Educators of the world ep. 01 — A chat with Alex from 🇺🇸

SmartGrade team
Aug 1, 2019 · 9 min read

This is the first post of the “Educators of the world” series, in which I have down-to-earth, informal conversations with educators from all over the world.

I have been corresponding with Alex via email.

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Alex, @yourclassroomhelper

[Raphael] Hi Alex, thank you so much for accepting my invitation. To start, please tell me a little bit about yourself.

[Alex] I am a middle and high school science teacher from central North Carolina. I teach at a small, private school in a somewhat rural area.

[R] Let’s talk about science demonstrations. On your instagram account, I see posts with hands-on chemistry experiments. Looking back at my student years, it seems like I remember the classes with this kind of live demonstrations a lot better than the regular, purely presentational ones. What do you see as being the role of doing lab experiments with your students?

[A] Hands-on learning experiences, like laboratory experiments, are critical in understanding scientific concepts, specifically the more challenging topics. For example, instead of simply listening to the teacher explain both the mathematical as well as practical aspects of diluting a solution, it is important that students experience the process themselves. As you point out, this helps students not only remember concepts, but also helps them understand processes more deeply by engaging topics from a different perspective and employing mimetic learning. However, laboratory supplies cost money, and budgets don’t always allow for students to be able to participate in every aspect of the laboratory experience. As a result, I enjoy learning about and sharing creative ways to employ these experiments in the classroom with home-made or household supplies.

As important as laboratory experiments are to a student’s understanding, that should not be our stopping point in providing a rich learning environment.

As educators, I also feel that it is important for us to take this hands-on learning environment a step further. As important as laboratory experiments are to a student’s understanding, that should not be our stopping point in providing a rich learning environment. Studies have shown that integrating real world examples are critical in helping students develop a deep and concrete understanding of the concepts that we, as teachers, are trying to teach. Instead of waiting for students to ask, “When am I ever going to use this information?” these everyday examples should be a natural component of our lessons. Going back to my dilutions example, instead of simply going through the procedural motions, a teacher can adapt the activity to involve a hypothetical scenario involving properly diluting a patient’s medication before they are given an intravenous injection, a process used everyday by pharmacists and technicians in hospitals.

[R] On the other hand, what are some of the downsides of these lab experiments, if any (safety, costs, time consumption)?

[A] As I alluded to earlier, science lab experiments require chemicals, supplies, and a suitable environment (ideally a laboratory space with work benches, sinks, proper ventilation, gas lines, eye wash station, shower, etc). All of these things require money, a resource that not all schools (read “most schools do not”) have. Additionally, even if a school has the budget to provide the appropriate laboratory supplies, growing class sizes are a practical barrier to this type of hands-on learning. For example, although I may want my 32 energetic ninth grade students to be able to perform a flame test themselves, as you can imagine, there are possibly a few safety concerns with allowing these 32 students to play with an open flame while supervised by only a single instructor.

[R] In an ideal world, with unlimited resources, what would your class look like? Would anything change?

[A] If I could choose one thing to create my ideal classroom it would be a smaller class size! Although a properly outfitted laboratory with a sufficient budget would be greatly appreciated, smaller class sizes are really the key! With fewer students, I am able to be more flexible and work around our classroom limitations while still providing a safe and effective learning environment. Each student is able to get more of my attention and I am able to lead them through their individual learning needs more effectively.

By having more time to dedicate to each individual student they begin to understand that I truly care about them and not just their performance in my class.

Additionally, the most important thing that I’ve noticed about my own experience teaching smaller classes is that I’m able to get to know my students better on a personal level. By having more time to dedicate to each individual student they begin to understand that I truly care about them and not just their performance in my class. They can recognize that I am pushing them because I believe in their potential and my expectations are high because I know they can reach them!

[R] One of my all time favorite educators, Richard Feynman, often talked about the gap between knowing something because you read and “recorded” it and because you actually understood it. Is it something that you identify in the grade you teach, especially considering chemistry as a subject? Do you think lab experiments help in this regard?

[A] That is very true. One of the things that I love about teaching science is that so many scientific concepts are appreciated, even if they are not explicitly acknowledged, through experience. For example, every child recognizes the ever-present force of gravity when swinging on a swing, falling from a tree, or jumping on a trampoline. Although they have only a naive understanding of this concept experientially, gravity is still recognized as a scientific law. Other scientific precepts are experienced in a similar manner. Water striders (the little bugs on the surface of ponds) are observed walking across pools of water, thereby illustrating the incredible strength of hydrogen bonds creating the surface tension of the water. These illustrations of everyday science provide a sort of cognitive framework upon which students will eventually support and build their formal education, including each lesson I teach in my class. There are some scientific concepts that cannot be observed through everyday experiences, however, and students’ prior knowledge of these concepts is limited. This provides an opportunity for the instructor to broaden a student’s experience through more exotic examples of these concepts in action (exploring titrations by discussing their application in the development of new pharmaceutical drugs, or developing new medical tests to diagnose and treat disease).

[…] illustrations of everyday science provide a sort of cognitive framework upon which students will eventually support and build their formal education, including each lesson I teach in my class.

This concept of “prior knowledge” plays a central role in learning. Students need to have some foundation of a concept before they can “build” on this to comprehend more complex material. It is important for instructors to help students recall this prior, relevant knowledge in order to create more and stronger links between existing and new knowledge. Laboratory experiments are a critical tool to accomplish this. By engaging students in a hands-on learning environment, students are able to create this experiential foundation for their understanding of new topics, particularly those that are not easily observed in daily interactions with nature.

[R] Let’s talk about online content. In the very recent past, educational material used to be mostly “static”, on paper. We now have access to virtually unlimited online content — and they can be good, bad, correct, wrong. As a specific, science-related example, on YouTube we can find incredibly interesting and well-researched videos on popular science channels (“Veritassium”, “Smarter Everyday”, “The slow mo guys” to name a few), as well as poorly conceived material. Do you see value in bringing some of this content to the classroom? Is it something you do for the students or for preparing lessons?

[A] The internet is an excellent source of information for teachers and students alike! I have noticed that my students are able to absorb information particularly well when they are able to watch it as opposed to listening or writing, so I like to include visual media in my instruction. This may include watching a YouTube video of an experiment that we are not able to do in our classroom because of safety restrictions or watching part of a MythBusters episode and discussing topics related to the scientific method and experiment design/implementation. PBS and Nova have also created some excellent visual resources that I keep as emergency substitute lesson plans!

We also have to recognize that the entire fabric of society, from casual social interactions to education, has changed in the “Digital Age” starting with the Millennial Generation and moving forward. This means that the cognitive framework we teach in needs to remain congruent with the dynamic world of instant digital information and visual/graphic content. So, yes — YouTube for the win. But the content should definitely be vetted by the teacher because more information is just that — more, not necessarily accurate or better.

One of Alex’s video tutorials for other educators

[R] I see that you create video tutorials for educational tools on YouTube — which is also a way of teaching, but instead of students, this content is aimed at teachers. From my experience, even at the same school, two teachers will have very different ways of teaching, often using different techniques and tools. What has been your experience in sharing tips and tools between educators? Do you see any resistance in adopting new tools? Conversely, how do you usually discover them yourself?

[A] Teaching is equal parts art and perseverance. Every teacher approaches their classroom in a unique way. Some tools that enhance the teaching of one educator may feel forced and unhelpful for another. One of the things that I love about the online teaching community is that we are constantly supporting, sharing, and encouraging one another to continue to improve in our craft. Teaching is challenging, there is no doubt about that, but it is important to surround yourself with fellow educators who are continuing to better themselves and are focusing on how to improve the education of our students. I know it sounds cliche, but teachers do have to be lifelong learners, both of their craft and discipline.

One of the greatest challenges of adopting new classroom tools is the time it takes to discover and learn how to use them, especially during the school year. I have found educational tools on Instagram (like SmartGrade), from my fellow teachers, and through Lynda (these are exceptional online course videos that you may have free access to through your local library). These tools and tips learned from my peers is what inspires me to share my own little personal discoveries with others.

[R] On a related note, I want to ask about the role of social media in education. It is undeniable that much of the content students consume, starting at an increasingly young age, comes from social media. It is especially concerning if we turn to “fake news” or science-denying topics. Do you see any effect of social media on your students — either good or bad? How do you think educators should prepare their students for this type of content?

[A] In my opinion, social media and other web-based content should be evaluated with the same lens that we evaluate every other piece of information and research. Who is the author? What is their expertise? What is the sponsoring foundation? In my science class specifically, we go beyond simply evaluating the author and are able to critique the content through a scientific lens. When was the research conducted? What was the sample size? Are there any unaccounted variables? Does the author hold a bias that is reflected in the work? Part of my job as a science teacher is not only to teach the “facts” but to develop the spirit of “scientific inquiry” in my students, and learning to ask these questions of all the content we consume is an important life-lesson I hope my students are able to take with them.

Equally as important as evaluating online material is properly crediting it. Just because you found something on Pinterest, it does not mean that you can now claim it as your own original work! Teaching our students about creative commons licensing and the appropriate attribution of photos and other content is important for us to instill in our students, especially in the social media world of “Share,” “Repost,” “Retweet,” etc. that we live in.

[R] Thank you so much for your time, Alex. It was a pleasure interviewing you. Where can readers find and follow you and your content online?

[A] You can visit my website: www.yourclassroomhelper.com or find me on Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook @yourclassroomhelper.

On the next episode, I will talk with Fábio, a college professor from Brazil. Follow @smartgrade on Instagram and Twitter and don’t miss it!

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