The limits of molecular learning

As the evening wore down and the hour hand moved north of the seven, my sixth grade daughter informed me she had a big science test the next day and needed help studying. She admitted confusion about some of the concepts, but half the assessment was a take-home essay test she needed to do now, and the other half would be a multiple-choice test taken tomorrow. With the textbook in hand, we launched into a review of minerals, rocks and the rock cycle.

Now I love the earth sciences as much as the next guy, especially having taught it for years, but the textbook was confusing to the point where I had trouble keeping the necessary facts straight. Its layout felt like an pop music video, jumping around, blurring factoids in picture captions, examples in sidebars, facts in text boxes within the text, and bold text stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that strung out geological terms like a clothesline filled with random laundry. Density, quartz, streak, metamorphic, intrusive. A previous assignment she had a few days earlier was nothing more than a large crossword puzzle. Now I see why.

I took this picture. Oddly, I found myself standing between Arne Duncan and Bill Nye after Duncan

At the 2009 NSTA conference, Arne Duncan‘s keynote mentioned, “You need to challenge yourselves and each other to move the curriculum beyond dinosaurs and volcanoes…”

I agree, and read “beyond” as to mean “in addition to, and not limited to.” But what if ‘beyond’ also addressed traditional teaching methods as well?

But I digress. Once the hour hand moved north of the nine and as we wrapped up the science study, my daughter mentioned that she had a book report due the next day as well just. But not to worry dad she said. “All I have to do is write it.”

While I was still recovering from the science book scavenger hunt, she motored forward and pulled out her Kindle3. Having downloaded the assigned reading to her e-reader, she had highlighted, notated and bookmarked all the parts she thought were important as she read it. Basically she interacted with the book by digitally “writing” all over it while she was reading it. Plus she had used the dictionary feature to look up any word for which she wasn’t clear on the meaning.

One click later and she had all her interactions with the book in one list. It was like a personal book search engine. Opening the first note, she began to write. Half an hour later it was printed, and worthy of an ‘A’ I might add. Her teacher thought so too.

Score:  Digital 1  Molecules 0

Considering the events of the evening I couldn’t help but mentally mash together the two educational paradigms. What if the science textbook was as interactive as the literature book? What if I could step in and populate the text with my own pictures? What if teachers, parents, and students could modify or supplement the textbook to reflect the things they believe are important. What if there were strong textbook connections to the local area? If there’s one thing Montana (where I live) has plenty of, its rocks. But Montana rocks are rarely in the books except maybe for the museum showpiece we call Glacier National Park.

Open source learning in many forms has been around for the better part of this century, but lately its critical mass has pushed the concept into mainstream educational discussions. Schools and organizations are collaboratively designing their own “textbooks” and some have even served up the content onto the Internet for free download. It is not the just the advantaged districts that are pushing the envelope on this one, but there are those doing it out of need. And it is not just Americans. In fact, one of the more impressive and creative efforts in this genre that I know of is the Free High School Science Textbook (FHSST) project in South Africa.

The appearance of free, editable math and science textbooks from South Africa is not surprising. When I was at a GLOBE Learning Expedition in Cape Town a couple years ago, there really was a duality where moments of the past mingled with visions of the future. Technology allows leapfrogging since change is rarely incremental. It is more a function of punctuated evolution where digital asteroids bombard education causing expansion in directions that did not exist a year earlier, and leaps in directions that did. It also helps when there are some dedicated venture capitalists who push the vision. Mark Shuttleworth a South African entrepreneur and space tourist, and the brainchild behind many free access ventures including one of my favorites, the Freedom Toaster, is one such individual. The Shuttleworth Foundation was also a major supporter of the GLOBE conference. I cannot help but wonder if pockets of innovation and creativity like the Freedom Toaster, scattered the sparks of problem solving and inspiration.

Out of curiosity, I downloaded one of the FHSST science texts and installed it on my Kindle2 and on my iPad. The Kindle presented it just like a regular .pdf, but I could not quickly magnify or shrink the text and graphics nor interact within the document with the reckless abandon that immersive learning demands.

On my iPad, I first loaded the text into my iBook library using the iTunes interface, but it wouldn’t open. I then used Safari (the built-in web browser on iPad) to download the textbook again. I loaded it into the .pdf area of the iBook interface. It was presented beautifully with the grace of movement and scaling the iPad is famous for. But sadly I could not write on the pages, nor change the content or add comment within the margins. Then I moved to a $2.99 app called GoodReader and downloaded the book again.

Although the GoodReader technology is not invisible (meaning your mind does not consider the tech while using it—like a phone or computer mouse), it did show significant promise in the direction I was looking. I could add notes—even on faux yellow stickies. I could draw on page, and I could bookmark pages. But I still could not load pictures into the text, but maybe when the iPad has a camera, it will be possible to embed pics directly into the document as they are taken (hint-hint in case any app developers are reading this).

I don’t know how this will work on the Android OS side not having an Android device, but learning often takes place with verbs and in spite of nouns. In other words, something will work, and the better or the worse is in the touch of the beholder.

And all the above occurred close in time to President Obama’s State of the Union speech. President Obama mentioned, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment” which is a reference to a rather notable punctuation mark in the sentence we call science education.

Sputnik was a wakeup call to America that demanded a response. As our current “Sputnik moment” unfolds, I hope we can lead the way rather than just react or follow. And maybe a good place to start is to learn from our students.

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One Comment

  1. Shirley Runge
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Loved this article. I am a career changer and used to be a database administrator. I also am a mother who has helped her son’s study their jr high science books and I now teach jr high 6-8 science . I can relate is so many ways to the author and totally agree that we need the interactiveness of the books and capabilities that was described with his daughter’s book report. Students are bogged down with the vocabulary words and many still think of science as memorization and not true inquiry based since they struggle with vocab (spelling and concepts).
    The existing text books need to be online to be able to change and reflect the dynamic scientific world we live in as well as reflect new standards.

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