Last week I had the great pleasure of being a guest “science mentor” for a summer science camp. I got to spend about an hour and a half with a group of 7 and 8 year olds and talk to them about science and spiders. It was super fun, and exhausting.
These kids were incredibly enthusiastic about science. Yes, they were at a science camp, so they are probably not a representative sample of all 7 and 8 year olds, but their knowledge and interest in science far surpassed my expectations. The first thing I wanted to discuss was who scientists are and what scientists do. I had barely started talking before several kids practically started levitating out of their seats, their hands were raised so high, because they just couldn’t wait to tell me that scientists study various subjects, do experiments, ask and answer questions, and test hypotheses. When someone then asked, “what’s a hypothesis?” and I started to answer, “well, it’s kind of like a guess…” I was immediately corrected by another student, who wanted to clarify that it can’t just be any guess; it must be an educated guess. We talked about how making observations is an important part of science, and that those observations often lead to new hypotheses. These kids really impressed me. They were also (unsurprisingly) incredibly enthusiastic about the activity we did where they got to design spider webs and throw paint-covered “flies” at them to see how effective they were at capturing prey. It was fun.I was struck by the classroom dynamics, and how they differed from the university tutorials and labs where the majority of my interactions with students happen. I had a hard time getting through the material I had prepared, because I was constantly being interrupted by the raised hands of students with questions and comments, some on topic, some not so much, but all thoughtful and contributing to a fantastic discussion*. I would guess that a good half of the students raised their hands (some more often than others) during the classroom part of my visit, and then I interacted with almost all of them during the activity or answering individual questions later on.
I have never had such an active classroom discussion with undergraduate students. It’s often like pulling teeth just trying to get them to talk amongst themselves. They would never ask, “what’s a hypothesis?” even if they didn’t know. Why? I think a lot of undergrads are afraid to ask “stupid questions” or not know “the answers”. Is that the main reason undergrads are hesitant to participate? (I’m not sure.) Are elementary school aged kids more comfortable not knowing the “right” answer, and somehow made to feel like asking all kinds of questions is OK? If that’s the difference, why? What happens to make them afraid by the time they reach university? And is there anything we can do about it?
Since writing the above I talked with a couple of folks who both said, “high school is what happens.” I don’t remember being specifically concerned about mean kids making fun of me for being wrong or not knowing the answer in high school (I’m pretty sure it was a terrible time, but I’ve largely forgotten or blanked out most of the experience), but I’m prepared to believe that’s a big part of what’s happening. We also talked about the fact that high school and university evaluation are often about (or at least perceived by students to be about) knowing the right answers. Maybe the rewards of asking questions are not sufficient. Perhaps the costs – judgment or ridicule by peers, or worse (and rarely I hope), teachers – are too great.
Thinking about this reminded me of an interesting piece I read recently on the danger of telling kids they are smart. The idea is that if kids are told they are smart (rather than that they did a great job, or whatever), they become afraid of being not smart. They are afraid of or unwilling to make mistakes (and therefore miss out on learning) because they are worried that messing up means they aren’t smart, or won’t be perceived as smart, anymore. Maybe these kinds of “smart” kids are a big percentage of the students entering university, who are worried about how they compare to their peers and/or not living up to their own expectations about what it means to be smart.
What do you think? And what can we do to get undergrads to start acting more like 8 year olds?
*I did struggle a bit with classroom management. The camp already had rules about listening quietly when others were speaking and raising your hand if you wanted to say something, and I added in my plush tarantula – the “speaking spider” – that meant whoever was holding it had the floor. That worked pretty well, and there were only a couple instances of students just couldn’t resist shouting out or interrupting (although I did ask them all to shout out at certain points). I didn’t want to stop anyone who wanted to contribute from doing so, but there were a couple of boys who raised their hands every couple minutes who I had to start ignoring after a while. It was a struggle to keep moving forward, when there were always more questions, but it went reasonably well. Anyway, if you have suggestions on how to handle and plan for these kinds of situations better, I would love to hear them!