“Interpretation” in Classrooms

Even though it was June, the combination of the wind and the setting sun kept the temperature around 40° F. We were standing up on a hill looking over a large swath of sage called the Lamar Valley. I’ll never forget when it happened. Every living thing we had observed that evening had been wonderful, but they would not compare to the drama that was about to unfold. Sandhill cranes were standing along the river to the south, pronghorn and bison were scattered throughout, and a pair of bald eagles were perched high in a nearby cottonwood. Suddenly, we heard a lone wolf howl from the north. This single howl was soon followed by multiple howls from the south. This was the Druid wolf pack which, at that time, controlled most of the northern range of Yellowstone National Park. They were communicating! They soon came into view and continued howling. I saw the eyes of my students light up with excitement. One student, Devin, said softly, “This is the best day of my life!” This surreal moment set the stage for the rest of our time in Yellowstone. All of the students enjoyed themselves and learned a lot, but Devin stayed fully engaged as we hiked through and discussed geothermal features, took DBH measurements of aspen trees, inventoried birds in Hayden Valley, and observed other predator/prey interactions through our scope. Devin asked lots of questions, he listened to lots of answers, and he set up and performed experiments of his own. Is it possible that at the instant that Devin heard the wolf howls, he became a scientist?

According to James Bryant Conant, this could be the case. In 1947, he suggested that a scientist becomes a scientist when “curiosity about a phenomenon leads to an inquiry for new knowledge.” He goes on to say that it doesn’t matter whether the person has lots of accumulated knowledge about a particular subject. What makes a scientist and scientist is simply an “attitude of inquiry.”

From 2009 to 2013, we had enough grant money to fund 44 students as they traveled to Yellowstone National Park for a week of scientific enrichment. While in the park, we were able to talk with Rick from the Yellowstone Wolf Project, discuss geothermal features with park ranger Beth, and hike with Dan, a local naturalist. In addition to talking with these wonderful naturalists, I have had the great pleasure of traveling with Mike to Yellowstone. Mike is about as good as it gets when it comes to interpreting both Yellowstone and North Carolina flora and fauna. During our student trips, the students were without cell phone signals as well as some of the other comforts of home. Since the distractions were taken away, it was relatively easy to engage them in scientific discussions and in the process of actually doing science. We have data that suggests that these students, who were considered economically disadvantaged by the state of NC, learned more science during that week than they did in a one-semester biology class.

Not every student sitting in a biology class will have the opportunity to visit a place like Yellowstone and be immersed in a week long field class. What if there was a way to bring the experience of Yellowstone back to the natural science classroom? How do we, as educators, fully engage students and give them the best chance to learn biology? That’s a question that has been asked by educators for a long time, and it’s also one that has many different answers. Depending on who you ask, some answers are better than others. I think one strategy that has the potential to work is for natural science teachers to pattern their teaching after trained, or just really good, natural history interpreters. Why can’t we just do what they do? Most of these interpreters have read and use strategies from Freeman Tilden’s book, Interpreting Our Heritage. In it, Tilden defends interpretation as an educational activity. I have experienced this, first-hand, in Yellowstone as well as in other places. There is something special about how people like Rick, Beth, Dan, and Mike interact with students. The following shows things that I have learned from these fine folks and what we can do to model this behavior in our classrooms:

  1. Rick, Beth, Dan, and Mike are great storytellers. Effective communication is an integral part of engaging students in a science class. Great stories have great “hooks”. Students often need to be drawn into a scientific activity or discussion. Whether it was Dan recounting his story of being charged by a grizzly or Rick using anthropomorphism to tell a story about a wolf involved in a love triangle, I have observed both students and adults stand mesmerized while listening intently. We, as classroom teachers should learn how to tell a good story. Connection: Hollywood Storytelling and Critical Thinking by Randy Olsen gives some practical advice on how to tell a meaningful story.
  1. Natural history interpreters are well versed in their subject matter. They’re usually well versed in a broad subject matter. I have often heard it said that an interpreter must become an expert generalist. Even though they know many facts, they don’t give their audience all of the facts (not all at once, anyway). Rote memorization isn’t the objective. This leads to the next point.
  1. The great interpreters I have known often allow the audience to fill in the “blanks”. By refraining from spitting out all of the facts and simply learning to ask the right questions, interpreters create curiosity. Curiosity leads to engagement. In the classroom, teachers shouldn’t feel like they have to cover all of the material by reading off of a pre-made or m=home-made presentation. That’s passive learning. Instead, encourage curiosity by intentionally leaving out facts and asking questions.
  1. By allowing students to ask their own questions generated from curiosity, interpreters give students control in the learning process. I have witnessed Beth, after relevant questions have been asked, allow students to test the temperature and pH of certain hot springs. Students like to be in charge. So, put them in charge in the classroom. Let them come up with their own ideas, and give them a safe place to fail. One way to do this in a classroom is to use the case study method. The University of Buffalo has a wonderful collection.

Tilden believed in meeting individual students where they are, no matter their age. Incorporating these four strategies will not immediately turn all of your classroom students into efficient learning machines. That is unrealistic in most classrooms. However, it is a good step in training science students to be and think like scientists because that is the objective, right? Tilden explained the the aim of education should be “to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, or by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” Give it a try. You may find by using a simple case study about seven mysterious deaths while teaching cellular respiration will have the same impact that the wolf howls had on Devin.

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for this inspiring essay and for all you are doing to lead your students (and all of us who are students of nature) to greater engagement with the natural world, with ideas, and with each other. All educators should strive to follow your excellent example and lead students to become more engaged, self-actualized, and empowered learners. Inquiry-based learning will make better scientists and better humans of us all.

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