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 in 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.

Inspiration Ratio: How Do We Sustain the Love of Learning?

Going through the pictures on my phone, I ran across one photo that deserves a little blogging:

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About a year ago, I entered my office area’s common space to see the words above written on a piece of chart paper.  Distinguishing the handwriting, I could tell it was a note from our superintendent.  While the statement caught my attention, any more specificity in detail escaped me at the time.  Thankfully, she was able to clarify her note to my teammates and me later that day.

What is an Inspiration Ratio?

“How many teachers does it take,” she asked, “to sustain the passion, the joy, the love of learning for a student, PK-12?”  She went on to define the concept of an “Inspiration Ratio,” a personal “valuation” of one’s educational path.  To find it, each of us must first remember our own PK-12 academic career, and put ourselves back into the role of student.  Then, by using the total number of teachers that worked with each of us as the denominator, and the “inspirational teachers” that stoked our passion for learning as a numerator, each learner can calculate his or her own Inspiration Ratio.  The “1/27” was not a date or a location, she explained, but a sample Inspiration Ratio: of her 27 teachers over her PK-12 student career, she distinctly remembered one who inspired her to see true joy in learning.  What’s interesting, she noted, is that while only one of these 27 teachers had spurred on this excitement for lifelong learning, for her, it only took one (thereby displaying the power of just one teacher).  She then challenged each of us to consider our own Inspiration Ratios, the impact that our teachers had on our current path, and the students for whom we may be that one teacher.

My own Inspiration Ratio

Since that afternoon, I have done several different back of the envelope calculations of my own Inspiration Ratio, as I am sure you are thinking about doing right now.  While I find a slightly different value each time, the level of engagement I feel while walking through the footsteps of my own learning path is the same.  In an instant, I am back in those hallways, seeing every assignment and hearing every verbal exchange anew.  I furrow my brow with the design challenge of a real-world experiment that has dozens of “right” answers.  I pour my soul onto the practice floor to earn back the spot in the basketball team’s starting five.  I panic as I stand before a room full of underclassmen I have never met, preparing to recite the first words of Phillip Larkin’s “A Study of Reading Habits.”  Back in those adolescent shoes- but through these adult eyes- I start a list of all of those teachers that have ever worked with me in school, and consider the impact that they have had on my life.  (P.S. If it strikes you to move away from your browser or RSS reader and make your own list now, please do so by all means.  This is a static text, after all – it will still be here when you return. Just promise to come back!)

In calculating my own Inspiration Ratio, I’m struck by how in minutes, I can remember the name of 71 teachers that I worked with over my PK-12 academic career.  Without too much challenge, I even recall those high school days right down to each year’s 7-period class schedule!  Within this 13-year timeframe, I count 17 distinct teachers who I remember as having a direct impact on my passion for lifelong learning, giving me an Inspiration Ratio of 17/71.  In other words, of all of the teachers that worked with me as a student, I consider 25% of them as having directly inspired me to sustain a love of learning.

Of my 71 teachers, what do I remember most about those 17?  They did not give me a voice- they allowed me to find my own.  They did not push me- they presented me with opportunities for growth that were both challenging and attainable, and just as I thought I had reached as far as I could, they encouraged me to reach farther.  They did not tell me that I did a “good job” in my learning- they instead celebrated my desire, as one teacher put it, “to learn just because the world is there, waiting to be understood.”  In short, even in the shortest of conversations, I felt that they built a relationship with me, and engaged me as a learner.  Each of those moments live on forever as I carry these teachers with me- long after they have “finished the job” of teaching my class, they continue to help me grow toward continuous improvement.

I wonder often which, if any, of my former students would have listed me as one of the teachers in their Inspiration Ratio’s numerator.  Even as I consider the question of how I might have inspired them, however, I am reminded of how they are the ones who inspire me.  My students and my teammates give me the drive to put in the necessary time and energy to keep growing, and they make it feel as natural as breathing.  Without that inspiration, I know I would have been driven from this profession long ago.  It dawns on me that this process of sustaining a love of learning is a cyclical system, a reinforcing feedback loop that Senge would label as having a snowball effect.  So long as each of us seeks to inspire the love of learning in those around us, we will continue to be inspired by the passion of those around us.

Organizational connection

In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the importance of identifying “what drives [our] resource engine.”  He challenges organizations to seek out those ratios have the greatest impact on economic growth.  (For example, in the business world, finding the “unit-x” that best fits a “profit-per-unit-x” ratio can help greatly to clarify their mission with pinpoint precision.)  In the social sectors, however, finding the right resources to consider within the ratio is more important then finding the right “unit x” for the denominator (since it’s a given that profit isn’t exactly something educators seek).  Since teachers have such a profound effect on student learning, and the “ultimate goal” for our profession is to inspire lifelong learning, could the Inspiration Ratio somehow fit as a step in defining our resource engine?  In other words, do we ask ourselves this question enough: “What effect will this decision have on our abilities and opportunities to inspire lifelong learning?”

Just imagine the concept using the love of learning as a guide for each of our decisions as educators, with the ultimate purpose of getting every student’s Inspiration Ratio closer to 100%…is it possible that the answer could be that simple?

Planning for Engagement

(Inspired by today’s ACPS Tech Plan conversation w/the DART Advisory Committee.)

As a teacher, anytime I ran into reluctant learners in the classroom, I started to think: “Did I plan for engagement?  Did I strategically include engaging qualities in my plan for their learning?”  Similarly, I’m drawn to the same qualities when thinking about those teachers who may be reluctant to try out new technology tools in meeting their students’ needs.

Below are those 8 qualities that our county uses as ‘look-fors’ in work that promotes student engagement.  Next to those qualities, I’ve written a few questions related to a teacher’s perspective in learning something new that leaders might consider so as to “plan for engagement:”

  • Personal Response – Do teachers have their own voice in the learning process?
  • Clear/Modeled Expectations – Do teachers know what their leaders, colleagues and students expect of me in terms of their learning?  Do they really know what it looks like to use this tool well?  Have they seen it?
  • Emotional/Intellectual Safety – Are teachers in an environment where they feel safe to try something new, to take a risk without feeling as if failure in that attempt will cause them harm?
  • Affiliation – Do teachers have opportunities to learn collaboratively with others?
  • Sense of Audience – Are teachers expected to share evidence of their learning with others outside of the classroom?  Outside of the school?
  • Choice – Are teachers able to choose what it is that they are interested in learning, or how, when, and/or with whom they are interested in learning it?  Are teachers able to choose how to show that they have learned it?
  • Novelty & Variety – Is the process of learning this tool set up in an interesting, unexpected or unusual way?
  • Authenticity – Are teachers learning this new tool in a way that mirrors what it will look like to use it with my students?

What’s going around in my head is: in answering any of these questions above related to tech learning opportunities, how many of those “reluctant learners” teachers would respond, “No”? How many would say things like: “I don’t have a voice.” “I’m not allowed to choose.” “It’s not safe to try something new.” “I don’t know what’s expected of me.” In leading the work, have we planned for engagement? If not, how about we get started now?