Should they direct students’ educations, or would they be better applied to teachers’ educations?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

P (earth)icture this: Science teachers with a strong background in doing science, working in a collegial environment, building their own independent curricula. Will they do a better job than those who, working alone in their classrooms, implement top-down national standards? I like the collegial model. Where it describes how teachers in a school actually work, students do best. To accomplish a collegial model means science teachers must organize themselves to do a better job of overseeing their pre- and in-service educations and the way they deliver their curricula; they need to be in charge. Publishing sets of science standards isn’t how to improve science education. The people who teach science need to be comfortable with it, to know and use science, and pass this capacity on to their students. That, by itself, will do the job.

We’ve been following teachers and their efforts to look outside the classroom for their curricula. This isn’t a smooth process for most teachers. For many of us, our pre-service educations didn’t prepare us for it, the work itself entails a set of skills and knowledge we haven’t practiced, and it produces an emergent set of outcomes which generalize to all disciplinary areas. The world outside is the subject of K-12 education, but it isn’t taught as if it were. Before there were schools, we learned about the world by living it. That’s how our brains are organized to learn for understanding and empowerment. Learning by memorizing puts facts in our brains, but doesn’t empower the brain to use them to navigate the real world. If it did, we’d do a better job at the helm. In spite of perennial rhetoric about the outcome of science education in the US, it still resolves, for the most part, to specific knowledge of scientific facts. Science offers much more than this.


Photo copyright 2014 Jim Martin

One thing I noticed during my years in the classroom is that scientists who decide to become science teachers become very good science teachers. They aren’t limited by the words and illustrations in the teachers’ edition. They know, understand, and do science, and use that as their foundation to teach from. How would science and environmental education look if science teachers had also done science? What would we have to do to explore this model, decide how to use it, and begin to implement it? There have been initiatives like this that were very successful, but which died at the end of their funding. They made a big dent in the way a number of teachers teach, but made no impression on entities like state departments of education, or most school district superintendents. Because, by using the real world to generate curricula, teaching science by doing science doesn’t rely on standard publishers’ offerings, it doesn’t appear to be education. To the inexperienced.

Politicians, citizens, and educators have been addressing the use of standards and benchmarks, and standards-based tests in K-12 schools for at least two decades. While they are still on the hunt for the magical set of standards and benchmarks which will guarantee improvement in science education, to date a fruitless search, some of the words they utter may have practical use. Once in a while, words like analysis and synthesis, problem solving, reading for understanding, are spoken. Do we teach to these words? Or do we teach to memorize these words and their meanings.

While the words aren’t the customary ones we read in science text books (critical thinking, analysis and synthesis, etc.), they speak more clearly to science than acquiring a set of memorized words and facts. A checklist of standards addressed but not learned for understanding. Used in an authentic way, these words have the capacity to speak to involvement and investment in science, to empowerment as persons, to minds immersed in the real world that K-12 education is supposed to prepare us for. It’s up to us to see that this is what emerges in our classrooms and on our sites.

Here is a list of processes engaged on college campuses, and which are proposed by some for middle and high school students: critical thinking, analysis and problem solving, scientific and quantitative reasoning, writing, critical reading and evaluation, writing effectiveness and mechanics, and the ability to critique and construct arguments. Might they be goals for us to shoot for, an effective set of standards? How would you use them to teach science or environmental education topics?

While we continue to try to improve science (and all) education, we produce only words; standards and benchmarks. Just the title, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), one recent initiative to improve science education, is a clear indicator that we continue to parse words to fit what we are already doing, and call that change. It’s true that some standards proponents acknowledge that we have to do a better job of preparing teachers, but offer little to provide funding and education resources to do the job.

The intentions of the NGSS to stimulate new curricula, train pre- and in-service teachers, foster students who do science as science is done, and students who master science concepts, could be a sign of hope if you take them at face value. But if you look at the flip side, this could simply be more of the same with a newly calibrated vocabulary. A vocabulary which can be didactically taught and memorized, changing little that we actually do. And which may not be funded to supplement the necessary pre- and in-service training to implement the meat of the proposed changes. According to the National Science Teachers Association, 3.2 million teachers will be affected by the NGSS. Can we expect their real needs to be paid for?

There is a sense among people that, if you “just use the words, you’re doing the thing.” I’ve sat in in-service presentations that do this. In one, at the end of my K-12 teaching career, we were being asked to use words like “why” and “how” in multiple-choice question stems in order to induce critical thinking. How much critical thinking can you induce in a multiple-choice question stem? We need to do better than this. You have to experience the cognitive processes the words refer to. That’s how our brain learns for understanding. College teachers purport to do this. What if we explored what they do? I know that even very young children learn very well when they are allowed to use their own brains to do the learning. What would happen if you used your own brain to organize and deliver your curriculum?

Do we ask all colleges and universities to teach to the same science standards? Or, do we allow them the latitude to teach what they think ought to be taught? What emerges from this? Why? Why they and not us? What would emerge? How would K-16 collaborations work out? Would they improve education? Impoverish it? Make no difference? For instance, college courses often involve students in critical thinking, analysis and problem solving, scientific and quantitative reasoning, writing, critical reading and evaluation, writing effectiveness and mechanics, and the ability to critique and construct arguments. In other words, they know that brains can learn for understanding, and those thought processes use the parts of the brain that are engaged during learning for understanding. Or, at least, one would hope that they did. The standards remind us of conceptual areas we need to address, but we must do a good job of giving our students quality time to engage them, to reflect on what they experience, and learn for understanding and empowerment. There is no teachers’ manual on this, but the process can be learned and used. It’s up to us to learn how to do it.

jimphoto3This 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.”