Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why I am doing more science with my LAs

OK. So here's the thing. This semester, I am teaching a one-credit "science teaching and learning" seminar for undergraduate learning assistants (LAs).

I have ten undergraduate science students for a little over an hour per week. Each of them helps to facilitate some classroom learning activities in a course they did well in previously. Four of them teach in introductory chemistry in what is called "Peer Led Team Learning". Six of them teach in introductory physics using "Tutorial in Introductory Physics"

My class is supposed to help them be successful in their classroom teaching experience by giving them tools for questioning, listening, and promoting productive group work. A secondary goal is to expose them to variety of issues in teaching and learning with the hopes that they will take an interest in teaching, and decide to become certified to teach in secondary science.

When I first started teaching this class, I was closely following the model of the Colorado Course. They are doing great things over there, and they have over a hundred LAs per semester distributed across many departments and colleges. I visited last October for their LA workshop and got to experience firsthand what they are doing.

For me, their course structure and guide was a great starting place, until I realized something:

My LAs don't necessarily value conceptual understanding, inquiry, or deep-engagement in science.

Sure, they have moments where they do. Somewhere we all realize the importance of deep learning and the deep shallowness of school to engage most with deep learning. But those moments are tempered by the realities of their (mostly bad) college science courses, where they are required to memorize a million things and perform well on high-stakes tests. My LAs value doing well in school, and I don't blame them. They want to go to med school. They want to get good engineering jobs. In the worlds they live in right now, GPA is currency.

So where does my course fit in? C'mon. Let's face it. Do I really think my students are going to come around to valuing inquiry and conceptual understanding by reading some papers about teaching and learning? Do I really think my students are going to value inquiry and conceptual understanding just because they are teaching in classrooms where students work in groups? The courses they teach in are "band-aids" at best. There is lots of pseudo-teaching going on. Students sit in groups and are dragged by the teeth through some reasoning that a worksheet demands of them.

I don't want the papers we read or "pseudo-reform" teaching to be the thing we hang our hats on. Sure, I want us to draw on various papers to inform our discussion and to challenge our own thinking. Sure, I want them to reflect on and critique the teaching they are engaged with.

So what did I do? Most importantly, I have committed the class to doing more science and doing that science together. If we a read paper about problem solving, I engage them in problem solving. If we read a paper about formative assessment, I run a science lesson in which I model formative assessment. If we read about conceptual vs. algorithmic problems, you bet we're going to be doing both of those and discussing the difference.

After we've done some science (and have a shared common experience around doing some science), then we can talk about teaching and learning through the lens of the paper we've read.

I am certainly still struggling to do a good job with this course, but at least I think I've nudged in the right direction. One of my persistent concerns is that I have made too many "one shot wonder lessons". They are getting to experience some good one day lessons that are perhaps fun, engaging, and involve the beginnings of deep learning with content; but teaching is also about the coherence of those lessons over time and sustained engagement. In what ways am I misrepresenting the profession? Could I do any differently with a little over an hour each week? I think I could if I made sure I was teaching the same science topic each week. But that would require some serious planning, and not just mid-semester adjustments.


  1. Self-doubt of the day: Do I do more science because I am better at teaching science (or because I like teaching science). Is it really true that I need to be doing more science with them? I think so, but the seeds of doubt took hold for a moment this morning.

  2. Hello Brain,

    I came to your blog today by chance while searching for the exact text of Elenoard Duckworth quote. And I really fall in love with your blog. There is a lot I am learning here.

    With love,