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Teach Don't Preach

SandraGandarez's picture

“Among the great ironies of our culture is that science, a fundamentally open-ended and exploratory activity, is frequently taught so much as a body of "facts" that many students become estranged from science, and most are deprived of an opportunity to have experiences which strengthen and reinforce their own inclination to experiment, question, and explore ... both the world outside and themselves. Materials presented here are aimed at finding ways to make science education, and education in general, more exploratory, and more fun.”

Science is fast becoming an ignored area in education; whether it be from bad experiences or a natural dislike it does not appear to be an area that many people enjoy as witnessed in our class discussions. Many teachers tend to lecture and state facts of science as they are understood. This is not an engaging or effective method of teaching as accurately depicted by Eliot when she goes on to say that, “You can't truly understand anatomy, chemistry or optics without rolling up your sleeves and manipulating nature to see what happens.” (Eliot 247) In the few experiments that children experience prior to college you are given a specific procedure that you must follow religiously to get the “right” answer, finding variations from that procedure unacceptable. If you do not get the expected product then you did it wrong and it is a topic that is cut and dry just like that. This is supposed to be a subject that is awe inspiring and interactive while opening the minds of children to the world outside as well as inside their bodies. As an attempt to mitigate this issue I will explore some alternate techniques that will engage students and reinvigorate the subject and wonder experienced when learning a chosen topic.


Carl Sagan is what I think of as a radical scientist since he sees only black and white and no gray area within the scientific community. He does, however, inspire an old-school respect and interest that the natural sciences held. He states that, “And yet there's so much in real science that's equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge – as well as being a lot closer to the truth.” (Sagan 4) The issue that arises in education is that the ingenuity and creativity has been lost throughout the years so that it is at a point where the teacher talks at a student and they take notes. Is it any wonder that students have lost their interest in the field of science? As seen by kgould's blog people are much more interested in the sensationalized “science” rather than life sciences. The most logical conclusion is to then bring that sensationalism or at least the interest to something tangible and proven through scientific methods; something Sagan would approve of.


The use of rote memorization is detrimental rather than helpful, because instead of learning the concepts we are learning specified factual statements that do not make sense or stick with us without the solid foundation of understanding. “Most students faintly comprehend scientific facts and then forget them. This mode of teaching science fosters ignorance more that human understanding and the usefulness of science.” (Hurd 2) 'Faintly comprehend' seems like a pretty accurate statement since anyone can memorize a few lines of notes and repeat them back with some basic understanding of whats going on, but to be able to explore and discuss the mechanisms and occurrences that are fostering those facts is to truly understand. This ignorance is based in the general idea that as well educated science students we believe that we understand what we are discussing, but should you feel from a direct line of questioning to a more application style questioning many science students would lose their way. Students should understand not only the what portion of their studies but also the how and why portions that will make their education less specific and more applicable to everyday life.


Everything is always easier said than done so I will attempt to write up a lesson plan that will not only get students to engage in active learning but to demonstrate their learning in applications of that knowledge. This is meant for a middle school to early high school level classroom that is learning some basics about chemistry and how certain compounds react with one another; this is a very basic level so very little knowledge actually needed. We will be making putty in the class but instead of giving a procedure in which they follow they will have a chart where they go through and make a decision on what they should add to the mixture to create desired compound. Even if this is used to associate how science and chemistry is part of their everyday lives before talking about other aspects of science would still allow some sense of use and purpose. Many people take for granted the use of science in their everyday lives to the point where they are unaware that it is even present. Possible lessons following the experiment can include a discussion about where else they witness science in their every day lives and a lecture on any related topic they associate with science (some possibilities include yeast in baking, molds, body interactions, how the stomach works). The topics lectured about do not need to be directly correlated to making putty as it is an introduction of an overarching theme meant to garner their interest and propagate their scientific view of their worlds and environments.


Step 1: put Elmer's Glue into a bowl – pick one measurement to add (1 tablespoon, 2 tbs or 4 tbs)

Step 2: add equivalent number in teaspoons of ONE of the following: water, alcohol or sand into mixture (equivalent number meaning if you added 4 tablespoons of glue then add 4 teaspoons of one of these options)

Step 3: add equal number of teaspoons as Step 2 of ONE of the following: borax, flour or yeast into the mixture

Step 4: repeat Step 2 – does not need to be the same solution as added in Step 2


In the actual handout it would be a chart where they would be able to connect what they added in each step so it flows linearly and describe the product after each addition. After everyone has completed their experiment a few students with a variety of products can come up and describe the path they took and show their final products describing why they believe they reached that product. I will have a big supply of silly putty for them to have and feel and if no one achieved that final product then I will not reveal the path taken to get that. If they are interested they can look at some videos such as one I found by two children on youtube. This would be one lesson among many in a series of learning about the world and science and their relationship. They offer many interactive lesson plans on Serendip covering a large variety of topics.


More needs to be done to encourage students and snag their attention, but thankfully this idea is not an original one and the government has been looking into the same issue. Now educators and policy makers have to take the initiative to continue the movement and ensure that this is not just a lasting fad but something taken seriously and continuously applied. “We should be teaching students how to think. Instead, we are teaching them what to think.” (Clement and Lochhead) Teaching by rote is teaching them what the think but teaching in an engaging manner teaches them life skills and how to think in situations other than the specific ones that the remember. Life does continue after school and students need to prepare for that instead of simply preparing for the test.







Clement, John and Lochhead, Jack. Cognitive Process Instruction: Research on Teaching Thinking Skills. 1980


Eliot, Lise. Sex, Math, and Science. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It. 2009


Hurd, Paul DeHart. Scientific Literacy: New Minds for Changing the World. 1997.


Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. 1996.




Anne Dalke's picture

"faintly comprehend"


as I said in conference, it's very exciting to me that you are using Sagan's ideas to think about science education, and how to make it more than "faintly comprehended" (what a great, and awful phrase!) for students.

What I like most here is your decision to construct an open-ended experiment--one w/ a range of possible positive outcomes--that is based on something children enjoy playing w/. Your saying that you want to invite students to "witness science in their every day lives" reminds me of a wonderful conversation, 5 years ago, in one of the Summer Institutes for K-12 science teachers that I taught on "Making Sense of Change." A Haverford biology professor had come to conduct a lesson made up of a series of hands-on chemistry experiments, one of which involved observing the deterioration of marble chips (if I remember correctly, this was to demonstrate the erosion acid rain could cause on tombstones). In response to this exercise, one of the high school teachers asked, "What do our kids care about? What would it distress them to lose?
Can we use that as an incentive to learn?" For example, they don't care that tombstones rust. But they do care when their bikes to turn that into a science lesson?

I like your lesson, though I resist the larger narrative in which you embed it. You say that "science is fast becoming an ignored area in education." Not @ all: there's been a tremendous push to get students involved in learning science and to raise their test scores. I have some serious disagreements w/ the sorts of science teaching that are being valorized @ the present, but i would not say that it's an ignored area. Secondly, you say that "ingenuity and creativity has been lost throughout the years," evoking some lost period (when was that??) when science education was ingenuous and creative. Also, I think, not a "true" story, but nostalgia for a "made-up" time and experience