Confessions of a “recovering” science teacher

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August 4, 2011 by sgoobie

Shifting focus

In the school science classroom, we often place specimens under the microscope.

Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com

If we manage to keep them “on task”, children spend hours gazing down, illuminating their tiny treasures, observing them and measuring their minute physical characteristics. In the confines of these four walls we analyze our specimen’s structure and composition in intricate detail.  We dissect said specimen into its working parts and formulate hypotheses as to how the components function both apart and in concert. In a shaded room, shoulders hunched, head pitched forward and sight carefully trained through the eyepiece, notch by notch we pull focus until we reach a clarity which teases the specimen to give up its miniscule world of mighty secrets.

Given this intense concentration outward — and downward — it is curious how we science teachers and students seldom think to turn the “microscope” back upon ourselves. Rarely does it occur to the average science aspirant to openly ponder what exactly it might mean to examine a “specimen”. Nor does the science teacher typically have the leisure or inclination to pause and consider the historical, cultural and ecological significance of any single act of teaching this particular historical way of knowing.

An important caviat before taking this discussion further: I am in no way “anti-science”.  I never have been and I never will be.  That is, I am not of the quick-to-presume party which dismisses for personal convenience all empirical evidence of such certainties as anthropogenic climate change, human evolution, or the physical origins of the ever-expanding Universe.  From a fairly young age I have appreciated the accomplishments of the greatest inquiring minds.  I have had a deep desire to gain a better understanding of the world through the methods and accomplishments of science.

Indeed, my ultimate and original justifications for pursuing a path of science were probably based in a childhood wonder at the seemingly-unfathomable mysteries of the Universe, from the subatomic scale to the most galactic.  Like many a young astronomer, I spent cold winter hours in awe gazing up through an opening in surrounding trees at distant shimmering lanterns sprinkled over the fabric of the twilight sky.  Struck with amazement, I too asked of the Cosmos, How did You come to be?  What will be come of You?  Why are You who You are and why aren’t you a different You?

These questions pulled me toward a long and challenging university degree in astrophysics, a subsequent application of ideas in the world of research, followed by a professional certification in teaching secondary science.  Struggling to muster a sufficiently concise understanding of fundamental concepts, I spent several years developing and teaching physics lessons for my precious students.  I adapted and invented teaching methods to convey the complex classical ideas of kinematics and dynamics in simple, accessible ways.  After many attempts, I felt confident I had gained some ability to inspire youth to share a similar fascination with the physical world and a desire to learn more through the established structure of modern science.

Little did I know that something was coming my way, something so bright and blinding that it would shake my confidence as a keeper of one light of the Scientific Revolution.

Alongside my practice as a science teacher, and long before, I had a strong desire to help young people learn about environmental sustainability.  I was concerned about the spectre of climate destabilization, deforestation, overfishing, toxification, ozone depletion, loss of species and other converging ecological realities.  Whenever I could I worked these into my science lessons, using the tools of rational and empirical thinking (e.g. ecological footprints, etc.) to help students understand catastrophic changes spreading across the face of the Planet.

Yet all along, I confess I had deep down a troubling butterfly dancing in my gut.  Something was not right.  Something about teaching the classical ways of modern science at the same time and in the same breath as teaching students to pay attention to and care for the plight of the Earth seemed incommensurate.  Somehow, these two seemingly compatable endeavours were in conflict.  How could this be?  Logically, the two — understanding the world through scientific inquiry and “saving” the world now under duress — seemed to be an easy fit.  But at a deeper level, there was an inherent contradiction.  A personal, even societal, level of denial.

The lesson

There was no single revelatory moment in my teaching experience that I can recount to illustrate this contradiction; rather, perhaps only incremental events in which I began to hang a question on these two educational missions.

Nevertheless, one event barely worth mentioning still comes to mind.  It involved the tiniest of semantic details, but it seemed to exemplify in the slightest of ways this increasing discomfort.

It was in physics class.  I was teaching about Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation: that all masses are gravitationally attracted to all other masses when separated by a distance.  We considered the example of the Solar System.

I stood by the white board, a marker in my hand.  “The Sun is attracted to the Earth and the Earth to the Sun, and the Moon to each of the bodies and these bodies to the Moon,” I told students.  To illustrate this statement, as with all mechanics situations, we drew a simple free-body diagram showing the Earth and the Sun as point-like objects with all their matter concentrated at their respective centres-of-mass.

A student asked, gesturing to one of the points, “What’s that again?”

I responded, “This is the Earth.”

“That’s the Earth?”  He spread his arms to indicate his vast surroundings.  “How is that the Earth?  It’s just a point.”

I nodded.  “Yes,” I said.  “Remember when we learned we can simplify any object as a single point with all forces acting on this one location?  It doesn’t matter if it is a baseball or a tree or an airplane.  It’s all mass.  The Earth is just like any other object made of matter.  It’s simply a mass.”  I stepped toward the dot on the board.  “We don’t need to worry about all the details and complexity.  We can regard the Earth as a dot.  It’s just a dot.  It’s just a point.  It’s the point at which the Sun’s centre is pulling on the Earth.”

The students took down this diagram in their notes and we moved on to the mathematical description of Newton’s law.

Of course, such an commonplace episode may seem trivial.  Similarly, we may not bat an eye at a description of the Sun as just a very big, hot, dense ball of gas.  Nevertheless it was the accumulation of such seemingly-meaningless experiences in teaching science which drew my eyes toward a greater question, and eventually a very different perspective.

Becoming the specimen

We return now to the beginning.  The microscopeThe darkened classroom.  Students and teachers immersed in the examination of their specimen.  Measuring.  Sketching.  Adjusting focus.  Calm, whispered commentary.

A question trickled forth from my sense of inner conflict, now gaining clarity.  In shifting the peering focus of the “microscope” — the intense and deliberate observation and analysis — onto my own practice, assumptions, language, methods and understandings, what might I find?  What mighty secrets could dwell behind this intuitive sense that something was awry in these parallel pursuits of discovery and preservation?  What deeply “inconvenient truths” might my gut feeling unveil if sufficiently dissected with the same vigour as the blade to a stiffened formaldehyde frog pinned in place on a lab bench?

From such an examination, a simple classroom episode like the one above could reveal the tip of a melting iceburg, indicative of a some hidden cultural quagmire.  Simultaneously teaching without hesitation that the Earth is just a mass, just a point, a simple dot, an object, a “thing”; alongside teaching that the Earth is precious, fragile, important, endlessly complex, worth protecting, in need of human restraint and creative restoration — could I in fact be in deep denial about the compatability of these two directives in teaching?  Could teaching that we can dismiss complexity and sanctity, and coldly reduce the entire celestial enterprise upon which we depend for all powers of life to a mere meaningless singularity somehow undermine the urgent request to take collective action to rescue this same entity?  In what other areas of my teaching had I thoughtlessly reduced the mystery of Creation to a mechanized, divided, lifeless collection of atoms?

Most importantly, was my teaching in one discipline somehow perverting these same ways of thinking needed to pursue another — arguably more pressing — area of learning, of how we may correct our dangerous ecological trajectory?

In my somewhat lengthy training as a scientist and further development as a science teacher, I had never once been asked to reflect on the meaning of science.  Perhaps this is an isolated case.  Perhaps it is my fault for not being more self-aware.  But perhaps there is something more systemic at play.  To my best recollection, What is the ecological significance of a modern scientific mode of being? was never an inquiry on any syllabus, a learning outcome in any curriculum or a point of assessment on any test or examination.

In other words, in learning science, and learning to teach science, it had never come about to turn the revealing refractive zoom back on the very process and underlying assumptions of science itself.  It is only as I come to confront impending ecological crises that I now see the dramatic need for this reflection.

My love of marveling at the Universe will never fade.  Nor will I ever dismiss the revolutionary powers of modern science to help us understand a multitude of facets of the physical world and to develop new technological capabilities.  But this same love is now tempered with the realization that it is no longer enough to learn and teach science as a straightforward, innocent and entirely noble pursuit.  In my process of recovering and reforming as a science teacher, I now feel the responsibility to learn — and, someday, to teach — potential meanings and ecological consequences of learning and teaching science with generations of would-be citizens of a warming planet.

Just as I once gazed up at the night sky and asked How did You come to be?, I now ask these same wondrous questions of science itself, and of our society’s overarching decision to deliver a predominantly scientific way of thinking to our youngest counterparts.

I invite you to join me as we turn the microscope inward.

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2 thoughts on “Confessions of a “recovering” science teacher

  1. […] each day, many days each year, and many formative years of life in a classroom with a licensed teacher, schooling can only have a profound effect on the […]

  2. […] as educators need to question our own assumptions about our relationship with the natural world. Not to do so is to do a grave […]

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