For the past several years, I have adopted a Dare To Fail philosophy for my professional life. Basically this means that I am going to try new methods, push boundaries, and accept that not everything is going to be perfect the first time. But, no matter what happens, I am going to learn something from the experience.
So, for the past 3 months, I have not used a traditional lab in my CP Chemistry classes. We have made fruit punch to learn about Molarity/Molality of solutions, mixed baking soda and vinegar in balloons to learn about Stoichiometry, made sidewalk chalk drawings to learn about Moles, used Cabbage Juice to identify Acids and Bases, and tried to freeze salt water solutions to learn about Colligative Properties. All of these labs were performed before the students learned about a topic so that the lab can be learning experiences instead of just as examples of “why are we learning this?” Inquiry labs are so common in my class that the students don’t even notice when I fail to give them a procedure to follow.
And they’ve all failed. They look really good on Instagram, but overall, I have failed to meet my objective of using labs to teach the material. The students walk out of the lab knowing no more than they did before when they had to learn the material before coming to the lab.
So, what have I learned from all of this?
- School is focused too much on creating students who can follow rules instead of those that can be creative. If I don’t give them explicit directions, they have a very difficult time completing a lab correctly. In the future, I need to start the year with labs that have very explicit directions and integrate inquiry slowly throughout the year.
- Students expect me to tell them everything. Often in labs, a student will make a mistake, turn to me, and tell me that I didn’t tell them not to do that at the beginning of the lab. I will point to a particular line in the lab telling them exactly what they accused me of and they will say, ‘but you didn’t tell me.’ I need to get the students to read more and have confidence in their own independence. The teacher is not the sole source of information in the room and that has to be especially true during the lab when my attention needs to be everywhere at the same time.
- Labs need be seen as the place that learning occurs. Students will perform the whole lab, not understanding anything they are doing, and then look to a “lecture” to find out what they should have learned from it. Labs need to be seen as a teaching tools as much as projects and teacher lessons are.
- Schools are not teaching kids that there are more than one right answer. ‘Well, what should I have gotten?’ or ‘What should I write in the Observations section?’ These questions drive me nuts because it implies that there is only 1 right answer and if you don’t get it, you are wrong. Science is about drawing conclusions from our observations without having any clue about what’s going on. My observations and your observations might be totally different. If I am not doing the lab with you, how can I tell you what YOU observed? In every lab, I always tell the students I am less concerned with WHAT you got than HOW you got it. Explaining the HOW demonstrates learning.
So, where do I go from here? Well, that’s the toughest question. It is way easier to do traditional labs. I always feel like I am reinventing the wheel when I am creating guided-inquiry labs. But, inquiry is so much more satisfying. Just this week, 2 students finished the lab were working on, and while answering the questions, asked if they could go back to the lab area to test a hypothesis they had. Traditional labs don’t leave room for additional questions; inquiry does. Mixing traditional and guided-inquiry is definitely the best approach, but I need to give more structure for the students during the early parts of the year. I expect too much intellectual maturity from them sometimes and it isn’t fair to them when they just haven’t learned the skills to be meet the standard I set for them.
In conclusion, I am a failure. Nothing is working out the way I want it to. BUT, I have failed really well and, more importantly, have learned much more than if I succeeded.