When Class Itself is a Distraction

I'm going to stop doing labs in one of my classes this semester. Regardless of the supports or steps I put in place, there is a general refusal (save for 4 students who are trying their hardest to rise above the din) to follow procedure, listen to instructions, and work safely.

The class itself has become its own distraction. There lacks a visceral awareness of how actions impact others in the room, which has led to a general disregard for any form of structure. Labs are highly desirable because of the experience students get with the science, but they're not teaching anything. It's effort I put in that isn't spent on a significant learning gain. It's also creating liabilities.

It's all the more frustrating because I think they could do well with labs, but the class is fighting me for control. Power struggles aren't suited for the lab space. For now, we'll put those on the back burner until such a time we've regained enough self-control to work safely and effectively.

Growth is a process and this year, it seems to be an extra intense one.

4 thoughts on “When Class Itself is a Distraction

  1. David Eckstrom says:

    Be careful.

    I had to do this back in 2006. I had an honors chemistry class that basically mutinied. The kids all came from a middle school culture in which no one was allowed to fail and they were pissed that I was expecting them to earn their grades. I began the year with my typical strategy of lots of inquiry lab activities and discussions. Because they weren’t interested in learning, they viewed lab as play time and the lab equipment as toys provided for their amusement.

    No one was learning anything and it quickly became apparent that the likelihood of someone getting hurt and me getting sued or criminally charged was palpable. So I cancelled labs for the rest of the year and resorted to lecture, which I hate, but I’d rather lecture than go to jail.

    Of course, they didn’t learn anything from the lectures either, but at least everyone had all their limbs at the end of the course. This was in the days before I switched to SBG, and when I gave the final exam, their scores were all so low (because they didn’t know anything) that most of the class ended up with Cs and Ds. One student failed. The parents, who had never seen anything but As and Bs freaked and administration caved. I was ordered to change grades, which I did. Then the three kids who actually earned As told their parents and it turned into a community-wide controversy in the small town where I teach. Administration had nowhere to turn after their ill-advised decision, so they made up a lie about me miscalculating the grades and threw me under the bus.

    One of the specific items in the disciplinary letter I got after the dust settled was that research shows students learn science better from doing labs and I didn’t do enough labs. My advice, make sure your admins are aware of what you’re doing and why. If they don’t approve, ask them for some support so you can get rid of the ringleaders and change the culture.

  2. Brian Bennett says:

    Man, what a really awful story. But thank you for sharing it with me. Honestly, I hadn’t considered that end result as I’ve made this decision. My students are the opposite end of the spectrum (in most cases) but you’re right – I need to communicate this with my admin and my department chair, just so there are no sticking points down the line somewhere.

    I’m hoping that we can get back on track with some middle-ground activities in the place of formal labs. The really bizarre thing is that they *usually* do okay with the inquiry work, but when I want to do more formal chemistry labs, we run into major, major roadblocks. I was hoping it was just inexperience with the format, but even with the support structure that worked for the other 100 students I teach, it highlighted some major issues that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, I think this is the least worst option.

  3. Kris says:

    Going out on a limb…
    Between mastery, SBG, flipping and inquiry – I’m actually losing ground on labs. This is the first year I’ve gone full-on self-paced mastery. Not everyone gets to the labs quick enough resulting in often rushed and partial labs, materials are left on lab tables for weeks on end and I end up mini lecturing the learning for every group. So I’m considering this http://static.nsta.org/files/tst0510_54.pdf I know it sounds maybe way off the deep end. And far from what you’d be inclined to try.
    But I love this guy Frank’s, https://fnoschese.wordpress.com/about/ SBG rubric for labs. I also use a simple 5 question online peer survey for accountability. Really thinking letting them go about in depth on a few labs in this manner (without the procedures). Just a thought. I can send you the link to the survey of you’re interested.

  4. Brian Bennett says:

    Thanks for the link to the NSTA stuff…I haven’t seen that before, but it’s something I’ll check out.

    There are two big things for this group: 1) they don’t trust that the activities I have them do in class are beneficial, so work is shoddy and they don’t pay attention to instructions, and 2) their reading and direction-following skills are low. I started off with a simple, six-step density lab that really went nowhere. I definitely feel you on the self-paced, mastery difficulties (been there before, not this year, but I remember!) though…it’s a really difficult balance to find the labs that make the **most** impact on their learning.

    And Frank’s stuff is awesome – I’ve referred back to his blog many, many times as I’ve worked through iterations of the courses I teach and for grading. Smart dude, there. I use something similar that I’ve been meaning to write about, I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

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