Educational consultant and retired teacher Harry McDonald of Olathe, Kansas—shown helping students examine an insect caught at a science center—cites the value of developing a network of colleagues for support when lessons don’t go as planned. (Abernathy Science Center, Southeast Kansas Education Service Center)
It happens to nearly every teacher: A lesson doesn’t go as planned. When this occurs, what do you do? To whom do you turn for help?
It happened to Anne Watson, a physics teacher at Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vermont, when she built cider presses and used them to teach about simple machines and Newton’s third law. The instructions, she recalls, “called for [a] 1-inch–thick diameter acme threaded rod to crush the apples. When I was ordering these online, such a stainless steel rod would cost [more than] $100, so I opted for something thinner, [3/8-inch rods]. How much different could that be?”
She and her students soon learned. “If you try to crush apples with a 3/8-inch steel rod, the rod bends beyond all repair,” she notes, “[and] you can’t weld stainless steel.” She points out that “even when you do succeed in applying a significant amount of pressure via the rod, you must have a frame that can withstand an equal and opposite force.”
She admits, “I should have recognized the flaw in the design right away, but I didn’t see that when you screw the rod down to crush the apples, that force must push the frame upward. We found ourselves standing on the frame to try to keep it down to crush the apples, but instead as we cranked down, it lifted the frame and us off the ground instead of crushing the apples!”
Fortunately, Watson realized “the benefit of the unexpected result was that those students who saw the shaft of the press bend had an incredibly vivid example of the very principle I was trying to teach.” She adds, “I will build my own cider press this summer to make sure that I know of at least one design that works.”
She advises teachers who have experienced a “failed” experiment “to reflect on it. If an experiment or lab didn’t go the way you wanted, that means there’s something that you’ve overlooked, possibly something really interesting or complex. I think it’s healthy for students to see that even adults still authentically wrestle with ideas, that we still have things to learn.” While she allows “it’s uncomfortable to be reflective in these situations because it’s ostensibly a failure on your part,” she believes reflection is “probably the single most important thing you can do, for the kids’ sake and for your sake. You’ll never grow from the experience if you quickly move on and pretend it never happened.”
Kelsey Johnson, an environmental science teacher at George Washington High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recalls a “gases lab” she tried during her first year of teaching that she says was “more ambitious than I realized. It had 10 stations that students rotated through, did mini-experiments, recorded their observations, and tried to make meaning. Unfortunately, the pre-lab homework assignment needed to be completed before starting the lab, and almost no one was prepared. Secondly, some stations required more time than others, which messed up our rotation times, and three stations involved buckets or test tubes of water,” which proved distracting for some students.
“My perception was that the whole thing became a mess, though looking back, I can see that it wasn’t really a disaster. In response to the unexpected results, I followed up the next day by demonstrating the key experiments for students and highlighting the most important, discrepant events.” Tenacity, Johnson emphasizes, “is a crucial habit of mind for teachers, so I try to remind myself of some wise advice given to me: Try something at least three times with students before giving up on it. Often, new plans seem to fail because students aren’t familiar with the format and need a little logistical practice. I’ve found that it’s always worth facing the ‘failure’ and trying again.”
When she repeats the gases lab, Johnson says she “will split the lab into two days with half of the number of stations each. Second, I will use smaller tubs of water, such that they’re less distracting. Third, I will assign the pre-lab work two days prior and demonstrate how students need it for a ‘dress rehearsal’ the day prior. This will clarify the logistical problems and enable students to focus on the scientific content during the lab.”
Harry McDonald, an educational consultant and retired teacher from Olathe, Kansas, says he learned when “using planned labs, especially from lab books, [these labs] frequently don’t go as planned. Usually this is because the person [who] wrote the lab, sometimes decades ago, never did the lab and just thought they knew what would happen. If you post an experience [with] a specific lab [to an NSTA e-mail list], I predict you will find many others who have experienced the same ‘failure.’ Many of us are persistent enough that we kept trying until we figured out how to get the lab to work and can possibly share those modifications.”
McDonald says he “used experiences like this to change how I approached labs. I might use some lab time to teach a technique, but instead of following a prescribed lab that attempts to use the technique to have students ‘discover’ an important principle, I had them use the technique to investigate some ‘original’ question, one which I didn’t know the answer to. I would still provide the important principle to them to help [them] analyze their results.” He says he “was trying to model the practice of science where original collected data is interpreted in light of what is known. If results were not as expected, we would practice skepticism, not rejection of our work, but rather looking to see how we could modify what we did to better determine whether our findings were new or simply an artifact of experimentation.”
Dealing with experiences such as these “is why you develop a personal network of colleagues who are willing to share your journey and share experiences. This is why you join your professional organizations for science teaching…This is why you attend any local, state, regional, or national conference you can, even if you have to spend your own money,” McDonald asserts. “I was (and though retired, still am) a member of NSTA and our state affiliate, [Kansas Association of Teachers of Science].”
After her experience with the cider presses, Watson says she sought advice from her Knowles Science Teaching Fellowship (KSTF) mentor. Each year, the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (www.kstf.org) awards teaching fellowships to exceptional college graduates committed to teaching science and mathematics in U.S. high schools. During the five-year fellowship, they participate in professional development activities and are assigned a mentor-like “Teacher Developer.” “Now that I’m an alumni of that fellowship program, I still keep in touch with my mentor and have made connections with other physics teachers in my rural area…It’s important for us to connect with each other, even if just occasionally, to build those relationships and continue growing as a teacher of our specific subject,” she explains.
Johnson, also a KSTF fellow, agrees. “Because of the insights, resources, and emotional support my KSTF community…has shared with me, I was able to cultivate confidence in my practice despite inevitable hardship in the classroom and physical and emotional fatigue...Ultimately, the most valuable gift KSTF has given me is an environment in which to develop deep friendships and reflective practice with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”