25 June, 2006

What makes a good science teacher?

Not content with assimilating science-inclined bloggers left, right and centre into the looming Scienceblogs collective, Seed Magazine also regularly demand tribute, asking them all to answer weekly questions in their own idiosyncratic styles (see here for previous examples). This week’s asks, ”What makes a good science teacher? All the responses will be eventually collated here, but as this is a question that I have been struggling with for the last 10 months or so, I thought I’d just point out some common themes in the answers so far, and add my perspective on them.

Corturnix at A Blog Around the Clock says that one of the keys is to know your subject.

Knowing your material inside and out, at least a hundred times better than the students or the textbook - that certainly helps, not just in answering potential questions, but also in the degree of self-confidence one brings to teaching.

This is especially important for me, because I’ve found it almost impossible to use pre-written notes effectively; even if I have them, once I've started talking I forget that they are there. And whilst this potentially leads to a much more flowing lecturing style, it’s also much easier to start rambling if you don’t know the material inside-out.

More importantly, I’ve found that you can understand a concept well enough to use it every day, and that still doesn’t mean you can teach it effectively. Your route to understanding something often involves all sorts of mental short-cuts which make perfect sense to you as a (relative) expert, but will quickly lose a novice. Spotting these is very important; as Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog puts it:
The key to good teaching is an ability to put yourself in the position of someobody learning the material for the first time.

Mike the Mad Biologist agrees:
A good teacher has to know what students don't know.

Or, as someone told me to my chagrin on a field trip (regarding some lectures I’d done the previous term):
You came across as knowing what you were talking about, but that didn’t mean we always understood it.

Sometimes that isn’t just about poor explanations though, it could be that the students can’t work out what the point is. As the Evil Monkey opines at Neurotopia:
If I had to decide what makes a good science teacher, it would be the ability to demonstrate how experiments fit into the proverbial "scheme of things". Nothing kills interest in science faster than 1. not being able to accurately relay the structure of the big picture and 2. just tossing a bunch of apparently random experiments at the students and expecting them to figure out how the pieces fit together. You wouldn't attempt to put a jigsaw puzzle together in the dark, would you?

Concurrently, at Good Math, Bad Math, MarkCC says (about maths teaching, but I think this is generally applicable to all sciences):

But it's very easy to get caught up in the abstraction, and forget why you're doing it. Good math teaching is a subtle act of balance: you're studying abstractions, but you need to keep the applications of those abstractions in sight in a way that lets your students understand why they should care.

Case studies, drawing examples from published research to show how the concepts you’re talking about are tools, with clear uses, are important in this regard (in geology, I’m helped greatly by the fact that it’s not usually too difficult to link even the most theoretical stuff to the ‘real world’). In lectures, narrative is a great way to hold attention: show a problem which scientists set out to solve, before showing that the concepts you’re teaching about were essential in solving it. Such a structure also naturally incorporates insights into how science works, which Dr. Free Ride at Adventures in Ethics and Science thinks is the most important thing of all:
In the grand scheme of things, the most important knowledge for the science teacher to transmit has to do with methodology rather than a laundry list of facts (especially since lots of the facts get updated). And the methods of scientific inquiry are not completely divorced from common sense. Building on the continuities between the two is a good way to get the kids who may not grow up to be scientists a good appreciation of how science works.

And I’ll give her the last word too, as she admonishes those of use who fall back on the old ‘science is hard’ shctick to compensate for the fact that only the really bright ones seem to follow you.
… if you're a teacher, your goal when you walk into the classroom should be to teach all the students whatever it is you're charged with teaching them. We don't always meet our goals, but dammit, at least try!


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