Constructing Meaning

Originally posted on October 31, 2017, by Kelly Stevenson, Upper School science teacher (Grades 4-12)

While thinking through what I wanted to share about science education at LCA, I was trying to find an analogy that would explain the importance of experiential learning. It hit me that I have been living through the perfect analogy for experiential learning—teaching my son to drive.

I am sure that when you get into the car to go somewhere today, you do not have to think about how to make the car work or the myriad traffic rules that govern your transit. But it was not always that way. At some point, all of us who drive had to learn how to do so. Reflect back on that experience with me for a moment.

Did reading the permit manual and having someone TELL you what you needed to do make you a good driver? Was it sufficient to know which pedal was the gas and which was the break? Maybe, like me, you learned on a manual transmission, and also had to deal with the clutch pedal and the subtle movements that allow for a smooth drive. Didn’t the real learning occur when you actually sat behind the wheel? Through the experience of DOING, you probably learned more than from all that reading and listening combined. You needed that background information as a starting place; it informed how you went about figuring out all those controls and making the car go where you wanted it to. However, the real experience of learning came from you making your own meaning from that background information you had been given. You constructed your own understanding, and through practice, you mastered a new, complex skill.

This reminds me of one of the important ways that education happens at LCA. There is more to learning than reading textbooks and listening to teachers lecture. In the sciences, I feel this is particularly important. In my experience, for so many schools, science education is made up of just reading the book and completing worksheets: learning the facts, the names of things, reciting the steps of a process, but nothing more.

Yes, there is a role for direct instruction. There is a place for learning what the scientific method is. What are the steps you should go through to test how things work? What do words like observation, hypothesis, and conclusion mean? But after a relatively short instruction period on the underlying concepts, students need to jump into creating their own understanding of HOW science works. Students must USE the scientific method in real experiments to truly understand how it works, as well as its power as a learning tool.

From the very beginning of their science education at LCA, students are making predictions about what they think will happen. How will this action affect what we see? How can we change things to get a desired result? This methodology is built upon and formalized as students grow in their science education. I know that the 3rd graders this year are maintaining science journals in which they are keeping records of their observations and recording results from many classroom experiments in tables. My 4th and 5th grade students work through planned experiments, but also get the chance to start choosing variables and discussing the best ways to find out what they want to learn. By 6th grade, students are working to design their own experiments, including controlling variables and analyzing what their results mean. Lab experiments and reports get more thorough and complex as students get older.

To me, this process of learning HOW to do science is even more important than memorizing facts. Yes, you need to know the names of things; yes, you need to know some underlying facts; and yes, you must learn from those who went before you. But meaning that is constructed from the student’s own experience is so much more powerful than anything that he or she just hears a teacher say. True understanding comes from experiencing something yourself. This is the way science is done. Science is not just a collection of facts: it is a vibrant, living discipline that is about learning new things through experimentation. New research is constantly making new discoveries that expand our understanding of how this world works and help make it a better place. That is the nature of science. THAT is what I want my science students to learn—and experience.