Teach Like a… Scientist?

When I was in school, science was not my favorite subject. It was fine as a break from math problem after math problem, or from short sections of a basal and an accompanying worksheet. Sometimes we did projects! But other times we read from the textbook and answered questions about some really cool stuff that I didn’t understand because it was nonfiction text and I was bad at reading nonfiction text. Although, I was pretty great at skimming for the answers to the after-chapter questions. Now, though, it’s clear to me that this wasn’t science.

Science was a little better in high school, mostly because the department had money to buy cool materials to complete labs with. I still don’t know if I would call what we were doing science though… We still read the book a lot, which I would say made those classes nonfiction comprehension class. When we did experiments, it felt like we were doing experiments, not answering questions about the world around us. Which, isn’t that what scientists do? They try to find answers to questions about the world that are know yet known?

The scientific method, and the engineering process, are the tools that humans have used to come so far since we were put on this earth. Throughout our whole existence we have had problems and questions, had ideas for how to solve them, tested those hypotheses, gathered and analyzed data from experimentation, and come up with conclusions to our questions and problems. Literally that is the process that has led to each and every advancement in human civilization ever, whether it was followed explicitly or not.

So, here is my soap box. If scientists and engineers ask questions and try new things to solve problems, then why are so many teachers unwilling to do the same? Why do so many of us continue to use the same methods we have before, and the same methods that were used for our education as children?

I think the challenge ought to be for every teacher to ask themselves a question before planning every unit they teach. That question ought to be, “What is the best way to help my students learn this?” I would think that every year, if teachers are reflective, there would be a brand new hypothesis to test. Some years or lessons will not yield much in the way of data that shows us a more favorable conclusion to that teaching method, but many times that new wrinkle in our unit will provide incredible amounts of new learning and you will have a new “best practice.” These changes in teaching every year could be called iterative refinement.

I think iterative refinement is best illustrated by the evolution of the iPhone. Think of all of the iPhones Apple has released. Have they changed much about the phone? No, it is still a rectangle with a touch screen. But, through camera improvements, operating system improvements, faster connectivity, 3d touch, and many other “hypotheses” that they have tested on their consumers, they have created something that is MUCH better than it was before.

So as teachers, our “rectangle with a  touch screen” is our continued leadership of the classroom culture and learning environment. But our camera improvements are, perhaps, using project-based learning rather than lecture. Our new iOS is creating a podcast to discuss in small groups, rather than whole group discussion, and our faster connectivity is a flipped classroom.

There is one other thing that I always taught my science class that all scientists do. After they have a conclusion based on their hypothesis and data collection, they share their findings. Whether they find something brand new, or nothing groundbreaking happens, they share. Why? Because if someone finds something new, others need to try it too, to prove its worth. Over the last couple of centuries the collective knowledge of the world has increased exponentially because of the act of sharing what we know, aided by the fact that global communication has increased so drastically.

Teachers must begin to follow the lead of scientists using the scientific method. Ask yourself, “How can I best help my students learn this?” Each year create a new hypothesis, test that hypothesis and come to a conclusion. Finally, share your results, positive or negative, so that colleagues around the world know what to try, and what has already been tried and is not worth their time.

Never be afraid to try something new that may have a profound impact on your students.

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