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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Riding the Dinosaur Wave

A journey back in time leads to self-directed learning for high school geology students as they walk with dinosaurs through the Mesozoic period.

Reuben, a known gang member, was reading to 1st graders a story he wrote and illustrated about a young pachycephalosaur. Jerry, an 18-year-old sophomore labeled severely emotionally disturbed, was smiling and enthusiastically debating the feasibility of the asteroid-impact theory with our school superintendent. Linda and Emma, who had failed other science classes, were surrounded by several parents as they described the nesting behavior of hadrosaurs.
This was the scene at the opening of the Mesozoic Resource Center. Forty high school science students and I had worked diligently for 10 weeks to prepare for this evening program. We had set up displays on both floors of our unusual two-story classroom. Downstairs, visitors browsed through student- constructed displays ranging from a description of the diversity of pterosaurs to a debate over whether dinosaurs were warm- or cold-blooded. Students staffed their displays, clarifying ideas and offering additional information to visitors.
In one corner, elementary children excavated dinosaur toys from a simulated paleontological dig, poured resin over dead insects to simulate the famous mosquito stuck in amber from Jurassic Park, or used a rubber stamp kit to construct their own dinosaurs. Each group was closely supervised by my students.
Upstairs, students conducted tours of a lost age. Guides assigned to each period—Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous—led visitors through their respective area, describing the plants, animals, and climate of that time. Visitors stood stunned at the bleakness of the desertlike surroundings in the Triassic period, marveled at the eight-meter-long Apatosaurus model being eyed by a Parasaurolophus peering through ferns and lush greenery, and were amazed by the three-meter-tall Tyrannosaurus rex model glaring down at them as the first flowering plants appeared in the Cretaceous period. The sights and conversation were academic, enthusiastic, and entertaining for everyone involved.

Student-Directed Science Learning

The evening described is not some ideal vision of an interactive museum, but my high school science class. It took me almost a year to realize the unique qualities of this experience. At the time, I was wrapped up in the details of executing the large-scale project, but after thoughtful reflection I began to understand the power of this unit.
A group of my geology students showed interest in learning about dinosaurs. What started as a trial in self-directed learning exploded in both size and scope. Before I knew it, these students, most previously characterized as uninterested, unmotivated, and apathetic, were tearing down the walls of traditional learning. In their place they built a community of scholars working toward understanding and communicating what life was like millions of years ago in the Mesozoic era. I could barely keep up.
As a relatively new teacher, I had few resources and even less personal knowledge about dinosaurs. I chose to involve my students, as well as myself, with David Norman's Dinosaur!, a richly illustrated book filled with information about current thinking on dinosaurs. We supplemented our reading with the four-part television series by the same name. Because these sources provided insufficient information in some areas, students consulted our school library, the Internet, local experts, university libraries, and even college professors. Just learning how to gather information was a worthwhile experience.
We soon realized that to get a complete picture of life in the Mesozoic era, we needed to split up and become experts in many different areas. With a little guidance, my students focused their inquiry into very specific topics. Each student's goal was to become an expert in a particular area. I challenged each student to develop his or her knowledge of the subject far beyond mine or anyone else's in our school. These words were empowering for largely disenfranchised students. They eagerly accepted the challenge.
As the students' knowledge grew, I realized that I had to find a way to showcase their work. Because of some negative press regarding gang violence and drug abuse in our community, this high school needed something to feel good about. As the students' work began to blossom and our ideas and goals became more lofty, I envisioned a public display of this rich knowledge and understanding. Our dinosaur projects became the Mesozoic Resource Center.

Walking Through History

By far, the biggest hit of the Mesozoic Resource Center was the walk-through diorama showing how life might have been during each of the three periods of the Mesozoic. With the help of our school's maintenance personnel, we built false walls of black plastic to separate the ages. We hauled in 500 gallons of sand and rocks to spread across the floor. Students working on the diorama spent two Saturdays planting brush, driftwood, and small shrubbery in our 200-million-year-old setting. Our local florist donated several boxes of ferns to add to the realism. With backlighting and sound effects piped in through a hidden stereo system, our diorama became very impressive.
The highlights of the diorama were two very large dinosaur models built by my students. We ordered snap-together balsa models from a supply house and traced each piece. Using an opaque projector and very steady hands, six students made 1/4 - scale patterns of dinosaur bones. The students traced the patterns onto sheets of plywood and cut them out with jigsaws. After sanding and painting all the pieces and using a few bolts and clamps, we assembled these massive dinosaur models in their appropriate time periods.
Second only to the huge dinosaur models in impressiveness were two dinosaur heads painted in exquisite detail. One student found a supplier of closed-cell plastic foam dinosaur heads and envisioned the heads mounted on a wall and peering out of bushes. After students airbrushed the forms to amazing realism, the effect was quite startling. Imagine walking through a darkened classroom, marveling at the magnitude of the dinosaur models in front of you, listening intently as students explain the hunting habits of small carnivorous dinosaurs, and then suddenly eyeing one, with its head sticking out of some bushes lit by a soft green glow. The effect was fantastic. In fact, one 1st grader wet his pants!

What Made It Work?

Two years later, as I look back on the experience, I realize that it was both the most challenging and the most rewarding unit of instruction I have ever led. Because I was only a second-year teacher at the time, I did not immediately see why my students achieved at a level never before reached. As I have gained experience in the classroom and knowledge about the psychology of learning, I have come to understand why this unit was so engaging and productive. I believe three qualities made it successful.
A compelling idea. Dinosaurs are a funny subject. First graders think they are interesting because of their sheer size and their resemblance to monsters that surely exist in their closets or under their beds. Upper elementary and middle school students often want nothing to do with dinosaurs because they associate them with childish learning. During this time of uncom-fortable adolescence, talking about, thinking about, or being interested in dinosaurs is not cool. But something happens in high school. Students either develop enough self-confidence or gain enough wisdom to be able to look back on dinosaurs with renewed interest and excitement. Once again, dinosaurs become cool.
When my students asked whether we could talk about dinosaurs, I thought they were riding out the last thrills from Jurassic Park, but they were engaged on a deeper level. Dinosaurs are compelling to think about. Nothing in our minds is bigger, scarier, stranger, or more powerful.
My students had been learning geology for half the year and knew quite a bit about the geologic timescale, what information geologists can glean from the fossil record, evolution, and the geologic and climatologic changes the earth has undergone. They were prepared for an in-depth, cross- curricular, student-directed foray into life 100 million years ago. We used our imaginations as our jumping-off point and asked very seriously, "What would life have been like 100 million years ago? What things were going on? What strange creatures walked the earth? How can I share this information?"
Different rules. My teaching had generally been didactic. I had a clear outline of the knowledge and concepts I wanted my students to master, and I often told them exactly what these were. In our study of dinosaurs, I did not have the level of understanding necessary to teach in this directed manner. As a result, I asked my students to construct for themselves their own understanding of life in the Mesozoic. They rose to this challenge with eagerness.
The climate within my classroom changed dramatically, too. My once peaceful, routinized classroom was replaced by a noisy and chaotic site. As a teacher who prided himself on impeccable classroom management, I needed time to get used to this changed environment. However, I do not remember having any discipline problems.
My students worked all over the school: in the computer lab, in the library, outdoors, in the shop, and in the art room. Although I feared that something serious might happen without my supervision, I do not recall any infractions. For example, I was not convinced that the three boys responsible for making the dinosaur bones for the Tyrannosaurus rex model could work unsupervised in the wood shop. I checked on them several times and always found them working diligently, tracing, cutting, and sanding the gigantic wooden bones. It gave me a good feeling to know that these boys were not taking advantage of the situation. Looking back, I realize they took pride in what they were doing; appreciated working with their skills and strengths; and felt empowered and trusted to use power tools, unsupervised and away from their regular class.
But were these boys getting anything academic from the experience? I asked John how they should modify the foot bones of the model to reflect the increase in scale. He suggested lengthening the toes and tightly binding the ankle bones to reflect the pillarlike structure of the foot necessary to hold the reptile's immense weight. He also described how the unique structure of the dinosaur foot allowed the T. rex to run fast, walk across soft ground, and capture and kill prey. John clearly knew about more than just cutting out wooden bones!
As the students' knowledge of their topics grew, they viewed one another as experts and valued one another's unique knowledge. Every student knew something that no other student did. When students asked me whether their interpretation of their findings was correct, they were shocked at my response: "That sounds reasonable." It took them several weeks to understand that I was not joking when I said they knew more about flora in the Cretaceous than I did. This realization empowered my students, and they pushed to learn even more.
A restructured curriculum. Students are often required to learn subject matter in the order and form their teacher selects. Too often, this imposed structure is contrary to the needs of the learner. Outside of school, we learn without heeding subject-matter boundaries. The world is interdisciplinary, and our dinosaur projects allowed us to learn in this way.
One student who was diligently studying dinosaur anatomy was reluctant to tell me what he had learned about the digestive processes of dinosaurs. He was surprised at my interest in his description of how some dinosaurs swallowed stones to help break up plant material for thorough digestion. This student told me, "This doesn't really have anything to do with geology, but it sure is neat!" I argued that it had strong relevance to geology and paleontology because we can use those gastroliths as clues about diet and migratory patterns.
Other students enjoyed the freedom afforded by this project. Many students were pleased that I encouraged them to study anything of interest within the domain of life in the Mesozoic. They were not locked together, forced to study the same topics at the same pace. The bright students realized that their only limitations were self-imposed. Several students who typically struggled with the pace of the class were able to focus on their topic. This project allowed my students' motivational orientations to shift from learning the prescribed curriculum at a fixed rate to learning something of interest to them and having the time to learn it well.

Reflecting Back

This attempt at student-directed learning was successful in many ways. My students were empowered by their own learning, challenged to produce high-quality products and understanding, and given the flexibility and trust to undertake them. Self-directed learning changes the dynamics of the classroom, allows students to focus on learning instead of on completing tasks, and encourages learning to be interdisciplinary. Although I have never worked as hard as I did during those 10 weeks, the benefits made the effort very worthwhile.
End Notes

1 Norman, D. (1991). Dinosaur! New York: Prentice Hall.

Mark Girod has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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