Eighth-grade science at Rivers has got it backwards—as Josh Shaller, the class’s teacher, would be the first to admit.
“In most classes, you’d learn about the theory first—as a fact—and then maybe do a lab to support it. In this one,” he continues, “you start with a question, do the lab work, and make sense of the data.”
It’s an inquiry-based approach, and, says Shaller, it works perfectly for the grade level and the topic, which is an introduction to physical science. “Kids in eighth grade are still excited about science and possibility. This approach taps into their natural curiosity. It’s based around questions, rather than the idea that there’s all this knowledge that you have to accumulate in order to pass the class.”
That curiosity was on full display on a recent Wednesday morning, in a basement lab in Lewis. Students wandered into class, chatting and laughing, taking seats around a horseshoe-shaped countertop to convene as a group before heading into the lab proper. “We’ll start as we always do with a moment of silence,” says Shaller, “to get our heads in the space.”
Shaller is keenly aware that this class is preparing students for the greater demands of high school science, and as such, he wants them to make peace with the discomfort that comes of uncertainty.
The tone Shaller sets is both relaxed and rigorous. “I like to use humor as a way to connect with students,” Shaller said. “I try to get to know what they are into, and I’ll use stories from my life that can illustrate different scientific principles.” An anecdote, for instance, about a fellow camp counselor lifting a heavy rock out of the water and dropping it on his foot served to help illustrate the difference between mass and weight.
Today’s lesson is about density. The students split into pairs to work on the lab, which involves measuring and weighing cubes and slabs made of different materials. Shaller walks from group to group, clarifying and probing but studiously avoiding providing answers. That’s the students’ job. He checks one group’s answers on the fly and asks them how they got their results—leading one student to conclude, “I think we did something wrong.”
But there are no wrong answers in this classroom. “There’s a lot of confusion and mistakes,” Shaller announces as the students weigh and measure and record their results. “That is the process.”
It’s that very messiness that helps engage students and keeps them hooked, says Shaller. “Some kids come in thinking they don’t like science, but they usually end up changing their opinion about that,” he says. “In this class, the data is the teacher. They don’t spend time at tables; they sit around and discuss stuff and ask questions. There’s no place to find the right answers. The answers to most of the questions aren’t somewhere in the book. You have to have done it and felt it and talked about it and made a couple of mistakes.”
After the groups have completed the activity, Shaller tells them, “If you feel confident and proud of your data, put it on the board.” Every group does, eventually. The exercise becomes collaborative, with the cumulative data pointing toward a collective answer. One number is an outlier, which doesn’t trouble Shaller at all. It enables him to make yet another observation about the process, as he analyzes what went wrong: “This illustrates my point, that even a small difference or discrepancy becomes amplified as you do the calculations.”
Photos by John Hurley