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Critical Analysis in Science

(The following article by Lower School Science Teacher Brian Donnelly, appears in the winter 2014 issue of Saint David's Magazine.)

When I first heard the term Critical Analysis spoken by the Headmaster at the faculty’s opening meeting, I immediately tried to think about how it could be applied within the science lab. I realized then that the phrase could hold multiple definitions, each one as important as the others. My first thought was how I, a professional educator, could use critical analysis to improve the curriculum and so better meet the needs of my students. The second was how the students themselves could use critical analysis within the classroom to learn from their own actions and improve upon them—a valuable life skill.

I was pleased to realize that I had utilized the concept of critical analysis when updating the science curriculum as part of the school-wide Curriculum Initiative. Having taught each grade of the Lower School for several years, I am extremely familiar with the developmental needs of students at each grade level. Teaching consecutive years allows me to stay focused, following my curriculum map, and differentiating my instruction to maximize student understanding. If the first graders do not properly learn the scientific method by the final unit of the year, it is difficult to begin teaching Second Grade science, as it relies on a familiarity with the steps taught in the previous year. Each unit of each grade is dependent on what the students learn earlier, constantly building upon each skill so that they enter the Upper School ready to think and act like scientists. Only through critical analysis of the curriculum can I be assured that each lesson flows logically to the next and that each unit properly prepares the boys for the ones that follow.

Every year, I have made it a point to place a handful of units through a critical analysis treatment in which I judge each lesson for efficacy, comparing it to the goals presented in our Teaching for Understanding framework. As much as I may love a specific demonstration or experiment, I recognize the need to remove it if it does not relate to the understanding goals I set up for each unit. Each lesson follows a simple rule: If it does not teach or practice a valuable skill that will aid students in the future, the lesson will be replaced by one that does.

In analyzing my own lessons, I also realized the importance of having the boys themselves utilize critical analysis within the classroom. Students cannot properly cognize the topics laid out according to the Teaching for Understanding framework through lectures; they need to investigate and evaluate the concepts in toto to truly internalize the theories presented. Only by completing a project and revisiting it to improve their initial hypotheses can the boys truly arrive at the end of a unit with a thorough understanding of the concepts. Luckily, several Lower School science units naturally lend themselves to this train of thought. This is especially evident within the Third Grade.

Prior to the Third Grade, the boys focus on the methodology used to answer science questions. To learn the steps of the scientific method, many experiments for the youngest students are typically concrete labs demonstrating predictable outcomes. Each procedure has few variables, and the results are clear, concise, and easy to observe. Although I have employed this approach extensively in previous years, the Third Grade labs can be more abstract and open ended, encouraging students to draw their own conclusions. By design, these more difficult labs also tend to lead to more errors and do not always result in obvious solutions. If an experiment’s results differ from a student’s hypothesis, he is uncertain whether the results are due to a fault in his procedure or an incorrect hypothesis. In these situations, without prompting, boys take the initiative to analyze and repeat the experiment to double-check the reaction and form a more accurate conclusion.

This is clearly evident within the Third Grade “Motion and Design” unit, in which students learn and discuss the three fundamental laws of motion and then design their own vehicle to test these laws. Individual vehicle design adds a large number of variables that can benefit or hinder the car’s potential during testing trials. This is exciting for the class, because a group that is unsuccessful in achieving the highest speeds for their vehicle will revisit their design and try to discover which aspects must be altered. With no direct instruction by the teacher, students need to utilize each other as resources. Having critically analyzed each design, all members of the group must reach a consensus and develop an improved, high-functioning vehicle capable of higher speeds. Each design often requires multiple cycles of review and modification until the boys are content with their results.

Once this student-driven session is complete, additional elements are added to allow the third graders to continue to practice analyzing each aspect of their design and processes critically. One of the most popular examples within this unit is when a paper sail is added to each vehicle. The majority of students are familiar with the concept of sailboats, and assume that the sail aids the vehicle in achieving faster speeds. When asked to hypothesize how the sail will affect the speed of the vehicle, boys almost unanimously state that it will move faster, drawing on their knowledge of sailboats; a highly logical prediction for students of this age. After several trials are performed with and without the sail, the results always demonstrate a decrease in vehicle speed with the sail addition, causing confusion and multiple re-tests among the students. Through this process, the boys are forced to face their own preconceived notions of how the sails influenced their vehicles and draw a new conclusion to the lab based on their findings.

I have realized that as long as the concept of critical analysis is pursued within the lab, these skills will continue to be honed and can be utilized beyond the classroom. By analyzing their own work, generalizing ideas based on what they already knew, and drawing new inferences, our students are opening themselves up to a world where they won’t be afraid to question their environment and form their own opinions. All fixed beliefs of the world open up for follow-up discussion and possible re-evaluation. After all, educators’ main objective shouldn’t be to focus primarily on the fact-driven, topic-specific content we’re teaching, but rather to ready our students with the skills necessary to make their own decisions for the time when they depart from Saint David’s School.


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