By Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

W2hat if science teachers did science before they began teaching? Might a teaching model like this be possible to employ? Instructive to explore? There have been initiatives which followed up on this possibility. Their results were encouraging, but never replaced learning about science in publishers’ materials via college teacher education courses, which are simpler and less expensive to do when they are textbook-centered. The fruits of this choice have been a large fraction of K-12 graduates who haven’t achieved their potential.

What do students have to say about the way they are taught? Might some insights emerge from their comments? There is very little record of K-12 education from students’ own personal view point. Do they know whether their educations are worthwhile? A few people have looked into this, and have found that, when asked, students feel that classroom time is well spent when students treat the teacher with respect, behave the way their teachers want them to, stay busy and don’t waste time, learn a lot almost every day, and learn to correct their mistakes. Perhaps they have an intuitive understanding of an environment conducive to learning. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards teacher certification program finds that students do well in school when their teachers are committed to them and their learning, know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students, are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning, think systematically about their practice, learn from experience, and are members of learning communities. Two complimentary views of what underlies effective education.

Taken together, these findings indicate that students know when they are taught well, and present the foundation of a clear plan for teacher pre- and in-service education. Had the K-12 graduates who didn’t achieve their potential applied questions such as stay busy and don’t waste time, learn a lot almost every day, and teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students, to their teachers and curricula, and their assessments been considered in improving science teaching, might they have led to science courses which encouraged students to achieve their potential? Would they have led to pre-service science teachers actually doing science as part of their preparation for teaching science?

My experience tells me that doing science is important for science teachers. The need for science experience is a need that environmental educators have the capacity to respond to. The environments they work in abound with the kind of work pre- and in-service educators can do: mitigation, restoration, assessment, etc. They all contain the kernels of science inquiries to do. Working in collaboration with environmental educators, agency staff, and teacher education faculty and staff, pre- and in-service teachers could gain hands-on experience on the ground that they could get in no other way. My own experiences tell me that what emerges from this kind of collaborative work is science teachers involved and invested in the content that they teach, and empowered as teachers unencumbered by bureaucratic pressures outside their classroom doors; the experience necessary to change teachers’ views of science, a paradigm shift, that moves their locus of control for teaching science to within themselves, and away from the political winds that blow through schools. A key piece of the puzzle, this respite gives them a chance to develop effective science curricula.

What is it about doing science in environments outside the school that makes it so effective? I’d say that the reasons are many. An obvious one is that doing science in a familiar setting is less intimidating than doing it in a lab, which is much less familiar than, say, a quiet streambank. Another is that our brain learned to learn in the world outdoors. So learning science in a natural environment means learning in the brain’s inductive-constructivist way of learning. I’ve learned that, when teachers begin by doing science in a natural environment, they develop reasons to go into the lab, and labs become familiar places. What if we tried that? What would happen if environmental educators, agencies and organizations, and schools of education gathered together to explore the idea of a collaboration to provide pre- and in-service hands-on science education for teachers? There are all kinds of possibilities in collaborations like this.

If you’re a teacher, think back to your pre-service classes. Did you learn about a thing in class, then go out to experience it? How closely did what you experienced resemble the picture you had in your head back in the class? What if you had done the work first, then returned to the class to learn the underlying conceptual structure? Imagine a pair of pre-service teachers working together with an environmental educator, a restoration specialist from the City’s Bureau of Environmental Services, and a teacher with her students, to restore a reach of a stream flowing through a residential area near a school. Imagine further that the pre-service teachers are charged that day to identify and describe the characteristics of effective work groups. This in addition to doing the scheduled work of the morning.

The next day, back in the School of Education, all of the members of the class relate their experiences and report the characteristics of effective work groups that they had observed. Might discussion and negotiation of meaning elicit a clear concept of effective work groups, and posit connections between that and other elements of human learning? How might experiences like this influence these pre-service teachers when they do their one-year teaching internship? Would they affect the quality of their students’ educations when these interns begin full-time teaching? How would this look if a full-time teacher worked with the group from time-to-time as a mentor? If the full-time teacher would be the supervising teacher when the interns did their year in her classroom? This may never happen, but you can organize your own experiences to make this kind of experience one that you achieve yourself. All of the pieces of the puzzle are out there; they’re just not seen as elements of a functional whole. We have to learn to open our minds to recognize the relationships between what seem obviously disparate elements in a confusing world.

We’re not going to have this handed to us. But you can hand it to yourself. Find an environmental educator who is doing a restoration. Work with her. Then get your students on board. You’ll be outside your comfort zone. That’s okay. Keep your focus on what you want your students to learn, and make sure that part works. Look for workshops and institutes that provide valuable experience. In one summer institute, a teacher who had never ventured outside the classroom experienced her first encounter with the real world. By the end of the institute, she knew how to find a wetland, figure out its parameters, and design a project for her students. She had done science, and moved it into a perspective that removed its anxiety, made it eminently teachable. So she looked up an environmental educator she had met during the institute who suggested a wetland restoration project along a city-sponsored trail. The environmental educator agreed to help her plan, meet City bureau of environmental services staff, provide a training for her students, and point her toward a private granting organization which funded just this sort of project. She did the project, and continued on this path.

Let me step away from science for a moment and tell about plays my 7th graders performed when I first began teaching below college level. If I hadn’t done drama, I’d never have just hung two sheets from the ceiling light fixtures along the length of the room and said, “The side toward the windows is the audience, the side toward the blackboard is the stage. What shall we do?” My locus of control would have been too far away from me to even think of doing that. Luckily, I’d done plays for years. We picked a play, edited it, gave it. Then students, in groups, asked to write and do plays for the lower grades. And did them. I’d have been scared to death if I hadn’t acted, directed, constructed, written programs, made props, etc. I’d have simply followed a published play with directions. To the letter. And thought I was teaching drama. And I’d certainly not let them go off to the lower grades on their own. They’re seventh graders; get real.

Once you do science, it is not as intimidating as you first perceive it to be. Like me if I’d never done drama. Or, for all of us, the first time off the diving board, hitting a softball, etc. Now, you are focusing on particulars, so experience no unfocused anxieties about vague worries. We’re all good at that; once we focus on particulars, we begin to nail them down and work toward mastery. Get the start, so you know what you want to understand and do, then look around for resources like courses, workshops, knowledgeable people. Experience doing the work, then take control of your curriculum.

jimphotocroppedThis is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”