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What happens when you light a bulb?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Today my students will solve a problem.

On the board will be the focus question from FOSS’s Magnetism and Electricity lesson 2.1: "How do you get electricity from a source to a receiver?"

Some of my students won’t know what is meant by source and receiver, and I don’t want them to; we’ll label what we experienced later. At each of the tables in the classroom will be D-cell batteries, pairs of wires, and light bulbs. I’ll turn out the lights and 40 minutes later each child will figure out how to get their light bulb aglow.

I remember when I did this lesson as a youth. In fact I was the last child in my class to get the light bulb lit. One of my classmates finally showed me how to do it. Both of us probably remember to this day how it’s done.

I can say with confidence that I have taught roughly 180 students how to light a bulb over the last two years. I’m sure that another 82 will learn this year. The "lighting a bulb" lesson is just that great. This lesson is that great because it creates critical conditions for critical thinking.

Students aren’t asked to light the bulb for any specific reason. It’s not for success on the PSSA, not bolster their grades, not for anyone’s seal of approval. The kids light the bulb because it’s a problem to solve. Students light the bulb for the sheer joy of saying "I can do this." From moving to "I think I can," to "this is how it’s done." This lesson is a challenge to students to take what is in front of them and make something new and useful out of it.

Sitting in meetings about gearing up for the PSSA are devoid of any of the joy that learning to light a bulb brings. We talk on and on about how to get kids to decode the test. How to score a three or a four (in science the highest score is a two, but that doesn’t really matter). Strategies for regurgitating elements of a short passage back in the 20-line space below a question. The difference between show and explain, and explain.

How many times have educators heard that "we appreciate all you do for children, but AYP makes or breaks us"?

How many times have billionaires, reformers, and politicians told teachers we are doing a bad job because of AYP scores?

How many interventions have been put in place that deny our children the ability to learn by doing as opposed to drill?

How many times has the status quo in education been characterized as "for the adults"?

I’ve seen students’ smiles reflecting off of glass bulbs, but never off of paper PSSA results delivered half a year after the test. Who does standardized testing serve?

Reading about the high level of discouragement among teachers today is actually encouraging. Discouragement comes from expectations not met. Today I’ll be a happy teacher. I think it’s important that people know we love facilitating students’ construction of knowledge. But my expectations for teaching have not been met.

Lighting a bulb will turn into knowledge about circuits, components of circuits, electrical pathways, and eventually electromagnetism. Vocabularies will expand. Lighting a bulb will also teach students a way of thinking. Without multiple-choice questions or pick-three-details explanations, my students’ understanding of magnetism and electricity will grow. They will create things. Science notebooks will fill with drawings, labels, and written explanations of how my students know what they know. It will be hard work for me and them. The end result result will be that students can tell me what they know. And that will be great. I won’t own knowledge and dispense it; my students will build knowledge and define it.

My expectation for teaching is that all of us in the profession can experience the same joy my class will experience today – not once, not occasionally, not accidentally, but planned and often. That those who decide curriculum and weigh School Performance Indexes think about that joy. That families advocate for learning that seeks out that joy.

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