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