what scientists can do to help teachers in the compulsory education system

A couple of days ago Grant sent me a link to a guest blog by biolgist & biology educator Joanne Manaster, on the Scientific American website . (There’s also an interesting commentary by George Musser.) Both resonated a lot with me & I thought I’d discuss why, here.

(But first I am going to apologise in advance for what I suspect may be a higher-than usual number of typos. I am currently doing 9-fingered typing due to an elderly moment in the kitchen on Friday evening & it is really cramping my style!)

Joanne was faced with a challenge: to give a 45-minute keynote address on the topic "Why should scientists care about science education reform?" She kicks off with quotes from a number of prominent scientists & science educators, who gave a range of answers – but with some themes in common: because education should inspire and intrigue, otherwise it’s not doing its job; because – for a whole raft of reasons! – scientists want others to be inspired & intrigued by the world around them; because some level of science literacy is needed for people to meet the various challenges they’ll face in today’s world (to which I would add, and the world of tomorrow).

She also cites educator Alom Shaha, who answered the question of what scientists could add in a science classroom with the following statement, which I’m going to quote in full because I want to talk more about the points he raises:

If I were trying to be controversial, I’d reply "very little, until they properly understand how schools work". What I mean by this is that good intentions are not enough to make a difference to school education if the people trying to "help" make no effort to appreciate what it is that we teachers have to do and the conditions in which we have to do them.

On a more positive note, I feel getting scientists into schools is a good idea – so that students can see that science is a living, breathing activity, and not just something they read about in textbooks. Also establishing relationships with scientists, as I have done, means that we teachers can provide opportunities for students to do "real" science, which we simply cannot provide in schools.

This is a point also made by Sir Peter Gluckman, in calling for schools develop much stronger links with research organisations (& vice versa). As you’ll know, I do have reservations about this, partly to do with how such activities are likely to be recognised & valued by the scientists’ employers. In my more cynical moments, I can’t help feeling that when scientists are under significant pressure to publish, & to find and maintain funding streams, there is going to be little leeway for getting out into the local school’s science classrooms. This of course, is where things like the Science Learning Hub and the Biotechnology Learning Hub come into their own, because for a very small investment in time, scientists gain an extremely wide audience with whom to communicate about their science.

However, there’s another issue here, highlighted in that quote from Alom Shaha. Those intending to get involved in schools on a regular basis need to be aware of how schools work. This would be a win-win for both school & scientist (win-win-win if we’re talking university academics who may end up teaching some of those school students). If you don’t have that understanding of how schools work, if you don’t know a bit about the science curriculum & how the teacher you’re working with is implementing it, then things may not pan out as intended. Material may be delivered at the wrong level, or may not be well-linked to the curriculum. It may not flow naturally into subsequent lessons (& something one-off that doesn’t integrate well into what the students are learning, is not the best use of everyone’s time. Plus, teachers don’t have a lot of time to get through a busy curriculum. Many teachers would probably really appreciate some support from the science community, but they need to know that what you have to offer is going to fit into that & complement what they’re doing in the classroom.

But having said that, once those potential obstacles are out of the way, you’re probably looking at a fruitful & happy partnership 🙂

2 thoughts on “what scientists can do to help teachers in the compulsory education system”

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I went through 12 years of compulsory education. Surely having spent 12 years in public classrooms has given me some insight into how schools work, and the characteristics of successful teachers (of me). On the other hand, how much does student me understand about what is going on behind the scenes? I have vacillated about this, and, even having spent a year teaching in public high school, I am still not sure.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    While students will certainly get a ‘feel’ for the sort of teaching that works for them (provided there’s a bit of self-reflection going on), I doubt they really gain much of an understanding of how schools actually work: how curricula are developed, what determines what’s actually taught in the classroom, the sort of time (& other) pressures teachers work under, that sort of thing. That’s pretty much all ‘black box’ stuff. And of course, it’s a while since the scientists I was addressing were actually in the classroom, so their memories will be tempered by time – and the curriculum may actually have moved on by then. (Most of the people I work with have very little understanding of the nature of the ‘old’ curriculum, let alone the one that was implemented in 2007 and which will result in significant changes in their students’ prior learning experiences, from 2013 onwards.)
    I run a successful program where we get senior biology students on campus for a day. It’s very popular, but it took a few years to get us to that point. Teachers were doubtful that uni lecturers could offer anything that complemented the school curriculum and supported what the teachers were doing. I’m always a bit doubtful (but ready to be pleasantly surprised!) when I hear people wanting to go into schools to talk about ‘my research’ – great that they’re keen, but how well is it actually going to fit?

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