Student engagement and pedagogical practices?

Some schools and teachers have found SciJourn “worthwhile” because the project embraces particular, research-based pedagogical strategies that seek to support student engagement and learning (Bransford et al. 2000; Micheals et al. 2008). These include

  • Intellectually and socially authentic activity. Students work as journalists, rather than listen to a teacher lecture. By becoming journalists, students are responsible for identifying questions, finding sources, evaluating credibility and writing a final product. The teacher provides scaffolding as necessary, but the student is ultimately the worker.
  • Valuing community and distributed expertise. In almost all the lessons in this book, students must work through problems to discover and assess potential solutions. Problems range from finding a suitable topic to identifying “experts” to handling contradictory evidence.
  • Cooperative learning. Although this book generally focuses on articles with single authors, lessons encourage students to work together in other ways. Nearly all the lessons call for small and/or large group problem-oriented discourse. We have also included lessons on peer editing and creating classroom resources.
  • Open-ended, student-centered, classroom discussions. The discussions that arise from these lessons are not the kinds of “discussions” in which the teacher already knows the answer. In many lessons, students bring in articles or information that the teacher has never seen before. In other lessons, problems or scenarios that have no single correct answer are proposed. In all cases, student voices are central to the learning.
  • Building on/from student interests. While teachers may choose to use this approach in different ways, once students begin working on their own articles, their questions will drive instruction. Teachers may decide to limit topic choice, but students will have to develop their own questions within these topics if they are to truly act as journalists.
  • Real-world problem solving. Because science journalism is a real field with many real world examples to draw upon, students are working on authentic tasks. In addition, we have provided suggestions for publication so that student writing may gain the added authenticity that comes from having a real audience.

Given the difficulties inherent in learning to read and understand science, students need to be motivated. We know that interest trumps reading level, but how many students are able to find topics and specific examples that motivate them in their basic textbooks? As Lemke again puts it, “Given that learning to cope with scientific elements in our inquiries can be challenging, the inquiries themselves need to be highly motivated endeavors. They need to be important, authentic, pleasurable to pursue, well-fit with our evolving personal identities, freely chosen and undertaken. They also need to bring science in small (and gradually increasing) doses compared to the overall knowledge base needed.”
This brings us back to SciJourn. If one looks at the topics that students have chosen to write about—hippotherapy, cochlear implants, Potter’s syndrome, the timing of penalty kicks—it is clear that textbooks, or the curriculum in general, would not offer them much information about these subjects that have deep personal meaning and which motivate students to dig further, understand more and put ideas together. In an era when reading levels are used to determine much of what is offered to students as text, it is refreshing to see these students have an opportunity to struggle with personally meaningful information, motivated by a need to know more. We may be reminded of our own efforts to make our way through medical texts, surely above our reading level, to determine if a symptom is real or imagined.

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