Zen and the Art of Teaching Science

June 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Content Area Literacy | 5 Comments

(By Dan Krill)

Watching Dan Meyer’s TED Talk about the problem with math textbooks’ methods of guiding students through formulas got me thinking about how I want to teach science. Not about how I want to manage a classroom, but how I really want to Teach Science.



Do I really want to make my robotic followers read textbooks, recite formulas, step through experiments, and then have their memories wiped clean by the end of the summer by weeks of swimming, running around, basking in the sun, and risking everything for that one kiss from the guy/girl of your dreams? There isn’t much comparison between the drudgery of school and the limitless fun of summer.

School can be better than what I described in the preceding paragraph, though. It doesn’t need to be mind-numbing and boring. It can be interesting, thought-provoking, and even entertaining. (Blasphemy! Bah! Humbug! School is not for entertaining our youth!)

Back to Dan Meyer. He inspired me to rethink how we approach problem solving. Why do textbook problems need to be spelled out at every turn? Why should we assume that the students are not smart enough to work through the problem themselves? Meyer takes most of the guts out of the example problems and boils it down to a real problem, like one that could be approached outside of school, in the home or at work or even on vacation. He rewrote the problem to be more like real life!

What if I were to write my own textbook, using Meyer’s treatment of these problems as a guide for understanding the Big Ideas? Would that help me Teach Science? The reason that Meyer’s talk intrigued me and burned this question into my mind is that, as Meyer puts it, we, the teacher and the textbook, are trying to be too helpful, and by being too helpful, we are not being helpful at all:

I encourage math teachers I talk to to use multimedia, because it brings the real world into your classroom in high resolution and full color; to encourage student intuition for that level playing field; to ask the shortest question you possibly can and let those more specific questions come out in conversation; to let students build the problem, because Einstein said so; and to finally, in total, just be less helpful, because the textbook is helping you in all the wrong ways: It’s buying you out of your obligation, for patient problem solving and math reasoning, to be less helpful. (Dan Meyer, TED Talk, 2010)

Therein lies the Zen of Teaching. Helping by not helping. Instructing by not guiding. Learning by thinking.

Now, about that Big Idea of making my own textbook. How do I do it? It shouldn’t take years of sitting at a desk and writing and writing and writing…. I don’t have to do it by myself. There is an enormous amount of resources on the Web to help devise curricula, texts, problems, examples, demonstrations, and explanations. Several websites and blogs, including Edudemic and MindShift, note a methodology of creating your own text that has three steps: Aggregation, Curation, and Creation.

Aggregation involves finding the resources and being able to access them in one place, such as a social bookmark website. Curation requires analyzing and collating the information gleaned from the Aggregation step, and utilizing an authoring tool to put together a coherent visual-textual document that addresses the Big Ideas. Lastly, all the information needs to be published to an easily accessible location such as a wiki or shared document.

Will this take a great deal of work? Initially, yes, just like putting together a curriculum for the entire school year, but it may be worth it, and putting Web 2.0 tools and the next wave of personalization of information to work for you could be invaluable, to both you and your students.



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  1. Dan, I really like what you are saying about interest and about how textbooks are not addressing interest. One of the main things I wanted to expand on is your statement “the teacher and the textbook, are trying to be too helpful, and by being too helpful, we are not being helpful at all.” I completely agree with this statement, especially on the textbook side of things. Textbooks can be very good a being a reference and giving example problems for students. However, they can also be wordy and overwhelming with images and call out boxes. Some text books try to add in connections to the real world for students. This is great, except for when it become more of the focus than the actual material. If the students are more interested in the cute comic strip on the next page than the actual information, they may be missing out on the actual learning and just memorizing the facts to get on to the next pretty picture.

    As far as the teacher is concerned, I think your blog really relates to some of the other blogs, especially Greg’s. He talked about not knowing our students well enough to provide literacy content. I think this goes along well with what you are saying. In a chapter of Teaching Science to Every Child, there is a story about a new teacher going in to a school that is the complete opposite of the schools she went to as a student. Due to this extreme difference, when she taught her students, she did so like how she was taught and it only confused them. I believe when we know our students better, we will know how to engage them and what they need from us and our lessons. This in turn can help us to navigate or not navigate the text book to help them learn the content. In the article A Textbook Case of Failure, author Alex Johnson states: “As younger, inexperienced teachers are thrown into classrooms to meet new federal standards, as much as 90 percent of the burden of instruction rests on textbooks” and “few if any textbooks are ever subjected to independent field testing of whether they actually help students learn. “ I believe this is because we do not know our students well enough to find engaging material outside the text. If we knew our students better, I believe the textbook would become more of the reference book it was designed to be and less of the teacher.

    Links: Teaching Science to Every Child: https://blackboard.sjfc.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-298819-dt-content-rid-555126_1/courses/GMST510-01-2012-01/Readings/Settlage%20%282007%29%20-%20Chapter%2014/Settlage%20%282007%29%20-%20Chapter%2014.pdf

    A Textbook Case of Failure: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12705167/ns/business-world_business/t/textbook-case-failure/#.T9tGxbV9OKJ

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