Graduate School

Student Centered Learning—Science Right Outside

Posted by Dara Eisenstein on September 28, 2012

Rato Bangala School

Young children are curious about the natural world around them. Teachers can facilitate their explorations of what is immediately available to them just footsteps away from their classrooms.

In August 2012, Stan Chu, a Bank Street College Science for Teachers (n-6) course instructor, led 28 teachers of grades one through five as part of a two-week intensive in-service teacher training program at the Rato Bangala School (RBS) in Kathmandu, Nepal. This was a continuation of a 20-year collaboration between the RBS and the Bank Street College of Education, New York City.

This work with classroom teachers having direct experiences with real materials is in keeping with the belief that teachers need to experience learning in the same ways children raise questions and gather evidence—from first-hand encounters with the physical world. In addition, learners must create ways to represent their understandings in order to form mental models.

For this session, Stan collaborated with Basante Yadav, an experienced Nepali science teacher at the RBS in facilitating an exploration of animals found along the edges of the school’s grassy football field. Teachers were given small trays and hand tools to dig into the soil. The goal was to find any animals, living or dead, that caught the interests of teachers, and that raised questions that could be answered in the context of available time, materials, and previous understandings.

Teachers formed themselves into groups of four, and walked to the school football field a few minutes away. They spent about 15 minutes overturning fallen branches and rocks, and digging in the soil. The teachers were helped to take particular notice of physical settings where they found their animals. Was the soil moist or dry? Was the area in the shade or direct sunlight? Were the animals on leaves, soil, or underground? 

The animals were taken back to the workshop classroom. Each group had magnifying glasses to help them notice details of the body of their animal. They then created an enlarged drawing on clear plastic with a fine tipped black marker. 

Groups then took turns projecting their drawings using an overhead projector. Each group member said something about the animal or the conditions in which it was found. This reporting-out included sharing questions group members had about their animal, and what they might do to try to answer these questions.

Small environments were then created similar to the physical conditions from which the live animals were found along the football field. This close duplication of living conditions maximized chances for the animals to remain alive, and fostered the idea that living organisms need to be respected and cared for by learners. 

During the following days, teachers devised ways to try to answer questions they had about the animals. Could the animal see? Could it hear? What does it eat? Should the soil be moist or dry? Does it like shade or direct sun?

An aspect of student-centered learning involves questions learners themselves generate from direct experiences. The teacher has a number of roles, including scaffolding questions of students when needed in order to make the initial questions more accessible to answering, and anticipating sufficient time and tools that help learners pursue their own questions.