Continuing the effort to define what makes a good teacher, I’m following the advice of my most recent informant which was “ask the kids.”  In answer to that question, I was given a description of a science project developed by two teachers in an upstate New York middle school.  In this school there is team teaching in which two teachers take a class within a specific grade, divide them in half for some subjects and have them together for others.  This was a joint project they called “Mining,” which seemed perfect to me since right now I am mining the terrain for good teachers.    

The class was divided in groups of four and the teachers provided four different brands of chocolate chip cookies which were to be mined for the chips.  The mining was to be done with tools consisting of several kinds of toothpicks, some stronger and some more flimsy.  These tools were “rented” at different prices which would count as part of the costs of the mining.  The flimsy ones cost less but might break more easily thus costing more in the end.

Since the cookies themselves were the earth being mined for the ore (chocolate chips), the mining process required minimal damage to the environment.  The outline of each cookie was traced on a sheet of paper to be compared to the end result of the mining.  The chips themselves would be put aside and given value depending on their size, condition, etc.  This represented the gross income from the mining from which the expenses (tool rental) would be subtracted to determine net profit.

At the end of the mining, the cookies themselves, which undoubtedly had fragmented to some extent, had to be gathered back into a condition in which they could again be outlined and any damage to the land assessed, possible penalties for damage also being subtracted from ultimate profit.  The students were also in a position to judge which brand of cookies was best for mining, in terms of the most chocolate chips and least crumbling, but perhaps also from the vantage point of future eating.

It is easy to see how such a project would capture the interest of eleven and twelve year olds.  It even captures the interest of adults.  What is amazing is what children are learning from such a project.  Math is obviously involved as various calculations have to be made, but judgment also has to be used.  The cheapest tool may turn out to be the most expensive in the end if it keeps breaking and replacements  have to be paid for.

Imagine if this were put into a more typical exam question.  If a project yields x income, y equals total expenses and z equals replacement tools of different prices within that expense total, what was the number of tools replaced and at what price level?  A number of other such questions could be formulated based on the calculations involved in this project.  Instead, the children have actually been given a first-hand experience in the relationship between income, expenses, profit and loss.

At the same time, environmental considerations are brought to the fore, including rules that must be followed for the protection of the environment.  In this project, the earth disturbed by the mining had to be restored as closely as possible to its original form.  Perhaps there were penalties for excessive disturbances of the environment during the mining process, which also factored into the ultimate profit.

One might also say that this project provided an experience in developing consumer discrimination.  Chocolate chip cookies are a general favorite among kids but it turns out not all chocolate chip cookies are equal.  Some have more chips than others and some chips are larger than others.  Some cookies crumble more easily while others are crisper and firmer.  Of course, the taste factor did not enter into this project.

The children engaged in this project found that appearances could be deceptive and that not all cookies were suitable for mining.  The profit from the ore mined was not worth the effort and cost of the mining. 

It may well be that mining for the qualities that make for good teaching may involve identifying the soil that produces the ore.  But one thing that can be said about good teaching, as was once said in another context, you know it when you see it.  Ask the kids!