I Was a Successful Science Teacher, But I Failed My Students
Why we need to teach scientific thought, not just scientific facts
I started my time in the teaching profession as a science teacher. Every day, I focused on trying to help my students remember facts: that a nucleus has DNA inside it, that each element has only one kind of atom, and that a force is a push or a pull on an object. And let’s not forget the ever-important exercise of writing a hypothesis using the “If…then…because” framework — you can’t survive in daily life without that in your toolbox, right?
A Roaring Success
My science classroom started strong. My team and I found ever more ingenious ways to make the rock cycle interesting to students, with edible “rocks” made from chocolate and cookie dough a consistent winner. We trained our students to identify chemical changes and write questions they could use to decide how much citric acid to put in an experiment. We worked with the commitment to our students shown by almost all teachers. We were driven by a desire to help them to succeed.
And we were good at it. We made kids want to come to our classrooms, to don the lab coats and glasses, and to run amok in the laboratory. The curve of student achievement started ticking up in science, a first for this cohort and bucking the trend in other subjects. Our program was even a 2017 state finalist for “Outstanding School Advancement” at the Victorian Education Excellence Awards.
By most of the standards with which we measure the conventional success of teaching programs, we were a roaring one.
Yet looking back on that time in my classroom, I firmly believe that I failed my students.
The purpose of a scientific education — or any education for that matter — is not to remember facts like some sort of trained parrot. It’s not to recite facts on command for the entertainment of others. Our job is not to get students to pass tests, to get the highest standardized score, to “smash” the exam, despite what the structure of the system (and those outside of it in positions of power) repeatedly try to tell us.
An education should provide a young person with the skills to understand their world — not just in the laboratory, but on the many different levels they need to make their way through their lives and their futures. Our job as educators is to take on a portion of this unquestionably huge burden.
I failed my students because I didn’t recognize this key point when I planned their science program. I stressed about how they would remember that springs have elastic potential energy when stretched, instead of worrying about whether my students understood and respected the processes of science. I stressed about how they were going to remember that carbon is an element with six protons in its atoms, rather than worrying about how well I was developing the skills they needed to understand the impacts of carbon-based chemicals on our world (and the impacts of carbon-based life forms, in the case of ourselves).
I should have asked how I could help my students understand the big picture around them. And above all else, I should have helped my students develop their ability to think, infer, and understand evidence.
You’ll Need to Remember This (Really…?)
A high-quality education in science has the power to be truly transformational for students. I know this from personal experience. Yet a high-functioning scientist is not a mere memorizer of facts and statistics.
Yes, a scientist must have a strong ability to remember key pieces of information and be able to draw on that knowledge quickly in a range of situations. But a good memory does not a scientist make. A 16-year-old that I tutor was dumbfounded when he could recite from memory more elements from the periodic table than I could (a largely pointless rote-learning exercise set for him by his teacher).
Perplexed, he said to me “But you’re a science teacher! How could you not know all the elements by heart?” In response, I asked him what would be more useful: rote memorization of the order of the table, or an understanding of why elements are placed within the regions of the table in the way they are, the patterns that underpin that placement, and the properties that we can discern as a result. He quickly recognized that the latter was far more helpful — and then, demonstrating true scientific insight, he asked me to focus on that for the rest of the session.
What’s the main difference between these two approaches?
The first encourages memorization of scientific facts. The latter helps develop the ability to think scientifically and to use knowledge, not simply remember it. If you stop at memorization of elements, you leave students thinking (quite rightly) “So what…?”
I highlight this part of chemistry because it provides a stark contrast, but much of science teaching makes the same mistake, no matter which branch you choose. If I mention “mitochondria,” how many of you immediately think “powerhouse of the cell,” but aren’t able to explain how it originated or why it’s vitally important to our survival?
Seeing the Big Picture
Not every student who walks into a science lab is going to continue to study a scientific field at the postsecondary level or even until the end of high school. We shouldn’t expect them to, nor should we set an unrealistic goal.
What is realistic is that each of our students gains a greater understanding of the processes of science, and an increased ability to conduct these processes themselves. Engaging with genuine questions, collecting and analyzing evidence, and evaluating claims are the keys. Obsessing about the minutiae of content within our curriculum frameworks is not.
As science teachers, we have a crucial responsibility to develop our students’ ability to think scientifically about problems, both in their immediate lives and in the wider world.
So how do we, as teachers, develop the scientific thinking we want from our students?
First, we need to anchor science instruction in the real challenges and scientific issues we see around us today. We also need to provide opportunities for genuine inquiry by students. Yes, the role of explicit teaching is still important — after all, that’s how we transfer key pieces of scientific information from teacher to student. The difference is that this process should happen in service of a bigger picture: providing students with a toolkit of scientific concepts and skills. This is the toolkit they need to inquire and answer questions with purpose. It’s also the toolkit they will keep throughout their lives.
At the moment I don’t have my own science classroom, but for those of you who do, we need to shift how we approach science teaching. We need citizens who understand and respect the processes of science and the knowledge created through it, while maintaining the critical eye and skepticism that are the hallmarks of good science.
Without this, we will continue to have action on important problems blocked in our society. Many of these problems have serious consequences and are inherently time-bound (think climate action anyone?) A focus on scientific inquiry and deep learning, anchored to the real-world of students, and supported by passionate and engaged science teachers is the only way to give young people the skills to meet these challenges. Hopefully it helps remedy my failure too.