My tie felt a bit suffocating as I stood in front of 23 engaged 16 year olds and 3 adults ready to show the room what I know best, the brain. I spent over 10 hours preparing a multimedia presentation with facts that I thought were important for all students to know as well as poignant images and diagrams. My hands were gripped tight around my laser pointer, as I was ready to wow my audience with my immense knowledge of the brain. This was my first evaluation as a first year teacher, I wanted to wow the audience with facts that were interesting to a neuroscientist, impressive vocabulary and clever anecdotes. Five minutes into my amazing, fact-ridden lecture, I have already lost the majority of my class. Fortunately, my students were able to feign engagement by keeping their heads up and writing the facts directly off of my presentation. However, their eyes were glazed and I could tell that the next 40 minutes will figuratively, if not literally, be torture as my students and 2 of the 3 administrators fight to stay awake.
The Curse to Appear Knowledgeable The phrase Sesquipedalianism Masquerading as Erudition came from STEM to Story: Enthralling and Effective Lesson Plans for Grades 5–8 published by 826 National. This concept succinctly and accurately encompasses the type of learning that occurs in many of our classrooms, museums and even several science enrichment centers. I am also guilty of emphasizing technical science terminology as science education in my lessons. As a former high school science teacher, I suffered from the curse of knowledge, rather the curse to appear knowledgeable. Perhaps it’s the onslaught of negative press about incompetent teachers or that the teaching profession is still associated with individuals that graduated at the bottom third of their class; regardless, a lot of time is spent gaining content knowledge that we will disseminate to our students. It could be that our curse to appear knowledgeable results from the immense body of content that teachers need to teach in a given school year.
Doctoral Thesis vs First Year High School Biology The amount of content that I had to relearn in biology to competently teach a freshman biology course far exceeded that which I had to learn to defend my PhD in molecular neurobiology, and I had 7 years to develop and hone my science knowledge for my PhD. It is this enormous wealth of knowledge that teachers have to accumulate in such a short period of time that makes it very difficult to learn to a level that we can explain concepts thoroughly using simple terms and relatable examples. It is much easier to fall to our default of using scientific vocabulary to teach concepts.
Transferring Knowledge As educators, we have this misconception that we are teaching by transferring our knowledge to our students. In attempts to transfer an immense wealth of knowledge that we had to accumulate in a matter of months to weeks, we tend to shortcut our learning, thus impacting our students’ learning. Rather than thinking of ourselves as ones to give our students the knowledge, we should focus on providing the opportunity for the students to earn the knowledge. In science, we could go beyond this need to teach content knowledge by simply focusing on the experience of learning science. Develop a true inquiry approach to science learning, utilizing experiments and lessons that are designed to prompt students to uncover what they know versus what they don’t know, but want to know. Provide opportunities for students to learn concepts that are important but do not find interesting by using unique and creative lessons and even allow students to reject learning concepts that they do not find interesting. Sir Ken Robinson states in Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, “If you force kids to learn things they’re not interested in for seven or eight years, after a while you tend to extinguish that natural ability to learn.”
Experiencing Science Our mission as science educators is not for students to memorize science vocabulary and facts, but to experience science and to explore deeper into the phenomena that they experienced. Far too often we hide behind big words to explain complex concepts and this gets translated to our students. In a workshop, we had a student state that we were conducting an acid-base reaction and the parents were quite impressed by this child’s knowledge. Unfortunately, it was not an acid-base reaction and when we probed for more information, it was quickly apparent that he was only familiar with the terms and some cursory facts. We are impressed when our children can say complicated scientific phrases, such as, our two year old saying general relativity and Newtonian physics that greatly impressed his grandfather, a professor of microbiology, but what does my son really know about general relativity and Newtonian physics other than some random facts and more importantly, what are we teaching our children from a very young age? Is science an accumulation of facts and vocabulary or the ability to think creatively and critically? Is science learned from a textbook or from experience?
Emphasize Learning Rather Than Knowing In our current education system, students are tested and awarded for what they know and to this end our students are focused more on the knowledge than on learning. However, we can change this system by designing lessons that rather than overtly stating the scientific concepts and phrases that students are learning, are subtly weaved into the lesson and emphasize the experience of the experiment. Mix experiments that have an expected result with those that are completely open-ended and really an experiment. Deemphasize the “science” and have the students experience the experiment. In true inquiry fashion, students will ask the peers and instructor questions about the experiment and/or research their questions on their own. Also be comfortable with students that are satisfied with having the experience of conducting the experiment and accept that that is all the student wanted to learn.
Minor Shifts in Teaching When I was in the classroom, before any experiment, I gave a lecture, homework assignment and/or a worksheet explaining the science concepts that we were going to ‘see’ in the experiment. This is the common trend in majority of science classrooms. One simple way to increase engagement through inquiry, is conducting the experiment first and then have the lecture, homework assignment and/or worksheet after the experiment. Better yet, have the students discuss and then discover through their own exploration. This simple flip of sequence changes a learn and show lesson to an inquiry lesson where students are in control of their learning. As educators and parents, we need to let go of how we have been taught in the past and acknowledge that in this digital age, our children have devices that can look up information immediately. Our lessons need to go beyond learn this to now that you know this what can you do with it. An inquiry-based approach to learning will better prepare our children for their future. As Daniel Pink states, “We need to prepare kids for their future, not our past.”