Teaching Science — A Former Classroom Teacher’s View

[Note: This article was originally an email reply to Harry Keller. Bonnie had published a reply, “The Sad State of Teaching Thinking in Our Nation’s Schools” (3 Dec. 2012), to his article, “Need More Software Engineers? Teach Thinking Skills Better” (29 Nov. 2012). In his email to Bonnie, Harry attached a draft of a book he’s working on, which clarifies some of the ideas in his article. –Editor]

I don’t have any answers and I have not had time to read your draft. I have been consumed with family responsibilities and some of my emails have gotten lost while running two households. Sorry about that.

I was always punished for teaching thinking, until I was picked by President Clinton to be on the NIIAC. OK, and with the Lucas Foundation, which was also a boost. But my heart is sad. I see the same things going on in schools now, and worse practices. Not sure about Common Core and how it will be enacted.

The tests you hear about are the tip of the iceberg. There are internal, school-level, grade-level, county and practice tests.

I was a gifted and talented teacher. It was because I was determined to make school better, interesting and a compelling place to go. So  I learned not to gate kids. I thought I knew math but found that I was very poorly prepared, that most people taught with their hand in the back of the book (for the answers), and that most schools allowed only one way to do math — the approach used in the book. A student, who was brilliant, took me to task when he understood number systems and then invented his own. It is really not that hard, but you have to get it. I took lots of courses that required thinking, creating, inventing — and understanding math. I understood cuisenaire rods and visual math. My 4th graders tested at the top in standardized math tests. All of them. 

I am not in a classroom now, but I believe that the book-to-test path is one of memorization. Memorization does not always lead to understanding. I had physics as an adult. We never had to do it in teacher training. At first I was petrified. I used a kids’ book, a subject book, and a teachers’ book to try to understand the material, but that was because I was only trying to memorize it. At Marymount, I had two physics teachers: one should have been shot, and the other hooked me for life on learning and thinking about physics as well as on the excellent resources from NASA and the museums I love, Exploratorium, Smithsonian and NY Hall of Science.

There was a scientist from the NSF who taught me that physics is fun. I don’t remember his name — Shashavielian or something like that. He is likely dead. I took courses in physics that were so boring because of the way they were taught that I brought food to eat and share rather than complain about the poor teaching because everyone knew who the complainers were. It was not nice to complain within a school system.

I took astrophysics at Berkeley. Aced it and wrote a commentary that got to the NSF because some of it was poorly taught. At the time, I did not know that they read what teachers wrote on the Internet. That was exciting learning.

In my classes, we would start the year with physics toys . I have in the vaults somewhere Toys in Space. We understood the toy, demonstrated it, how it would work in space, how it worked normally. One of the computer games had the students make a bicycle, a car, a kite, and a wagon and then test it. That was so much fun for the kids. I think it was called “How Things Work.” MECC. That was followed by making and testing airplanes, real kites, and model toys.

With the physics lessons, the students constructed, with Legos and machines, a wonderful set of amusement rides, and they were able to explain how they worked. The supervisor observing my class promised to return for another visit to experience more of my students activities.

I loved exploring and learning with the old ESS units, and the AAAS science kits, which were mostly physics. My principal did not like teachers doing science experiments because, to her, that was not a neat classroom. She also wanted all science equipment to be put back in the closet on the same day they were used. (So I wrote grants and bought my own.) I lived in an NSF community with people who would come to the classroom and help and demonstrate, and we would go there, too. Many teachers were poorly trained in the sciences, and teaching science was a sometimes thing.

BTW, the science kits I bought were thrown out by the principal. The custodian retrieved them from the bin and stored them in his basement for me so that I could continue to use them. Teaching science was dangerous to some people who were only interested in test scores, whether or not the scores were wonderful. I think it scared them.

PHET and similar programs — even if teachers use them, they often don’t understand, and this can be a problem.

Regarding the computational sciences, learning how to think comes first, and that means creating an ideational scaffolding for understanding and building on the learning. So math and computational thinking require thinking and understanding or problem solving. The children loved problem solving, but I always dreaded it when they pressed me for understanding beyond what I knew. But I did it anyway. Seymour Papert called it hard fun. For some reason, when kids learn that teachers sometimes do not know the answers, they grow in confidence.

Explore, examine, evaluate, collect evidence, explain, elaborate, demonstrate, share. Some of my catch words. I can’t remember how I got interested in the computational sciences and supercomputing, but I think it was NCSA and being able to use what I called the mothership near me in Arlington. I saw the cave, I learned by going to the University of Illinois to workshops on GIS and cellphones and visualization and modeling.

Technology is not magic, but understanding thinking patterns is. I copied this to the people who helped me learn to think. I am not a computer scientist, sadly, but I think, I share, and I urge others to do more than read science.

School systems invest, for the most part, in vendored information — not NASA, My NASA.gov, NOAA (have you ever seen Science on a Sphere?), the Energy Department, the Commerce Department. I guess I never bought into regular education and the political winds of education after I learned a lot from other sources.

Charter schools can be good, but they can also be a disaster for the parents and community who put their trust in one that fails. So the same problems that happen in regular schools can happen in charters, too. I live in DC where the charter schools have better buildings, but the quality of the curriculum? Not sure. Shirley had an online game, I don’t remember the name at the moment, that the school would not let me use. So I taught it after school and took it to NAA.

More later. Others can correct or respond. Bob Panoff – ah, wish I had learned from him when I was a new teacher. In this day and age, age is a problem if you want to share ideas.

Here are some resources:

Physics Is Fun Experiments – Free PPT downloads
PowerPoint Presentation. Physics can be fun, enriching, beautiful Any Questions on Course Structure? … of physics is its quantitative description of our world Some …

Physics by Demonstrations – ThinkQuest
Physics by Demonstrations is a free online interactive learning/teaching tool. As the name implies,… and have fun while learning or teaching….

One Response

  1. I agree completely with your sentiments. Education in science has a problem in the USA…too much focus upon basically mindless multiple choice question tests that are poorly constructed is condemning science education to mediocrity. I could go on but you know where we are and the dis service establishment science educators are doing to our students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s