When There Are No Easy Answers, The Real Learning Begins
April 9, 2018
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever done a lab in science class before.” A class full of students raises their hands. “Put your hand down if you were given a piece of paper that told you every step to do the lab.” A class full of students puts their hands down.
This is a scene from Ms. Emery’s classroom. Ellen Emery, a second-year corps member, teaches 9th grade biology at Spruce High School. This February Ms. Emery taught her class that labs don’t require step-by-step directions instead they need questions, exploration, and action.
"Often in school, students are taught to follow directions to complete a lab, much like following a recipe," Ms. Emery reflects. "But that’s not how science is done in the real world. Scientists are constantly asking new questions and then figuring out ways to gather evidence and answer that question. Science is not like a recipe; Science is more like forging your own path through the unknown. I told my students, 'You might make mistakes, or take a wrong turn, and that will put you among all the greatest scientists in the world.' Argument Driven Inquiry (ADI) labs aren’t like recipes. You’re going to have to design your own ways of gathering evidence to support your claim. You deserve to learn how to do real science."
Ms. Emery's 9th grade biology students embarked on their first ADI lab exploring the evidences and mechanisms of evolution. The lab consists of three phases:
- Ask a good question. “Which primate is most closely related to humans: chimpanzee, gorilla, or orangutan?”
- Design a method to gather evidence. Choose how to analyze 6 different pieces of evidence comparing primates to humans
- Make a claim and defend it! Answer the question in a lab report.
Many blank stares, puzzled faces, and cries of “but Miss!” filled Ms. Emery's class as her students embarked upon on this lab. Students read evidence and struggled as they looked for simple fill-in-the-blank answers. When they realized there were no easy answers, the real science began. Lab groups examined the evidence, asked questions, and engaged in scientific discussions. The classroom transformed into a biological think tank working to solve a common problem.
Three weeks of investigation, analysis, and reporting culminated in an Academic Conference in which students presented their claims and defended their work to their peers. Three biologists—Jennifer, Brenda, and Crystal received the highest honor at their class Academic Conference with their defense, “Gorillas are just like humans. They have a similar fossil record and physical stature. They have the same height as humans.”
Ms. Emery is teaching her students how to be scientists. Scientists don’t just follow recipes they explore, fail, and hopefully eventually discover. Ninth graders at Spruce High School are engaging in science in a way they haven’t before—they are now doing real science!