The Science of Learning

photo 5I imagine them arriving in a refrigerated truck, boxes of frogs in biblical numbers. Preserved as they are, I know they don’t need to stay cold; these are pickled amphibian soldiers in the 7th grade war on scientific illiteracy. Based on the looks of the students in their goggles, I think we’re winning.

Frog dissection has been a staple of life science since before DaVinci. There’s something about making that initial cut, eyes wide behind plastic lenses, lips pressed together in case it squirts, that shouts the praise of hands on learning.

We talk about hands on learning in lots of subject areas: manipulatives in math, reenactments in history, but perhaps the best example outside of an elective class comes in the science lab.

photo 3 (1)Over the course of the year I’ve seen students rolling marbles to understand velocity, building putt-putt boats to learn about engineering and motion, and sinking up to their chins in a steel drum filled with water in an experiment that will ensure that they never forget the laws of displacement. Like so much of the best teaching, these experiences take more time and effort than other types of lessons, and the truth of the matter is they’re worth it.

Hands on learning is the difference between reading Macbeth and acting it out on stage. It’s building a model plane, not hearing a lecture on aerodynamics. It’s filming and sculpting and recording and acting. It’s coding and painting and singing and running faster than you’ve ever run to beat your previous best time in the mile.

photo 1I hear teachers talk about the value of giving kids opportunities to experience, rather than just passively listen. Having coffee with a math teacher and a science teacher not long ago, my ears perked up when the former told the latter that her department hoped the science and math teachers could spend some time together so they could see more “labs” in their math classes.

Not that I want to see more frogs on campus.

But from rockets to puppet shows, I love that students at Diegueño have opportunities to learn that ask for more than filling in blanks and provide more than simple answers.

Life, at its best, is hands on, complex, and engaging. It’s not memorizing the declension of “comer” (como, comes, come, comemos, coméis, comen), but ordering a meal in Spanish. Life is making an argument for something that really matters, and knowing how to stay balanced in the sandstorm of stress that doesn’t really matter.

photo 2 (25)As educators we make an impact when we help our students understand what it is to experiment and grow, to try new things even when they don’t know the outcome, and to actively engage in the world they help to create.

Every curious adult was encouraged by a teacher somewhere along the way. Every musician learned by playing some sour notes. Every novelist has her share of comma splices scattered along the path behind her. And every surgeon started by wearing goggles in a life science class, probably with a frog.

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