A recent MSP News included a recent paper by Matthew Kloser entitled “The nature of the teacher’s role in supporting student investigations in middle and high school science classrooms: Creating and participating in a community of practice.” This is a very helpful and extensive literature review, written for a National Academies commission. (You can find it in the MSPnet Library, here).
As I was reading it, I was once again struck by the size of the challenge that science teachers face (and of course teachers in other STEM disciplines have analogous challenges). Joseph Schwab long ago wrote about “the impossible role” of the teacher in a progressive classroom (see his article here), that is, a classroom that takes seriously the instrumental nature of knowledge, the task of the meaning-making learner, and the social nature of learning. One fundamental challenge to the teacher who is reshaping her/his pedagogy to reflect how knowledge comes to be — and to convey that “theory and practice” are two strands in a single fabric:
science, like practical knowledge, is fluid and dynamic. This last fact has explosive meaning for the conduct of the school. It points to the pervasive place of reflection in all educative experience. The pervasive dynamism of things and knowledge, practical and theoretical, means that at no level of pragmatic space can education rest on inculcation only. There are no dependable patternsof reaction, no permanent catalogue of means and ends, not even apermanent body of scientific knowledge, which, once known, can be the unreflective basis of all other action and reflection. We need to reflect on our acts in the light of knowledge of means and ends and to reflect on this knowledge in the light of what science has to offer (pg. 153)
But this is hard to do, and hardest to do by precept alone. Kloser’s review article discusses many ways that teachers can work — alone, but better when situated in communities of other practitioners who are grappling with the same questions of pedagogy and content — to relearn the science they are teaching with this “instrumental” nature of science in mind, and at the same time reshaping their pedagogy to help their students engage with science as a “way of knowing,” and from that understanding learn about the world — and some of what we’ve learned about it.
With this challenge in mind, I have always thought that a solid experience of research is essential to the kind of science education that visionaries and policy-makers have been calling for, in various tones, for the past several decades. After all, we expect music teachers to be able to play music… Of course, many good teachers have not had much opportunity to engage directly in research; but should we not find a way to fix that, and make sure that fewer and fewer teachers are without that kind of experience?
There are various benefits that would accrue from ensuring that reflective teachers such as Schwab envisions, in communities of practice such as Kloser’s paper advocates, have some personal experience of science in practice. Maybe one of the most important is the costliness of scientific findings. I mean costliness in terms of effort, time, patience, and so on — even the most tentative scientific findings are the tip of an iceberg of activity (an iceberg sometimes astonishingly large).
The sociologist of science Leigh Star once described her experiene in a beautiful library, reading the lab notebook of a neurological researcher, and being rapidly immersed, in imagination, into a very lively scene of “science in the making”:
I turned to one experiment where Ferrier records his attempt at trying to measure the effect of a lesion he produced earlier in the day, on the brain of an ape. The ape is less than cooperative—Ferrier’s handwriting occasionally flies off the page, wobbles, and trails off in what clearly is a chase around the room after the hapless animal. The pages, in sharp contrast to my chapel-like surrounds, are stained with blood, tissue preservative, and other undocumented fluids.
By contrast, the report on the results of this strenuous inquiry hints not at all about the day-to-day experience of the work:
By contrast—and this is a finding repeated in sociology of science through the 1980s—the report of the experiment is clean, deleting mention of the vicissitudes of this experimental setting.
Star’s comment on this contrast is, I think, important to for teachers, and teachers of teachers, to bear in mind:
This anomaly drew my attention to two things: the magnitude of invisible work that subtends any scientific experiment or representation and the materiality that acts to mediate the conduct of science
(These quotations are from pg 606 of “This is not a boundary object: Reflections on the origin of a concept,” which can be found here.)
The making of science is about the world we live in, and so at bottom it is a physical act, though to become knowledge must be part of a flow from question to conclusion, with reflection being the life-blood streaming through all.
Mark Kloser makes a related point, when he says
Participation in an authentic [research] community allows teachers to see representations [of science] that are not sanitized, such as those that might occur through selecting only exceptional cases, or the best videos of an investigation.
He then continues with a valuable discussion about the work that teachers need to do if they are to make this kind of rich personal engagement useful in the classroom — they have to be able to figure out, beyond the particularities of the specific techniques, “What just happened here? How did it work?” so as to understand the lessons about knowing, learning, asking, showing, in a scientific way. This can’t be left to scientists: “As scientists are deeply immersed in their practice, they may be unable to help teachers understand the most important elements of conducting high-quality investigations.”
What a huge enterprise, to recast teacher learning and classroom practice in this way! The NGSS standards can be said to advocate for it, part-way, as the NRC 1996 standards did as well (and NRC’s “inquiry book” from the year 2000). But I don’t know of anyplace, or any policy documents, that take seriously enough, or articulate fully enough, the need to accept teachers as true participants in the scientific culture, just as any piano teacher or school band director, or home guitarist, is part of the culture of music.
NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.