When my son was younger, he struggled to follow directions. I would always have to repeat the directions or chunk them if there were multiple steps for him to follow. This worked until he grew a bit older. Then he hated when I would tell him something more than once. “Dad, you already told me that,” he would say. So, I tried to give him the directions only once. Sometimes that worked and other times it failed miserably. Then I got into the habit of writing things down for him. I made him cool little checklists to follow when he was doing his chores at home. This worked very well for him. He could easily follow the directions at his speed. It only took about ten years for me to figure out how best to provide my son with directions. I either said too much or not enough.
There’s a fine line to providing directions to others, especially when they are children. You don’t want to spoon feed them everything, but you want them to feel supported and safe. As a teacher, I often struggle with this issue. Am I saying too much or not enough? Will they be able to effectively utilize the new skill if they don’t practice first? It’s challenging to know or figure out what works best for the group of students in the classroom.
Today in STEM class, I introduced the final two sections of the Lab Report: Results and Conclusion. During our last class, the students began an experiment regarding gummy bears. What will happen when a gummy bear is placed in water for 24 hours? We had completed the Problem, Hypothesis, Materials, and Procedure sections together as a class and they conducted the investigation by the close of the last STEM period. Today, they needed to observe the outcome and record their noticings in the Results section. This didn’t take too long. I provided them simple written directions and explained them orally before they got to work. I gave them 10 minutes to complete this phase. Things went well here. The boys were mostly all engaged. One student was ill during the last class and was unable to complete the investigation. He was a bit distracted, but I had him work with his table partner to record observations in his Results section for practice. I then explained the results and why they occurred. I provided them with the scientific knowledge behind the experiment. I drew diagrams and everything. They seemed to understand this well. Then came time to write the Conclusion together. I wanted to model how to do it as they were doing theirs so that they had a basic understanding of the expectations. This is where things went off-track a bit.
As I drafted the first several sentences of the Conclusion section on the board, the boys copied what I had onto their Lab Report. However, some students process information at different rates and so while most of the students were able to keep up, three students wrote very slowly. Instead of moving on as I had intended after five minutes of waiting for them to copy what was on the board, I had to pause even longer. The students seemed restless. Those who needed more time worked hard while those students who had finished, were distracting others. Finally, I was able to move on and continue working on the Conclusion section of the Lab Report. I added a few more sentences, but then needed room on the board for the rest. So, I erased what I had already typed. This made it difficult for those methodical students as they were still writing what I had erased. Some of them started to stress out immediately. I quickly came to their aide and provided them with a strategy to solve their problem. This helped, but it took away from the rest of the class. I wasn’t able to move on and challenge those quick workers as soon as I would have liked to. They continued to be distracted and distracting as they waited. A few of the boys made a wise choice while they waited and read quietly, but many others did not. I praised the students who were making good choices to try and inspire others to follow suit. It worked a bit. Then, as we were finishing the final few sentences, two students who had gone to the hospital earlier in the day arrived back and were very lost. They then distracted their peers instead of figuring out what was going on and following along. I then had to redirect them and guide them to the correct choice. After settling everybody down, I then started collecting finished lab reports. Those students who had finished, could make a quiet choice at their seat. However, other students started doing the same even though they weren’t finished the task at hand. I then had to take myself away from helping those students who wanted help to redirect those students who were struggling to follow directions. This continued for several more minutes. Finally, I collected the final lab report and had everybody’s attention. I closed class reviewing why we utilize lab reports and the scientific method in the sixth grade. I wanted to be sure they understood the purpose behind what we were doing. I then highlighted some of what I saw in the classroom. “Some of you struggled to keep up and got frustrated when I had erased work you still needed to copy down. However, you persevered and solved your problem. Failure and frustration can lead to genuine learning that will be remembered in the long term memory portion of the brain. Making mistakes and learning from them is a crucial part of the learning process.”
Things certainly didn’t go as planned today and I felt a bit helpless. I needed the boys to understand how to properly create a lab report, but was having them all practice together necessary? Could I have structured the lesson differently? Was there another way to get the job done? Could I have allowed those students who felt comfortable to go at their own pace, following the details on our class Haiku Website, while I helped those struggling students? Would that have been a more viable option? What if the students who felt like they knew what they were doing didn’t actually know what they were doing? Then they would have created an incorrect lab report and would have had to start all over again. But wouldn’t they have then learned from their mistake and never again think they know more than they do? What about having those students who finished early support those boys who needed help? That would have made my role in the classroom a bit less cumbersome today. There are clearly many other ways to accomplish the same goal I set out to do today in class. I need to be more mindful of this when trying to do something similar in the near future. I could have better differentiated my instruction to help all of the learners in my class. While today’s lesson felt like a failure, it was actually a great learning experience for me and one that I can use to grow from. I now know how not to teach the skill of lab reporting in the future. So, today’s bomb of a lesson wasn’t all for not. At least I learned something from class today.