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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of
"Rethinking Science Education"

Rachel Horton ('07 Biology) and Maeve O'Hara ('08 Math and Education)
Rethinking Science Education from The Students' Point of View

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Paul introduced the discussion by observing that last semester's series explored the notion that "everyone needs to be comfortable w/ science." This semester, we have been focusing on education @ BMC, to see how well we are satisfying the need for everyone to understand science in our rapidly changing world. Both of today's presenters (one of whom was skipping class to give the presentation), had taken a praxis course on Changing Pedagogies in Math and Science , in which they explored (among other things) IMP, the Integrated Math Program, a program in its third year, which tries to get students to use math in in realistic, applied ways. Many of the teachers they worked with were "just starting up," and running pilot programs. IMP attempts to address the concern that traditional ways of teaching math are "outside of context" ("entirely symbolic," "black and white," "just algorithms." For instance, in traditional math, a student would learn to "flip the second fraction and multiply"--but not why they should do that.)

According to Maeve and Rachel, however, "IMP forces the issue." It "applies math" to the point that "there is no foundation for the students to grasp." When students are "doing everything in their own words," in applied settings, "the beauty of mathematical language is lost." Many of the scenarios are silly (going 'round on a ferris wheel and dropping into a bucket; learning about the Overland Trail); they actually don't apply to students' lives. IMP has "gotten so far away from any blackness and whiteness in fundamentals," like multiplication, or graphing, that students are floundering. (Some advanced students can do math this way; but why is it being tried on kids who can do math anyway?) Students need to be motivated, and math can be taught in ways that apply to their lives (they might study coefficients in variables, for instance, by looking @ associated units--thinking about how long it might take to drive 6 miles, if they were driving 60 miles/hour). We have "overstepped the bounds on how abstract we're getting." Math needs to be taught using knowledge the students already have. "Middle of the road type" approaches are the best: teaching foundationals and then applying them.

The problem is that many teachers, who would like to step out of the traditional lecture mode, don't know how to do so. "You have to trust." Trust what? Trust the system? This curriculum? The fact that "it spirals"? That "we will get back to [a certain concept] again"? A curriculum only works when the teacher is good; "you can't trust" that teachers will teach well. The "most challenging part" of this whole process involves defining good teaching. "You can't really learn how to teach"--but you can get better. There's an important difference in style, between teachers who adapt material so students can understand it, and those who expect to be altered by their students' questions. The difference has to do with whether one walks into the classroom knowing, in advance, what one wants the students to know.

In a class using a more progressive text book, students are likely to have a "side textbook," one including the algorithms, defintions, and an index ("You can't trust a book w/out an index"). "So why not just own it?" This tension seems analogous to the old debate between phonics and whole language. Students were either given a "deadly march through phonics--not enough for any live person," or told to "write however you feel and want"--which was also not a good idea. American educational reform always goes to extremes, and Maeve and Rachel were "disillusioned with each extreme." "Either/or never makes sense"; how to integrate these two poles, how to "meet in the middle"? Can't upper-level thinking skills be learned in lecture as well as from hands-on activities? Part of the problem is in how each mode is enacted (traditional curriculum can be creatively enacted; open curriculum can be offered with clear guidance). It is not the case that "to be progressive is to be lost."

The problems of the American educational system well known; we need to hear more about the Bryn Mawr educational system. What are the range of specific parameters for which extreme opposites exist? There seem to be a number of different variables, each representing a "different shoulder of the road":

  • lecture vs. hands-on activities
  • theory vs. practical/concrete
  • structured vs. unstructured
  • general vs. specific
  • bored vs. enthusiastic teachers
  • teacher vs. student-centered
  • disengaged vs. engaged in process with students
  • disconnected vs. connected
  • breadth vs. depth
  • spectrum of time (for reflection)
  • spectrum of distance (between lecture and lab).

During the techo-pedagogy initiative, it was learned that, when someone who has never used technology "forces it in," they suddenly acquire a pedagogy. Changing one variable exposes the notions behind the ways one has always been teaching, in ways that don't work. Doing so enables one to use a technique or a language one hasn't seen before in a broader context. The end point should be the learning, not the valorization of any particular strategy or the structure. If you are not understanding how people learn, then various strategies--whether they are lecture or participatory-- may not make much sense. Lecture can be quite efficient in delivering information for a specific purpose; sometimes active learning doesn't make sense. And a teacher needs to know how to tell the difference. There was some debate at this point about whether "lecture actually is the most efficient delivery system." Sometimes you just have to convey information. But if it "goes in one ear and out the other," it must be pretty inefficient. If students soon forget the material in lectures, it seems as if "learning did not occur."

Maeve and Rachel testified to a "wide range of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in every math and science course here." There are lecture classes in which students "never see or touch" the organism they are studying ("there may be pictures"); small hands-on activities are always useful, in exemplifying particular concepts presented in lecture. The new, "playful," ungraded physics lab is not coordinated to align with particular lectures. This lab serves all the intro classes; individual students rotate independently through a set-up of about twenty different experiments (with individuals doing different experiments each day). "What makes it work is the combination of structured lecture and flexible experimentation." Some fiddling is still necessary; a goal is to have a different set of lab experiments for each semester, which will contain demonstrations of the key ideas of that semester's lectures. Some students think this is "just a wonderful 'get your feet wet in physics' experience; others find it "too open-ended." "We've been raised to be rigid about this, and are not comfortable with it."

What if such students had been raised with such open-ended activities? How can we help them develop the ability to be more flexible as learners, able to start either with the concrete or the theoretical? How can they develop the ability to negotiate the divide between them? It's important to remember that most members of the Bryn Mawr community got here by succeeding @ a traditional lecture format (aka the"regurgitation" method). It's "hard to throw something different @ these kinds of students." They know what they are good at, and are scared of, and not receptive to, new pedagogical initiatives.

When you are uncomfortable, do you shut down? Or do you learn? A "wonderful parallel" was suggested "between education and living in the world": You may "be a lecture learner," but "when you graduate, you have to go out into the lab." In life, you never know "what experiments will come your way," and you "never know which lecture you will need to apply." In life, there is not a whole lot of correlation between the lecture and the lab.

Teachers often move too quickly when covering material; they need to build in adequate time for reflection, or their students won't learn as much. Another consideration, in timing, has to do with the span between lecture and lab. Is it best to have the two occurring simultaneously, or @ a distance from one another? Perfect alignment isn't necessarily optimal. "A time gap could be helpful." The "lag" can be productive of learning, whichever element comes first. You can "get your feet wet" by running an experiment before you hear the lecture explaining what's happening; it's fun to see what you can figure out on your own. On the other hand, you can also profit from hearing a lecture first, and having enough time to process it, to let it sink in, before running the experiment and realizing, "Oh, that's why it did that." An example was offered of a guest lecturer in a history class, whose simple idea appeared "profound" after students had spent a semester working in the area. Another example came from teacher preparation courses; the instructor can talk "until she is blue in the face" in the fall, but it's not until students are teaching themselves in the spring that they "invent" the material, and it becomes theirs. Until that moment, it doesn't matter how many times other people say it.

The amount of knowledge is too vast to be covered; all facts cannot be supplied. What's important is to give students the skills they need to "go deep into something," to apply concepts from one area to figure out something else. The "other end of memorization" is being able to struggle with things. (Professor Cookson was offered as a model: her lectures on calculus, which are "timed to the second," are "really tied into life itself.") But this is not the way most courses are being done; it was claimed that "every course @ BMC has to be re-done." In a first encounter, "hands-on really helps." Then you can hear lecture, and "plug it into" the hands-on experience you have had. This is efficient; it's useful to have some experience, to be "introduced a second time" to a concept, to aquire a little bit of knowledge you can add to. It works to first be given "the exciting idea of it," then to dive into it in a more structured manner. A larger point here was that we might think of Bryn Mawr as a whole, offering a range of different courses and different types of teaching. Thinking about this "variety of traditional and wacky" allows us to imagine a whole that is "greater than the sum of its parts." When giving college tours, Rachel mentions alternative science classes such as "The Stuff of Art" (which will be showcased in this series next week). "It's nice that we have different courses," such as this one that looks at the chemistry behind why colors change. Courses like this one are a good way to sample different types of learning. Many of us recognize our niches early on--and so avoid different kinds of classes, where really valuable learning might occur.

Discussion then turned to the "excitement factor": teachers must like their subject. They are engaging when their passion comes across, and sharing that passion can be incredibly helpful. Why isn't that always the case? "Some people are just more boring than others." An "economist's version" of an answer was offered. To become a professor one must satisfy various demands. To become a professor, one has to be risk-adverse; those who are successful in the profession are those who have not taken risks. So it is a tall order to expect faculty members to be risky in their teaching. One can "stay in the routine, or be Paul."

Asked what they would like their professors to know, about what goes on in student learning, Maeve and Rachel had several ideas: professors should "know they are not infallible." They should be willing to share, with their students, "their felt sense of being awake, human and struggling w/ along with them, of "figuring it out as I write it on the board." "Take us through your thought process." (Are we thinking while we are lecturing? This became another point of debate....) Don't make your lectures needlessly confusing. Try to be comfortable and helpful. Laugh in your classes. Bryn Mawr students feel that they're "supposed to already know" the material covered. "Can you slow down? This is not review for me." A professor sometimes has "no concept of how quickly he is going." Students "plot to slow him down," shouting out, "we don't get it"--meaning, "let us process this." "Power points are not effective means of teaching." They are too quick. And they excuse students from taking notes.

Discussion closed with a consideration of what "hands-on" really means; it isn't always "brain-on." A student can follow specific instructions in a lab. But "going through the motions," not being allowed to "play around," does not equal hands-on activity. If the lab has an "objective," and is specific about what is to be learned each week, the student focuses on that and loses the flexibility of learning other things. It's actually "dishonest" to say that such an experience constitutes a lab course, since students are not really exposed to research while performing such exercises. The same thing holds true with math labs which "tell me what to do." And yet a "huge amount of skill is needed" to do a lab. You need to learn how to manipulate. Having run the experiment one year prepares you to go back the next and become a researcher. This is "like a sport: you can't suddenly be good." Some rote learning is necessary, and brings a certain amount of confidence. There are bonuses to building on experience.

The discussion continues on the on-line forum, and will resume in person on Friday, April 21, when Sharon Burgmayer will talk about her chemistry course on "The Stuff of Art."

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