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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Learning Lab: A Science Center Is an Ideal Model for All Classrooms

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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In my last entry, I described a favorite experience from my short teaching career: the opportunity to use free and freely available science manipulatives and materials to enable hands-on discovery in the classroom. It reminded me of one of the most remarkable learning environments I have ever had the pleasure to spend time in.

While I was still a substitute teacher in a large northern California school district, I covered for the teacher of a science center for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) children. I met with Mr. Bogardus for a briefing the day before his absence, and although I took charge during subsequent assignments there, that first day I basically assisted his classroom aide.

The science center was a converted house at the edge of a large suburban park, and, in and around the unassuming structure, some vivid learning took place. During an intensive week of study, fourth graders examined animal skulls and identified them by their characteristics, such as the placement of the eyes, the form of the jaw, and the shape of the teeth. They took meteorological readings. They performed experiments and made observations and did everything else scientists do, much of it with little guidance or supervision.

On the last day of their weeklong session at the science center, the students circulated through the small building, visiting various workstations and observing and recording phenomena and data, demonstrating mastery of the skills they had acquired during the week. That was their final exam.

After enjoying my time there, I realized that every classroom -- not just those available in rotation to GATE students for a single week -- should be like the science center. All learning environments should offer young, kinetic learners a place to get on their feet and look, feel, listen, and experience learning with their senses and acquire knowledge and understanding the way adults do, by engaging in authentic activities.

Alas, though when I was hired as a full-time teacher I did give my students experiences with science and math manipulatives, I was never able to comprehensively achieve this vision of active, experiential education in my own classroom. I did observe it once again, however, in another school district.

Mrs. Gillfillan's fourth- and fifth-grade classroom featured shared tables, not desks, plus enough fiction and nonfiction books to stock a small school library and a wealth of implements, artifacts, and specimens. Her students spent a lot of time out of their seats but into their learning, including the occasional overnight field trip. I suspect they remember Mrs. Gillfillan's class to this day.

Classrooms and teachers like these have always existed and have become more numerous in the intervening years. However, bureaucratic directives and regressive legislation have doused many sparks of learning and dampened many young spirits that might otherwise have been animated by creative educational environments and experiences.

But even in our retrograde pedagogical climate, such forward-thinking places like the Science Center still thrive -- we've covered many in our magazine and on this Web site, and there must be many, many more. We hope you'll share with us your efforts to help active learning occur, your knowledge of learning laboratories, and your discovery of -- or professional resemblance to -- great teachers like Mr. Bogardus and Mrs. Gillfillan.

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Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Janice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This kind of learning does continue to exsist. In fact I work in a small charter school in the mountains of Arizona where the entire school is made up of classes that are organized with shared tables and designated labs for all areas of discipline. The direct instruction is treated as a lab where students receive individualized instruction for Reading, Mathematics, Writing, and Spelling. There is much more to this than I can list here but my point is that experiential learning is very effective and there are administrators who not only accept this kind of teaching but expect it. I happen to be one of these administrators. This kind of learning takes alot of planning but alot less teaching time managing behaviors. Our inclusive classrooms are flexible enough for our students with Asperger's Syndrome and Autism to be very successful. They lend themselves to some great social experiences that these students wouldn't otherwise have access to.

Cheryl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Janice's thoughts yet we're stuck in a 20th century building. If we were to rebuild, do you have a website, school, picture, etc. that would help me envision an elementary school for the 21st century?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

To sit and explain how I teach and the philosophy I follow would be never-ending. I do however, teach with the idea that children are and can be active learners within a classroom environment that is engaiging and interactive. I suggest going to google.com and searching Reggio Emilia Approach. If this does not inspire and encourage you to strive for a child-centered active classroom, then nothing else will.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that in many classrooms teachers plan authentic learning experiences for students. Some such experiences are called Problem-Based, Project-Based, Inquiry Based Learning, Reggio Emilia Approach etc. In all of these experiences teachers are called upon to purposefully plan learning experiences that meet the needs of students. There are different ways teachers can make the shift from pencil and paper learning to hands on learning. One way to begin is to find a teaching partner who shares the same pedagogy in respect to teaching and learning. That person does not necessarily need to be in your school, although it makes things easer if they are close by. Make sure you consult your curriculum and learner outcomes and keep this always in sight. Then build "respectful tasks" to achieve the specific learner expectations based on your program of studies. Assessment for learning, of learning and while learning is taking place are critical components of addressing the needs of students. There also must be a commitment to support students when it is recognized that learning is not taking place.

Stacy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I dream of the day that I would be able to incorporate a "Learning Lab" in my classroom. I see the value of them daily in my classroom when it is simply a lab day or the students are investigating my specimen cabinets. The education that they receive by their own inquiry is often worth much more than provided by state standards and regulated curriculum. Unfortunately, the students that would benefit most from this type of learning environment are often not likely to receive it, due to limited resources from the government and lack of support within the community. I don't think this should stop the initiative of incorporating these learning labs into the curriculum; the value can not be replaced.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I spent time observing a teacher in my local district last year who used hands-on science lessons every week in her classroom. Once a week she holds a science lab for her fifth graders, and they really love it! Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of this going on in other classrooms. I think some teachers are overwhelmed by the thought of how much work goes into it, but it is so worth the results! The students love it, and they learn so much more!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This sounds like a wonderful learning environment, one where children are genuinely intriqued rather than going through the motions for a good grade. I do not think most children experience enough hands-on learning. Classrooms like these help prepare children for life after school because it links what they are learning with an actual important reason for knowing that material or skill. Simply teaching a student a method or skill without showing them why it is relevant in their life or the world is leaves them lost, not to mention frustrate and/or bored.

Elizabeth's picture

I liked how this article presented two excellent observations of classrooms where hands on activities are working and are in practice. I think part of getting started is that when a teacher is fortunate enough to be in the same school and the same grade for a period of years and therefore knows the curriculum and the administrators that is the best time to implement ideas and programs like these. I would imagine most teachers in such classrooms would say they added more and more over time. I did an observation in my district, as a first year teacher, of an excellent 4th grade teacher and I asked her where she came up with her centers and group activities. She said it was 10 years worth of trial and error and making up what she couldn't find in existence.

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