Teaching vs. learning

When I started this blog, I intended to post semi-regularly about my experiences as I learned how to teach science. That never really happened, because (surprise, surprise) teaching takes up a lot of time. Lesson planning, modifying/developing activities, grading (oh, the grading), making copies, setting up the classroom, ad infinitum. But here I am, near the end of my second year teaching, and thinking more about what it means to teach vs. what it means to learn, and what those differences mean to me as a teacher as I try to help my students learn. Lately, I’ve been wondering about what teachers really see as their role in the classroom, particularly in a science classroom (I honestly cannot speak for the other disciplines, which is, I think, a flaw in the structure of the American high school).

I see my role as a facilitator of learning. I have a fair amount of science knowledge in my head, and I am fortunate to have a good memory and can recall random facts as needed. My students like to ask me random science questions, and I give them my best answer (always being sure to say “I don’t actually know the answer to that question” if that’s the case, rather than making stuff up). However, I cannot sustain my teaching on this repository of knowledge. Yes, some of it’s cool and some of it’s even relevant, but just telling them the information does nothing for my students. And, quite honestly, I’m not the most engaging lecturer. I’m actually a severe introvert, and lecturing for even 10-15 min in each of my classes leaves me drained for the rest of the day. There are tons of engaging people on YouTube with great science education channels, and I do direct students to some of the more interesting videos for more in depth explanation of topics (those people also have the benefit of some really nice video editing and animations, which I don’t have at my fingertips).

I want my students to do as much as possible. To do the labs, to observe the data, to try to make sense out of it. And it’s messy, and sometimes I have to fudge things because at the introductory high school level, we simplify the science and sometimes the labs or the data don’t come out as neatly as they should when those simplifying assumptions are in place. At the beginning of the school year, my students were extremely frustrated and wanted me to just tell them what to do. (I think, for the most part, that they’ve adjusted to my method of countering questions with more questions.) And I continuously struggle with how much to give them vs. how much to let them struggle. What do you do if you have this lovely, hands-on, inquiry activity planned and the data is so scattered that they can’t see the pattern? Or worse, they come up with an entirely different pattern that is almost the opposite of what the goal of the activity was? And how do you deal with the amount of curriculum that is supposed to be covered in a given school year while still giving students time to really process the information? I’m still trying to figure this out. But there’s a lot of education research that says doing is a much more effective way of learning than listening or reading. My teacher prep program was all about inquiry (and the 5E cycle, which I don’t actually use explicitly anymore), and I bought into that way of teaching and learning hook, line, and sinker. Most science teachers, particularly recently trained teachers, will agree that inquiry is the way to go. But do we really understand what inquiry is or how to implement it?

The challenge for me is that inquiry was not the way that I was taught, for the most part. I sat through lecture and did confirmation labs and lots and lots of practice problems. And I was able to do all this and see the connections and figure it out. But I remember how my high school classmates struggled with chemistry. One topic that sticks out for some random reason is orbital shapes, and I remember telling my friends “well, you just have to visualize it in 3D!” As if it were that easy. As a teacher, I realize that some of my students are indeed able to see all the connections with only a quick explanation. And most of my students are able to follow an algorithm to figure out the problems without really understanding what they’re doing. (Even if I don’t give them an algorithm, they look for an algorithm, which is sometimes frustrating.) But I want them to know what they’re doing, and I want them to think about what they’re doing. As I write this, I can think of all of the many, many places this past year where I could have pushed more for understanding and deeper thinking on their part, and where I took the easy way out and just told them how to solve the problem instead. (And then, there are the students who continuously struggle- what do I do for those students?)

So then, how do we as teachers help students learn if the best ways for them to learn are not necessarily the ways that we have been taught? It’s so easy to fall back on what we know and what’s comfortable. I think I was extremely fortunate to have a student teaching experience where my mentor teacher valued and used inquiry regularly in her classes, and to have a collaborative team in my first year teaching that helped me figure some of this out. But that’s not the case for everyone and even with all those supports I’m still figuring out how to teach in a way that best allows my students to learn, and I wonder how, as a profession, we can help each other grow in this regard.

I appreciated the WSJ blog post by KSTF Fellow Helen Snodgrass about struggle and failure in her classroom. This is what I would like my classroom to look like, both for my students and for myself. And yes, I’ve failed in my first two years of teaching. There are things that could have gone so much better and there are things that I just dropped the ball on. But I’m learning from this experience. I suppose this is the hands-on, inquiry way of learning how to teach.

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