Teaching Opinion

Response: A Nobel Laureate Writes About Becoming A “Science Coach”

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 16, 2012 6 min read
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(Note: This is the first post in a several-part series on teaching science)

Last week’s question was:

What is the best advice you would give to help an educator become better at teaching science?

I’ll be posting a number of guest responses over the next two weeks, and invite readers to share their comments, too. I’ll publish ideas from readers in the final post in this series.

Today, Dr. Carl Wieman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 and well-known for his advocacy of cooperative and engaging methods for teaching science, has agreed to share his thoughts, and they are certainly applicable to subjects beyond science.

After reading his contribution, you might be interested in exploring the resources I’ve collected on deliberative practice.

Response From Dr. Carl Wieman

Dr. Carl Wieman is a professor of physics at the University of British Columbia and a Distinguished Professor of Physics and a Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado. At both institutions he is Director of Science Education Initiatives that are devoted to widespread improvement in undergraduate science teaching. For the past two years he served as the Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Wieman has carried out extensive research in experimental atomic physics for which he has received many awards, including the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001 for the first creation of the Bose-Einstein condensate. Wieman also has worked extensively in science education research and developed a popular website that provides interactive simulations for teaching science. His education work has been recognized by a number of awards, including being named the US University Professor of the Year in 2004 by the Carnegie Foundation, the 2006 Oersted Medal for contributions to physics education, a Presidential Citation for lifetime achievement by the NSTA, and election to the National Academy of Education:

You can become more effective as a science teacher by taking a lesson from athletic coaches. Just as a good coach would never simply send an athlete out to “practice and master tennis,” no teacher should send students out to “learn to do science”. The task is too overwhelming, and the learner will not recognize or practice many of the necessary skills. Instead, a good athletic coach first figures out the essential skills that make up mastery of their sport by looking at what experts do. Second, they create challenging but doable practice activities for the athlete/learner that explicitly practice these necessary skills. Third, the coach motivates their charges to work very hard at this practice, and fourth, they offer frequent and targeted constructive feedback to guide improvement.

All of the same ideas apply to teaching science. This is not a coincidence; research on the development of expertise has shown that this basic process (“deliberate practice”) of intense explicit practice of the essential skills with constructive feedback applies to the acquisition of expertise in all fields. Research has shown that the level of expertise an individual attains correlates strongly with the amount of “deliberate practice” that they have performed, much more strongly than with any measures of their “talent.”

To design suitable practice tasks/problems that will develop your students’ scientific expertise, you need to look at the thinking processes of scientists. Here are examples of some of the specific components of expertise that apply across the sciences (as well as engineering and mathematics).

The use of:

• discipline- and topic-specific mental models involving relevant cause and effect relationships that are used to make predictions about behavior and solve problems;

• criteria for deciding which of these models do or don’t apply in a given situation and processes for regularly testing the appropriateness of the model being used;

• systems for distinguishing relevant & irrelevant information;

• specialized representations that provide novel insights;

• criteria for selecting the likely optimum solution method to a given problem;

• self-checking and sense making, including use of discipline-specific criteria for checking the suitability of a solution method and a result.

For example, you might give your students a problem where, like in the real world, there is all sorts of different information, and as part of the solution the students must say which information is relevant and why. Another part of the problem solution might require them to give criteria by which to judge if their final numerical result is reasonable. In use, all of these components are embedded in the context and knowledge of the relevant area of science, and that needs to be the case for the practice problems/tasks that you design. Michelle Smith gives an example for teaching genetics. Many of these components involve making decisions in the presence of limited information--a vital but often educationally neglected aspect of expertise.

Feedback is an essential part of good coaching and good teaching. Useful feedback tells the learner (or even better, guides them to discover) what aspect of their thinking was wrong and why, and how they can improve while that thinking is still fresh in their mind. In many situations, properly designed collaborative learning tasks can result in individualized feedback provided by their peers. This reduces the burden on you. Collaborative learning tasks can also help make the practice tasks doable and challenging for learners with a broader range of skills.

The brain development that makes up complex learning requires strenuous mental effort, very analogous to the strenuous use of a muscle that results in its growth. So learning is inherently hard work. A critical aspect of good coaching and good teaching is to motivate the learner to do that work. How to do that will depend on both the subject matter and the characteristics of the students--their prior experiences, levels of mastery, and their values. Several things are known to increase learner motivation: having a sense of self-efficacy and some ownership of the learning process; finding the subject interesting, relevant, and inspiring; and developing a sense of identity as a beginning scientist. Motivating all of your students to work hard at learning can be one of the most challenging tasks for a teacher, but it is also probably the most important.

A critical feature of “deliberate practice” is the full mental engagement by the learner. Passive listening to the teacher or even watching engaging demonstrations that do not demand intellectual effort should be avoided. There is a place for short lectures, but only after your students have been prepared to learn from them.

Becoming a “science coach” can make you a more effective teacher.

Thanks to Dr. Wieman for taking the time to contribute his response!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including reader responses in a future post in this series.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

Look for the next post on this topic in a few days....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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