbed for our chia and mung bean seeds.

Things were smooth to this point. But shortly afterwards, it devolved into chaos. The group prepping the growbed was supposed to read through the lesson in the textbook when they finished and then they would transition to preparing their half of the aquarium. However, only the conscientious students did this. Many good students and nearly all of my poorer students did next to no reading and decided to chat and play instead.

I believe the reason for this is twofold. One, the area each group should be working in was not clear. Two, I did not have students create a product with the reading. So many students likely felt that they could just do it later or not at all because they are not producing any work for me to grade.

Now, I believe that my students should do as they are told. They didn’t, and their poor behavior is on them. But at the same time, I am responsible for the structure and content of my lessons. The unclarity that helped lead to poor behavior is on me.

In the future, I will clearly demark the areas for each group. This will remove one uncertainty. Students will know where they should be. I will also make students produce some type of work. By forcing students to make a product, I am giving them a concrete goal, something tangible that can be measured. I will also be guiding my students via the assignment.

I believe that these two, relatively small tweaks to my lesson plan will have outsized outcomes. I will find out if this is true tomorrow, when half the class will make observations while the other half does some research. Today was messy, but groundwork for the lab and learning was laid. 

How To Teach A Science Lab: Like A Circus

Labs are the most difficult component to teaching science and it can feel like you are trying to conduct a circus performance on the fly. They are difficult primarily because they are not something you or your students do everyday. You do not have as much practice teaching labs, because most of your lessons are not a lab. Most of your lessons involve you teaching background knowledge and having students apply it in a theoretical sense. Whereas a lab involves applying knowledge in a practical sense.

Think of the circus. Before the performers can perform, they must practice each step many times so they can understand and know what to do and when/how to do it. Science labs are similar. Before most of your students can perform a lab, they must have enough subject background knowledge to effectively create and test a hypothesis (an outstanding few will come in with enough background knowledge) while also already possessing background knowledge of how to use the scientific method.

Then, you MUST require students to write some type of lab report. The entire purpose of the lab is to one, apply what students have been learning and two, further their knowledge in their testing of the hypothesis. Writing a lab report forces the student to reflect on what happened and why. The why has students looking back on what they have already learned in an effort to explain or justify what went right/wrong/as expected.

I have found that doing labs well requires spending an entire week on them (My students have 3 science classes per week). The amount of time you spend on a lab will vary depending on the level of students you teach (My students are 5th-6th grade).

Stage 1: Prep For The Lab

The first class involves preparing students for the lab. In this we review the background information, present the question, create a hypothesis (whole class, group, or individual depending on the lab), write the needed materials, and write the procedure. After you have done several labs in the same format, this stage can be done outside of class. You will need to have some sort of quality control for the procedure, otherwise chaos will reign when you teach the lab.

Stage 2: Perform The Lab

In the second class we perform the lab. This is the most difficult part of teaching a lab for obvious reasons. In order to reduce both difficulty and frustration, I have found the following to be extremely helpful. HAVE CLEAR RULES AND ENFORCE THEM!

  1. Hopefully you have fun. You must get work done.
  2. You must perform one step at a time (by following the teacher’s lead)
  3. You must communicate quietly, in whispers
  4. Record all you data and observations
  5. Cleanup quickly and quietly

That is it. Some may cringe when they read rule number one and two. But that is only because they are reading them draconian measures. Simply, they are not. Rule one works well because it rhymes and students remember it. I tell them that science is fun and I hope they enjoy labs and classes (I do!) but that they are here to learn first and foremost so I require them to work (I demand it!).

The second rule is also eminently necessary for a successful lab, especially for younger students who have less knowledge of both science content and the scientific method. By following step-by-step, standardized instructions you minimize off task behavior and guarantee that students are actually testing their hypothesis, making the lab successful.

That being said, there is a benefit and reason for allowing students to go at their own pace with their own procedure (often nearer the end of a term). When doing this, you are assessing how well the students can follow the scientific method in addition to their understanding of the current content and you will find that many students/groups will need more time to complete the lab.

Stage 3: The Report

The entire third class consists of writing a lab report. The report begins with students analyzing their data. Generally this will involve students creating and interpreting a graph. After this, students will accept or reject their hypothesis. This will then be followed by at least a paragraph explaining why they accept/reject their hypothesis with explicit references to their data.

Again, if you do not require your students to write a lab report, what is the point of doing the lab? It will hopefully be fun, but the purpose is to have students apply/learn the scientific method and to learn more about science. This is best done by requiring reflection in the form of lab reports. Do the lab reports!

After you have done several labs with students, the report can generally be done successfully outside of class (use your discernment).

Labs are a crazy circus. Embrace it. Teach them like the circus they are by training your students and they will wow you with their creative performances, just like the circus!

Teachers Should Read Research

Teachers should read research, on top of their teaching.
I know that teachers are always busy and the addition of reading academic research on top of the teaching/planning/grading load is unappealing. But hear me out. You will find that reading research saves your time, improves your teaching, and helps your students learn more. What’s not to like?

Through reading research on feedback, I found evidence that merely grading an assignment is not effective feedback. Now, I still must grade assignments, I am a teacher after all but I have been working on actually grading only summative type assignments. For formative assessments I have switched to completion based grading system with whole class feedback. When I apply this strategy, grading an entire class set of assignments takes 5-15 minutes depending on the type of assignment. And, better yet, my students are able to apply that feedback. I have more free-time and my students are learning more. It is great.

Through researching about cognitive science, I stumbled upon the Learning Scientists. From them I found out about spaced repetition and retrieval practice, among other strategies. I combined these findings with what I have learned about knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes.

Creating the knowledge organizers and flashcards was more work initially (Here is a how to blog I wrote on knowledge organizers and flashcards). But the payout for the effort has been tremendous. My students are using academic vocabulary to describe concepts instead of continuing to describe scientific concepts in everyday language.

For example:

Before After
When the convection current goes up it is because it weighs less when it is hot. It sinks when it is cold and heavier. A convection current rises because the heat lowers the mantle’s density. It sinks when the temperature is reduced and it becomes denser than the surrounding mantle.

Knowledge organizers, flashcards, and no-stakes quizzes are all great ways incorporate both spaced repetition and retrieval practice into your classroom. They are also a fantastically powerful tool to for vocabulary acquisition. Students with a better vocabulary will likely grasp the concepts you are teaching better and be able to more effectively think critically. This has opened new doors for my students as they can understand the concepts at a high level and now they have the vocabulary to not only answer questions properly (improving grades) but to ask much much better questions!

The Matthew effect is powerful. I try to teach my students as much as possible to leverage these effects for their benefit. It just so happens that I benefit too. 🙂

Book Review: Inside American Education by Thomas Sowell

Rating (out of 5): ⭐⭐⭐

Inside American Education provides an in depth look at the American education system from kindergarten through university. Thomas Sowell is at his best when it uses personal anecdotes to provide color and context for the data gathered by researchers.

Inside American Education

A strength of the book is when he shows that America draws her teachers from the “dregs” of the university. Education majors, on average have low SAT scores when compared to, well, every other major. Below is an extensive quote that illustrates the “quality” of educators at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I have bolded the particularly pertinent parts.

“…hard data on education student qualifications have consistently shown their mental test scores to be at or near the bottom among all categories of students….students majoring in education have consistently scored below the national average.11 When the U.S. Army had college students tested in 1951 for draft deferments during the Korean War, more than half the students passed in the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, but only 27 percent of those majoring in education passed.12 In 1980-81, students majoring in education scored lower on both verbal and quantitative SATs than students majoring in art, music, theatre, the behavioral sciences, physical sciences, or biological sciences, business or commerce, engineering, mathematics, the humanities, or health occupationseducators are drawing disproportionately from the dregs of the college-educated population. As William H. Whyte said back in the 1950s, “the facts are too critical for euphemism.”

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 24-25). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Another strength in this book is found in describing the discrepancy of educational outcomes between America’s various ethnicities. He goes in depth to explain affirmative action’s impacts on both minority and majority populations using large amounts of data from research while using anecdotal evidence to provide color and context to the data generated by researchers.

He shows that affirmative action created new inequalities without effectively giving African Americans and other minorities the leg up that was intended. He argues (I think convincingly) that universities used affirmative action to brag about their commitment to diversity while neglecting to care/educate their students.

“The mismatching problem was dramatically demonstrated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the average black student scored in the top 10 percent, nationwide, on the mathematical portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test—and in the bottom 10 percent at M.I.T. Nearly one-fourth of these students failed to graduate at M.I.T., and those who did had significantly lower grades than their classmates.” 46

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 144). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“M.I.T. is not unique. At Berkeley, where black students’ average composite SAT scores of 952 were above the national composite average of 900, though well below the Berkeley average of 1181, more than 70 percent of the black students failed to graduate.48 Again, these were artificial failures, on an even larger scale than at M.I.T., in the sense that these black students’ academic qualifications would have been more than adequate for the average American college or university, though not adequate for competing with Berkeley’s white students who scored 1232 or Berkeley’s Asian students who scored 1254.49 Despite a rising number of blacks admitted to Berkeley over the years—the great majority under “affirmative action” standards—fewer blacks graduated in 1987 than graduated eleven years earlier.50 What was accomplished by admitting more black students and graduating fewer? The benefits are far more obvious for Berkeley than for the students. The racial body count enabled the university to proclaim that its student body is “wonderfully diverse” and that “we are excited that the class closely reflects the actual ethnic distribution of California high school graduates.”51

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 144-145). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Mr. Sowell then goes on to explain that this mismatching of students at top tier schools cascades down, causing larger problems.

“As Professor Clyde Summers predicted long ago, this mismatching problem has not been confined to the top echelon schools. As each tier finds its normal pool of minority students pre-empted by a higher tier, it must in turn pre-empt the minority students who would normally qualify for the colleges in a lower tier… The problem starts at the most selective institutions, because that level is where there is the most extreme shortage of minority students matching the prevailing academic standards.

As for the minority students themselves, many—and probably most—of their academic failures throughout the various levels of colleges and universities can be traced to the systematic mismatching resulting from preferential admissions policies. Certainly that seems clear from the statistical data from those colleges and universities which release data by race and ethnicity—and the secretiveness of other institutions suggests that they have a similar story to hide. Certainly the graduation rate of black students is generally below that of their white classmates at numerous institutions where this information is available.65 Nationwide, black students’ graduation rate is about half that of whitest.” 66

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (pp. 146-147). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

“Nowhere has the moral bankruptcy of academia been more blatant than in its racial policies, which have managed simultaneously to damage every racial or ethnic group involved—with the worst damage being done to blacks, the supposedly most favored beneficiaries.”

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 282-283). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Mr. Sowell argues that while it is important to increase minority access to higher education, there are more effective and just mechanisms to increase this access than affirmative action. He shows how there is evidence that the primary limiting factor to minorities enrolling in higher education was not academic, but financial. When the G.I. bill was introduced there was a 64% increase in nonwhite student enrollment.

What was at issue, then and now, is not whether there should be larger or smaller numbers of minority students attending college, but whether preferential admissions policies should be the mechanism for making a college education available to more minority students… Between 1940 and 1947, for example, there was a 64 percent increase in the number of nonwhite students attending post-secondary institutions 6due to financial aid under the G.I. Bill for veterans returning from World War II. This made a college education available to the black masses for the first time.7 During a corresponding period of the 1960s—from 1960 to 1967—there was a 49 percent increase in the number of black students attending college…. Money is the crucial factor, given the lower incomes of blacks and some other minority groups.

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education (p. 134). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.


While I cannot speak for the book versions, the Kindle version contains a surprising number of spelling and numerical errors. Sometimes two words are jammed together, other times one letter is mysteriously replaced leaving the reader to deduce the correct word by context. This weakness is small however, because the message and meaning of the book is not harmed, just the ease of access.

A larger weakness is when Mr. Sowell overly relies on anecdotal evidence. I believe that this is done where the data is lacking due to the difficulty in scientifically defining and studying topics such as “classroom brainwashing and dogmas”. That being said, he takes efforts to source a variety of anecdotal evidence from various geographical locations and academic levels in order to make an attempt at showing that the problem is not localized, but systemic. His arguments provide ample reason to believe that American education has systemic problems common at all levels and locations.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to look into part of the ugly underbelly that is American education. If you are interested, you can find the Kindle version in the link below.


Social Justice and Education Standards

There has been a relatively recent shift within American education to using standards based curriculum. I think that this shift is largely positive because standards should provide specificity and specificity provides clarity. Before schools utilized these standards there was too much flexibility. One school may create their own standards, while another requires teachers to cover the book, while still another lets the teachers decide what the standards are.

This creates a huge range not only of student outcomes, but of expectations. If we, as a country can agree on the same education standards, then, on paper at least, we have agreed to expect that all students should achieve at least “this” (whatever this is). From a scientific perspective, this approach improves the quality of the available data. The data quality is improved because every school has the same goal. All our students will achieve “this”.

For teachers, the advantage also lies in the specificity of the standard. If the standard is not specific, then it is a waste of time (Vague standards can be vaguely met). For example, in using standards, a math teacher can know that student A struggles with dividing fractions but is fine with multiplying them. From this data, a teacher is able to adjust their teaching and tailor it to the needs of their students. A teacher does not necessarily need this data in a small class, but many teachers have over 200 students and cannot possibly keep all that information stored in their head. Putting it explicitly on paper helps the teacher help the students. 

When the educational goals between schools are more specifically aligned, we can better assess the reasons for different outcomes. Why is this high poverty school in district A succeeding while this low poverty school in district B is only experiencing middling success? Having access to better data is an integral component of improving our children’s education.

Standards do not just give administrators, policy wonks, and teachers better data, they can (should) also help increase student achievement, particularly mobile students. This is the key point, because helping students (however you define it) should be the purpose of education. I am going to use an extended quote from Dr. Ed Hirsch’s book The Knowledge Deficit because he explains the cost of mobility on student education clearly.

“One study has analyzed those effects (of mobility) on 9,915 children. With this large group, the researchers were able to factor out the influences of poverty, race, single-parent status, and lack of parental education in order to isolate just the effects of changing schools. Even with other adverse influences factored out, children who changed schools often were much more likely than those who did not to exhibit behavioral problems and to fail a grade.”

-Dr. Ed Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit, p109-110, data from Deborah Cohen, “Frequent Moves Said to Boost Risk of School Problems”

Hirsch claims that while the findings show that mobile students tend to be from low income families, their low scores are not related to poverty. He quotes Herbert Walberg to show how the effects of student mobility can be mitigated,

“common learning goals, curriculum, and assessment within states (or within an entire nation). . . alleviate the grave learning disabilities faced by children, especially poorly achieving children, who move from one district to another with different curricula, assessment, and goals.”

Research has found that each time a student moves to a new school in the school year the student suffers around a 3 month loss in both reading and math (Russell W. Rumberger and Katherine A. Larson). Mobile students are also more likely to be both a minority and poor than their peers from more stable households (Edweek).


This brings us to the “Achievement Gap“. This gap is describing the differences in achievement between minority and or low income students with white non low-income students. The chart below shows the gap between students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch (not in poverty) and those who are are eligible (in poverty and thus, likely to have higher mobility).

achievement gap money

The chart below shows that scores for white students have been higher than scores for other minorities for as long as the NAEP has been gathering data.

acheivement gap scores

In looking at the 2 charts, it becomes clear that there are social justice issues to resolve in education. Based on Ed Hirsch’s book, The Knowledge Gap, I think that there is some good evidence for using standards to improve America’s education system. Robert J. Marzano has said, “Standards hold the greatest hope for significantly improving student achievement.”

Do to the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the achievment gap, I think it would be beneficial for educators and social justice proponents to work together to promote the use of standards as a way to improve the quality of education students all students receive while reducing the achievement gap to create a more just society along the way.

It is important to note that I am not saying the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are a perfect bed of roses. I am saying that standards can bring tangible benefits to administrators, teachers, and most importantly students. And by promoting standards we are working to make the curriculum known to the public. This makes the age-old debate over what schools should be teaching explicit and allows for this important debate to be had in the open, hopefully making it easier for us to move in the right direction.