Learning muscles: PM’s Science Teacher Prize winner Sarah Johns

Issue: Volume 97, Number 3

Posted: 26 February 2018
Reference #: 1H9hax

The 2017 Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize recipient talks about her passion for teaching and the importance of creating a learning experience that taps into her students’ aspirations.

Sarah Johns, a science teacher at Nelson College for Girls, was chosen by the judges because of her 100 per cent commitment to her students and an uncompromising approach to bringing out the best in them.

Sarah says she begins with the students – who they are, what their aspirations are, and how they perceive themselves as learners and people.

“I guess from that place, I try to think about how I can create experiences that tap into those aspirations that have relevance for them.

“For me, teaching and learning is very relational, so to be able to form a trusting connection is key. I think we need to be really explicit about what teaching will look like in this room with me – because student aspirations must be at the heart of everything we do. From there I can use my expertise to create experiences that will strengthen students as learners, as young people who are going into a world that they want to make a difference in.”

A learning experience

To describe how she creates these experiences in the classroom, Sarah went straight to a learning topic on plastic in oceans as an example.

“They’ve seen this issue all over the place – they’ve seen Greenpeace and their thought-provoking ads on TV; they’ve seen it all over social media. They’ve not quite sure what role they play – and I think there’s a lot of confusion and helplessness.”

Sarah and her class worked on building understanding by talking as a class and in groups, via reflection diaries, and by researching.

From there the students created a range of ‘media experiences’ that they then presented to their peers. The purpose here was to express, convey, and untangle the issue, dealing with themes like the impact of ocean plastic on the biological world; what it means for society; and the causes of the problem.

The class then arrived at the business end of the matter: ‘what can we do about it?’

“This body of work then really grew lots more heads,” says Sarah. “The students said, ‘We want to develop an action plan, on a personal level, a family level, and a community level’. Then they wanted to know whether they could actually carry out this action plan, to which I said, ‘Sure!’”

The action plans were presented to classmates, as well as representatives from the Nelson City Council and EnviroSchools. The presenting groups were then subjected to critical feedback – they were asked questions like ‘how will you motivate or persuade people to go along with your plan?’ The purpose in this was to take students through the very scientific process of seeking peer review, and redirecting that feedback inward, in order to tweak, solve a problem, and incorporate outside thinking.

One group came up with an initiative called ‘Hold the Straw’ to help reduce the use of plastic straws. They crafted posters that were displayed in local restaurants, encouraging patrons to say ‘hold the straw’ when they order a drink. By way of evidence gathering, the group asked the restaurant to keep the straws after clearing away drinks. They were able to work out whether fewer straws were being thrown away over a given period.

Reflecting on learning

The Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize recognises excellence in preparing students to succeed. When asked about how she made a difference in terms of learning outcomes, she says metacognitive feedback from the students played a big role.

Metacognition is a concept where students are asked to reflect on how they are learning. Sarah uses again the learning topic on plastic in oceans to describe how she engaged with her students. 

“In this particular piece of work, I was quite explicit about the need for students to effectively communicate their findings and present concepts using their knowledge and vocabulary, in order to reach people – in this case reaching their peers. We explored what effective communication looks like – what do we need to do to take information from a vast online pool, and communicate key ideas?

“We use reflection journals quite a lot – at the end of a body of work, students reflect on key ideas that we’re exploring, and how they feel they’re progressing. That’s an incredibly valuable tool in measuring success in terms of outcomes.

“The students do a lot of self-reflection around their perceptions of themselves as learners – whether they take risks, their creativity, how they work with others. What I do is help them, using this self-reflection, to set learning goals for themselves within a piece of work, to strengthen their learning muscles. That really helps them think about how to leverage their strengths.

“When I’m looking at those reflections, I’m thinking about what has happened for them as learners.

“And of course, through the body of work they’ve put together during a topic, I’m using the nature of science to assess their work, based on rich evidence that they’ve provided, and key assessments. It’s quite complex, but at the same time it all fits together.”

Thriving on learning and teaching

Sarah is now in her ninth year at Nelson College for Girls. During this period, student involvement in science and technology projects has increased, with around 70 students now taking part in the regional Science and Technology Fair each year and entries from the college dominating the awards.

She is also a member of the Nelson Association for Women in the Sciences and the Cawthron Science and Technology Fair Committee.

After starting in the profession at 23 years old and currently having 20 years of experience under her belt, Sarah continues to be passionate about science and teaching.

When asked about how she maintains this passion, Sarah’s response is fittingly succinct.

“I guess for me, I thrive on learning for life, on experiences – what I model in the classroom is what I am. I’m hungry to develop myself, to stay stimulated, to keep thriving as an educator. I think that’s key to being a teacher, and it’s key to successful outcomes for kids.”

More information about the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes(external link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:00 am, 26 February 2018

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