Sunday, September 6, 2015

Using Real Data in the Classroom

I love teaching sixth grade! It is so wonderful to have the same students that I taught in fourth. The first few days of school had a totally different feel--I knew the kids, they knew me, so we could get to the fun stuff really fast.

Science has been especially fun. I wanted to get right into the learning. The more years I teach, the more frustrated I am by "Preparing for Science" units. I feel like we spend time naming the tools that we could spend USING the tools!

Instead, we jumped right into the real process skills and real science. I have pages and pages of data from our bird feeder observations of the last few years. Fourth graders liked to keep the data, but never worked much with analyzing it.

There are two kinds of lesson planning to me. One kind is the clear, cut-and-dried lesson planning of curriculum designers: Teacher will do x, students will do y, a known quantity of learning will ensue.

But my favorite kind of lesson planning is the fuzzy lesson planning. It's "fuzzy" not because of a lack of teacher preparation, but because of the multitude of possibility in student responses. I can't picture exactly how the lesson will turn out, but I bring all of my knowledge and experience in the lesson to bear.

First steps: Looking at data
As students entered class on the first day of science, I let them sit where they like. After some quick introductions I handed out the data and gave directions. Papers flew about as kids looked at the numbers. I walked around to listen (and to show bird pictures as requested.)

Kids wasted no time in looking at the observations, which was great to see. Because they had chosen their groups, I could make some social observations of my own, always good to start with at the beginning of the year!

Organizing the data
After they looked at the basics, students had to come up with a way to organize the data. This is a way that fourth graders and sixth graders are so different: The sixth graders jumped right into making tally charts.

But what were they tallying? Data sheets included dates, kinds of birds, weather, student name, and behavior notes. What kinds of information would students tally? Luckily, it varied across the classes--just what I wanted to see! Many groups tried to find a link between weather and bird types seen. Some went for the simple "Number of birds seen"--a safe and productive choice. One group tallied data related to the student-observers, making a list of all of the students who had recorded observations and tallying how many times each name appeared.

Knowing what to tally, and realizing that there are multiple possibilities, is a huge science process skill. And yet it is one that is never explored during those "Preparing for Science" units. The cooperation that I observed was also fascinating. Students figured out that they needed to keep track of which papers they had tallied, and which they hadn't--and they also figured out ways to split up the workload to keep everyone engaged. Again, these aren't skills that usually show up in traditional science units!

Displaying Data
I told students that they could have access to any paper in the classroom to display their data. This got them up and moving and looking around for supplies! I loved watching how some groups used graph paper and others used construction paper. Some groups looked for rulers to make straight lines.

I helped a few groups to create graphs using the NCES Create a Graph site. This site is one of the best for science instruction--instant graphs! Kids still have to do lots of thinking, though, and they worked together to create titles, figure out what to put on the x-axis and the y-axis, and work through the numbers.

The question of incomplete data came up frequently. There were a lot of bird observation pages that just weren't finished--it was time for recess, we were leaving the room, etc. (Several of the unfinished pages were mine. Oops!) What is the effect of incomplete data? Kids were passionate as they complained about how "annoying" it was to see so many pages that didn't have everything filled out. I only hope that they remember this annoyance when they have data charts to complete this year!

There was also the question of overlapping data. On the observation sheet, a recorder could check off weather conditions like "warm", "frigid", "cloudy", "cool", "sunny", and so forth. But some of these weather conditions could overlap--a day can be warm and cloudy, or frigid and sunny. The students who tried to link weather conditions to kinds of birds seen found this overlap frustrating and it really kept them from seeing clear patterns.

Questions to Consider

This fuzzy lesson revealed a great deal to me about the students, and helped my plans for the upcoming year to come into focus. They showed some great cooperation working in groups, which reinforces my instinct to build in as many collaborative activities as possible.

Once data is displayed, there will be more opportunities for questioning and learning. Each group had a different set of bird observations with the dates marked. None of the groups noticed that the dates were significant for the kinds of birds seen, as they didn't compare information across groups. (For example, juncos are heavily represented in the January/February data, but not at all in September.)

Once all of the charts are displayed in the hall, will kids notice this? Will they see that different groups came up with different information, and wonder why? What will I do if this happens? What will I do if this doesn't?

Next Steps
I really hope that students will be able to come up with a new data collection tool. What learning can they take from this lesson to apply to future data collection? I've added a digital thermometer to the window...hopefully someone will pick up on this hint that we have to record the exact temperature!

I was glad that I did this lesson, because it helped me to learn more about my students. A fuzzy lesson can be daunting to undertake, but the rewards can be far greater than any worksheet.

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