Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching Science by ‘Thinking Big’ and ‘Being Audacious’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 19, 2012 7 min read
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(Note: This is the second post in a several-part series on teaching science. You can see Part One here)

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 ten days, and invite readers to share their comments, too. I’ll publish ideas from readers in the final post in this series.

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

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 Linda Shore

Linda Shore, Ed.D. is the director of the Exploratorium Teacher Institute (TI) and a staff physicist at the museum. She has been the Principal Investigator on numerous National Science Foundation awards that have supported TI’s Teacher Induction Program, Teacher Mid-Career Program, and Teacher Leadership Program. Her expertise is in science teacher professional development and beginning science teacher support. Shore is also the co-author of the award winning Science Explorer series of science activity books for children and their families:

I have been the director of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute for almost 20 years. In that role, I have had the privilege to provide professional development support to some of the very best science teachers in the county and have observed that outstanding science teachers are passionate about three things: subject matter, student learning, and mastering the art of teaching.

Think back to the best science teachers you had as a student. What made these teachers so successful and memorable? Chances are they deeply loved science and it was obvious. They were curious about the natural world and driven to ask questions and explore. There was the biology teacher who was an avid bird watcher, the physics teacher who built amateur rockets and launched them on weekends, and the earth science teacher who collected specimens in the field and had that amazing rock and mineral collection. Their passion for science and scientific discovery was contagious. They make their lessons relevant and meaningful by sharing their interests with their students. To be an effective science teacher, you have to be passionate about the subject because if you aren’t interested in the discipline, neither will your students. Find creative ways to incorporate your own interests into lessons, continue to be a science learner, and keep current on the latest scientific discoveries, research techniques, and ideas.

Passion for the content is something all great teachers share, but effective teachers are passionate about more than just the science content alone. Paul Hewitt, one of the great physics educators in the country, taught conceptual physics at City College of San Francisco for well over 40 consecutive years. When asked how he was able to maintain his obvious and infectious enthusiasm for teaching the exact same physics topics every semester over the course of his long and illustrious career, his answer was profound: “I teach students, not physics. The students are never the same.”

The very best science teachers I know think of themselves as “learning detectives,” trying to solve the mystery of what their students are thinking and understanding. What clues do you have about what your students are actually thinking? What additional evidence can you gather from your students and what kinds of conclusions can you draw from all the data you have? At the Exploratorium, we show science teachers a variety of classroom activities, questioning strategies, and written assignments designed to make student understanding visible. You can do the same. For example, before starting a lesson on the cause for the moon’s phases, examine students’ prior knowledge of the size and distance between them. Pass out a collection of different size balls, ask students to select the pair that they believe best represents the size of the earth and moon, and have students separate the pair to model their conception of the distance between them. After teaching them the actual sizes and distance, have the students repeat the activity. Have their ideas changed? Which students need more help?

Lastly, the most effective science teachers I know are passionate about their science teaching and dedicated to improving their craft. They recognize that the art of teaching - like being a concert violinist - takes a lifetime to master and requires a career-long commitment to reflecting on one’s strengths and weaknesses. These science teachers not only use the evidence they gather from student work to access student learning, but they use this information to make adjustments and improvements to their pedagogical practices. They seek help from colleagues, take advantage of professional development opportunities, and attend national and local science teacher conferences. Most importantly, these science teachers are generous with their own knowledge and skills. They are eager to share their best science lessons, materials, and strategies with other teachers, are quick to mentor an inexperienced colleagues, and act in ways that elevate the entire science teaching profession. Be like these science teachers throughout your career, and I can guarantee success.

Response From Amy Lindahl

Amy Lindahl is a high school science teacher in Portland, Oregon. Her article on teaching about cancer is in the most recent issue of Rethinking Schools magazine:

Science is exciting.

That was clear to most everyone when NASA landed its newest rover on Mars. But that was just a taste of what it is going on in science. The work that scientists think about, and talk about, and do, is pushing past the boundaries of what humans know, past what we thought we could know. Scientists ask questions about our expanding universe, the history of our earth, and life itself. They work to understand how our bodies function, degrade, and heal. They investigate the millions of other species that share our planet with us. Scientists theorize about and test the laws of nature. This is big, audacious work.

You’d think, with such rich content, that science would be an easy sell in the classroom. And yet when I ask my students how they feel about science at the start of each year, I can count on at least a few insisting that, “Science is boring.”

This answer, I always suspect, says little about the subject we teach. But it speaks volumes about how we teach.

And I have been witness to classroom practices that bring students to this place. Textbook readings, followed by long lectures, quizzes, prescribed labs, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, capped off with high-stakes bubble-sheet tests. Rinse, repeat, add audible groan.

It is time to ask some serious and critical questions about how we teach science. Ask yourself:

• When do my students see themselves, their families and friends, their fears, and their hopes in the curriculum?

• When do they imagine and invent?

• When do they engage with the controversies and ethical dimensions of science?

• When do they make connections between science and what they learn about outside of your classroom?

• When are they given the tools and time to explore a genuine question using scientific methodology?

When I ask myself these questions and come up short, I know it is time to get down to work. Last year I expanded my mitosis and cancer unit to include community activism. Yes, it took time, and yes, it was far from perfect. But it was a critical moment when some of my students finally realized that this content was about them and the people they loved, and they stayed with me for the rest of the year.

So how do you teach science more effectively? Create the curriculum your students really need. Think big. Be audacious.

Thanks to Linda and Amy 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 a future post in this series.

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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.