Blog post by Stacy Gasteiger, PTAC Member
“Why do we get potholes in the road?”
“How do the flowers know it’s time to come out?”
“How fast does a hummingbird fly?”
When children are young, it seems like the questions never stop. Everything is a matter of curiosity and wonder. They spend their time investigating everything they see, whether that means sticking it in their mouths, touching it all over, or watching warily from a careful distance.
Unfortunately, this attitude of curiosity and wonder can be seriously diminished once students enter school.
The pressures of mandated testing and evaluation by test scores push schools and teachers to narrow their focus onto tested subjects, primarily math and reading. This can lead to prescribed curriculums that decrease a teacher’s ability to foster that sense of wonder in students.
However, it’s when we give students an explorer mindset that real learning can occur, and students become intrinsically motivated. Inspired by my relationship with National Geographic, I have spent the last several years aspiring to turn my students into curious and responsible explorers of their own world.
Teachers can first and foremost encourage students to become explorers by becoming explorers themselves. Learn a new subject, try a new type of food, or visit a place you’ve never gone and then share the experience with your students. Students love to hear how their teacher was nervous, but tried something new anyway.
When they see or hear their teacher reaching out and flirting with failure, students have the confidence to try a little harder and know that failure is just the first step into a new adventure.
Next, share explorations of topics and ideas with your students. In my classroom, my students have virtually visited with scientists and researchers from all over the world.
We’ve chatted with a fish researcher in Angola, a tsunami expert in Israel, and a volcanologist in the U.S. When a student has the opportunity to learn from an expert, you will be amazed to hear the questions they ask. (And don’t be surprised by the, “Do you like candy?” questions as well.)
My third-graders wrote letters with suggestions for our town—and the mayor came to class to listen to them. Suddenly, I had a classroom of students who understood how local governments work and were annoyed that they had to wait until 18 to vote.
Finally, let students explore on their own, preferably outside. When students are exploring outside, they learn that the world is not a series of multiple-choice problems. There are real questions to ask and real, complex issues that need solving.
My students have studied local soil samples and compared them with other parts of the world, used trail cams to track local wildlife and come up with ways to analyze the data, and gone fossil hunting to reconstruct ancient Pennsylvania.
When I give my students the agency to do the exploring on their own, they are initially confused, and then completely empowered. One girl with a difficult home life became fascinated by our study of paleontology. When we went on our fossil hunt, she peppered the paleontologist with dozens of questions that he was thrilled to answer. Now she hopes to become a geologist and wants to know what she will need to study to achieve her goal.
Students are capable of so much more than simply following required curriculums. It is up to teachers to instill an explorer’s mindset so students continue exploring like they did when they were little.
Blog Post By Alice Flarend, PTAC Member
How many times have you heard “It’s not rocket science!” to describe something that is easy?
Many times I have heard that phrase used to describe teaching. Well, I know rocket science (and a lot of other science), and I can say unequivocally that teaching is not rocket science. It is much harder!
As a nuclear engineer turned high school teacher, I can attest that working with humans is much more difficult than working with physical systems. Human behavior and their interactions cannot be mathematically modelled. There are simply too many variables.
In my previous field, I worked with neutrons. Whether it was a Monday morning in October or Friday afternoon in April, my neutrons behaved in the exact same way. I knew how many I had to work with at every moment. The neutrons would move in a straight line at a steady speed. I could mathematically predict how many would make it through a barrier and how many would not. I could repeat my tests with the same experimental setup and get the same results year after year.
Now, my days are filled with managing Adams, not atoms. However, unlike my radioactive atoms, there is no clear equation to predict the behavior of my students. Adams are individuals with hopes and dreams and family and friends. Some are completely different people on Monday morning than on Friday afternoon.
Perhaps it is because this weekend was spent with a parent who had to work nights, so Adam stayed up all Saturday and Sunday night playing Fortnite. Perhaps Adam stayed up all night taking care of a sick sibling. Perhaps there was a fight with a friend at a locker before homeroom. Maybe Adam is hungry. Maybe Adam didn’t even make it to school that day or the next.
Adam can face barriers that I have never experienced. I may not know what they are, but I can see evidence in their behavior, just like the changes in the path of my neutron. I, however, had total control over the environment of my neutron.
My students come from a variety of socioeconomic environments, even though outwardly they appear fairly homogeneous. The effects of their environments on their lives is strong and not always obvious.
One Adam has already been accepted into a pre-med program. Another dreams to be a truck driver despite not even owning a car.
One of these Adams misses several days of school each month. One of them copies his homework. One needs help paying for lunch. Do you think you know which Adam I am describing? Is it only one of the Adams, or is it both? Although you may have a strong guess, there is a large probability that you will be wrong.
All these diverse Adams are in my class to learn physics. As with all subjects, students come with prior knowledge and experience that influences their learning. If I needed an atom with a specific energy for my engineering work, I would simply filter out the ones that did not meet my needs. None of my Adams are filtered out because they do not measure up. In fact, educators work incredibly hard to keep all the Adams in school.
Instead of filtering, it is my job to design learning experiences to move all of my Adams closer to a scientific understanding. This means that I give opportunities to explore both familiar and unfamiliar scenarios. Of course, what is familiar to this Adam is completely foreign to another. That is an asset I can leverage if I design my classroom norms and the activity well.
I need to help the Adams feel comfortable sharing their ideas and pushing back productively on the ideas of another. I need to know my content and pedagogy deeply enough to pick scenarios that are rich enough to foster disagreements and that are both familiar and unfamiliar to my Adams.
I need to carefully listen to what they are saying, read what they write, and watch what they are doing to gather information on their understanding to design the next learning activity. It may be one that I have done ten times before. It may be one that is inspired by the classroom interactions.
Either way, it is an intellectual and creative endeavor steeped in applying fundamental knowledge to a specific situation. In other words, I am still doing engineering, but with a much more complex material.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee