“Students are not like Lego sets; collecting small bits of knowledge and eventually building a bigger picture understanding.” Dr. Stephanie Sisk-Hilton describes the reasons for engaging students in learning activities that include deep and broad systems understanding. Her examples encourage educators to increase these opportunities by building from current learning activities.
Email Stephanie: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read “A New Program Will Train Teachers to Teach Climate Change, Without the ‘Doom and Gloom’” here.
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Steve: 00:16 Hello and welcome to the Teacher edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding and my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers, the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re
Steve: 00:51 Taking learning deep and broad. Our podcast guest today is an experienced teacher and teacher educator with a passion for engaging students in deep, big concept learning, especially in science. Dr. Stephanie Sisk-Hilton is a professor in the Department of Elementary Education at San Francisco State University and is currently engaged in a program offering teachers a climate justice education certificate. Welcome, Stephanie.
Stephanie: 01:25 Hi Steve. Thanks for having me.
Steve: 01:27 So glad you’re here. I’m wondering, for starters, if you’d share a little bit about your experiences that led to your passion for teaching science.
Stephanie: 01:36 Sure. So I did not start out thinking about myself as a science teacher. I did have a science background in college, but I went to get my first teaching job and very much wanted to be just a multi-subject elementary teacher. I was mostly passionate about teaching writing, but then I ended up – my first job probably because I had too much science on my transcript, was as a science resource teacher in an elementary school. And to be honest, it was not a fabulous job. I had much better jobs later on. But it allowed me to see, first of all just how excited kids got learning science. When you’re six years old, watching a worm wiggle is just fascinating. Using an eyedropper to put just a drop of vinegar on a baking soda, that’s the most exciting thing that happens all day.
Stephanie: 02:24 So as I did this with kids, I really started to think, how was I not thinking this was gonna be great? And so I went on to be a multi-subject elementary teacher, which was what I had intended, but I continued to grow my interest in working with kids around science. And then partly based on where I taught, I began to really see science education as a social justice issue because in lower income and less resourced schools, science is often just not taught at all. Teachers will sometimes directly be told, don’t teach science, you don’t have time for that. And yet, in high income, well-resourced communities, of course science and art and music and all of those things are taught. And so we end up creating this split system. And because I work now with, mostly with college students, I hear all of these stories.
Stephanie: 03:19 I get these stories from my students so often about, they came into college wanting to be a science major and then they took a class, some class, where they felt like a failure or nobody in there looked like they did and so they felt like they didn’t belong and they left science. And I’m thrilled that they’re becoming an elementary teacher because that’s who I hear the stories from but I’m also so sad. I’m sad that we have created this system where young adults, or sometimes long before that, feel like they’ve been shut out of science. So although I work with young kids and teachers of young kids, I feel like it starts then and that we really need to make science just incredibly fun, but also really focused on issues that matter to people so that people don’t feel that they are folks who can’t do science.
Steve: 04:13 So what would you identify as some of the mistakes or misconceptions that we have about how kids learn science?
Stephanie: 04:23 I think probably the, the most important one that we need to really reconsider is what’s sometimes called the “little pieces” approach to science, which means, we spend years teaching little facts, little bits and pieces of science with this idea that when students get older, they’re somehow gonna put all these pieces together and have a full understanding of science. That’s just not how it works. Kids aren’t Lego sets, right? They don’t collect all the pieces first and then build them up later. Our brains are just constantly seeking connection, we’re trying to make connections and schools can help that or schools can not help that. So if we learn in school that we’re just supposed to learn some facts, take some tests on it, move on to a new set of facts, our brains can do that. We’ll do that, but then we’re gonna forget. And that’s what happens with most of us. I’m teaching my college class, which is folks usually who have just finished their BA degree and I’ll ask them, does anybody remember learning about the water cycle? And they’ll be like, “oh yeah, I think there was this thing, maybe I did something in like third grade one time.” But they have to really think back because it didn’t necessarily feel relevant to their lives.
Steve: 05:33 They probably did it in first, third and fifth. [laugh]
Stephanie: 05:36 Exactly. Right. Because we all learn the water cycle over and over again. And so I think what we need to do is really think about science in terms of systems. And so that is one of the underlying themes in the next Generation science standards, but I find it’s one of the most challenging things to change about how we approach science learning, mostly because it flies in the face of how most of us were taught. And then kind of going along with that, we’re sometimes also incorrectly taught that young kids can’t engage in systems-based learning. And that’s just false. If you think for a minute about how – we teach kindergartners and first graders how to read, and that in itself is this huge, pretty abstract system, matching symbols to sounds and using those to create words that have meaning. That’s actually a really complex and abstract system and yet lots of first graders master it. Lots don’t, but lots do. So a brain that can do that can also understand how water flows from rivers into reservoirs, into pipes into our school. That’s a system, right? Understanding the system of how water makes it into our homes. And when we focus on those systems, then kids remember them and it has meaning to them. And honestly, I think it’s more fun for the teachers too.
Steve: 07:01 I like to use the phrase in describing that of complex being the system and simple being the pieces. Most of the learning that kids do outside of school, they jump into the complex and then they work their way down to learn the simple elements that they need to learn the specific skills to put it all together versus we get to school and we kind of flip it as you’ve described – we’ll do all the simple first. Some kids quit before we get the complex in front of them.
Stephanie: 07:43 Right. And there’s always that question, “why am I learning this?” And if you start with a big picture, that question is moot. It’s clear why you’re learning it – because big systems matter.
Steve: 07:53 The complex and the big system becomes the motivation.
Stephanie: 07:56 Absolutely.
Steve: 07:58 What guidance would you offer teachers who are wanting to engage students in the big, big concept exploration?
Stephanie: 08:07 I’m a big fan of starting with what you’re already doing, picking the thing that you already love and are passionate about and know a lot about and then working to ground that in understanding systems and big ideas. And yes, I know you’ve gotta teach your grade level standards that’s important, but something I always say to my pre-service teachers is if at some point during the year you teach the thing that you care a lot about and know a lot about, and then the next teacher does that and the next teacher does that, and the next teacher does that, those kids are gonna get out of school having engaged in passionate learning about a whole lot of different things. So that’s my personal recommendation is start with the thing that you get really excited about and build it up.
Stephanie: 08:56 There’s an example that I just wrote about in my book. So when I was in elementary school, I have a vague memory of learning about soil types. I think I remember it because it was one of the few maybe sort of hands-on investigations I did in elementary school. I remember these kind of piles of different kinds of soil, ot was probably sand and loam and humus. Anyway, I have a vague memory of learning that I don’t remember why, I don’t exactly remember when, but the reason I remember it at all is that when my son was in fourth grade – he’s in college now, he came home and he described to me doing this exact investigation that I sort of kind of remembered. But at his school, they had a garden and his fourth grade teacher was the person who had made the garden happen.
Stephanie: 09:45 She was really passionate about it. They were growing vegetables, they were monitoring them, they were caring for them all year. And he came home and told me about this investigation, not just because his mom’s a science teacher, but also because he really thought we needed to do a better job with the soil in our own backyard and he was not wrong. Our backyard is full of really hard packed clay and he had learned something that mattered to him. He thought we needed to make a change. And so his teacher had taken this lesson that is pretty common in upper elementary school, I’ve seen it a lot over the years in different like fourth and fifth grade curricula. But she had grounded it in this thing that she cared about – this growing of food garden and looking at how soil impacts plants. Not hypothetical plants that you read about in a book, but actual plants that the kids were growing and caring for.
Stephanie: 10:35 This teacher is also responsible for my son loving salad because they grew the lettuce and then they ate the lettuce. He came home and he’s like, “Mom, it was the most amazing thing I ever had.” I’m like, “it was a salad”
Steve: 11:33 I wanna test an insight that I’ve found every time I hear a story like the one you just told me. And that is when teachers have done great things with kids, they almost never set out to do what they ended up doing. And I describe it that they they trusted following the kids. So once the teacher’s passion or the project got the kids engaged and it took on a life of its own, it was less the teacher planning for the whole thing to happen and more the teacher’s willingness to follow the kids and kind of let it go off on a direction of its own.
Stephanie: 12:19 Right. Absolutely.
Steve: 12:21 I know that you’re working on a book around teaching about climate change. I’m wondering if you’d share with folks some of the
pieces that you’ll be addressing there.
Stephanie: 12:31 Yeah. So I’m writing a book that is specifically aimed at elementary teachers and teaching for climate science and climate justice in the early grades because I think that’s where often there’s a lot of uncertainty around, how much exactly do we expose kids to, how do we help them feel powerful instead of scared. And so I’m using a framework to think about how we might engage kids in thinking around big ideas and kind of the big picture around climate change. Not necessarily all of the details about how – I do have a chapter on the carbon cycle but but I don’t think that’s where we need to spend most of our time in elementary school. Instead, it’s around this idea of first, understanding the earth as a set of interdependent systems. That if kids can begin to understand how everything is connected to everything else, and how when we change one thing, it has impact on all the others, then that begins to set them up to understand why it matters that we have taken too much carbon that was previously deep in the ground and now moved it, unintentionally, into our atmosphere and how that’s impacting so much of our lives.
Stephanie: 13:46 That if they already have this understanding that earth is this huge interconnected system, then adding, as you said, adding that piece to their understanding of the system will make sense. And then the second piece of the framework that I’m using is this idea of place-based learning. That people in general, but young children in particular, need to have their learning grounded in the community around them. That learning should help them understand their place in the world and the people and communities that they live in and that if they understand their place in their community, it both helps them feel power and it also opens them up to understanding about the wider world. And then the last piece of the framework is this idea of engaging in hope-filled action. That even little kids can do important things that improve life for people and that help with issues of climate change and that address issues of justice in their community. Planting trees in areas where there is mostly sidewalk and pavement, has a noticeable impact on people’s quality of life and it pulls carbon out of the atmosphere. Advocating for farmer’s markets in areas where people don’t have access to fresh, healthy food has a climate impact and it improves life for people. And those are things that kids can be involved in. So really grounding climate learning around this idea of engaging in hope-filled action.
Steve: 15:22 I’m wondering if you’d share with folks some words of encouragement that teachers who are kind of standing there saying, this sounds like a place I’d like, I’d like to explore, encouragement that would push one to take a little risk.
Stephanie: 15:42 Yeah. I think the biggest thing I would say is it’s okay to start small. It’s okay if you are not able or willing to completely redo your curriculum to focus on issues of climate change. There are lots of other important things in the curriculum too and and that’s okay. We need to start taking steps to integrate understanding of our world into everything we do, and especially understanding our changing climate. But it’s okay to start with one small project. And then the other piece of encouragement I would give is, especially if you’re doing this for the first time, to choose something that’s going to be fun and engaging and use that as a basis for the deep and meaningful. Because when you see the excitement that kids get when they feel like they’re doing something that matters and that’s interesting, and is helping them make these connections, that’s food for us as educators. That helps us do the hard work of adding complexity. If you are in a place where it snows and you bring a snowball in and kids watch it melt, that can be the beginning of understanding water systems and you can build from there towards something that’s more systems oriented. So nothing is too small a starting point and that it doesn’t all have to be big grand projects
Steve: 17:18 And the student excitement becomes the energy the teacher needs for the hard work of the teaching part of it.
Stephanie: 17:27 Right.
Steve: 17:27 Well, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed our our conversation. Would you tell folks the best way that they might connect with you with a question or read some of your writing?
Stephanie: 17:39 Absolutely. I am working on revitalizing my website, which I’ll eventually have in my email signature because it’s not quite there yet. So for now, the best way to contact me is through email, which is email@example.com and I should warn folks that I am on sabbatical this semester to finish writing my book, so you’ll get an autoresponder. I’m a little slow but I will read and respond to emails.
Steve: 18:12 Thank you. I really, really appreciate it and I look forward to following your work and checking out the book.
Stephanie: 18:20 Thanks so much. It was great to talk with you.
Steve: 18:22 Take care.
Stephanie: 18:23 Thank you.
Steve: 18:26 Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and firstname.lastname@example.org.