This past year has been the most challenging time of my life. It’s also been a time of, by far, the highest growth. When I started my apprenticeship program at Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE), I’d already developed some nascent ideas on schools and science education. I knew that I loved learning about science; I loved practicing science; and I loved sharing my passion around scientific endeavors. I knew that I hated science classes; I was dissatisfied with the way science was taught when I myself was a student, and I knew wanted do something different. I wanted to fight against facts-driven, knowledge-driven, shallow, transient ways of learning science as I had experienced it. And I wondered—what if students worked through real problems through inquiry, modeling, and experimentation, just as actual scientists would? What if we steered away from a culture of memorizing textbooks and bubbling in scantrons to a culture of asking questions and investigating real issues in the world?
So, starting off as a student teacher, I had a broad vision for how I wanted to teach science: actually making it engaging for students, making it relevant to their lives, and developing scientific practices in addition to knowledge.
Again, this was a broad vision—and an unfocused one. But after a year of experiences learning about and practicing education, I was able to develop this vision further. My coursework here at Penn GSE has been critical for this development, as well as my student teaching apprenticeship at Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in the School District of Philadelphia. Moving forward into my career as a science educator, I have three main goals:
It’s been a long year. Here’s my path:
SCIENTIFIC LITERACYMy primary goal as a science teacher is to develop science literacy. This idea was initiated in the very first weeks of my science methods course, upon reading Osborne’s Science Education for the 21st Century (2007). I can’t emphasize enough how much of an impact this paper made on my views. Osborne’s seven fallacies in science education resonated with me completely, and his ideas have stuck with me throughout my entire year of student teaching. I had similar ideas when I started teaching: I knew science education was being done wrong, and I wanted to make it more real. I wanted to escape the process of transmission, teaching scientific facts “brick by brick” – and I knew that science education, as I had experienced it, was not achieving the public’s oft goals of critical thinking (as if through osmosis). Ultimately, Osborne’s approach in the “triumvirate of content, enquiry, and community” (p. 177) perfectly sum up my own goals within scientific literacy, and in conceptualizing scientific practices as well (see LEARNING ABOUT LEARNING, below). Throughout the year I’ve developed my understanding of and drive for this goal through the works of other educators and organizations: the Next Generation Science Standards, the National Academies K-12 Framework for Science Education, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills—among many others.
I’ll speak briefly on the NGSS. I started my program with a naïve understanding of educational standards and frameworks of developing scientific knowledge. I knew standards were bad; I knew transmitting knowledge wasn’t my sole focus; and I knew I wanted broad change in the way science was being taught. So when I learned that scientists, educators, and lawmakers had come together to develop the K-12 Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards, I was thrilled. I opened up the NGSS website and read, and read, and read. (I quickly got overwhelmed. It’s a lot to take in, and I’ve seen this as a barrier in its implementation. Further actions below, in NETWORKS AND SUPPORTS.) Seeing that there is now a set of standards (that actually has some promise!) dedicated to ideas and practices that matter has been so empowering to see.
Unfortunately, the NGSS are not officially integrated in the state of Pennsylvania, nor within my teaching placement Science Leadership Academy. In my attempts to share this framework with other local teachers, I’ve been met with resistance. They balked at the premise of “having to learn yet another set of standards”, and at the scope of the changes they’d have to make to their established (and comfortable) teaching practices. So I continued learning about the NGSS and incorporating it within my own teaching, implicitly and without stating so outright. I built units and UbD plans based on only the disciplinary core ideas I thought were most essential, and weaved scientific practices throughout. This was a way of teaching that matched SLA’s stated goals: “learning science by doing science.” Importantly, though, I made it a goal not just to carry out scientific practices through rote, cookbook lab procedures (Llewellyn) but through continual inquiry and reflection. Adapting pre-existing labs to become more inquiry-based became a continual practice for me. This also led me to focus and inquire on, in my own development at Penn’s Teacher Education Program, the importance of scientific practices themselves. This served as a primary driver in my conceptualizations of educational practice, and ultimately as the basis of my research thesis.
My thesis work—ongoing at the time of writing, and to be completed May 1st—is focused on the development of scientific practices. Specifically, I want to research the ways that my students conceptualize and build arguments around scientific information. This practice, scientific argumentation, may be the most important of the eight practices outlined in the NGSS – and was affirmed by speaking and reflecting on conversations with my science methods professor, Susan Yoon. In the classroom, I grew increasingly dismayed at students’ lack of ability to explain scientific concepts. They’d give me an answer that reflected some understanding of terms and relationships in our curriculum – but upon probing further, they often could not explain how these relationships were formed or why they were important. Ultimately, I realized that they only had a surface-level understanding of concepts, and they were unable to tie them to meaningful socio-scientific and moral decision making (Sadler 2004). If my goal was to prepare students to make true use of their knowledge and to tie it to their personal lives, I had to focus on this process of argumentation. So, I developed frameworks and lesson interventions to build this skill for my students. The works of Osborne (yet again!), Victor Sampson, and the Argumentation Driven Inquiry group have been foundational in this process. I’ve found that the skill of argumentation has been difficult for students to learn; in data collection (via student work and score collection) and post-intervention surveys, students struggled in demonstrating mastery. They also report not always enjoying the process, because of its messiness and difficulty. But—and I’m proud of them for making this claim—they agree that it’s important for their learning. In pursuit of achieving my goal of scientific literacy, I look forward to developing my practice around argumentation even further.
LEARNING ABOUT LEARNINGMy second goal in science education is developing lasting personal understandings of science pedagogy. Admittedly, I first started teaching with the fear that (in no longer practicing graduate-level laboratory research), I would no longer be intellectually stimulated. How so very wrong I was. I’m continually astounded and overtaken by just how much there is to learn in the ways that we teach and learn. In one manner, I’m drawn to thinking about the practice of teaching as a whole: I’m inspired by the works of Chris Emdin (reality pedagogy – For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood), Mike Nakkula (adolescent development, possibility development – Understanding Youth), Csikszentmihalyi (motivation and positive psychology), Ladson-Billings, Delpit, Dewey, Friere, Vygotsky, Dweck, Gardner, and so many more. Together, the works of these educators have informed me to be reflective of my teaching practice – as a skill to develop along an immense and diverse set of parameters. My inquiry thesis and coursework at Penn have also confirmed my appreciation for reflection. As I continue to grow as a teacher, I aim to never stop sharpening the saw.
The most captivating area of this process, for me, is in the learning sciences. Coming from a neurobiology background, I’m especially interested in the ways that we learn. Back at UCSD as an undergrad, I did some laboratory research on neuroplasticity—and also took coursework in the biological basis of learning and memory. Both experiences were fascinating, and continue to inform my understandings of teaching and learning today. One critical manner in which my mindset has shifted, as such, has been in my role as an educator. I used to approach teaching as the transmission of knowledge; I imagined that if I told the most clear and concise explanations of concepts (while also making it fun), then my students would be golden. But as I tested this approach, I quickly realized that my methods were flawed. I was stuck in old traditions of education, and many students didn’t even walk away with the enduring understandings I’d been aiming for. Often, they worked with activities that they found engaging but not necessarily creatively and cognitively challenging. Today, I’m starting to re-conceptualize the roles of teachers as learning engineers – a term I first heard from Melina Uncapher speaking at the Drexel ExCITe Center – serving as critical designers and manipulators of students’ learning environments. The ideas I’ve built around teaching, as such, have extended from the relationships between teacher and student—and now to ties between students and each other, curriculum design, themselves, and their external environments.
That said, I am interested in the ways that knowledge is gained and meaning encoded. PBL has been shown to be powerful in this regard – and though I’m skeptical of its efficacy here at SLA, I very much still want to explore this model and the theories surrounding it. In addition, I’m particularly drawn to Sewell’s work on constructivism, in which “students are active learners” constructing their own knowledge—rather than serving as “passive recipients…like a sponge” Sewell 2002 p. 24). My framework completely flipped when I realized that learning is not directly the result of teachers giving information, but of how teachers adapt their teaching around students’ pre-existing knowledge. Today, my practice is thus built around assessing that knowledge, then providing relevant experiences through which students can correct and reconstruct their beliefs. I’m excited to continue developing this mindset, and reflecting on my practice – and I hope to never stop learning about learning.
NETWORKS AND SUPPORTSMy final main goal moving forward is in teacher development. Navigating my job search as a pre-service teacher, one primary concern is in how school teams (and my potential coworkers) collaborate in their practice. I intend to ask some version of the following, to principals: What systems are built for teachers to learn from each other? What supports are in place for teachers to enhance their professional development and to develop the greater ethos of the school? In my professional experience, I’ve come to learn the crucial importance of productive culture and collaboration. My teams exceled when we carved out time for—as I now know how to characterize it—developing social capital over human capital (Yoon 2017). Conversely, even when we had highly skilled and experienced members, without cohesion both happiness and productivity plummeted.
My greatest fear in teaching is burnout. I fear that, like so many other hardworking educators, I might exhaust all my passion and my resources toiling away in my first few years – and, trapped in my silo, I’d wither. I’ve been in enough roles – in education, science, and marketing alike – to know what makes a group stagnate and what makes it shine. Perhaps it’s this knowledge which informs my fear, and ultimately drives me to spend so much energy building my own networks. As soon as I met my cohort, for example, I set out to strengthen our ties; I knew that in this physically and mentally and emotionally exhausting profession, a platform for communication and supports was absolutely necessary. So I created a community forum; a messenger group; a feed through which we could escape our impending silos. It was an impulse, and not at all sophisticated in execution, but I’m so glad that I made that decision. We grew closer, wiser, and more balanced—and my peers have even individually come to thank me for it. This alone is of course not enough to produce a cohesive group, but it’s one step in my greater drive to bring fulfillment to my dearest peers.
Similar to the pedagogical and cognitive frameworks above, I’m also interested in learning about organizational and sociological theory. What systems and practices, for example, best support success for schools? Again, this is largely borne out of my desire to put myself and my peers in the best possible professional environments. But, additionally, the logic and theory behind this process is so fascinating to me. I’m drawn to broader networks that capitalize on the strength of weak ties (Granovetter 1973) to share key resources across individual groups. Here at Penn GSE and locally in Philadelphia, for example, I’m frustrated by the lack of ties between educators on several levels: between current students and alumni/practitioners; between programs within GSE; and even between cohorts under identical programs. Though each of the members within these levels are separated by experience, training, and skillsets (ie, human capital), they all ostensibly have the same goal: to serve as successful and effective educators. What if ties could be formed across these levels, to strengthen the wisdom and development of oncoming generations? And to bolster the vitality of GSE’s legacy? And to accelerate the achievement of high quality educational outcomes? To maximize the chances of success in this shared goal, I believe that forming ties and bridges across these networks will be immensely beneficial.
For this reason, I’ve devoted efforts to building ties in three key networks: locally, here in Philadelphia and my career catalyst Penn GSE; remotely, in Pittsburgh where I seek to start my career; and broadly, through participation and leadership in the National Science Teachers Association. In these networks, I’ve identified a few points of focus: strengthening ties and learning opportunities for the educators I call my joint fellows and colleagues (which I elaborated on in the above paragraph); understanding and building roots in a region-wide network making significant movement in Pittsburgh’s educational scene; and joining the effort to implement high-quality learning resources for science teachers nationally.
I’ll speak now on Pittsburgh, where I will be moving to join my girlfriend and partner. Eileen is an MD/PhD student at Pitt-CMU, entering her first year of the program’s PhD segment, in which she’ll be researching the neural circuits underlying sensory integration. (In other words, she’ll be investigating the following: How is itch distinguished from pain?) All this to say, I’m going to be living in a new city for six years or more—so I’ve had to do some networking. In this process, I’ve found a remarkable network that’s garnered excitement across the entire region of greater Pittsburgh. What makes this network remarkable, now, is not just that it aims to introduce ideas and reforms that I agree with; nor, that its backers have donated roughly $25 million in funding for these goals. Rather, what I find most admirable is that all levels of school systems seem to be involved in the ideation and execution of, perhaps, truly collective reform efforts—from students, families, and teachers, to administrators, thought leaders, and grant makers. Remake Learning, in this manner, has been captivating to learn about. I look forward to participating in this network (I’ve successfully become a member!), and perhaps one day even driving similar networks forward in my future professional contexts.
On a larger scale, I hope to accomplish this goal through participation in the NSTA. After attending a regional conference in Baltimore and speaking with the association’s president-elect Christine-Anne Royce, I was drawn to explore avenues for broader participation in their network. I was then elected to join a committee on professional development—which, at the time, was not actually a top choice of mine—but in recent reflections I realize is very near to my goals in leadership. Seeing that the NGSS are so slow to integrate nationally, particularly here in Pennsylvania, it’s of great interest to me to join efforts in accelerating that process. I love the National Academy’s K-12 Framework. I love the NGSS. And so, in seeing barriers in its implementation, I aim to join the efforts in bridging the gap.
Finally, I’ll speak on attempting to build the greatest strengths through ties at the broadest levels. At its extreme, I’ve been accomplishing this through a surprisingly informal platform: Twitter. Whereas I’ve generated connections organically through conferences, and more distantly through network jumps on LinkedIn, I’ve found by far the most resources when combing through hashtags and loosely coupled networks on Twitter. Through ties to previously disparate individuals and groups, I managed to find arguably the most creatively influential ideas: those that I could not have thought to search for myself. By casting this wide net, I was then able to gain exposure to new pedagogical frameworks, curricular ideas, best practices, inspiring colleagues, weekly conversations, and burgeoning movements. I can’t say much more on this, as I’m new to the platform—but I am eager to explore further potential in what may be most in line with Granovetter’s enduring theory. Moreover, I look forward to reflecting on the efforts of these networks across each scale, widely and deeply.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS Looking back, I can see that my goals—at their heart—did not drastically change. I still do want to engage students in authentic learning experiences relevant to their lives, and to build the skills and practices and mindsets critical for solving problems and navigating socio-scientific issues—and so forth. That has not changed. Rather now I have the tools to achieve my goals, and deepened ambitions alike. So what comes next?
After this period of immense growth, I’m left realizing just how much more there is ahead of me. I’ve digested the theories; I’ve put them into practice; I’ve gone through the fire. And standing at the tail end of this journey, it’s time to embark on the rest of my entire career. I face this next leap with great hopes and fears alike—but, however exhausted I’ve become, my spirits are high. I am fulfilled, and so I press forth.
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Hi! I'm a bio/chem teacher and M.S.Ed. student at the University of Pennsylvania.