Education Opinion

Fly Guys

By Jeffrey Weld — May 01, 2000 5 min read

When I was a high school student, a physics teacher of mine used to say 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.

These brave teachers are chastised because their classes are loud and their tests don’t look like tests.

Twenty years later, I am in the privileged position of training would-be science teachers. When I meet them as college juniors and seniors, or as postbaccalaureates enrolled in their first science-methods courses, many are blissfully ignorant of the chasm between effective teaching and the teaching they are more familiar with as clients of K-12 and collegiate science.

If not for their coursework on learning theory, exceptional children, developmental psychology, and active inquiry, most of them would surely teach as they were taught. The day before presenting a lecture on thermodynamics, they would memorize the appropriate textbook chapter. End-of-chapter questions in their teacher’s manual would be assigned. On Thursday, they might lead 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 answer in the teacher’s manual. On Friday, a quiz; on Monday, Chapter 9.

Sometimes I feel like an Alcoholics Anonymous facilitator—providing my clients with evidence that they do, in fact, have 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, on a 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 they had known.

New teachers, the most unlikely pioneers, often face hardships that inhibit their abilities to teach science in a fashion that reflects research.

Then, of course, comes student-teaching. A fortunate few 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 “bipedagogical"—dutifully executing their hosts’ notes, quizzes, seating charts, and trying out open investigations and class debates.

Upon graduation, my students can be divided into two groups: Those who are well on their way to refining the art and craft of student-centered teaching, and those who have suppressed their reformed visions until getting classes of their own. They interview well, regaling principals with goals like science for all, critical thinking, cooperative problem-solving, real-world relevance.

Then these former students start to send me e-mails. Colleagues are warning them against farm-erosion studies or amusement-park physics 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 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: “How come the kids aren’t memorizing binomial nomenclature like we had to.” Their students complain about so many questions with so few answers.

These complaints suggest that 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.

Their research, class discussions, and field experiences all point them to a vision of science teaching quite different from what they had known.

So we teacher-educators and student-teachers brainstorm tactics of survival—ways of winning over students, parents, colleagues, and administrators. We decide that students need to know our goals up front so that they’ll understand 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, but 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 local schools who practice standards-based instruction in science despite a system that favors tradition. We develop profiles of successful new teachers—they have stealth, aplomb.

As for myself, I arrange to meet teachers of reputation at local and state conferences. And I do lots of investigation—I ask about the teachers others might consider “odd.” I place student-teachers with them. I keep good records and scrutinize cooperating science 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.

Eventually, the course I teach 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; then my job will be to simply help them develop an encompassing rationale and philosophy for what they already have experienced. Someday, my students will be ignorant of all but the most effective methods of teaching science. And that will be true bliss.