Smartphones, Inquiry, and Falconry: The Role of Technology in Supporting Science Education

(Note: This post is an approximation of the welcome speech I gave as part of the Supporting Science Inquiry With Technology Conference, a partnership between Learning Forward VA, VASCD, VAST, VSTE, and VSUP offered in Albemarle County, Virginia on July 24, 2014. Check out the accompanying presentation created with Haiku Deck.)

In considering how to get the ball rolling during a conference focused on supporting science inquiry using technology, this question came to mind: What is technology’s role in science education?

Technology in science education

I recently heard a stand-up bit by a comedian named Pete Holmes about “having Google in your pocket” that encapsulates exactly where I think we as educators tend to misstep. While I recognize that I’m painting with a broad brush, I would contend that many in the educational setting have a propensity to think of technology’s role as a highway to the internet, which students can then use as a place to get answers:

To borrow from Holmes’ bit, use of technology in this way means “there’s no time for wonder or mystery…the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” I don’t know about you, but a sense of curiosity and wonder is pretty high on my list of science education’s most valuable outcomes, so I’m not too keen on letting it get trampled if I don’t have to.

So I guess it stands to reason that my personal stance is to eschew technology’s role as “the sole provider of immediate answers.” If that’s not it, than what is? In order to answer this question fully, we have to start from the other end of the conversation. Instead of considering the tools, let’s consider the purpose: what do we believe about science education and what it should cause?

Inquiry in science education

As a big proponent of inquiry as a central pillar of an ideal science education, I refer back to one of my favorite definitions of the concept, written by Dr. Randy Bell in this NSTA article about Simplifying Inquiry Instruction:

Simplifying Inquiry InstructionThere’s something about this definition that is so simple and yet so powerful that I refer back to it often when centering myself on what to look for in science education. Unpacking the definition, what does it say?

  • Learning is a process.
  • Our students need to be active learners engaged in that process.
  • Our students need to ask research questions.
  • Our students need to answer research questions.
  • Our students need to analyze data to answer those questions.

So simple, and yet so many implications.

Full disclosure: Randy Bell was my advisor while attending UVA’s Curry School of Education. There’s a story about Dr. Bell that years later I recognize as having a huge impact on me as an educator, and it also also seems to apply to this conversation about the role of technology in science education.

Randy Bell (photo: “Curry Professor Helps Charlottesville Teachers Hone Science Skills,” Curry School of Education)

While Dr. Bell had comprehensive experience in working in all of the sciences from an educational perspective, he tended toward a “critter-focused” lens when it came to his passions. He would always point out a variety of facets of life science around us, especially when it came to hawks.

On each of the trips that our cohort group would take across the state for conferences and field studies, he would point out every one of the animals that was flying these central Virginia skies. “Look- a red-tailed hawk!” he would point and exclaim, as we chuckled and shrugged in reply. As I was a physics education major, “critters” were not exactly one of my passions, so it was only years later that I began to appreciate what I learned as a result of his interest.

You see, Dr. Bell had a pet hawk, and I always thought that was pretty strange.

I found out that Dr. Bell was a card-carrying falconer, which meant (or so I thought) that he kept hawks that he captured as “pets” at his house. While it helped me to understand his recognition of the red-tailed hawks as they soared above our heads, knowing this about Dr. Bell also made me think he was taking the whole “science guy” identity to an unnecessary new level. At its root, I guess I just thought that a hawk was one strange pet to keep.

Upwards of a decade later, I got the chance to have a longer conversation with Dr. Bell about the concept of being a falconer. I found out that in his mind, the role wasn’t really about keeping the animal as a pet, nor was it just about having an interesting “science guy” hobby. Being a falconer for him was more about serving as a trusting partner with the hawks in order to meet their life needs and ultimately help them survive.

Falconry as a metaphor for education

Many falconers, he explained, capture younger birds of prey┬áin the late summer / early fall who have not yet fully developed their hunting skills. During the colder winter months, the falconer keeps the bird safe from the elements, while also helping it develop these important life skills. When falconers take these birds out into the wild, they’re not just doing it to have a good time- they are bringing the birds out in order to rustle up prey that the bird can eat. Ultimately, it is a partnership between the young bird and the falconer.

During trips into the wild, the falconer’s job is to find places where “food” for these birds might be living: small rodents, amphibians, insects, things like that. By rustling around in piles of leaves and brush, the falconer “flushes out the game” by moving some of the ground cover that might be obscuring these small animals. Once the would-be prey emerges from its hiding spot, the hawk spots it, catches it, and eats it.

Randy Bell with an American Kestrel, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, January 20, 2006 (from http://george.loper.org/trends/2006/Jan/961.html)

Over the course of their partnership, the falconer and falcon repeat these trips together, helping the bird develop both its strength and its hunting skills. As the bird builds its capacity for self-sufficiency, it then learns to live independent of the falconer, and eventually flies back out into the wild. Ultimately, without the falconer’s assistance, the hawk may not have survived the winter. In fact, research shows that up to 60% of juvenile raptors do not make it through their first winter.

Once I finally understood the role of the falconer, Dr. Bell’s interest in the animal finally made sense to me. It wasn’t being a “science guy” that made him into a falconer- it was being an educator.

This image of the falconer flushing out game for the hawk learning to fly reminds me of the role of the teacher in science education, with one key exception. It’s not game we as science educators are flushing out: it’s understanding.

Our job is to try to identify what it is that obscures understanding for our learners. With our questions, we poke and prod at the barriers and obstacles that cover up students’ understanding until one of those questions is able to force the “would-be prey” out from its hiding place. Consequently, the developing learner can now see the understanding, which allows them to catch it and swallow it whole.

Over the course of a relationship together with a trusted educator, the student starts to learn how to uncover that understanding for themselves. In their metaphorical spring, they fly away, now skilled enough and strong enough to hunt for understanding on their own.

Now that I have recognized this approach to teaching and learning, I can’t help but see that it surrounds me. It’s central to the tutorial process within the AVID system for learning, within which I have found myself as a tutor trainer and district supporter. It’s central to the process of instructional coaching, within which I have found myself as a model designer and “coach of coaches”. And as it relates to this context, it’s central to inquiry-based learning in science instruction, within which I have found myself as a “lead learner” and district team facilitator. When I think about the metaphor through that lens, it looks to me as if Dr. Bell has been a falconer in many more ways than just that literal card-carrying sense.

Technology in science education…redux

So how does this story help to answer the original question: What is technology’s role in science education?

If science education is, at its heart, an active learning process where students answer research questions through data analysis, then technology needs to serve as a tool to help in all aspects of that process. Not just access to others’ discoveries, but also to tools that help us make new discoveries. Not just in the providence of answers, but also in development of wonder. Technology needs to help our students to ask better questions. Technology needs to help our students plan and conduct investigations. Technology needs to help our students evaluate and communicate information. And of course, technology needs to help our students construct explanations.

To borrow the falconry metaphor, these tools need to help our students become better hunters, and not just do all of the hunting for them. Using the tools to circumvent the learning process means that those students may not be equipped to survive those metaphorical winter months on their own.

AVID: Building a Sense of Belonging

(Note: As of August 10th, this post can also be accessed on AVID’s blog, Adventures in College & Career Readiness.)

From the moment I walked in the door, I knew that I didn’t belong.

On a recent trip to Chicago, that thought invaded my mind as I walked onto the L’s Green Line, headed to the South Side from the Clark/Lake connector.  Sitting in one of the train car’s few empty seats that afternoon, I found myself submerged in a culture in which I felt like an outsider.  This feeling is a relative rarity for me: as a middle-class, 30-something white male, I do not enter into too many situations in which I ever have to think about myself in the minority.  Even throughout my week’s stay in the city, riding all forms of public transit as a participant in a conference comprised of over 2,000 educators like myself, I usually found it easy to connect and feel at ease with those around me.

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But somehow, not here.

Looking around me, the rational side of my brain recognized no need to be alarmed.  A small group of teenage boys discussed difficulties with some of their friends while heading to a party.  Two twenty-somethings lost themselves in their iPods after a workout at the gym.  Other individuals sat to themselves, several with bags of groceries after a trip to the store.  One kid tried to pick up a couple of girls, and seemed to be having success until the girls realized that they knew of this young man’s reputation.  (He walked away sheepishly.)  Passengers entered, passengers left, each on their own path to some intended destination, much like me.

The emotional side of my mind, however, could not shake the fact that I was an outsider.  While I did not live in the area (nothing different from anywhere else that week), no one else who looked like me did, either.  I didn’t know any of the colloquialisms passed back and forth.  I didn’t match the dress, the language, the culture.  The fact that I was the only white guy in what seemed like a 10-mile radius only made it clearer that I stuck out in this situation.  And while I recognized the irrationality of my discomfort, I could not stop it from springing into my mind.

It was that moment that I recognized the irony of my fixation on my “minority” status.  How many of our students feel the exact same sense of disconnection when it comes to being immersed in a college-bound culture?

I was in Chicago to participate in an AVID Summer Institute, an annual series of professional development opportunities offered to those divisions implementing the AVID program within their schools.  AVID– an acronym for “Advancement Via Individual Determination”- takes on the mission of closing the Achievement Gap “by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.”  This program targets students in the academic middle who desire to go to college.  Many enrolled are members of a minority group, and most would be the first in their families to attend college.  To accomplish this feat, students enrolled in AVID take on the most rigorous courses offered in their school, utilizing the AVID support network of classmates, teachers, parents, and tutors to foster a sense of belonging.

While the note-taking strategies, study skills and critical thinking practice that make up the majority of the AVID curriculum play a large part in preparing these students to succeed, I believe it is the social network built by those students enrolled in AVID that is the biggest benefit of the program.  Often, these students would already be taking and succeeding in these high-level courses, if only they saw themselves as one who belonged in the room.  Students in most schools’ college-bound track are a tightly knit group, with a network forged sometimes as early as 6th grade.  Joining such a group as an “outsider” can be an emotionally taxing process.  While a student might try to focus on learning the material of the course, they may instead find themselves listening to the emotional side of their brain that sides with the role of outsider.  By being part of the school’s AVID network, these students now have a cohort of classmates with whom they build this sense of belonging, united by an expectation for academic success.  Consequently, the positive support network of peers helps each individual feel like one who belongs in the room.

During the conference’s keynote luncheon speech, AVID Executive Director Jim Nelson followed up testimonials by two students in Chicago’s AVID program with words that have stuck with me: “What these students have done is exceptional.  We must ensure, however, that they are not exceptions.”  As we move toward a new school year, I ask you: how will you ensure that the students in your classroom feel that they can succeed?  What will you do to help our students to see themselves as exceptional young men and women?  How will we help all of our students feel that they do belong?  Without that sense of belonging, I fear that our students “in the middle” will not rise to the top, paralyzed instead by that nagging desire to get away from the discomfort of their surroundings as quickly as possible.