Building A Better General Science Course

I’m lucky. I teach within a small community of adult educators across the province of Nova Scotia. There are only a couple of dozen of us, across 13 campuses who teach Science IV, the general science course for students who need a science credit to receive their High School diploma. Every so often we are called upon to to review the curriculum and provide input into what we should be teaching. Since there are so few of us, it is a great opportunity to put ideas forward and have them realized. This post is meant to share my ideas around a new Science curriculum for adults but it’s also to solicit feedback, advice and good ideas from other Science teachers from a variety of different schools, teaching all ages. I’m interested in what people think a good, general science course looks like.


Shoot For The Moon CC Andrew LeBlanc

I have been thinking a lot lately about what this course should be. Science IV is an appreciation of science course, often referred to as a “Science for non-scientists”. Many students do go on to take the academic sciences, however, the purpose of this class is to provide a basic education for those who will take it as their sole experience with Science. I want to build a course where students get to explore their interests, satisfy their curiosity, experience the wonder of science and leave with a basic knowledge of how science works and what it tells us about ourselves and our place into universe.

From this perspective, several questions act as starting points for a curriculum revision:

1. What Is Basic Scientific Knowledge?

If a person is only going to take one science class, what should they know when they come out? There are thousands of possible scientific topics a course like this could cover but we should ask ourselves, what does a scientifically literate person know, and what ideas have they been exposed to? The question isn’t limited to just scientific fact, it extends to the history and philosophy of science as well. Answering this question should provide the basis for the topics covered in the course, either as units or as parts of units.

2. What Are Basic Scientific Experiences a Student Should Have?

When scientists talk about their upbringing they often share an anecdote or two about some experience they had with science as being formative. This could be the first time they looked through a microscope, it could be making something like a crystal radio or playing with a chemistry kit. Science IV needs some provision for these scientific experiences. While doing a variety of labs is important and a good teacher will create many opportunities like this, are there some basic things we should all be doing in order to provide a thorough, well-rounded education in Science? Basic scientific experiences need to be incorporated into the delivery of the course explicitly.

3. What Are Basic Scientific Skills?

Do we expect a Science IV student to set up a cancer research lab by the time they are finished the class? Probably not, but what should a student be able to accomplish from having taken the course? The skills a student leaves with are developed through applying the knowledge gained to the experiences had. If we design the course properly, the skills will fall out.

In answering all three questions around, “what is basic?”, we also need to consider the fine balance between exposure and mastery. What should students at least see or do versus what do they need to fully understand? Both are important to a well rounded, fun and interesting Science course.

Where To Begin?

Currently Science IV has 7 disjointed topics, shoehorned into place with little in the way of narrative to connect them together. I would like to create a course that tells a story. The big picture for me is a course that demonstrates what science tells us about ourselves and our place in the universe. My thinking around this has been shaped by the Big History Project, a movement to make history accessible and contextual. If I were only going to take one history course, that would be it. Big History starts at the beginning, the big bang, and runs through the history of the solar system, life and civilization right up to today showing how the past is connected to the present and future and leaving students with the knowledge of their place in it. I would like a general science course like Science IV to resemble that. Each unit can be taught as a stand alone (a requirement of the program I teach in) but together they form a scientific big picture.

Here Are My Answers To The Questions Above:

1. Basic scientific knowledge in my mind means knowing a little astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics and social sciences. After that, the specifics are debatable. A holistic science course, like Big History, starts at the beginning and moves out from there. Each unit should allow for discussion of historical context and application of the scientific method.

Unit 1 – Space: Students study astronomy and what’s out there in the universe starting with the Big Bang. Students should know the difference between a star, a planet & a galaxy for example. In the end they will have a basic idea about where the Earth fits in to the wider universe.

Unit 2 – Planet Earth: Students look at the geological history of the Earth, weather systems, oceanography, and/or other earth sciences giving them insight into how the planet works. Global warming/climate change could be incorporated here.

Unit 3 – Life on Earth: Some basic biology & ecology in this unit, maybe a little chemistry. Ideas like evolution, cell theory and/or ecosystems would be presented in this section. Students see how humans fit into the bigger picture of life. Currently there is no biology in Science IV.

Unit 4 – The Human Body & Mind: This unit would cover basic human anatomy like the heart and lungs as well as some neuroscience and psychology. Students get an idea of how their brains and bodies work.

Unit 5 – Science and Society: This could be a bit of a grab bag. There is room under this topic for things like sociology, environmental science, forensics (which we do now), engineering, etc… It could also incorporate technology development and use. Basically anything that connects science to how we live in and understand our modern world.

Unit 6 – Student Directed Learning: Units 1-5 are about what science has taught us about our general place in the wider world. There are many things that would necessarily be left out. This unit is the opportunity for a student to study a topic of their choosing or go back and dig deeper into one of the topics from the previous units. It could also act as a unit for teachers to deliver lessons on a scientific topic they are passionate and knowledgeable about. Ideally, it would be some combination of student choice and interest with a teacher’s passion and knowledge. With respect to andragogy, it is important for students to have as much choice as possible within this and the other units so that they can personally connect to the subject matter and see their own place within the big picture of Science.

The units above are broad, more like themes. Following the principles of andragogy, what I would like to see is some form of curriculum where teachers and students pick and choose the aspects of each unit that interests them the most. For example many outcomes/elaborations/suggestions may be written for one unit and the teacher and student negotiate a prescribed number of them to be completed. Right now we allow flexibility in the choice of units we do. Instead in a new curriculum the “themes” would be mandatory, preserving the narrative thread but the choice is moved to within the units themselves. Since there are many ways of exploring “Science & Society” (for example) the curriculum could be written so that multiple paths lead to the goal of connecting science to society. This approaches is firmly rooted in andragogy but since it is based on human curiosity I believe it applies to students of any age (anthrogogy).

I have given some details that could be used for outcomes in each unit however, they are suggestions only. Overall I would like to see a flexible course where students have a good experience with science, both in a hands on way and through exploring personally interesting topics and issues related to science. Lastly, this course should provide opportunities for students to think critically about their place in the universe.

2. Here is a somewhat random list of easy to do, science related activities that provide what I consider basic experiences everyone should have with science:

Everyone should see a cell under a microscope

Everyone should mix two chemicals together and see a chemical reaction

Everyone should conduct an experiment

Everyone should watch a plant grow, chicken hatch, etc…

Everyone should look through a telescope

Everyone should dissect something

Everyone should plot & interpret a graph

Everyone should analyze an aspect of their own life from a scientific perspective

Everyone should make something

Everyone should be exposed to the history of science as well as the cutting edge breakthroughs of today

Everyone should have the opportunity to satisfy their curiosity and explore the wonder of science


These experiences could be included in one or many of the units suggested above.

3. The skills I would like to see formed or fostered in Science IV include:

Know how to use the scientific method

Know how to collect and interpret data (i.e. plot a graph)

Know how to think critically about Science through literacy and numeracy

Know how to turn curiosity into answers


These skills are easily developed and practiced in each of the units and could be taught in a spiral fashion throughout the course.


In the coming months I’ll be meeting with my colleagues to hash out what this Science course is going to be. I’m excited to hear their ideas and also from other stake holders like the students themselves. I’ve created a survey asking them about what they like about the current course and what they would change and I’ll be bringing that to the table. I hope to add to the lists above and get feedback on what the best basic science offers as the curriculum rewrite progresses.


Digital Media for Today’s Chemistry Classroom

This post originally appeared September 15, 2014 on the American Association of Chemistry Teachers’ Blog

Chemistry has the distinction of being the only science with iconography. A periodic table hangs in every chemistry classroom and laboratory around the world. Most people who have never taken any chemistry can point it out the same way everyone understands that the golden arches mean McDonald’s. It is ironic then that chemistry is the only science that has no practical way to show students evidence of the things we, as chemistry teachers, talk about every day. Biology teachers have microscopes to reveal the cell and physics instructors need nothing more than a ball to show projectile motion. The beakers full of liquids and jars of white powder in chemistry need help to identify what they really are. Even in everyday life most people, for example, associate the well-known chemical caffeine with a dark liquid, not a double-ringed structure made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen.

Fortunately for today’s chemistry teacher, we live in the golden age of internet-based resources that can provide the visual heavy lifting. The American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) “Reactions” series (previously “Bytesize Science”) has been a welcome addition to my classroom for a number of years now. I love these videos for their high-interest topics, their expert commentary, their succinct storytelling, and of course the visualizations. There is even a video about caffeine.

I teach adults high school-level chemistry, and the first ACS “Reactions” video I showed my class was on the chemistry of champagne shortly after New Year’s Eve 2011. It shows the structure of glucose, fructose, carbon dioxide and ethanol. The short cartoon lends these chemicals a reality in the familiar context of bubbly. It may not be appropriate for every teacher to highlight the science of an alcoholic beverage in their classroom, but for me it was a fun way to get my students’ heads back into chemistry after a long break. Luckily, most of the “Reactions” videos are suitable for all ages.

Beyond visualization, I use these videos because they are engaging. Nothing breaks up a boring class like showing a five-minute interlude on a related topic. This gives my lessons a “Sesame Street” quality. It allows students to reset their brains back to the concept they are discussing or the math they are doing with a fresh perspective. For example, around mid-November, as the snow is starting to fall, I teach polarity. Just as eyes are glazing over, I show “The Chemistry of Snowflakes,” then we connect the six-sided nature of snowflakes we saw in the video to the uneven sharing of electrons we were just learning about. As an added bonus, I have often noted that students tend to buy-in to a concept more after they’ve heard it and seen it in a video or animation.

Another important reason I like to include resources like ACS “Reactions” videos into my lessons is that they are exactly the type of digital media students today consume on a daily basis. I encourage my students to use their mobile devices for learning, and this is content provided by “Reactions” fits that philosophy. I want my classroom to reflect the wider world, and so I welcome electronic resources, which enhance my teaching and also make studying and learning more like entertainment.. I love when a student tells me they posted something I showed in class on Facebook or watched it with a classmate on the bus ride home. No one has ever told me they went home and asked their friends to turn to page 37 in their textbook to see something cool (sorry textbooks). Short, digital media are used by newspapers and magazines, organizations such as TED Talks, and even late-night talk shows to drive interest to their material. The resources created by the ACS “Reactions,” and now the American Association of Chemistry Teachers, do just that for chemistry. They help me to reach students in ways I couldn’t just a few short years ago. Videos such as “The Chemistry of Sriracha,” “The Chemistry of Fireworks,” as well as topical shorts for various holidays and events like the World Cup are all fun, shareable, and social media-ready. This is our students’ language. It helps me make chemistry accessible and relatable to everyone in my class.

Half Way Through My 5 Year Plan

As part of my 5 year project for the Nova Scotia Community College (called my Faculty Learning College Portfolio, FLCP) I had to present my thoughts on the process and what I’ve learned to the committee at the half way point this June. Prior to the presentation the committee asked for a brief report on what I’ve learned so far. This post is a version of that document:

This project has been invigorating to my practice. The opportunity to research Education at this point in my career acts as a significant upgrade to my B.Ed and provides a new lens on what I’ve been doing up to now and what I would like my classroom to look like. In this report I will present some of the highlights of my growth and learning in broad strokes by FLCP goal:

GOAL #1 Explore Education science and best practices from other alternate programs as they pertain to adult education and learning. Incorporate them into my classroom in order to maximize student success

I’ve read a lot on this topic so far. Brain science is new to me having taken no biology in university. I have found my readings both fascinating and practical since how the brain remembers, learns and grows is the biological underpinning of Education. An unexpected discovery was how the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function and working memory also regulates emotional response and self-regulation. Working memory strength correlates with academic achievement, while appropriate emotional response and self-regulation tie into my second goal of developing non-cognitive skills. The fact that strengthening the prefrontal cortex dovetails two of my goals together is a pleasant surprise and a focus for the next 2.5 years (and beyond).

Another interesting fact I’ve put at the forefront is how stress (both past and present) affects the prefrontal cortex. Many of our students have had troubled childhoods (based on the stories many have told me directly) and this affects their cognitive and non-cognitive abilities even as adults. Providing a structured and caring environment are important measures to be taken while, again, developing the prefrontal cortex can mitigate the damage done.

I’ve created a “Prefrontal Cortex Exercise Machine” as a way of bringing this learning into the classroom. Refining and building on it are part of my continued journey.

GOAL #2 Define and develop a process to measure and assess non-cognitive skills associated with better learning, personal wellbeing and higher economic status after finishing the ALP program

This goal was the first one conceived when I began mulling over what my project would entail. The other two fall out of thinking about what I need to know and do to actualize this. Interestingly, it is the one I’ve done the least on. My brain research focuses on this goal as much as it does best practices for traditional scholastic things like remembering and forming connections, however, I have not been able to implement a way of measuring the development of non-cognitive skills. My research has lead me to Angela Duckworth’s “Character Lab” where diagnostic tools have been developed and the latest work on non-cognitive skills is being done. I plan on adjusting their resources to fit an adult classroom. These include student self-reporting and teacher monitoring.

One objective measure I consider a bellwether indicator is attendance. We have made missing class the easiest thing for students to do in the name of flexibility and the opportunity to have a transformative experience suffers. Attending regularly involves many of the non-cognitive skills tied to better academic success and higher wages later in life. This connects directly to our mission statement.  Since this project began I have been posting the weekly attendance by class on the wall as well as pictures from the week’s activities in order to demonstrate the importance I put on being in class as well as show students who weren’t in class that they have missed something fun and engaging.

A truly personal piece of learning I’ve done for this goal is to take guitar lessons. I started in the fall of 2012 in order to take on new learning as an adult and reflect on how non-cognitive skills play a role in my success or failure. There are many parallels between me learning the guitar and my students who are returning to high school. The guitar is something I tried and failed at earlier in my life. It requires commitments of time and effort to learn. And it is an additional load on top of my home and work life. I continue to take the lessons and have come a long way. Over the past 2 years it has provided me many opportunities to put myself in my students’ shoes. How do I prioritize practice when chaos reigns at home or work (or both!)? Or, when do I take ownership of my learning and when do I trust my teacher to guide me? More mundane things have also come up like, how do I get to my lesson when the car is in the shop? These are situations where I might have casually just cancelled the lesson and said ”See you next week” but the point is to work around these things as I expect my students to be able to do as well.

GOAL #3 Develop a standards based Narrative Feedback grading system that relies on continuous feedback for both curriculum content and non-cognitive workplace readiness development.

I have done a lot of reading on giving effective feedback and this goal is the one I am furthest along in. I decided to get rid of grades immediately in my general science class after starting this project and have been developing what is appropriate and effective in shaping both the quality of the student’s work and their approach to the learning. I’ve changed standards based grading (SBG) to narrative feedback, mostly because once I got started I realized that was the form of assessment and evaluation I was actually doing. Both are non-numerical and feedback driven, however, SBG is more suited to skill development in a technical or trades setting and narrative feedback is more focused on the entire course and experience.

A course is a relationship between curriculum content, student and teacher and what binds them all together is the assessment and evaluation. Switching from marks to comments has allowed me much more freedom to focus in on what the individual student actually needs to be successful. For example, I had a student who had a hard time keeping track of his work and would often think he’d handed in things he hadn’t or would hand in partial work thinking they were complete. Instead of losing marks for the missing question or incomplete section, I got to formally address the heart of the issue which was a lack of focus and organization. A narrative is on going and so a course with disjointed assignments on unrelated curriculum topics becomes holistic when the comments and feedback are able to point out improvement on repeated mistakes and show progress. It also ties into my goal of developing non-cognitive skills because I can also note things about the process not just the final product being handed in.

Overall, I now have a better understanding of what it takes to return to school and how that needs to be managed. I am much more knowledgeable about the brain and what it needs to maximize learning and I truly feel like I am on the right track when it comes to progressive assessment and evaluation.

Cartoons in the Classroom

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” –Marshall McLuhan Image I’ve always loved cartoons. As a child I remember racing home after school to watch reruns of the old 1960s Spider-Man. They were short, sweet and action packed. In my 20s I watched more adult oriented cartoons like Duckman, Mission Hill and Clone High. I will still sit and watch a good cartoon over most of what’s on television. There’s something nostalgic and comforting about them that takes me back to my parents’ basement circa 1982. It’s this deep-rooted love of cartoons that draws me to them in what I consider to be the golden age of educational animations on the internet. Organizations like TED Ed and the American Chemical Society Bytesize Science (now ACS Reactions) are producing new animated lessons on an almost daily basis. YouTube channels like MinutePhysics and AsapSCIENCE have millions of subscribers, clearly revealing a latent demand in the general public for learning about science through animation. As a teacher I don’t want to miss the opportunity to leverage this powerful tool. Cartoons are instantly engaging. They have a built in level of fun so students pay closer attention. I see their eyes widen as I fire up the projector. The medium of animation is perfectly suited to Education whether you flip lessons or not. Internet cartoons are a 21st century version of the text book paragraph + diagram meant to explain some topic, only infinitely better. Education cartoons are short, concise, dynamic packages delivering otherwise esoteric concepts in an easily understood and familiar way. In Science classes I use cartoons to reinforce a concept I’m trying to convey. Sometimes as the introduction, sometimes as a way of summarizing what we’ve just been exploring. Chemistry is especially suited for animations since most of the ideas Introductory Chemistry students should leave with are impossible to see or experience. Unlike Physics, where people have some personal background with things like throwing a ball or falling down, Chemistry, at the molecular level is completely devoid of intuitive sense. Electron shells, bonding, the atom itself are all out of the realm of daily life and cannot be easily imagined (and therefore understood) by the novice. This side of Chemistry is especially hard to really teach without visualization. Cartoons provide an accessible scaffold for students to build a mental image of what Chemistry is. These animations become touchstones to a deeper level when we see something in the lab or are doing the math. While it’s important to a young chemist’s education, watching a chemical reaction in a beaker has no explanatory power on its own. Animations are able to bridge the gap between what they see or do at the macroscopic level and understanding what is happening at the microscopic level. One of my recent favorites was by George Zaidan and Charles Morton through TED Ed on “How Atoms Bond”. In the Sodium Chloride example students see Sodium’s lone valence electron moving over or being captured by Chlorine while Sodium’s original valence shell fades away. That connects ionic bonding, valence electrons, position on the periodic table and the octet rule all together in a dynamic way. I know that even the weakest student now has some reference in their mind for something they will never see. Students with prior knowledge can check their mental model against what’s been presented. It’s videos like these that I find the most useful. The heavy educational lifting is done by the visuals. The golden age of Education cartoons isn’t limited to science. Any class can use cartoons to bolster concepts, engage students and provide insight. For an English or EAL class Myriapod Productions’ Mysteries of Vernacular are delightfully animated etymologies of some common words. They combine language, history and culture all in 2 minutes spots. Vi Hart makes hand drawn animated doodles discussing mathematical curiosities and math in things like music and nature. She discusses a side of mathematics not normally included in a high school course in a way that can perk student interest. TED Ed is probably the most prolific producer of animated lessons. They create high quality cartoons on a wide variety of topics including literature, politics, history and just about anything else covered in a high school curriculum. Brief, easily digested cartoons transport students to ancient Rome, show them how to analyze art or when to use a comma. Another one I like is Kurzgesagt. They make animated infographics on things as diverse as evolution or fracking. Visualizing numbers and data is another great way to use the medium.  Seeing relative size or fractions all as graphics helps students understand the subject at hand but also basic mathematical skills like using ratios and percents. With animation the infographic is improved by being extended to dynamic processes. I have highlighted the impact cartoons can have on learning through visualization. However, there is a more fundamental quality that makes them so useful in teaching. Regardless of the classroom topic, what they have in common is the narrative form. A cartoon is a little story. It has a beginning, middle and end. Just like my old Spider-Man episodes. This is the ancient recipe for being entertaining and memorable. Today’s educational animations harken back to a time when short, simple narratives were common in cartooning. Think of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker. We all have our favorites that still stick in our minds. The links provided throughout this entry as well as my collection of science cartoons at are good places to start for anyone looking to use cartoons in their practice. I couldn’t finish this post without including Spider-Man just for fun. I think all kids want to be Spider-Man but I also wanted to be Peter Parker. It wasn’t the radioactive spider that gave Spider-Man his web. It was Peter Parker and his knowledge of science. Even at the age of 5 I knew that part wasn’t as far fetched as his spidey-sense and ability to climb walls. I can’t discount the impression watching a super hero scientist must have had on me.

My 5 Year Plan: Year 1 Update

My last post outlined my 5 year teaching and learning project. In this post I review how the first year went. Part of the project is to share what I’ve done and found out but I’d also like to use this opportunity to solicit help from other teachers who might be able to suggest resources or offer advice. The following is an edited version of my year 1 update to the college (NSCC).

Goal 1: Explore Education science and best practices from other alternate programs as they pertain to adult education and learning. Incorporate them into my classroom in order to maximize student success

This year’s progress was mostly research. I read and collected a number of articles on neuroscience and brain based teaching and also a couple of books. “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning” by Neuroscientist Gary Marcus and “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain.

Here is brief summary of what I take to be the basics of Education Science or brain based teaching (see for the articles and resources):

  • The brain is plastic & unique. It is a physiological organ. Like any muscle, there are things we can do to either strengthen or weaken connections in the brain and therefore affect learning. Everyone comes from a different place, a different background and therefore each brain has already been uniquely molded.
  • A low stress/anxiety emotional climate is important. Memory and learning are highly tied to emotion. Stress blocks processing in the prefrontal cortex, where higher order manipulation occurs and diverts new input to the reactive centers of the brain (fight or flight, etc…) Little or no higher order synthesis occurs in these regions and retention is severely limited. Interestingly for adult education, chronic stress or a high allostatic load can cause damage to the prefrontal cortex that affects life-long learning and decision making.
  • The brain looks for patterns. This is important to know when designing new materials and also in how we connect topics to each other and prior learning.
  • Novelty is key to remembering. Novelty releases dopamine in the brain. This leads to higher pleasure and motivation.
  • Interconnectedness promotes better learning and retention. Memories form and are strengthened by repeated use of the same neural pathways. The more new learning is connected to old, well used pathways in the brain, the more it will be retained and synthesized.
  • The physical environment has an impact. All five senses contribute to memory and learning so the sights, sounds and smells, etc… all play a role in remembering.

Through my readings I made a lot of connections to andragogy. It was interesting for me to see once again how general good teaching really is and that good pedagogy, andragogy and brain based teaching are all the same thing (A belief I have long held. I always tag my posts with “anthrogogy”). For example, from “Understanding How the Brain Thinks” by Judy Willis, “We activate these networks through active learning experiences that involve students’ prefrontal cortex circuits of judgment, critical analysis, induction, deduction, relational thinking with prior knowledge activation, and prediction. These experiences promote creative information processing as students recognize relationships between what they learn and what they already know.” If we take out the brain circuitry parts this is simply Malcolm Knowles telling us that adults need to connect new learning to their past experiences. Most good teachers do this regardless of their students’ age. In a broad sense I have been applying brain based teaching throughout my career. It is good to further understand the theory behind why it works in order to make good teaching decisions in the future and pin point areas needing improvement.

Some other learning that was new to me was the relationship between stress and the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function and working memory. This area of the brain is responsible for learning and retaining new things and also regulates many of the non-cognitive skills I also want students to be working on. Both past and current stress affects the prefrontal cortex and therefore learning and behavior. The literature is clear on the importance of reducing stress in the classroom as a prerequisite to academic success.

“Guitar Zero” was interesting in that it actually discussed how adults learn new things. I read it due to the obvious connection to my own plan to learn the guitar as an adult. The whole book is a case study of a 40-year-old cognitive scientist on himself trying to learn the guitar with academic research on adult learning peppered in. For example, the book sites a study on barn owls that originally showed adult owls could not relearn how to navigate by sound and sight when their sight was offset by the use of prisms.  Young barn owls could. Further study showed that old owls were indeed able to relearn how to fly by sight and sound if the distortion was done in smaller chunks as opposed to all at once. Author Gary Marcus wonders if adult humans may simply need a more incremental approach to new learning. Old dogs (and owls) can learn new tricks.

“Quiet” by Susan Cain was a reminder that we all learn differently and that sometimes old wisdom isn’t always so wise. The drumbeat in Education to more group work and collaborative learning space is shown through many examples to be flawed in a general sense and detrimental to many introverted people. As a highly introverted person myself I related well to the anecdotes showing how productivity, learning and engagement are dampened by the very things so many spout as educational gospel. From my own experience I know that my creativity and work quality fail the more I am subjected to meetings and group activities and that my best work is only done when I have long periods of time to myself. I certainly still believe that group work has its place and social learning is real but the book draws much needed attention to the ~1/3 of people who identify as being introverted. Introverts and extroverts have distinctly different brain responses to stimuli. Introverts’ brains are easily over stimulated and need quiet and focus to work best. Extroverts need just the opposite to thrive, the extra stimulation social situations and group work bring. Since extroverts are the majority and we live in a society that worships extroversion (picture the stereotype of the successful business person, celebrity or politician) what works for them has often trickled down into the classroom as general principles for success. In reality it should be viewed as simply one strategy amongst many to address the individual needs of all learners. The truth is everyone needs to be in and out of their comfort zones at times to learn, both introverts and extroverts. A balanced approach is best. Not all desks need to be arranged in groups and not all tasks should be solitary but, as always, it remains important to pay attention to what works for the individual in all contexts. This old piece of educational wisdom trumps any others.

I expanded “Brain Week” as part of the psychology unit (I started teaching a week on the brain last year). I focused on how learning and memory work and how that knowledge has a feedback effect on one’s perception of ability. I created a powerpoint and taught them about neuroplasticity and Carol Dweck’s “mindset” theory (from her book by the same name) where a “fixed” mindset cannot learn and grow whereas a “growth” mindset sees setbacks as opportunities to learn. Both IQ and emotional intelligence have been shown to increase if a person can switch from fixed to growth. The growth mindset and feedback effect is something I want to learn more about and reinforce next year.

Goal 2: Define and develop a process to measure and assess non-cognitive skills associated with better learning, personal wellbeing and higher economic status after finishing the ALP program

Measuring non-cognitive skills remains tricky. I have no better ideas on how to quantify such a thing beyond recording attendance. I truly believe that it encompasses the many things I want students to develop like reliability, hard work and perseverance. Once in the classroom things like taking pride in work and effort can be qualitatively assessed and with a feedback system of evaluation it can be commented on and direction given. Progress can be noted from there.

In order to get a better idea as to what kind of commitment returning to school is I decided to do some experiential research as well. I wanted to take on something that requires a true commitment while not dropping any of my other responsibilities, much like an adult student who returns to school. Originally I was going to take a math course at one of the universities but they weren’t offered at times when I could attend without leaving work. I wasn’t interested in an online option since actually going to the class was something I felt was important to the experience. I have always wanted to really learn the guitar. It was something I had tried and failed at and I felt like it made a nice analogy to what many of our students are doing and how they feel about it. Since the lessons were only once a week it is hardly comparable to returning to school full time but there was a large time commitment that I needed to layer on to the rest of my life and that was to practice. I knew that finding time to really practice was going to be where this disrupted my life the most. On top of marking and lesson planning and home life responsibilities in the evening I practiced an average of a half hour to an hour each day (some days less, some days more). I kept a chronicle of my learning and reflections during the fall semester under the series title NO CHORDS BARRED.

I read “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough. It is a book on the importance of character building in education focused on children (obviously) but there are lessons for adults as well. There was quite a bit of neuroscience in this book which dovetailed nicely with my other project research. I wrote a blog post on the book and the lessons I took from it. Other articles on non-cognitive skill development I have collected and read can be found at

Goal 3: Develop a standards based grading [narrative feedback assessment and evaluation] system that relies on continuous feedback for both curriculum content and non-cognitive workplace readiness development.

I only wrote comments and feedback on Science work all year and negotiated a final mark by reviewing all the comments over the year with the student. My system involved photocopying the comments for my records and then returning the assignment to the student so that they could use it to improve on their next assessment. It took a little while to get the hang of making good comments (see resources on effective feedback). I resisted things like “great work” or “could use improvement’ without pointing out the specifics as to why it was great or needed improvement. I also wanted the feedback to be useful in a general sense since I also resisted giving the same assignment over and over. Originally I had planned to give a limited number of assignment/project types so that students could easily apply the feedback but that doesn’t work with my belief in student choice and use of creativity. Also, I’m not interested in the perfect poster or paragraph. I worried that students would focus on the format and not their science learning. Overall it worked out well. 16 out of the 19 students who had only this type of evaluation filled out a survey after they had completed the course and received their final mark. Not one said they preferred the traditional method of grades. I was pleased that several students mentioned how the narrative feedback reduced their anxiety and this was an unexpected connection within my project goals. Over the year I realized what I was doing is not Standards Based Grading but closely related “narrative feedback”. I plan on continuing and expanding it next year.

The next steps are to begin applying more of the Education Science in my classroom.  I’ve got the background so it is time to put it into practice. For further research, I would love to find another similar adult high school to see what they are doing. It would be nice to see what works for them and compare that to what works for us. As well, a true method of measuring non-cognitive skills development is still needed; some mix of qualitative and quantitative data collection in order to document progress (or lack thereof). The narrative feedback also needs to be expanded and systematized. For 2013-2014 I have added a student response component to the feedback.  I want students to be true stakeholders so the process needs to be conversational, dynamic and active. I hope to make continued progress on each of my goals and that they will continue to converge forming a more holistic and consistent practice.



Cain, Susan; 2012, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” Crown Publishers, New York

Dweck, Carol; 2006, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” Ballantine books, New York

Marcus, Gary; 2012, “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning” Penguin Press, New York

Tough, Paul; 2012, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York

Willis, Judy; 2011, “Understanding How the Brain Thinks”


My 5 Year Plan

This blog is part of a professional development project that I started working on last year. The Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) has an optional program called the Faculty Learning College Portfolio (FLCP) where participants set goals to develop a 5 year plan in partnership with the college. The FLCP is self directed and open to the professional wants and needs of the individual since NSCC has so many different and diverse departments. I work in the School of Access, mainly in the Adult Learning Program (ALP), a continuous intake adult high school. I also teach Chemistry in the Academic Careers and Connections program. This is for people who need to upgrade their credits or take courses they didn’t in high school. The goals I have chosen for myself are meant to improve the education and experience my students receive from 3 different angles.

One of the requirements of the FLCP is to communicate what you learn. This blog acts as a way to share with all the stakeholders in the project and with the wider world. My previous entries have been in that spirit but I have not formally outlined the project itself for others. The following is an edited version of the approved proposal I submitted to the college a year ago.

FLCP Goal 1: Explore Education science and best practices from other alternate programs as they pertain to adult education and learning. Incorporate them into my classroom in order to maximize student success.

Education science is a developing field dedicated to finding what helps and what hinders learning from the perspective of the brain. In my experience traditional best practices in education have been valued based on anecdotal evidence. Education science brings in the standards of the scientific method and is data driven. Education science is a mix of psychology, neuroscience and other scientific disciplines as they pertain to teaching and learning. I would like to research what it says about learning in general and specifically what will and won’t help adult learners. I expect to find little on adults as most of literature seems focused on how children and their developing brains learn best, however, there are no doubt some universal lessons to be taken from that. This research will be broad and comprehensive looking at what a wide variety of brain, education and psychological work has produced with respect to the adult classroom and brain-based teaching. I will use this learning in my lessons and general approaches in the classroom. Specific resources may be created as well as classroom procedures changed based on the findings.

Many non-traditional schools develop their own approaches to their classrooms and programs. What has been successful elsewhere? What might apply here? I believe there are lessons available from a wide range of alternative education settings. For example, I have been fascinated by Reggio Emilia schools since first reading about them in Howard Gardner’s The Disciplined Mind when I was in Teacher’s College. Reggio Schools pioneered the notion of the “emergent curriculum”, where students naturally determine the topics to be studied based on interest, context and sometimes just serendipity (e.g. Gandini, 1993). This concept has played in the back of my mind for many years. The model seems a natural fit with the andragogic pillar that adults learn best when they are in control of their own learning (Knowles, 1973). It is not just early childhood education where new and progressive ideas might be found. There are diverse examples world wide of schools practicing in alternative education where the true focus is on producing consistently successful graduates (Harlem Children’s Zone, KIPP schools, etc… see Tough, 2008 for example). What lessons can we learn from them?  Other adult high schools must also offer advice. I want to find out where and who the most successful schools are and take their lessons away. Are there examples of adult secondary programs where graduates outperform the norm both academically and economically? If so, what are they doing?

FLCP Goal 2: Define and develop a process to measure and assess non-cognitive skills associated with better learning, personal well being and higher economic status after finishing the ALP program

The life skills necessary to be successful have long been overlooked in favour of curriculum content and higher test scores. Historically, this hasn’t always been the case. In adult education especially, this is a mistake. Research on the GED has shown that the curriculum content has no bearing on the economic success of an adult high school graduate. The average income of a GED recipient is the same as a high school drop out. It is the soft skills developed in a classroom setting, related to things like reliability and motivation, that correlate higher with better incomes later on (e.g. Cameron & Heckman, 1993, Heckman and Krueger, 2003). NSCC’s mission statement is, “Building Nova Scotia’s economy and quality of life through education and innovation”. It is incumbent on the ALP program to try our best to develop the skills that actually promote higher economic status both for the individual and the community in general. This in time will help break the cycle of poverty many ALP students and their families find themselves in. While economics are a quantifiable way of defining success, I view it only as a phenomenological result of better Education and self-actualization, not the goal in itself. These same soft skills are associated with the humanization I mention in my teaching philosophy. It is through developing non-cognitive skills like perseverance and dedication where we find purpose and growth. It’s the effort I put into my teaching where I find pride, not the test scores my students receive. It should be the same for students as well. The learning process requires as many non-cognitive skills as cognitive ones yet they are seldom formally acknowledged. As part of this project I will try to define these non-cognitive attributes and present the case that we need to take developing these skills as seriously as any learning outcome in the curriculum. How do we incorporate them into our mandated curricula? I would like to develop strategies and resources for the ALP program that focus equally on soft skill development as it does curriculum content, while remaining respectful of adult learners and involving them in the process transparently.

FLCP Goal 3: Develop a standard based grading system that relies on continuous feedback for both curriculum content and non-cognitive workplace readiness development.

Lastly, a progressive teaching practice requires a progressive assessment and evaluation scheme.  This aspect of the project is how I see it all coming together. Simple numerical grading will not suffice.  I want to research what many others are doing with feedback driven, numberless, standards based grading (SBG).  Honest discussion and feedback about the quality of work being presented, the student’s approach to school and their future chances of success is a dialectic process where both student and teacher work together to move forward. It has the ability to be individualized and differentiated. It needs to be transparent and open so that students will actively participate.  After seeing what others are doing around SBG and what has worked and not worked for them, I would like develop an ALP specific version.

These are the goal I’ve been working on for a year now. In my next post I will update what I’ve done and what I’ve learned in that time.

Cameron, Stephen V., Heckman, James J.; 1993, “The Nonequivalence of High School Equivalents”, Journal of Labor Economics, vol. 11, no. 1, pg. 1-47

Gandini, Lella; 1993, “Fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education”, Young Children, vol. 49, no. 11, pg. 4-8

Heckman, James J., Krueger, Alan B.; 2003, “Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policies?”, pg. 77-239, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press

Knowles, M. S.; 1973,  “The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species”, Houston, Gulf

Tough, Paul; 2008, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America”, New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

How Adults Succeed – Thoughts on How Paul Tough’s New Book Applies to Adult High School

“How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough sounds like a strange title for an adult educator to be reading. The book is about how Education has long overlooked character development in favour of academic achievement and how that may be a disservice to students and society in general. It’s true that the focus is on children and teens but there are some lessons for an adult high school teacher as well.  First off, many of my students are not far out of high school age. Most are somewhere in their twenties so aspects of the book still apply. More importantly the main thesis that “character matters” remains true at any age. Developing character strengths like persistence, reliability and self-control I believe are truly teachable, for most people, if you place a premium on them the way places like KIPP schools featured in the book do.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is from the opening chapter. Tough lays out the connection between early childhood trauma, allostatic load (how our bodies respond to repeated stress) and learning. While I was reading this chapter I couldn’t help but think of the many stories my students have told me over the years about their childhoods and their lives. Violence and death permeate. It is a very different world from mine. The constant stress of daily life since they were young can only have a detrimental impact on how they learn.

“Stress physiologists have found a biological explanation for [problems in school]. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive” pg. 17

The prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive functions in the brain. These functions process and manage new information, impulse control and working memory (how we sort and retain new information). All obviously related to learning and scholastic achievement. I see problems with working memory on a daily basis. For example, a big academic skill I want students to work on is putting things into their own words. Some students can’t keep the information from a short paragraph they just read in their heads while also trying to rewrite it on paper. This makes synthesis that much harder.

The good news is, according to Tough, the prefrontal cortex is one part of the brain that retains its plasticity into early adulthood (pg. 21, 48). My next steps are to find out what I can do as a teacher to mold the prefrontal cortex in such a way that mediates the damage done by the heavy allostatic load many have been burdened with. There is a lot of neuroscience underpinning this and best practices that I will need to explore.

The other big lesson from the book for me is the clear value non-cognitive skills have for success in life. “Character building” is such a loaded term. Just using here I feel paternalistic. The examples the book use from KIPP Schools and Riverdale Country School in NYC make explicit that it is not moralistic character, subject to one’s own beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, that we should be interested in. But rather the kinds of skills and attitudes your grandfather was referring to when he said, “It builds character”. It’s the kind of character developed through hard work, perseverance and the buzz word of the book, grit.

“The value of these [non-cognitive skills] did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics but from their practical benefit – what you could actually gain by possessing and expressing them.” Pg. 59

That is the heart of the argument for developing non-cognitive skills in school. It’s their practical benefit. I want my students to gain more than just the learning outcomes as prescribed by the curriculum. I want Adult High School to develop all the skills actually needed to be successful (both financially and generally), not just the academic ones. We tend to think that adult high school is only about picking up missed credits, like that English or Math course someone didn’t finish has been the big problem for them and society all along. To this end I make attendance (i.e. reliability) a prerogative. I make taking pride in your work a priority. I value self-reliance and perseverance. It is difficult to just hand in the work for credit in my classes (so much as our “individual system of instruction” education model allows for) because I don’t care about that one learning outcome as much as I care about the long game, big picture. I would like to see more emphasis on non-cognitive skills program wide. Jeff Nelson, the executive director of OneGoal, a college prep intervention program in Chicago says in the book,

“Non cognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college. And they can help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system” pg. 168

Adult high school students have been failed by the education system. There would be no adult high school if that weren’t true. In my experience it isn’t the difficulty of high school academics that leads people to not graduate. It is non-cognitive deficits that have caused most of the problems in and with school. Complicated lives in many ways have contributed to both poor academic performance and left school as a low priority. We should be explicitly teaching and promoting non-cognitive skill development as part of the diploma and not just providing pathways to earn purely academic credits. If we really want productive and happy adult high school graduates we should focus on those things, as Jeff Nelson and so many others in the book do, that truly level the playing field and give the best chance at lifelong success.

NO CHORDS BARRED #7 – Looking Back

My last guitar lesson of the year is on Tuesday. Looking back on the three and a half months I feel like I’ve made some real progress. It’s a lot like trying to lose weight. You start exercising and watching what you eat and it’s hard and it’s frustrating. The worst part is you don’t notice any changes at first. For a long while it feels like you must be doing something wrong. It’s only after a couple of months when you compare where you are now to where you began that you really see the differences.

One big improvement is that I use a pick now. Before I only used my fingers to strum because it was quieter (I had roommates and thin walls on my first attempt to learn guitar). It also covered up a lot of sloppiness. Using a pick makes the chords so much crisper and isn’t as forgiving so it forces me to practice technique. Another sign of progress has been incorporating a new finger formation for the G chord into my repertoire. I still prefer the old way but it is coming along and I do use it when it is clearly the better way to change to or from a G. The most obvious measure of learning is that I can play a few simple songs well enough to try fooling around with other people. That’s something I want to do in the new year. So far the only other person I’ve played with has been my teacher. It’s time to start including some peer instruction. Overall, I feel more confident picking up the guitar. Sometimes when I’m on a particularly good roll it’s like I’m a real guitar player.

My students had their last class on Friday. I hope they can also look back and see their own progress. I certainly can. I like to point out to my chemistry students when they begin to start talking about chemistry casually and conversationally. Things like, “How many electrons does Oxygen need [to fill its valence shell]?” and someone replies, “2” without batting an eye. In late August no one would have understood the question let alone the answer. I also see differences in my Science classes. For example, one student used to snack on cookies and candy throughout the day and then switched to fruit after completing her “Healthy Change” project. A small thing like that speaks volumes as to what she learned about health and nutrition and it has nothing to do with a mark, it’s a personal change.

The semester is over and now I’m starting to think about January. I hope my students and I will be able to look back on the journey from here to June and see growth and improvement again.

NO CHORDS BARRED #6 – “The Promises Our Teachers Gave, If We Worked Hard, If We Behaved”

My teacher was excited when I suggested learning a song. I think he was hoping I would ask.  After discussing the possibility with him I went home and spent the week trying to decide what to pick. I narrowed it down to four choices and brought them in. In the end we went with Billy Joel’s “Allentown” since he knew that song best. (The others were “Althea” by the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and “Ginseng Sullivan” by Norman Blake). I had just watched “The Hangover 2” the weekend before and Ed Helms plays an acoustic version of “Allentown” in the movie. I’ve always liked the song so I looked up the chords and printed it out.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on it. Some parts come easy. The opening line, “Well we’re living here in Allentown…” Is just Em, A, D, relatively simple chords. So naturally I play that part and other easy sections over and over again. It is so satisfying to hear familiar music and know that you are making it. I’m sure there are endorphins released. However, this is a problem. I see it in my classroom as well. Project Based Learning is large in scope and multifaceted by its nature. Some parts come easy to the student whether it’s because of prior knowledge or high interest. There are always some things in the beginning that students eat up. The problem is the hard part that comes after that: the tedious stuff like referencing, the boring stuff like correcting mistakes, the time it takes to dig deeper.

So now I’m practicing the hard parts I can’t do. Zero endorphins released. It’s repetitive and frustrating. I’m tempted to just play and sing the verses I can for an hour and call that practice. The non-cognitive skill I am very aware of at the moment is discipline. Discipline is high up on my list. I ask my students to show discipline in their dedication to the program and the quality of their work. Of course it’s hard. Of course it’s no fun. (I’m not a rote method teacher but there are things such as balancing chemical equations that you just need to practice to get good at.) Regardless of talent or skill, discipline increases your chances of success.

I feel like it is going to take a long time to get the entire song down. There’s some fast strumming and switching between F and G in the, “Every child had a pretty good shot…” part. I can’t even play it slowly. There’s also the end of verse section, “and it’s getting very hard to staaaay…” that involves several chords and is tricky strumming. I’ve been trying to be disciplined and practice just those sections over and over again. Because it’s hard I also find I’m slipping back into making my G’s the way I used to when I first learned guitar. My teacher asked my on my first lesson to try forming G with a different fingering. When a song gets hard I subconsciously switch back. This adds another layer of complication since I can sometimes solve my switching chords problem but cheating on how I form the G. All of this points to the simple truth that practice makes perfect, and practice requires discipline.

P.S.  On another note the, choice of “Allentown” for this project is somewhat ironic. The lyrics of the second verse are not kind to education. “The promises out teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved. So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all, no they never taught us what was real; iron, coke, chromium, steel.” It’s a cautionary reminder to me about what a student should leave school with. I make those promises. Adult high school students (and some administrators and teachers for that matter) sometimes mistake the piece of paper that is the diploma for the goal. It’s true, owning that piece of paper opens some doors but it’s useless if you don’t know how to walk through them.

NO CHORDS BARRED #5 – Fear of Freedom

I need a project. I have been practicing the basics and learning theory (more than I thought) for almost 2 months now and I feel like it’s time to start applying that to a more holistic guitar education experience, namely I’d like to learn to play a simple song. I still want to go in the direction my teacher is taking me but I’d like to work on something that puts it all together.

I’m a big fan of project-based learning. It is student driven and personal.  I give lots of choice and encourage students to think about their interests and goals in both the topic they choose and how they want to present their learning. In my Science class I’m trying to create an environment as close to an emergent curriculum as I can within the confines of the learning outcomes and available resources. This necessarily means I step back and put the student in the driver’s seat. It’s freedom. Freedom to explore, freedom to create, freedom to connect.  Unfortunately, the reality is that often students act like the animal that stays in its cage after the zookeeper has forgotten to close the door. It frustrates me and I want to say, “Run!”

That’s why my own reaction to the thought of a “guitar project” is so surprising to me. After realizing that practicing a real song is what I need to do, my first inclination was to ask my teacher to pick one for me. I started making excuses to myself as to why it would be better for him to pick it; “He can judge my abilities better than I can and therefore pick a song of appropriate skill level”, “I don’t know what I don’t know”, “There are probably ‘good’ songs to begin with”, etc, etc… I’m sure these are all good points but they start to look like the bars on my own zoo cage. The door is open, the bars don’t matter. It’s just a stupid song but my fears and insecurities are keeping me from taking control of my own learning. I don’t want to be judged for my choice or musical taste. I don’t want to have an awkward conversation about why it’s not a good song and I don’t want to find out in a month that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. These thoughts seduce me into preferring the comforts of my pen.

When I go to my lesson on Tuesday I’m going to present this idea to my teacher. Maybe I’m not ready and I will respect his judgement and expertise. If this is something we can agree on then it is up to me to choose. I will want my teacher’s feedback but I need to lead. In my own classroom I need to be more mindful of the bars my students see when I present them with their freedom.