An 8th grade Biology teacher knew that Ronny & Jonathan were just "weak" & "lazy". She was in for a surprise when her school switched from tests to projects.
Copyright © 2017
Even though this was the last class on a muggy September afternoon, most of the 8th grade Biology Class students were already sitting down before the bell rang.
Many of them liked their teacher, Miriam, because she was fair, organized and thorough.
At 14:50, the bell rang.
Miriam had a hunch that Ronny and Jonathan would be late as usual, if they bothered to come at all.
“Take out your homework and copy the Photosynthesis/Respiration chart that’s on the board. You’ll need the material for the test on Wednesday.”
Ronny and Jonathan fell into their chairs late and sabotaged Miriam’s lesson.
They didn’t bring their homework, didn’t copy the chart and asked irrelevant questions, showing off their cheeky lack of understanding.
Miriam knew the boys were lazy and felt that they were not particularly bright.
They rarely put in any effort and showed no understanding of biology. When she talked with them after class, they claimed they just didn’t like biology, especially photosynthesis.
She wasn’t allowed to send them into the hall, so she just gritted her teeth when they came and sighed with relief when they were absent.
They showed up for tests but failed almost every one.
Earlier in the year, the Weizmann Institute of Science had worked intensively with the middle school staff to shift from a traditional to a Project-Based Learning (PBL) context for the Spring semester.
In March, the science teachers prepared students for conducting projects about “The Five Senses”.
Student pairs got to choose topics, experiment, research, write conclusions and present their findings in June.
Even though the teachers were prepared for helping students with their projects, not all of the teachers liked PBL.
Miriam, for example, much preferred traditional teaching. She liked the organization and coverage of important biology topics.
She felt uncomfortable with PBL because it was disorganized and intellectually messy. Projects might be in-depth learning of one topic, but they miss the broad, necessary knowledge of basic biology.
And what was she to do with Ronny and Jonathan?
In any case, Miriam and her colleagues did their best with guiding student projects.
In mid-June, students poured into the school gym where their projects and posters were set up for Science Project Night.
When the time came for Ronny and Jonathan to present their project, their teacher, Miriam, expressed her amazement. They had completed a very successful project.
They had chosen to compare the olfactory sense of Ronny’s dog with their own smelling skills.
They read about olfactory senses in dogs, visited Kaplan Hospital to talk with an ear-nose-throat doctor, interviewed a veterinarian and shared their findings in class.
They pitted themselves against the dog in timed-tests to determine who could find a hidden cracker faster, just by using his nose.
No surprise: the dog won.
As a researcher of teachers and students in a PBL context, I was invited to the Science Project Night with parents.
In the gym, Miriam pointedly called me over to share the boys’ changed behavior.
I cheerfully looked at Ronny and Jonathan’s dog project and listened to Miriam tell me about them.
Miriam said she was surprised that in the Spring semester, Ronny and Jonathan had rarely missed a class, even when it rained. The boys also stopped making cheeky comments in class.
She told me, “They ran after me asking questions about biology. They read material, attached relevant photos of the dog and his nose, organized data and typed up their project on a colorful poster board.”
She gave them an 80, far higher than her prediction.
As a teacher educator, I was saddened to hear that the boys had often escaped Biology in the Fall and had made cheeky comments in class.
What disheartened me, however, was that Miriam had no explanation of how these two academically “weak and lazy boys” had suddenly become strong and hard-working in the Spring.
She was stumped on how they had suddenly “become smart”.
I wondered that she hadn’t realized that some kids do exceptionally well on tests and some do exceptionally well on projects – and it’s not always the same kids.
Miriam expressed a common false-correlation: if the boys didn’t do well on tests, then they automatically wouldn’t do well on projects.
It’s easy to forget that succeeding on a test takes a whole different set of skills and type of motivation than working on an action-oriented, self-chosen project.
For learners with extreme learning preferences, the learning context (Traditional vs. PBL) can make a big difference.
I suppose it’s like thinking about a fish. If the context is water, then the fish is sleek and fast.
If the context is air, then he just flops around clumsily, making as much noise as he can.
“Yes”, you might say, “but learners need to deal with traditional lectures and tests, whether they like that context or not.” This is true.
But if we exclusively have a traditional learning context, year after year, it’s like teaching only to the birds all the time. The fish are unfairly disadvantaged and look consistently floppy, clumsy and disturbing.
When we add an innovative learning context like PBL, it gives some of the fish a chance to show what they can do.
That’s when we see some of the usually disadvantaged learners “suddenly” succeeding.
Many teachers are pleasantly surprised, since they don’t expect kids who score consistently low on tests to succeed in projects.
They’ve never seen or heard about students performing differently in a different learning context.
Miriam had taught for many years exclusively in a traditional context and really believed in that context. She had never experienced or heard about the common phenomenon of “pleasant surprises” like Ronny and Jonathan. So, she couldn’t explain their sudden success in PBL.
After I spoke with her about the pleasant-surprise phenomenon, Miriam began to think about Ronny and Jonathan differently.
Changing one’s beliefs about students is a long process. But next year, hopefully she will anticipate and celebrate these kinds of learners who soar, given a different learning context.
And she won’t even be surprised.
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