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Bannockburn School, Bannockburn, Illinois

Visited: March 2, 1999
Reported by: Kevin Killion
A bit of background:

I visited Bannockburn School when I was a member of a parent-teacher "Science Committee" of our local public school. At both grade levels reported by one measure on the statewide test, Our local school was third from the bottom of all districts in the area, while Bannockburn was at the top. I wanted to visit Bannockburn to answer this question: What were they doing that we were not?

Introduction

Bannockburn School is immediately of interest for a simple reason: its spectacular scores in last year's IGAP tests. On the simple measure of average score, Bannockburn scored the absolute best of all schools reported in Pioneer Press' review of our area, at both the 4th and 7th grade level. Even more astonishing was Bannockburn's inclusiveness in that success: an amazing 84% of Bannockburn's 4th graders and 80% of its 7th graders exceeded the state goal. These are also top-of-the-list rankings for schools in our area. In contrast, merely about half of our kids are at that level. While test scores are only one measure of a school's success, all of this is clearly an eye-opener.

In visiting Bannockburn School, it was easy to see partial reasons behind their success: 1) a strongly motivated and energetic science teacher who has worked not only to improve his own classes but who has taken the lead to set the school as a whole on a solid path of rich science content, 2) a very detailed, specific, written science curriculum guide that goes far beyond the minimal state standards, 3) class and lab work that focuses on content and learning rather than vague and abstract skills.

Our host was Mr. Duke Gavrilovic, who teaches 5th through 8th grade science. He also was the lead in writing Bannockburn's science curriculum guide. Before joining Bannockburn, Gavrilovic taught or subbed in a number of area schools and on the northwest side of Chicago.

Description of the School

In many respects, Bannockburn School is very much like our own local school. It is a relatively small school within its own one-school district. The community is extremely supportive and involved in school activities, and Bannockburn's relative affluence means that the school can generally afford what it wants.

However, Bannockburn is smaller than our school, with an enrollment K-8 of only a bit over 200. Class sizes are a bit smaller: one grade has a total of 17 students in one class, another grade has a total of 25 students who are divided into two classes.

A portion of Bannockburn's students are the children of students at Trinity, a theological college in the town. Ironically, since these parents are students themselves, this means that these families meet low-income standards.

Standards

As we sat down, Mr. Gavrilovic plopped on the table a copy of the Bannockburn School Science Guidelines, a hefty, home-grown curriculum outline for K through 8th grade. Bannockburn had recognized that the Illinois state standards alone were inadequate as a framework. (The Illinois standards are included as a slim appendix to the meaty Bannockburn standards.)

Gavrilovic and three others had worked as a team to create this document. They used the Illinois standards simply as a raw outline (which is pretty much all it is). To develop content standards, the team examined a number of textbooks, comparing them to determine the topics and details that they wanted to include. When completed, Gavrilovic presented the new science standards to their Board, and the document was adopted by the school.

The Bannockburn standards are organized by grade K-8, with several pages of specific content to be covered at each grade. The document has much more of the feel and specificity of the Core Knowledge or the California standards than they do the Illinois standards.

(Sex-ed and drug education are addressed as part of the school's physical education program, rather than science. Gavrilovic makes the case that with gym five days per week, they could afford the time more than science class could.)

Gavrilovic could not leave us a copy of the Bannockburn guide at our meeting, but said he would check with his superintendent about that possibility.

Textbooks

Bannockburn currently uses an older Prentice Hall series for science. Gavrilovic uses the textbook for assigning readings, for coverage of science definitions, and to serve as a source for photos, illustrations and other explanatory material. He does not use the textbook solely or exhaustively.

Gavrilovic doesn't like that current (older) Prentice Hall book, and he wants to replace it. He is strongly considering a Glencoe series which much richer support materials. He feels that Glencoe's package would be especially valuable to help teachers who are not completely comfortable with science.

(In glancing extremely briefly at the Glencoe text on biology, it seemed to offer substantial text material, with a lively but not startling visual design. Even in this quick look, it was apparent that examples were loaded towards eco-piety, but it wasn't blatant and perhaps this isn't even undesirable for this particular subject area. The Glencoe text itself was fairly light in assignable work material, though perhaps that is provided with another part of the complete package.)

Gavrilovic believes strongly that textbooks should be chosen in observance of a written science curriculum standard, rather than the other way around. While textbooks were consulted in the development of the Bannockburn standard in order to glean topics, Gavrilovic feels that the first step is to define what you want, and then choose textbooks that meet that definition.

Lecture / Lab

Gavrilovic's classes meet in the science lab. A strong believer in both hands-on learning and rich content, Gavrilovic says that he devotes approximately 60% of class time to lecture and about 40% to lab work.

The lab is decorated with a variety of student projects, such as models of the organs of the body, or models of the atom showing the nucleus and electron shells.

In lab, the kids work on experiments in pairs, with two pairs (four children) at each lab table. The experiments are investigatory and are solidly focused on learning scientific facts and principles.

In his lectures, Gavrilovic works from an extremely detailed, thick set of class plans that he has developed. He has most of his lecture material distilled into the form of presentation overheads. He says that the kids are always asking for photocopies of this material, but he insists that they keep notes on his presentations, and believes that students learn in the process of hearing, thinking about, and writing down this content material.

When asked if he uses "problem based learning", Gavrilovic simply and unapologetically answered "no". He used the term "fluff" to describe low-content material and projects that he has seen being used in other schools where he has taught.

Gavrilovic makes liberal use of science magazines and other science articles as a starting point for classroom discussions.

When asked about double-length periods, Gavrilovic agreed with the view that this encouraged excessively long lab periods, but he added that the long blocks could undesirably encourage long, boring reading sessions as well.

When I asked Gavrilovic how he would account for Bannockburn's IGAP achievement, he noted correctly that tests were but one measure, but he answered the question by saying (and this is a quote),
"Some schools do a lot of lab work, we stress content."

Science Fair

Bannockburn has its 6th and 7th graders participate in a school science fair. The process starts in October, when Gavrilovic takes the kids through the scientific process of hypothesis and testing. Students organize into pairs and develop ideas for their projects, starting with a cycle of research on their chosen topics. Interestingly, students are permitted to change their topics after this phase, turning their first directions into a learning experience rather than an albatross.

Projects are done by pairs of students. To prevent parents from being excessively involved in doing the work, Gavrilovic has students do the bulk of the work in class, although he recognizes that this severely impacts on the classroom time budget.

Winning projects advance to a district competition, which this year is held at Niles North on March 6th. From there, students can advance to the state competition. Gavrilovic makes an interesting observation regarding this timing: preparation for the district competition can distract a student from the ISAT tests in February. As a result, he is considering shifting the timing of the science fair to avoid this conflict, and perhaps to drop out of the district fair entirely. (I pointed out that district competition is much more important at the high school level, where success can affect college admissions and scholarships.)

Eighth graders may participate in the Science Fair if they wish, but instead all of them this year opted for another option offered, a SimCity design competition, which is part of a national program. Each year, a theme is chosen nationally (this year it was transportation), and students work to develop SimCity models that illustrate and address design problems with emphasis on that theme. Some of the kids' SimCity models were on display in huge, detailed posters in the corridor outside the science lab.

Gavrilovic likes the Science Olympiad, although Bannockburn does not currently participate.

Computers

Bannockburn is not as computerized as yet as our school. There is a modest computer lab, and there is one computer in the science lab. All of the computers are Macintosh and Mac clones.

When asked what he would wish for regarding computers in his science program, Gavrilovic didn't hesitate: He wants two computers on each lab table, one for each pair of students, and he wants a good supply of software for simulated science experiments. He wants a large screen projector connected to his computer, so that he can easily show and demonstrate materials to the class.

Since the lab work is solidly focused on learning science rather than on busywork, it wasn't surprising to hear how Gavrilovic would use computers in the lab. First and foremost would be using carefully selected software to streamline and enhance hands-on learning of specific science content. While Gavrilovic is a fan of hands-on involvement, he points out that certain valuable experiments are extremely time-consuming, and are especially troublesome to run repeatedly, due to the time to clean up or to set up again. For such experiments, a computer simulation can be just as impactful but with less time lost. In a computer simulation, experiments can easily be rerun and tried again. Gavrilovic says that simulated experiments of this kind are of great benefit by permitting plenty of time for lecture and discussion.

Gavrilovic was interested about possible web applications for computers in the science lab, and he requires web research as one component of the research in the science fair projects. Gavrilovic sees computers in school as a tool for doing science more than as a merely an information source, which is a function served well by printed materials. However, he does make assignments for the students to go to specific web pages and use them to answer content-specific questions, thus training them on how to use web resources.

Assessment

Gavrilovic stresses performance in the classroom as a key component of a student's grades. Tests and quizzes are also important measures. Gavrilovic does not emphasize homework. Student achievement is mostly based on individual tasks and skills, except for lab experiments and the science fair, which are tackled by pairs of students. Bannockburn uses the CTBS for standardized testing.

Conclusion

Bannockburn's science program offered most everything one could hope for, with a lively curriculum strongly emphasizing rich content and real learning, led by an energetic leader and champion for science education, and producing jaw-droppingly impressive test scores.

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