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A tale of two great expectations July 9, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, teaching.

I think I’m starting to understand the dichotomy between what teachers think they should be and what students think teachers ought to be.

A student thinks that a teacher is someone who takes a complicated topic and can break it down into simple terms, something that a student can easily understand. The teacher should then test students based on the simplification of the topic.

The teacher, however, hopes that their effort at simplifying and breaking topics down can then be used to pull the student up. The student, once they are in position of understanding a simplistic model, can then begin to build on the model, adding complexity and using their problem solving skills to fill in the gaps of such models. The teacher then hopes that through the additional effort outside the classroom on the part of the student, the student has fully grasped the complexity of the model and can at least be a moderate practioner of new knowledge and skills.

In theory…

This dichotomy is most evident in a general education course on science and/or math. I’m not sure if it’s intimidation or boredom or simple disinterest. Maybe it’s simply a lack of practice. Perhaps it is all of these. The students quite often don’t want to go through the work of developing the details of the model…and sometimes even understanding the model itself. And yet model building is one of the most enjoyable parts of science.

On the other hand, science classes are the most critical place where students need to understand the scientific process and how models are developed. How many classes really get into that? How many teach science as a process of questioning and reasoning and instead of a string of facts? If we’re teaching science as a string of facts, how can we expect these students to later accept the fact that science is actually a series of questions we’re trying to answer and that those answers change based on what we know?

Going back to what makes a good teacher, I think the notion of what a teacher wants to be often doesn’t coincide with what they’re doing. They want to facilitate learning, but often teach their classes as a series of facts or processes to be memorized. When taught this way, it caters to student expectations that things need to be made simple for them to understand. A good teacher will make it simpler: they will bring the material down to the level that the student can understand.

On the other hand, when a teacher views herself as a facilitator and helps the students to find ways to acquire knowledge themselves, the teacher is actually doing what they hope to: they are encouraging students to work on and think about the material in a very active way. By doing so, they are turning students into practitioners of knowledge, and this will increase the knowledge and skill base of the student. They will bring the student up to the level of the material.

Science is all about doing, but so many science classes in high school and college are based on lecturing at students. To do this, so often we have to simplify topics. If we could get them doing science, perhaps the students would, down the line, be more comfortable with what science really is.



1. Yifan Hu - July 12, 2010

That’s why we need hands-on museum!!!


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