About Teaching Science

(To the Elementary School Teacher Who Must Do Some)

By Michael Rossman


        When I started teaching science, I began at the beginning and in the most natural way possible, as a father teaching his child about the world -- leading and leaving him to encounter it, showing him proper and useful attitudes of attention and care, encouraging and helping him to figure out what he could about it, and explaining some of what he could not, in ways that he could understand.

        This was my model from the start, well before he and I had singled out "science teaching and learning" from the other educations of life. The way I went at teaching was natural and intuitive and un-self-conscious, reflecting my personality and his and the world's, more than any theory about these. This parental model extended itself easily into the playgroup I helped run, and then into the pre-school where I traded my teaching for my son's tuition costs.

        The other children I taught at first were mostly of his age, and he was among them. What could be more natural and continuous than that I should take them as my own and teach them in the way that I'd taught him, to look at and think about the many lives and phenomena of this earth we share? With my son the heart of the matter was immediate and irresistable, because I was a model for him in so many ways. When I stopped along the sidewalk to lift untended sod in search of worms, he learned not only that worms themselves were interesting, and something about their habitats, but also that this was part of what one did naturally, lift things along the way to see what lives are here with us.

        Watching such things happen, I learned that science is less a subject to be taught and learned, than a way of being a person in the world. It may seem odd that so simple and basic a truth had escaped my attention during all those years while I was getting my degree in a science. But I was being trained to fill some highly specialized job-slot rather than to be a full person, which quite distorted the whole enterprise.

        To be fair, my training did prepare me well to be a "science teacher" in the usual sense, for I became adept at reading and repeating what scientists had learned. Had I gone on to work as a professional scientist myself, I could even have told my students what it was like to do so. But none of this could prepare me directly to be the sort of science teacher I try to be, whose work is to help young people connect with the spirits of science within themselves, for the sake of shaping their identities -- not in the narrow sense, to develop individual job-related specialisms, but in the broad, to unfold themselves more fully in life.

        This is still my purpose now with sixth-graders, as much as it was with two-year-olds; and as it is with older students and adults whenever I work with them. For I've never unlearned the naive belief that we each are born natural scientists, observing and deducing order in the world. I still think that we remain so, even long after we've learned to identify ourselves as not-scientists. Our abilities to grow more scientifically conscious and more consciously scientific are always there, waiting to be evoked.

        Perhaps our scientific abilities are not even so numb and dusty as one might imagine, since we employ their elements daily throughout ordinary life as we observe, hypothesize, experiment, make metaphorical constructs and logical calculi -- as we do wherever we apply ourselves consciously to learning, whether to walk or to work or to love or whatever. To put it so suggests how arbitrary are the limits of our ordinary catagories, and how various are the forms and styles and workings of scientific spirit in our consciousness in the world.

        Some people think it's unrealistic romanticism or just a dumb mistake, to understand the essential action of science so broadly. But I think it's a foolish blindness, ungrounded and debilitating, to understand it any more narrowly. To think that science is only what comes dressed in numbers and "objectivity" is to mistake part of a surface for the core. And as for the way that Scientific Method has been mystified ...

        Well, who can win such an argument? But either way, it's clear that the elements of scientific thinking don't appear magically when the word Science is spoken, but rather are drawn from ordinary life's thinking to be isolated, disciplined, amplified, combined, and brought to bear in methods of shared focused inquiry. These raw materials of thought, these raw capacities, are practically inalienable in us. Even mathematics, the language of (some) science, is our general birthright.

        For though we speak of mathematical incapacity as if it were innate ("I just can't do math"), very few people indeed have difficulty because their mind-circuits just don't work right. The evidence suggests instead that the common difficulties are not genetic and organic but emotional and social in nature. People jam up, decide or accept that they can't learn to mobilize their capacities to learn math, often being taught this conclusion by their environments, by the ways math-learning itself is framed and taught.

        Well, that's edging into another argument, too long and specific to draw out here. Let's stick with the idea that the raw capacities for scientific thought are quite widely distributed and employed among us. So what? Why bother to develop them more specifically and deeply? One answer is surely "for the sake of common benefit from scientific advance"; but so many forces in our society already enforce this answer that a teacher might well make it a low priority. A more needed answer seems to be "so people can understand and perhaps control what transforms their lives." I also like "because science is pretty and fun."

        But the most personal answer is in this: that since the elements and powers of mind involved in scientific thought are so general and broad in their applications, their development and discipline in scientific inquiry can strengthen them throughout one's consciousness and life. I have in mind, of course, outcomes more subtle and rich than treating emotional life as if it were merely a problem in mechanical engineering. For example, think of the qualities involved in learning not to confuse what you want or fear to see with what is actually there, to see how much deeper than logic "thinking scientifically" runs, and what general life-needs it supports.

        This view that the main purpose of science-learning is the development of the whole person brings me back to where I began -- for to see science teaching this way is indeed to understand it as a kind of deep-reaching parenting, rather than as a technical training or an enlightening entertainment. The shift of perspective here runs deep, for it reveals the learner/teacher relationship to be more deeply personal and perhaps more sacred than we normally understand it to be, at least in this domain.

        I don't know what kind of teacher-training course can prepare one for this reality, of how much one teaches and how intimately. For always through your teaching you teach not only the subject itself, but also a way of teaching-and-learning, and deeper than this a way of being a person -- for always with the facts you offer also your own relations with the subject of study and the act of teaching.

        Thus most children learn from their early science education not only that all insects have six legs, but also that one learns such a fact by reading it first in a book or hearing it from a teacher, rather than by looking at a lot of little creatures to see what they have in common. Most children learn also that their teachers teach science as a household chore, a necessary duty done for narrow, role-defined reasons (because they're employed as teachers and because it's on the curriculum) rather than because they are people and "doing science" is a natural activity and pleasure. What wonder, then, that most children absorb this as their own deepest lesson about science -- that one "learns science" as a chore because one is a student, rather than in natural pleasure? The difference in teaching is real, and as hard to describe as it is to disguise. Yet students do see right through one to the bone, whether or not they can say so, and yours will know whether you handle science (or any other subject) as an alien disquieting spider, as an inert machine, or as a living dance.


        This brings me to such advice as I have, about the dance of teaching science. I assume that you're like most elementary school teachers, in that science wasn't a good subject for you in high-school or college. You struggled to get through the requirements, and forgot most of what you learned right after the test (if not before.) You're lucky if you only feel ignorant about bugs, spiders, chemicals, roots, intestines, calculations, and the like; more likely, you feel uncomfortable because some such things seem frustrating, disgusting, or dangerous to you.

        Since you don't know much about science but have to teach some anyway, the easiest thing to do seems to be to get a curriculum guide that tells you what minimum science your students should learn this year, organizes it in units, breaks down the units to lessons, and tells you what points to teach and test for in each lesson. If your school budget can afford curriculum kits with enough pre-packaged materials for every child, that seems even better. All you have to do is figure out how to follow the directions. Instant Science Teacher -- just add sweat!

        Well, that's one way to go about it. If your job and goal are to get the children to score well on the standardized achievement tests, you may be satisfied with this way -- or even forced to adopt it. But if you want to present science in a quite different way -- not simply as a subject taught and learned, but as a way of being a person in the world -- you'll need to approach science this way yourself.

        This means becoming a scientist consciously -- not primarily for your students' good, but for your own pleasure and growth. This doesn't demand getting a degree and a job in science, but rather applying yourself deliberately now and then to decipher the world's order and causality in some modest way, acting upon a desire to know, and telling someone about what you learn.

        No curriculum guide can tell you how to go about this, because it's so deeply personal an act -- especially if you've been inhibited in it before. Who can tell you how to choose to pay attention, or where you'll find it best for yourself to do so? What textbook can teach you how to let yourself imagine a plausible reason for what you observe, or how to handle the self-doubts and dreads and distractions that have always made this and other aspects of "doing science" hard for you?

        All this points up how highly individual and subjective the process of "doing science" is (and not only for the neophyte, since gifted scientists' autobiographies attest that it remains so even for them.) Other people can sometimes help you learn such things -- but the relationships involved are again individual and intimate, for such learnings have more in common with therapy or learning to make love than they do with what's usually understood as "science education." Yet unless you go through such basic learnings yourself, how prepared are you to help children with them?

        Once you've dealt with such inner aspects of doing science, the outer mechanics and procedures are easier to grasp, and you can find as much advice and direction about how to do them as you can stand to absorb. It scarcely matters what particular pieces of the world you pick to enquire into; for the lessons about self and science that you can learn and teach are pretty much the same wherever you choose to exercise them.

        Nor should you flinch from spending your elementary-school students' time to explore minor random questions whose answers might be looked up quickly in books, rather than stuffing them full of the important methodical facts to regurgitate on tests. The world's full of facts, and the library too; it's no trick to find them. The trick is to motivate people to gather and retain them, arranged in structures of personal meaning -- and learning to be a natural scientist seems more promising for this than learning to be a parrot.

        So go with your students' attention, follow their interests. If what attracts them this week is spiders or clouds or seeds, spend some time with them observing and wondering. Anything you choose to study is a richer resource than you can possibly exhaust, even in its appearances. There's always something more to observe than you've (all) noticed already, and patience can make useful as much time as you care to devote to this act.

        With anything you can touch, there's always some simple experiment to find out more about one question or another raised by simple observations or simply wondering. If you can't think of it, the children probably can; and you might as well let them try first, even if their choice is a bit bizarre, because the particular experiment chosen matters less than the spirit of experiment. Once in the vein, with a classroom tradition established, it's possible to grow more deliberate about choosing between experiments to perform, and more disciplined in their performance.

        Then at night or on the weekend, do some research. Hit the books to find out more about the particular topic yourself, and share with the children whatever you learn or enjoy. Even if you're inexperienced, since you're a grownup you'll learn more than you have time to teach most of the class. If some kids are able or want to learn more than you have time to learn and teach, show them where to begin, with the books you've used or simpler ones (and free them from some less-important work to follow this up in class-time.)

        Your basic references will have simple, instructive experiments to perform for almost any topic you or the children choose. Rehearse the experiments if you can, but don't be afraid to try one in class and have it fail for reasons you don't understand. Real experiments do fail much of the time, that's the difference between them and demonstrations; and a great deal of the work and fun of science is tinkering with experiments to get them to work. Your students will often get more involved in making-it-work than you do, and may find the subject matter deeper and more vivid because of this -- as well as learning other skills, of initiative and persistence, beyond the narrower ones of experiment.

        Indeed, though it goes against what's thought of as "professional" practice, your own inexperience and ignorance can be positive factors in teaching science, true gifts to share with your students. For something is different, not scientifically but humanly, when you share a genuine experiment, an experience or exploration new to you, rather than repeat the well-worn demonstration, handling its mechanics almost automatically as you talk about whatever it shows or proves. There's a whole texture of emotions about the affair, with mingled senses of anticipation, anxiety, excitement, disappointment and victory, that will never quite be the same again for you, and that can't be faked or replaced. This emotional texture may seem irrelevant to the nominal subject matter you're teaching -- but it's vitally relevant to the deeper subject of doing science, which is as emotional an affair as any other human enterprise.

        Of course there is need for click-click competence too; it won't do to teach students that "experimenting" means just a string of blundering inconclusive messes. But it's not hard to strike a balance between well-prepared demonstrations that work reliably, and more tentative explorations. It's harder to strike the broader balance, between the style and purpose of science-teaching that I emphasize here and more usual approaches; but even at this you can find or make your own way, changing with the years.

        You needn't strive to become a general scientist. It's enough to pick some particular domain or topic, like rocks and minerals -- reading whatever you can about it, finding people who know more, learning to enjoy the techniques and feelings of experimenting and learning about it. Were you to teach only one such topic as "science", your students would still learn more deeply than they would from a more balanced State-guideline curriculum, because the material would have not only its own form and depth but your own, being imbued with your personal care and passion. And if you teach a broader range of science topics, having one as your personal core of inquiry will make your teaching of all deeper and better, reconnecting you with the learning of science in so many ways.

A Few References

        If you have an appetite for learning science, you will always have resources for teaching it -- for whatever you read or do will suggest things to tell students, and often things to do with them. But even if you draw your curriculum from students' random interests, systematic references are useful to have.

        Various current textbooks cover the general science curriculum for elementary school, suggesting lesson-sequences, experiments, and instructional goals. But the most useful book I know dates back two generations. The original UNESCO Source Book for Science Teaching is still published by Doubleday under the title 700 Science Experiments for Everyone. Compiled to support teaching in under-developed countries, its experiments rely ingeniously on common household and shop items for equipment -- a boon to the low-budgeted, and to the spirit of independent inquiry. For each experiment, how to do it and what to look for are summarized briefly. Together they cover a remarkable range of subjects rather systematically – though their emphasis is overwhelmingly on physical science, rather than on biology. The spirit of this book has been extended in recent works, covering less ground in “more entertaining” fashion. If you search the web for books of “science experiments,” you’ll find more than you could use in a lifetime of teaching.

        Various omnibus reference sets are available, from the Osborne series to several science encyclopedias. I still favor the inexpensive Golden Guide series. Re-issued recently, its emphasis is mainly biological. Each of the 160 small pages of each guide organizes a lot of information compactly in well-illustrated form; some of the guides could serve as summaries of college courses.

        Among other basic references, I’m particularly fond of Ralph Buchsbaum's venerable and updated Animals Without Backbones, still the most lucid and accessible survey of invertebrate life; and Lennart Nilsson's Behold Man, with its glorious color-photo survey of what's inside us.


Published as "Teaching Science."  Learning 12:7, Feb. 1984


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