Great learning doesn’t always leave beautiful dioramas
I remember exactly one piece of scientific information from my 6th grade academic year – that the orbital model for electrons has no basis in reality. I didn’t encounter the more accurate model of “probabilistic electron clouds” until high school, but I knew in 6th grade that the orbital model “wasn’t real.” My teacher mentioned that in passing, while describing the ubiquitous candy-model element project. One long night, I slathered hundreds (betrayed by lead!) of M&M’s and pretzels with sugar mortar, muttering “and this isn’t even REAL” as I smashed each one onto poster-board.
For years I was angry about that project. Tons of work for an ugly, and soon to be ant-covered, final product showing a model of a lead atom that wasn’t right. I walked into subsequent science classes with a chip on my shoulder, always on the lookout for the misleading or reductive diagram, always afraid I would need to reproduce it in felt or macaroni.
When I re-entered middle school as a teacher, I saw the same project in a whole new light. Skepticism for simplistic models, growing suspicion that atomic structure is not just a tiny solar system, and some good practice with sugar mortar before gingerbread season? What’s not to love?
It’s easy to confuse the products of middle school assignments with what students are learning, but the relationship between the two is complicated and disjointed. Watching our 6th graders roam the hallways over the last few weeks filming short vignettes for their Newtonian motion projects is an exhilarating time. Kids are sliding everywhere, on skateboards or caster-scooters. They’re putting MacBooks onto or into the path of moving objects, treating them like disposable cameras that just happen to include sophisticated video editing bays and the sum total of human knowledge. Balls ricochet from unexpected surfaces and launch over handrails causing second graders to scatter on the floors below. Voice over is abandoned into fits of giggling. Oh, so much giggling.
When I watch the final videos, I’m always a disappointed. In unison, students’ voices intone the textbook versions of Newton’s insights into motion. “An object in motion will continue in motion until acted on by an outside force.” The ball hits the floor. The skateboard slams into the locker. The dancing girl careens into the desk. Text floats in or streams by in the Star Wars scroll. “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” More crashes. More titles. Bloopers.
Sadly, final videos never show the student madly charging down the hall on a scooter who suddenly tips forward as the casters jam on a stray pencil. There’s an instant where her brain recognizes that her torso and legs have drastically different movement vectors. That’s the learning moment, and it’s incredibly difficult to film.
Adolescents learn through direct experience, and the Newton’s Laws project always provides plenty of that. Great teachers introduce new ideas, provide a scaffolding of language and scientific principles, and then allow students to acquire some honest empirical knowledge. Then we come back together, slice up the video or hot-glue some Red Vines together, and call that a project. But please don’t assume that the hand stamp or ticket stub contains all the excitement of the roller coaster.
Almost by definition, the deepest learning moments of adolescence are beyond their developing capacity to articulate. Instead, those experiences subtly change the ways students observe and interact with the world around them.
Last week, after the final video was saved and shared, the hallway went back to normal (which is not to say sedate). Ask any of them and you’ll hear a clear answer – “Oh, we’re done with Newton’s laws.” And yet…
After staring at slow-motion video of his own kick flip (which neatly covers all three laws in about 1.5 seconds) throughout the editing, a sixth grader heads home with a headful of new ideas and new techniques. A year later, seventh graders argue about the tension, flex and forces involved in stringing a lacrosse racket. Perhaps one particularly irksome youngster might still be chewing over how the whole project was “way too simple! What happens to the air molecules inside the volleyball as it bounces?” The transformative process of learning continues, as those sixth grade students continually build and revise their internal model of the physical world.