No Labs in Science

A bit of discussion has been bubbling up based on this article.  Give it a read and then read on here.  I tried very hard to see it from their perspective but can’t seem to be convinced of their logic in eliminating labs.  I guess that the FCAT doesn’t have a performance (lab) section of their assessment.  NYS has one at each level and I’m glad that it does since it requires teachers to teach lab skills and not skip them to try and raise test scores.  I think more and more people are realizing the effect (often unforeseen) that a high stakes standardized testing environment brings.  Couple this assessment crazy environment with a budget crisis and it’s no wonder teachers ditch labs.  I’ve given up on doing labs in my General Chemistry class for awhile, but only because they couldn’t handle themselves with maturity, not because I wanted to raise test scores.  Science without labs and experiments isn’t science at all.

Keep it Under 27

Like many teachers my class size ballooned over the last 3 years.  Our district had long been blessed with smaller class sizes;  I rarely had a class over 23.  Last year I had a class of over 30 and this year my largest is 28.  Adjustments had to be made.

A lab or activity that had been possible before becomes a safety and/or logistical nightmare with upwards of 27 students.  One of my favorite labs for students is a density column lab (a modified form of this one) which really has them mentally work out comparative densities with a bonus that it’s also colorful and fun.  The number of materials and student participation just aren’t there with over 27 students.

Labs are an obvious casualty of increased class size; however, participation techniques are also negatively affected.  Consider the popular Think, Pair, Share.  In a class of 24 you would have 12 kids whispering to each other throughout the room.  Even in a class of 24 its sometimes difficult to keep this just under a dull roar.  Having 15 students sharing with each other in a class of 30 creates an unreasonable amount of noise and distraction.  Not is the decibel level is higher, but there is a higher concentration of students.  Instead of maybe 5 ft between pairs there is only 3ft.  How is it possible that just a few more students create that much more noise?  I can’t tell you the exact physics other than to say there is a definite carrying capacity for students in a room (and I have a large room) in regards to these types of techniques.

Other techniques such as Take a Stand are possible with specific planning for the larger number of students.  A smaller classroom would be make this technique all but impossible.  There is barely enough room for the teacher to circulate and desks are crammed up to 3 of the 4 walls.  Card showing  techniques are a much better option I feel for a larger class size, but it is harder to guage individual responses and therefore assess what they know.  These card techniques involve having student hold up cards with something written on either side (T or F, Conclusion or Inference, Quant or Qual).  Surveying a room of 27 or more cards and making sure all students have participated can be challenging.

Now I’m not suggesting that all participation techniques can’t be done or even the ones mentioned can’t be done, just that planning for them in a room of 27 or more students requires special attention and accomodations.  The techniques need to be tweaked and training behaviors becomes even more essential.  After speaking with several colleagues we arrived at the number of 27 as the tipping point for class rooms.  Get below that and its not much different than 24.  Get above that and you really need to take a second look at the plans you have.