When K-12 teachers assign students to contact experts

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I’m super-enthusiastic about K-12 science education, and working with K-12 teachers and students*. When a student wants to talk science with me, I’m over the moon. That doesn’t mean I’m as drunk as a cat on catnip whenever a K-12 student emails me a question. Continue reading

Learning from a kindergarten teacher

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Teaching has some perennial questions: How do you engage students? How do you make a classroom run smoothly? How does mutual respect make a better working environment? How does curiosity lead to learning? How do you get groups of students to work together effectively? How do you design a lesson that flows conceptually and addresses key ideas?

To figure out some of these answers, in all sincerity, I suggest hanging out in the classroom of a high quality kindergarten teacher at work. My kid has had some remarkable teachers. Just interacting with them over the years on an infrequent basis, I think I’ve picked up as many tips and ideas as I have from my university-level colleagues.

Now that my sole heir is heading off to middle school, I haven’t visited kindergartens too often of late. Last week, though, was our last Open House at his elementary school, and we always make a point to cruise by our kid’s former teachers, see what’s going on in their classrooms, and to say Hi and Thanks.

Every time I have a short chat with his former Kindergarten teacher, I get a pick-me-up and often pick up ideas. She has couple decades more experience then myself — and unimaginably more contact hours. On our last visit, she was explaining the changes that she’s making as the state is shifting to new standards.

She explained to me that the students are now reading more nonfiction in her class. She is doing some of the assignments that she used from previous years, but in addition she is requiring the students to do non-fiction reading and assignments prior to their fictional projects. For example, before writing a fictional story about a particular animal, they would read non-fiction about that animal and do a report on what they learned. Then they’d do a fictional story about these animals.

She told me that she’s always learning something new. In this case, she learned that the quality of the fictional projects was improved by the prior experience with the nonfictional projects. More knowledge led to more creativity. That’s pretty cool.

What I liked about this little story even more is that it comes from the most-experienced amazingly perfect-as-far-as-I-can-tell teacher, who tells me new things that she’s learning about teaching.

I imagine that the reason she is such a a good teacher, is because she always has been working to improve, and no matter how good she is, she still is both open to and working at learning new ways to do things better. At the end of what has felt like a long semester, that’s inspirational.

I’m at a different place on the improvement curve, as I’m well aware of far too many things that I need to improve in my teaching. But I’ve been thinking, well, maybe I have the routine down solid enough for now. Watching great teachers at work puts me on notice: I should be wary whenever I feel that equilibrium can emerge from stasis. This is another sign I should take that overdue sabbatical.

A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science

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Most senior scientists aren’t from ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, and don’t train many scientists from these backgrounds either. The day-to-day issues facing black and Latino students in the US might be on the minds of people in charge, but the people in charge don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.

I haven’t experienced those problems myself (as a tenured white dude), though I do I work in a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. So, it’s my job to understand and to do what I can to provide the best opportunities for my students.

Nonetheless, mentoring students from underrepresented groups doesn’t validate one’s ideas about equity and diversity in science. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the recent comments of Michael Rich, the PhD advisor of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is arguably the most famous living scientist, and definitely the most famous living black scientist):

I think my colleagues would agree that no overt barriers based on race, gender, etc. remain. (In fact, incoming graduate classes tend to be 50-50 in terms of gender and there are many special programs to help under represented minorities.)

Now, before we decry Dr. Rich for being horribly wrong, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he might have been on crack, or stoned, or taking psychotropic mediation when he wrote that. It’s also possible that he was jet lagged from space-time travel from an alternate universe and he hadn’t gotten his bearings settled back to our own dimension.

But if he wasn’t on drugs or returning from another reality, then he’s bearing a massive anchor of delusion and seclusion. I guess he hasn’t asked any black men, any women or Latinos about how they feel about overt barriers. I guess he hasn’t chatted much with his famous former PhD student.

Dr. Rich observes a 50:50 ratio of men to women in graduate classes, but he’s not bothering to look at the proportion of women in permanent academic positions. Or how many women are selected to win awards.

Dr. Rich sees special programs for minorities, but he is ignoring the conditions that necessitate these programs. Black Americans comprise more than 12% of our population. So, I’m guessing that the proportion of black students in his program is at least ten percent, right? Are 10% of senior scientists black?

Oh, there’s a helluva lot of work to do. We are nowhere near equity. This is so damn obvious that I feel stupid even writing it.

But I have to write it, because Michael Rich, and those who share his views, aren’t just failing to fix the problem. They are part of the problem we need to fix. Those of us who are pushing up from the grassroots for equity and access need those senior faculty to validate the need for change. Those of us who are training students at the K-12 and undergraduate levels need people in graduate programs to not only recognize, but take concrete steps, to support and recruit minority students starting their science careers.

A lot of senior scientists feel just like Dr. Rich. I’ve heard it far too often. We need to inoculate the current generation of scientists in training against these toxic views of Dr. Rich. It’s probably too late to change Dr. Rich’s mind, as there’s nothing we can say that his famous former graduate student hasn’t already said or embodied. But we can keep pushing to move this mountain shovel by shovel. And we can advocate for heavy equipment that can really move the mountain.

In my undergrad years, my college president was a unicorn. Or, something almost as unique as a unicorn: A black electrical engineer. From Kansas. The story of John Slaughter is mighty amazing. When he recounted his path, from childhood, to grad school, to professor, to university president, I was both inspired and amazed by his tenacity in an environment that was unrelentingly opposed towards his progress in the direction of his choice.

Dr. Slaughter has long been retired. In the emerging generation of STEM leaders, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is yet another unicorn.

If one of my black students ends up being a global ambassador for her discipline, will she be a unicorn?

According to Dr. Rich, those problems have already been fixed. Of course, he’s flat out wrong, though I wish he wasn’t.

The Education-Industrial Complex

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If I wanted to stop being a scientist and become wealthy, there’s one obvious path in front of me:

I’d become an educational consultant.

What would be the source of my newfound wealth? Federal grants, state programs and professional development funds from cash-strapped school districts. School districts that have stratospheric class sizes, have cut all arts, and fired their librarians long ago.

I bet I’d be able to double the income I’m making now, as a university professor.

Would be unethical to become a well-paid educational consultant? Myself, I’d have trouble sleeping.

How could I switch from being a science professor to educational consultant? It wouldn’t be hard. I have a Ph.D. in a STEM field and have been an educator for a couple decades. I have connections in a few school districts, and with a few years of experience working on STEM Education projects I could easily create a brand around myself as a pioneer in inquiry-based learning. I could hire a current or former teacher to gain K-12 classroom credibility.

If I were to come with a catchy name and website, and start pushing the pavement, I bet I could come up with a strong bank of clients within a year. I’d start out with some freebie gigs, build up a positive reputation, and then I could start charging, on a sliding scale depending on how much money the client has to burn.

Would I be a good educational consultant? No, I think I’d be a horrible one. Would people realize I’m a horrible one? No, because the reputation of a consultant isn’t necessarily connected with success of long-term outcomes.

I’d have little to offer than the obvious stuff that any scientist would be able to offer: Kids inherently love science. People learn though self-directed inquiry. Teaching science is hard because teachers need to provide a strong framework within which kids can develop and conduct their own experiments.

You don’t need a consultant to tell you that. But that’s what I’d do, and after I throw in a ton of accepted acronyms, and throw in one of my own invention, I bet it would sell like a snocone in the summertime.

Why would I think this could actually fly? Because I see it all around me.

When education falls on hard times, consultants win, and kids lose.

Teachers lose too, because the consultants are brought into to fix the teachers. What the teachers really need is the freedom to do what they’ve been trained to do, but no consultant can get paid to say that.

US educational levels are inversely tracking income inequality; that’s not merely a correlative relationship. School districts that have no money and are failing (also not a spurious relationship) are apt to find some kind of money to overpay consultants, with the mistaken thinking that if the people inside the system can’t make everything fine, you have to bring in someone from outside.

I’ve seen outside consultants receive huge checks from school districts, when the districts really, truly, need to spend the money other places. I haven’t ever seen any consultants fix anything for real. I have seen – and am part of – genuine partnerships that result in long-term changes over the course of several years. But hiring an outside consultant for a day, week, month or year? The only real result, that I’ve seen, is that the consultant’s pockets get stuffed with cash.

Educators tend to be smart people, so what’s with wasting the money on consultants? I’m not wholly sure, but here are some ideas. First, part of it is that administrators in underfunded districts can’t hire anybody to do certain tasks full-time, so they spend far too much on consultants to do jobs that should be done by employees within the districts.

Second, outside consultants have an odor of happiness and credibility. They dress like administrators and not like teachers, and appear well-connected to people of influence. Their dog-and-pony shows cause a happy feeling of positivity that you can’t get from someone you work with on a day-to-day basis. If you smile, bring bagels, and are full of funny ideas that appear to be innovative, then you’ll get good reviews and then you’ll get hired by someone else.

Third, hiring a consultant is easy. Making change yourself is hard, and making change happen in a stubborn community with which you work on a daily basis is even harder. But giving a check to someone who says that they can make change happen for you? That’s easy.

I am experienced with several troubled schools. Like all messed-up urban schools, the reasons for the problems are complex, but you could reasonably choose to see it as a simple matter, as symptom of poverty. These problems can’t be fixed with a consultant. This doesn’t stop the administrative efforts to find the consultant with a magic bullet.

I am familiar with one school in particular, which has been known to be a problem school for decades. For almost as long, this school has been working with an outside organization that has been hired as a consultant to repair the school. Obviously, the outside organization isn’t doing its job. If they were being honest with themselves, couldn’t the consultants return the checks to the school to spend the money more wisely? Yes, they could. But who works against their own livelihood?

When schools have excellent teachers who are empowered to teach as they see fit, and when the curriculum is designed for inquiry rather than memorization, then kids will learn. Right now, our public schools are missing those critical elements. Until consultants can find a fix to those problems, I wish they’d just go back to the classroom.

(As an addendum, you might ask what kind of long-term partnerships am I involved in and how do they help fix our problems? I’m mostly working to recruit and prepare more excellent science teachers than we currently have, and to promote science education for kids of all ages. Their effectiveness is handicapped by lack of funds, and policies set by the district, the state and the federal government.)

We’re teaching the scientific method incorrectly

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As a scientist, I am often doing science. It’s my job. I know science. By any measure, I’m as much a scientist as any other scientist.

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The scientific method as incorrectly taught to our children. Image from Washington Prep High School, Los Angeles Unified School District. photo: T. McGlynn

But if you look at what I do on a day to day basis, it looks absolutely nothing like what people think science should look like. Fixing misconceptions about science requires much more than correcting stereotypes of what scientists look like, though that’s a great start. (By the way, here’s my entry to This is what a scientist looks like.)

Science is taught in school as a linear process. In practice, it never is a linear process. It’s not even a linear process in the labs in which we teach the scientific method.

I was in a high school classroom last week, and on the whiteboard of this classroom was that odiously wrong conception that we see everywhere. I see this all the time, and if I was doing my job better I would openly contest it every time I see it.

In its stead, let me share with you what it looks like when I am doing science:

The Method of Science, as it happens in my lab

The Method of Science, as it happens in my lab

What science really looks like is a little more complex than how it is marketed by publishing companies to our children when they are in school. They’re not training kids to be scientists, they’re selling textbooks to teachers who are not scientists. Many of these teachers are reluctant to teach science because they are not adequately prepared, and because their bosses are making them overdose on math and English to maintain test scores.

Teaching science isn’t easy for those who aren’t used to doing science, so this cute linear process that kids see in school is what publishers have done to make teaching science as simple and boring as possible.

How do our kids really learn what science is? By actually doing science. By having teachers that understand science and do real science with them. What is often missing is the red arrow in the figure above. Even those who buy into the linear model of science need to realize that it is cyclical, that answers lead to questions. It’s not a plodding march of progress. It’s a messy tumble and jumble forward in which new information leads to even more confusion, but with broader horizons. Science expands the circumference of our ignorance.

How can teachers get our kids to do science if they don’t even know what real science looks like? We need to teach real science to the teachers. We can do this in college, but if you look at the science coursework that is required by future elementary- and middle-school teachers, you’d be either dismayed or outraged. This is the starting point in fixing the science education crisis in the US. We need elementary and middle-school teachers who understand, enjoy and prioritize science.

As scientists in science departments, we have the latitude to seize this curriculum and teach these classes the right way, and by the right people. And we can make sure that people don’t leave our classes without understanding and being excited about science. We can make sure that they’ve been involved in a genuine science experience. We can use genuine inquiry in our teaching.

We also can skip the middle man and do science with current teachers.

This summer I’m taking one of many small steps. I’m having an experienced master teacher at the middle school level joining my group in Costa Rica for a month. He should go home with a better idea what science looks like, I expect. If you want a teacher in your lab, and you’re one of those (declining few) with federal funding, just call up your program director and you probably could get hooked up mighty quickly once you find your teacher. To find a teacher, just ask around, and many will jump at the chance as long as they’re getting paid. Even if it’s just a lot of pipetting. Having a teacher in your lab can change science education for hundreds of kids in a short period of time.

To be clear, I’m not the only one who has this idea in mind. The more of us working to explode the notion that science is linear, the more opportunity kids have to get to do real science.