Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching Science By “Becoming A Learner”

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 23, 2012 9 min read
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(Note: This is the third post in a four-part series on teaching science. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

Two weeks ago I posed this question:

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

I’ve been posting various guest responses in this four-part series, and invite readers to share their comments, too. I’ll publish ideas from readers in the final post this Thursday.

Part One appeared last Monday, and featured advice from Dr. Carl Wieman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. Linda Shore, director of the Exploratorium Teacher Institute, and high school science teacher Amy Lindahl offered their suggestions in Part Two.

Today, three educators respond to the question -- high school physics teacher Frank Noschese, middle school science teacher Paul Cancellieri, and Steve Spangler well-known teacher-trainer and creator of science multimedia tools.

Though I’m not a “regular” science teacher, I have always used science in teaching English Language Learners. It’s a great tool for language acquisition. Readers might be interested in reviewing my favorite online science-related resources here.

Response From Frank Noschese

Frank Noschese teaches physics at a public high school in New York. He recently spoke at TEDxNYED where he advocated for inquiry-based learning and for using technology to support the inquiry process. He is @fnoschese on Twitter and he blogs at Action-Reaction:

Become a learner. Learn from other teachers. Learn from your students. Learn from research. Learn from yourself.

Learn from other teachers

Join a professional organization like the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and subject-specific ones like the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). They have monthly magazines and run conferences several times a year. There might even be a local section in your area.

Being able to collaborate with (or at least bounce ideas off of) other teachers face-to-face is critical. Now expand on that and connect with hundreds of teachers online!

• Many science teachers have their own blog, where they write about what’s going on in their classrooms (what’s working and what’s not), sharing lessons, and asking their readers for advice. Don’t know where to start? Check out the blogs listed in my blogroll.

• Twitter isn’t just for following celebrities. Science teachers on Twitter are sharing links, tweeting about conferences they are attending, and reflecting on their practice. Check out hashtags like #scichat #chemchat and #physicsed.

• Join email lists and forums for science teachers. Not everyone has joined social media. There are many friendly and helpful teachers with decades of experience. Some examples are email lists and forums for NSTA members, AP teachers, and NY science teachers.

Learn from your students

Get feedback from your students. Don’t wait until the end of the year to distribute course evaluations. Ask students for feedback frequently via exit tickets, questions at the end of tests/quizzes, and quarterly surveys. Not only will you learn a lot, but students will know you care about your teaching which helps create a positive and collaborative classroom environment.

As the documentaries Minds of Our Own and A Private Universe have shown, we know that our students enter our classrooms not as blank slates, but with experiences and views about how the world works that in turn shape how they learn. Find out what your students are thinking by giving formative assessment probes, asking them to make predictions about demos, and by asking questions that go beyond simple recall.

Learn from research

Read up on research-based practices, especially discipline-specific ones:

• The website PER Users Guide has information about 54 research-based practices, many applicable to all sciences.

• The What Works Clearinghouse has a practice guide describing 7 research-based recommendations for organizing instruction to improve student learning.

• The free book How Students Learn Science from the National Research Council is a must-read.

• Rate yourself using RTOP self-evaluation to see how often you use techniques of reformed, inquiry-based teaching.

Learn from yourself

Most important, be willing to take risks in your teaching, be willing to fail, then reflect and revise for next year (or next period!).

Response From Paul Cancellieri

Paul Cancellieri
is a middle school science teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina who began his professional life as marine scientist. Since finding his way to the classroom eleven years ago, he has earned National Board Certification and started a blog about the issues facing public education in America:

Being a science teacher, whether full-time or among other responsibilities, includes two roles. First, we must be scientists: knowledgeable in the concepts and skills that science is about. Second, we must be educators: experts at measuring student mastery, identifying needs, crafting lessons to meet those needs, and engaging students in meaningful experiences. Through these two facets of science teaching, we can encourage a lifetime of appreciation for the natural world.

Start by modeling how Americans can (and should) stay abreast of advances in scientific discovery. I want my students to see that adults who continue to learn about science are not geeks; they are responsible citizens. You need to read often from some of the leading sources of science news, like ScienceBlogs.com and Science magazine. Develop a Personal Learning Network (PLN) via social media and use it to reach out to scientists and ask questions. Above all, make sure that your students see you do this and that what you learn finds its way into your classroom.

The second role--pedagogy--comes with time, experience, and professional development. Take that shiny new PLN of yours for a spin and discover what lesson ideas are out there. Bounce your questions, ideas, and challenges off of your colleagues, both within your school and outside of it. Don’t be content with lectures or PowerPoint. Engage students by tapping into their innate curiosity about the world around them. Whenever possible, encourage them to develop the questions that you’ll investigate in class. Force them to design experiments and find meaningful ways to explain what their data say. Above all, put the students at the center of every learning experience in your classroom. They will learn science only if they do science.

Response From Steve Spangler

Steve Spangler offers both teacher training experiences nationwide and a huge selection of science toys and teaching tools at SteveSpanglerScience.com. Check out his new show on the YouTube Original Content Series at YouTube.com/TheSpanglerEffect:

Beyond the Fizz: Secrets to Becoming an Even More Effective Science Teacher

No one cared that it was cold outside. These kids could hardly wait to see what would happen next. Giggles and laughter bounced from student to student as the group of fourth graders positioned themselves around the 2-liter bottle of diet soda.

In a whispered voice, one boy asked, “Do you really think she’s going to do it?”

“Sure... she’ll do it, but you have to get ready to run,” replied the girl standing
next to him.

The teacher removed the roll of Mentos mints from her pocket and loaded them into a small tube that attached to the top of the soda bottle. The only thing that kept the Mentos from falling into the soda was a plastic pin tied to a piece of string.

“Are you ready?” the teacher asked.

“YES!” shouted the students who could hardly contain themselves.

“Three... Two... One... Go!”

It all happened in a fraction of a second. She pulled the string, the Mentos fell into the soda and a giant soda geyser shot up everywhere. It was raining Diet Coke! As soon as the soda started to spray, the children scattered.

The students screamed, “That was awesome... do it again!”

When the teacher finally regained control, she told her students, “This is just a ‘one-time’ experiment. I don’t have any more soda, but wasn’t that cool?”

As she walked her students back into the classroom, the teacher knew that she had hit a home run with her exploding soda experiment. It had all of the elements of a great science lesson... it was hands-on and the fun factor was huge. But something was missing... the science!

It’s easy to fall into this trap where the gee-whiz factor (maybe even overtakes) the content. If you look at this example on a deeper learning level, you’ll start to uncover the most important missing element... the act of actually doing science! The harsh reality is that this teacher’s flying soda activity was cool, but her students were never doing science. The only level of student engagement was running away from the flying soda. The bottom line is that the students watched their teacher perform a cool trick using mints and soda, but calling that science is wrong on many levels.

The first key to engaging students in doing real science is to understand the difference between a science demonstration and a hands-on science experiment. Demonstrations are usually performed by the teacher and typically illustrate a science concept. Science experiments, on the other hand, give participants the opportunity to pose their own “what if...?” questions, which inevitably lead to controlling a variable - changing some aspect of the procedure or the materials used to perform the experiment.

In this teacher’s case, the students were never given the opportunity to ask questions, make changes, create a hypothesis or compare the results of the new experiment with the original. When the students yelled, “Do it again,” this should have been music to the teacher’s ears. The great Mentos Geyser experiment captured her students’ interest, and they were, in essence, begging for an opportunity to explore, to ask their own questions, to test changes to the procedure, to formulate new ideas and to make their own big discovery.

Instead, this teacher gave a commonly used response when her students wanted to be engaged - “No, this is a ‘one-time’ experiment.” One time? Who can eat just one potato chip? No one ever performs an experiment just once! Demonstrations may be one-time events, but great experiments lead to more questions, which lead to making changes and trying the experiment again. It’s a wonderful cycle of critical thinking called scientific inquiry... and you don’t need a PhD in rocket science to pull it off.

Thanks to Frank, Paul and Steve for taking the time to contribute their responses!

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 Thursday’s post.

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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.