Being embedded as coaches in a school is providing The Shift with many unique opportunities to collaborate with other teachers. Two weeks ago, we were approached by two Milton District High School Science teachers who had heard about the Thinking Classroom and wanted to try it out with their Grade Nine Science students. This was exciting, because it was going to be a challenge for us as well as them. Our own areas of expertise currently lay outside of the science curriculum, we could bring the strategies of the Thinking Classroom to the table, but as far as knowing how to apply it to individual topics, we were at the mercy of the classroom teachers. But this is how we like to learn and grow, collaboratively.
The topic in question was Bohr Rutherford diagrams and the periodic table. This is traditionally taught by the teacher leading a lesson on atomic theory, the parts of the atom, how to draw Bohr Rutherford diagrams and then, how these diagrams related to the periodic table. Traditionally, the periodic table was given to the students first, without creating a reason for them to need it. Hilary Rivett and Jennifer Pratt, the teachers working with The Shift, wanted to change that. They were hoping that by using the Thinking Classroom model students would better understand and appreciate the need for the periodic table.
So with those two goals in mind, teaching students how to draw Bohr Rutherford diagrams and making them want to use the periodic table, we got to work. We spent some time discussing the research and philosophy behind the Thinking Classroom, why it is good for students and teachers and how it can be applied to the classroom. As luck would have it, we’ve recently released a Podcast on this very topic. You can listen to it here.
The format we decided on was pretty exciting for the educators, and we knew it would be a challenge for the students. In a nutshell, the teacher would gather the class around one of the whiteboards in the Demonstration Classroom and start their lesson. The script was simple, “This is how I would draw Lithium. This is how I’d draw Boron. This is how I’d draw Argon”. Total lesson time, about four minutes. Some questions were asked, like “What makes up the nucleus of an Atom”, but other than that, students were sent to their groups with the challenge question, “Can you draw Beryllium?”.
There was a frenzy of frustrated struggling. Students were not in Flow, they didn’t know how the teacher drew their diagrams, what the rings represented, what the numbers on the board meant, or how to even start drawing their element. However, as groups moved back and forth between their boards and the teachers work small hints of understanding began to emerge.
“Every drawing has that thing in the middle with different numbers.”
“I think the dots are the electrons.”
“How do we know how many protons Beryllium has?”
And this was the moment the teachers were waiting for. The groups were quickly realizing that they needed a tool to help them draw their diagrams. That tool was the Periodic Table.
“Is there something you’ve seen that might help you?”, asked the teacher. The words were barely out of their mouth before the groups were rushing to their backpacks to grab their Periodic Tables. Connections were quickly made between the atomic number of an element and the number of protons. With a bit more thinking, students realized that the number of protons and electrons were equal in these diagrams. More insight followed with respect to the placement of the electrons. Students were flying through our examples now and by the end of the 75 minute period had drawn several diagrams, listed the steps to draw any of the first 20 elements and were working on consolidating their drawings into an individual meaningful note.
Hilary and Jennifer were pretty pumped with how well things went. Normally it takes them two days to get students this far along. Everyone was looking forward to day two, which was going to start with a challenge.
“Draw the first twenty elements, as a class, as fast as you can”
The students didn’t disappoint us, but the point of this exercise wasn’t to see how quickly things could get drawn. The teachers wanted to consolidate a bit more of the learning from yesterday and have a big visual for the class to refer to. Students were again divided into groups of three and sent to individual white boards to work. Their question for the day, “What patterns do you notice in our big periodic table of Bohr Rutherford diagrams?” Some groups jumped right into finding patterns, others needed some nudging. “What if you looked across the rows? Or down the columns?” More thinking from students resulted in some pretty insightful observations around the trends and rules of the Periodic Table.
There was a bit of a disaster at the beginning of the third day, as the class created Periodic Table had been mistakenly erased in the night. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise to us when multiple students in the class asked if they could redraw it before the bell rang! Afterwards, student groups were assigned two different elements and were asked to use an online source to learn all they could about each element, including how it behaves. Once groups had a decent handle on their elements, the teacher asked them to circulate around the room and find other elements that might belong to their “family”. Students were again able to reinforce the connections made the day before with respect to the trends and patterns in the Periodic Table.
The work was wrapped up by one final consolidation with teachers and students, and the teacher asking “Why are some elements more reactive than others?”
To which one student replied, “Maybe because some have less electrons?”
Which is a great point for these students to get to, mostly on their own, by the end of this activity. On day four they will be back in their regular science lab doing some experiments around reactivity of elements. It’ll be a great way to test some of the theories and patterns they determined previously. All told, there was about 20 minutes of formal teaching over the three days of this activity. The bulk of the work was done and lead by students, working collaboratively and thinking critically. The biggest challenge was getting them used to working within the Thinking Classroom model. One class in particular was very high energy and had several students that were prone to outbursts. The great piece from having students standing, working at whiteboard was that the energy from these students were directed at the problem being solved, rather than the class and teacher. All in all, a lot was learned by the teachers and us in this process. The Shift was able to mentor two teachers through a planning and execution of a lesson while at the same time teaching them about the Thinking Classroom. As a bonus, we learned a lot about the Periodic Table too!