Opinion
Teaching Opinion

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

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 16, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(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....

Related Tags:

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Photos What School Looks Like When Learning Moves Outside
One class of 5th graders shows what's possible when teachers take their lessons outside.
1 min read
Teacher Angela Ninde, right, works with students in their garden at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Va., on Sept. 7, 2021.
Teacher Angela Ninde, right, works with students in their garden at Centreville Elementary School in Centreville, Va.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Teaching If Outdoor Learning Is Safer During COVID, Why Aren't More Schools Doing It?
Teachers and advocates tout the benefits of outdoor learning, but there are barriers for some schools, including the risk of gun violence.
9 min read
Angie Ninde leads her class through a math lesson outside at Centreville Elementary School in Virginia on Sept. 7, 2021.
Angie Ninde leads her class through a math lesson outside at Centreville Elementary School in Virginia Sept. 7. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is lower outdoors, so some schools are trying to take classes into the fresh air as much as possible.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Teaching In Their Own Words 'Chaos in the Adult World': A New York Principal Tells Her Story of Being a Teacher on 9/11
Janet Huger-Johnson was a 5th grade teacher in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Here's her story.
5 min read
Principal Janet Huger-Johnson at East New York Elementary School of Excellence in Brooklyn, New York on Sept. 8. 2021.
Principal Janet Huger-Johnson at East New York Elementary School of Excellence in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Jackie Molloy for Education Week
Teaching Opinion All the Q&A Posts From the Past 10 Years: A Link Round-Up
You can find categorized links to all Classroom Q&A posts from the past 10 years!
1 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty