Thursday, July 21, 2011

Certainty and Vulnerability: Learning and Teaching Science

I expect (and expect with excitement) that I will forever find that I have ideas about how the world works that are problematic in some manner or another. I have no illusion of the final certainty in my own knowledge of the world nor the scientific community's knowledge of the world.
  • I know that I have ideas about how the world works that are at odds with others ideas I have. Sometimes "at odds" means logical inconsistency. Sometimes "at odds" means an ontological inconsistency. Sometimes "at odds" means an emotional incongruence. Some of these I am aware of and have ways of reconciling them. Some of them I am aware of and have not yet reconciled. Others, I am not even aware of.
  • Importantly, I also have ideas that are at odds with some of core ideas that are central to contemporary scientific understandings. And with these, too, some of these I am aware of and some not.
In other words, I am a lot like my students.

Of course, I have fewer inconsistencies than my students–both in terms of internal consistency with myself and external consistency with core scientific knowledge. But the major difference between me and my students is that I know that the nature of the game is to continually work at locating sources of inconsistency and working through them. I know that this is the primary activity of doing and learning science, and I enjoy it.

This growing sense of science has changed me and how I interact with those around me. For the first part, I am much less concerned with maintaining an appearance of being knowledgeable. In fact, I spend a lot more time seeking out people to share the things I don't understand. I also spend more time seeking out people who challenge me and often point out things I don't understand. I am much more interested in exposing my knowledge vulnerabilities than my knowledge certainties.

Of course, there are times where I get roped into caring about my external appearance of being scientifically knowledgeable and acting in ways that are more about exuding knowledge than exposing and sharing my own uncertainty. But those moments are fewer and farther between. I hope to become less and less prone to such moments.

I wrote previously about the damage that school science had on my enjoyment and participation in science. In this way as well, school was not and is probably still not the place for these new habits of mine to be nourished. In fact, school tends to nourish the opposite. School typically pressures students into masking and hiding any and all forms of not understanding. We often take off points for students being "wrong", even when that being wrong comes with a sense of maturity, awareness, and propensity for future learning. We secretly (or not so secretly) cringe whens students exhibit misconceptions, as opposed to celebrating the possibility for exploring and coming to better know current ways of thinking and knowing. We often present ourselves in ways that stress that we are science knowledge experts rather than science learning experts, and students tend to model their own science identities based on this presentation.

In the coming years, I will have more and more opportunities to grow as a science learner, a science teacher, and as a mentor for future science teachers. I hope I can eventually live up to my own growing expectations. What I do know is this–achieving this will involve continually trying to expose my own teaching and mentoring vulnerabilities. It will involve seeking out those individual and communities that challenge me. It will involve locating and pressing through the inconsistencies I exhibit in my own ideas and practices of teaching.

Hopefully, the tenure process will not be the same negative force on my growth as an educator and researcher as school was on my growth as a scientist. I guess, we'll see.


  1. I really like the contrast you draw between "what I know" and "what I'm confused about." When I think about it, I remember lots of times in my office with students when we both realize that there must be something subtle to a particular problem because our various approaches have led to different answers. I get excited because there's something new to learn. I always hope that the student is in the "cool, let's figure this out" mode instead of the "ah man, I just wanted to know the right answer" mode.

    Regarding the tenure process, unfortunately there does come a time towards the end when you have to start bragging about yourself. When I was on the tenure and promotion committee it was difficult to get that message across to some candidates. Essentially you have to make sure that all the cool things you've done are noticeable in your file, and not everyone gets the meaning of publishing here, getting that grant, or trying cool new assessment ideas in class. That's a little different than "what I know" vs "what I'm confused about" but I think they're connected. A lot of us shy away from the knowledge bragging because we want our students to see us as colleagues on the learning journey. I'm just saying that near tenure you have to take some time to trumpet your successes, not necessarily your knowledge. -Andy

  2. I want to add to Andy's comments on tenure. I've now been in the biz long enough to have gone through it and also to have watched or helped almost ten others do the same. In other words, I have some experience.

    From what I've seen the most most successful people (in terms of lubricated to easily slide through tenure) are those who do not "brag" ever - yet at every single opportunity take the time to point out what they are doing and how it benefits either students, the dept, the university or the culture. They seem to be able to do this by always staying positive and educating and never comparing - I think it is in the comparing to others that it can derail to bragging. I've seen people with solid but not compelling success come across as positive contributors and those who have compelling success come across as whiners. The emotion and attitude shouldn't matter and I hope it doesn't in many places but it seems to matter a great deal at my institution. So never be bragging but always be sure that what you are doing is worth talking about.

    There is a third strategy that works suprisingly well - and that is to simply keep your head down in all matters. The default judgment of our colleagues is always that they are doing good things. If you NEVER make any comment about anything that might cause someone to think about you - that seems to work, too. We had a guy who accomplished very very little - no way should he have passed through. But he has never ever made a comment with any controversy towards anyone. And because of this, no member had any kind of axe to grind so all the members sat around and waited for someone else to comment. At most midlevel schools, the majority of faculty don't feel comfortable judging other's work, so without a way into a critical conversation, nothing happened and zoom, right through the process. Because budgets are so tight now, very little resistance comes from college or school-wide levels, and the strategy worked like magic.