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Published in Print: March 29, 2000, as Unlikely Pioneers

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Unlikely Pioneers

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My high school physics teacher used to tell us that if ignorance is bliss, we must be the happiest people on the planet.

My high school physics teacher used to tell us that if ignorance is bliss, we must be the happiest people on the planet. He was out to enlighten us on the mysteries of momentum, refraction, and the quantum, but his dry and windy lectures chased the bliss right out of us, if not the ignorance.

Twenty years later, I am in the privileged position of preparing science teachers. When I meet them as college juniors and seniors, or as postbaccalaureates enrolled in their first science-methods course, many are blissfully ignorant of the wide chasm that exists between effective teaching practices and the teaching they are all too familiar with as clients of K-12 and collegiate science. Most of them would surely teach as they were taught, if not for coursework on learning theory, exceptional children, developmental psychology, and active inquiry.

They would memorize the textbook chapter on thermodynamics the day before presenting a lecture on that topic. End-of-chapter questions in their teacher's manual would be assigned to measure students' note-taking skills. On Thursday, they might have a lab section where students use a prescribed recipe to complete a data table, then, after some number-crunching arrive at a figure that, with any luck, matches the one in the teacher's manual. On Friday, a quiz; on Monday, Chapter 9.

Many are blissfully ignorant of the wide chasm that exists between effective teaching practices and the teaching they are all too familiar with.

Sometimes I feel like an Alcoholics Anonymous facilitator—providing my clients with evidence that there is, in fact, a problem; that most of what they've believed to be effective science teaching is not. Over a period of time ranging from a month to a year (dependent, it seems to me, on a sort of mental maturity that allows for seeing the world from another's point of view), these future science teachers progress from denial to shock to dismay to resolve. Their research, class discussions, and field experiences all point them to a vision of science teaching quite different from what many had known. Then, of course, comes student-teaching.

A fortunate handful will test their wings under the guidance of research-reflective practitioners who augment and reinforce the tenuous hold my student-teachers have on equitable, inquiry-based practices and philosophy. For many, though, student-teaching is something to "survive" until they get their own labs and can "do it their way." These candidates become "bi-pedagogical"—dutifully executing their hosts' notes, quizzes, seating charts, and trying out open investigations and class debates toward semester's end, or when their cooperating teacher is absent.

Upon graduation, my students fall into two groups: Those who are well on their way to refining the art and craft of student-centered science teaching and look forward to getting paid for it; and those who have suppressed their reformed vision until getting a class of their own. They interview well, regaling principals with goals like science for all, critical thinking, cooperative problem-solving, real-world relevance.

Then I start to get e-mails from these former students. They say they weren't prepared for colleagues who warn them against amusement-park physics or farm-erosion studies that take them out of school at the expense of other classes. They're told their classrooms are too loud and their tests don't look much like tests. Their students aren't allowed to do group work in study hall. My graduates say they are pressured by administrators to keep budget requests at the level of their more traditional predecessors, and to give each student a grade every day, a test every week. Parents ask my former students why there's no textbook coming home at night, why their child has to work in groups, and "how come the kids aren't memorizing binomial nomenclature like we had to." Their students complain about so many questions with so few answers.

As a teacher of future science teachers, guilt has been my impetus for squeezing the amount of time we devote to Inclusionary Practices, Questioning Skills, Appropriate Technology Integration, Authentic Assessment, and so on, to make more room for exploring Institutional Constraints to Excellence.

The latter is a topic I hope to dismantle eventually. But despite a 40-year movement toward reform in science education—toward an emphasis on inquiry, constructivism, and process skills—tradition, in the form of content lectures and multiple-choice exams, continues to reign supreme in the schools. New teachers, the most unlikely pioneers, often face hardships that inhibit their abilities to teach science in a fashion that reflects research.

We decide that students need to know our personal goals and our goals for them up front, as a justification for our methods.

So we teacher-educators and student-teachers brainstorm tactics of survival—ways of winning over students and their parents, teacher colleagues, and school administrators. We decide that students need to know our personal goals and our goals for them up front, as a justification for our methods. We concur that parents need to be sold on our philosophy, through active promotion of its research basis, at open houses and during parent-teacher conferences. We agree that colleagues deserve to be listened to, and told little, leaving our door open for when they get curious. Our administrators, the consensus goes, will fall in line behind students, parents, and teaching peers.

We study cases of teachers who have braved the trail before us—obstacles encountered, remedies found. We host revolutionaries from the local schools who practice standards-based instruction in science despite a system that favors tradition. We develop the profile of the successful new teacher—stealth, aplomb.

As for myself, I arrange to meet teachers of reputation at local and state conferences. And I do lots of asking around—I ask about the teachers others might consider "odd." I place student-teachers with them. I keep good records and scrutinize cooperating teachers' evaluations for words like "flexible," "independent," "caring." I host seminars for these cooperating teachers at which I pitch our goals and the vital role they play in achieving them.

Someday, my students will be ignorant of there ever having been an archaic method for ineffectively teaching science.

Eventually, as I say, my course will be pared considerably. I remain most needed as long as the prevailing teaching style defies research on learning science. Ultimately, I will inherit students who have only known science as inquiry, and all I will need to do with them is help them develop an encompassing rationale and philosophy for what they already have experienced. Someday, my students will be ignorant of there ever having been an archaic method for ineffectively teaching science. And that will be true bliss.


Vol. 19, Issue 29, Page 43

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