Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science (Part 4): Student Needs

This is a continuation of my Top Ten List of Things I Learned while Teaching Secondary Science:

#7) “A student's unique needs can be defined by his English fluency, reasoning ability, and intrinsic motivation”

The previous entry makes for an easy segue into the various student archetypes that I've come across as a teacher. Realizing the nuanced nature of intelligence and remembering that all students bring with them a number of different life experiences and cultures, it follows then that different students will also have different needs outside of just coursework that targets the visual, motor, and auditory modalities, and as educators these additional needs must be considered to make adequate progress toward academic achievement goals and for individual students to feel successful.

I assert that all high school students and all of their unique needs can be described by their levels of the following three components: primary language fluency, reasoning ability, and intrinsic motivation.

Primary Language Fluency: This first component of student needs describes the ability of the student to communicate in English, and includes reading, writing, speaking and listening. Here in California, where nearly one-quarter of K-12 students are considered Limited English Proficient (LEP), this element holds crucial importance, because learning how to speak and understand English is a critical goal for future opportunities in the US, and appropriate instruction for LEP students necessitates knowing their individual levels of English fluency.

English fluency is also a factor of concern for the rest of our K-12 students, particularly with regards to reading and writing. Many of our students struggle with reading comprehension, especially when it comes to grade-level content textbooks, like Biology. Many students will assert that reading is boring, and it certainly is when their reading skills prohibit them from gleaning understanding from text. Writing is also a skill that warrants further practice, as many struggle to write effective essays that structure their ideas into an organized form of communication.

Educators must incorporate opportunities for students to learn and perfect English skills in all forms of instruction, from social studies to science, as deficiencies in this element limit the achievement of students in all content classes and reduce their success at communicating in American society.

Reasoning Ability: Logic is the primary attribute of this component of student needs, the ability to make mental connections. Generating individual understandings requires a person to connect different ideas in ways that make sense to that person, a form of mental mind-mapping. Education asks for students to make sense of a lot of different content, and students who are able to mentally connect new ideas to ideas they've already learned will succeed far more than students who cannot effectively do so.

Science offers many opportunities for educators to help students sharpen their reasoning abilities. Science labs that require thoughtful analyses of data, that demand students place specific graphs, figures, and ideas into the larger context of truly understanding the natural phenomena witnessed, target these reasoning skills. Outside content areas also can include reasoning into the curricula with activities such as debates, where students have to defend a controversial position against another by logically using evidence to refute outside perspectives and support their own. Within the scope of these activities, educators can scaffold instructions for students struggling with making their own mental connections by pairing weaker students with stronger ones, and by visually organizing ideas with the help of a brainstorming worksheet.

Intrinsic Motivation: The final component describing student needs, intrinsic motivation represents how motivated a student is to achieve academically without outside influence. Extrinsic motivation (“If you do this and this I will give you such and such reward”) should not be included in this element because it is not representative of the student's desire to achieve, but rather just characterizes his need to be rewarded. A student who is intrinsically motivated wants to achieve notwithstanding any of his failings in the other constituents of English fluency and reasoning ability.

It should be the goal of educators to instill intrinsic motivation in each and every student. A means to this end could likely be extrinsic motivation for certain students, giving tangible rewards for doing well in school until the student doesn't need to be rewarded to want to succeed, but wants to succeed on his own accord. Making school enjoyable also helps build this intrinsic motivation; to want to go to school; to want to be in class with his peers; to want to work with his teachers toward his educational goals.


High school students are experts at their own lives and bring to school a wealth of perspectives and background knowledge. They possess a variety of intelligences relating to visual, motor, and auditory modalities that a teacher can incorporate into lesson plans. Their qualities help define what kind of student each will be, and what needs-- English fluency, reasoning ability, and intrinsic motivation-- a teacher must target in the classroom, and to what extent, to make progress toward achievement goals and academic success.

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