Reflections on Schmoker’s Focus with the Traveling Teacher

Focus by Mike Schmoker (ASCD)

Mike Schmoker’s new book Focus came in the mail on a beautiful Saturday morning.  It started off as nice lazy day with no pressing deeds needing to be done, so I started to skim through the pages of the new book and was hooked immediately.

The chapter on science inquiry caught my attention, as I’ve been thinking deeply about science due in part to the dramatic changes the new Colorado Science Standards are having on the sequencing of our district content, and my thinking and wondering about how to best support our curriculum alignment and instructional needs.

It was just prior to the book’s arrival that I was invited to meet with three high school science teachers at one of our local schools.  They weren’t concerned about the new content standards, per se – but the pedagogical components necessary to meet these new learning outcomes.  You see, the science process skills are completely embedded within the three science strands of physical, earth and life science.  Inquiry is the heart of the new state standards – and professional opportunities to support inquiry in their classrooms was their request.

Immediately I started thinking about how science teachers I know might connect with his ideas.  I wasn’t really sure if they would be simpatico.  So, I asked a good friend, prolific blogger (The Traveling Teacher), and science teacher colleague of mine Liz Swanson to tell me her thoughts.

First, I wanted to know about his thinking of hands-on activities.  We do a lot of hands-on activities in our district science classes. We use FOSS kits as a foundation in our elementary classrooms, our secondary teachers design numerous labs and investigations to support a wide variety of learning outcomes.


Cornstarch and Water by GoodNCrazy (CC)

So, do you agree with Schmoker and his beliefs about hands-on activities?

“I have to say that I agree with him whole-heartedly. [Schmoker’s] not saying that we shouldn’t do hands-on activities but he is saying we need to throw out the “cookie cutter” labs where the results are already known to the kids before they even start. These are not labs, they are just time filler activities. Labs need to be used strategically to discover a concept or observe something that is better observed first through visual means and then through text and discussion. I think he is just saying that science is really about answering questions and we need to use literacy practices and purpose-driven,  hands-on activities to really delve into the answers and in this way, kids can really be doing the “work” of scientists.

Tell me more… I know when we worked together this was a big part of the context of learning you worked to create in your classroom.  What does it mean to you to engage students in the real work of scientists?

“About 4 or 5 years ago, when I was doing … training, I kept hearing [our trainer] say that kids need to do the “work” of real scientists and I was having a really hard time understanding what she meant. I just couldn’t see how [this concept] applied and what the heck the real “work” of scientists was if it wasn’t just doing experiments. Then, I started thinking about myself as a scientist of teaching, and also, I started thinking about my dad…who is a scientist…he’s a doctor.  I thought about my dad and the real “work” that he does is mostly reading. He does spend a huge amount of his time (his words) “up to his elbows in stink and blood!” but really, every night of my life as a child, I saw my dad laying in bed, reading journals. Every vacation, he read journals or medical textbooks. And, every year, he goes to multiple conferences where he always wants to go alone so he can spend all of his free time reading and studying in preparation for the lectures and the practical work. My best friend’s dad is also a doctor, and her life experiences with this were exactly the same. Both of us had homes with stacks of medical reading materials all over.”

Science Fair Wins Ribbons by Oakley Originals

So, real scientists spend mountains of time reading as well as engaging in authentic science inquiry. The theme of reading critical text runs through the entire book.  How did this knowledge connect with your thinking about teaching?

“[D]uring a coaching session… it was literally like a sudden lightning bolt of understanding – I got it….the real “work” of scientists is processing information whether that be through writing, reading, speaking, listening, or experimenting. At that point, I threw out a lot of “labs” that I had been doing that were just leftover in my classroom when I got there and had been doing because they fit the topic but weren’t really “real inquiry” and I started to really think about how I could get kids to need to read and discuss to solve more real-life problems. This has been my little quest ever since.

You know, I never remember seeing the textbook out in your classroom.  What did you think of Schmoker’s praise for using the textbook to such a great degree?

“I was definitely struck by the textbook part though and it really got me thinking about how I can use the textbook in a more strategic way. Because, he’s right, in college, and in real life, we use textbook like text to really learn new information. I always dragged out my old chemistry books to show kids how much annotation I had done in order to learn and how much summarizing I’d done in the margins, but I definitely didn’t do enough of that with them being the readers…something to think about for sure! I hope I have good textbooks in Germany because in England, I had these textbooks that were matched to the national curriculum and so they didn’t go in depth into anything because the next year’s textbook had the same info at a deeper level. So annoying. You couldn’t actually “read” the book for information. It glossed over EVERYTHING! Like “cells” was just a double page spread…not very helpful for real reading. Stuff I taught in seventh grade in the US wasn’t taught until Year 10 & Year 11. It seemed like they saved the “real science” for the exam years.”

So, you wouldn’t advocate the level of “focus” you’ve seen in the UK science textbooks written for students.  What are your thoughts about Schoker’s overall message of “focus” then?

“[W]hen you hired me to teach two subjects at the same time, I really had to think about what was essential. Basically, it was you and a few conversations I had with [others]… where I basically felt like I was given permission to cut down my curriculum to the essentials and big ideas. That’s pretty much what I’d spent the last several years working on – with the Tiger team – being as strategic as possible in what we were going to teach. I think that’s why when the new standards came out…I was pretty psyched, because they made my job a lot easier – they did what I had already largely spent years working on!”

Thanks Liz!  Thanks for being a learning and helping me think through the message of this book through the lens of a great science teacher!!!

Now, I just need to find a math, a literacy, and a social studies teacher to help me think through the other content area….

Anyone want to read this book and chat with me 🙂 ?

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