The Freedom to Explore

I began teaching AP Biology 5 years ago. In those early days I had a 50 minute class period to work with and an intelligent, but less than eager group of students. Those first couple of years it was all about banging through as much material as quickly as possible. I did a lot of lecturing, and they did a lot of note taking ... or not, as was more generally the case. Thankfully, as I tell all of my students, each iteration of a class is better than the last.

Two years ago I moved to a flipped classroom. It was great. Sure, I had to make all of the videos, but rather than spending 60 minutes trying to simultaneously lecture and keep students awake then rushing to do some sort of reinforcement activity; I was afforded 90 minutes of time to engage students in interesting work. For me, last year was all about exploring what could be accomplished within this new block of time. Somehow, last year's class became about creative expression of learning. Given the opportunity to decide how they were going to express the material that had been consumed students often elected to perform skits, rap songs, and make posters. Retrospectively, this tilt away from rigorous involvement in material may have been a lack of planning on my part and a product of the reality that on a good day maybe 50% of the class had actually watched the night's lesson. Last year's lesson learned; creative expression good, lack of scientific rigor bad.

After getting crushed by less than stellar AP scores (here's a post documenting the aftermath) I made significant revisions to my process. I've moved to daily quizzes to ensure that students are actually watching the lessons and exit quizzes to determine what has been learned. With these small shifts I've seen the academic rigor of the class increase. As a consequence of this stepped up level of critical engagement, I have been able to do a lot of reflection on what it means to fully engage in the scientific process. One of the key things that I've learned over the past couple of years is that classes ultimately come to resemble their teacher and the interests of their teacher. Last year, I was interested in creative expression, so the class became interested in creative expression. After running a first iteration of AP Biology, I realized that I was not maximizing the time that could be spent working with students on actual inquiry skills. Consequently, this year I've been really interested in rigorous scientific processes of question and hypothesis development, experimental design, and communication of results. This renewed interest has taken the form of lots of independent lab work and pretty stringent assessment of the experimental design and reporting process. For the first time since I've been teaching AP Bio I've actually forced my students to think about the research process. Thankfully, I've been able to watch my class shift in response. At this point I can confidently say that this AP Bio class could out question, design, and communicate all previous classes.

Ultimately, isn't this what science (and often teaching) is about? Exploration and revision. Whether or not they kill the AP exam is almost irrelevant to me at this point. Sure, I'd like to see them do well. In reality, however, I can be confident that this year's AP Bio class will exit with a greater ability to truly engage in authentic scientific processes. They will not need remediation in future lab work. They will be exiting able to function as scientists. As a teacher, I'm hoping to continue that my focus will remain on rigorous scientific processes, rather than creative expressions. Watching my students seize the freedom to explore the natural world is so much more satisfying then laughing at a well constructed skit.


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