The Craft of Teaching

teachingmeme1This meme appeared on a teachers’ Facebook group called TeacherGoals. Predictably, within 11 hours, it gained 900 likes among its 159 000 followers .

The saying is something I’ve heard often throughout my teaching career. Variation of approaches is at the disposal of every experienced teacher, who will use them successfully.  But as is the case with political views, it’s best not to feel smug or, worse, superior to someone else merely for adhering to a particular idea.

For instance, contrary to what is being promoted in this case, the same delivery could work the second time around if

(1) the lesson is delivered more slowly

(2) the teacher or student is not as tired

(3) if there are less distractions

(4) if the concept needs a period of incubation, which is often the case, and so on.

As usual memes oversimplify everything. They’re better at boosting Facebook’s revenues than at advancing pedagogy.

Here are a few guidelines and strategies that teaching colleges, certification boards and professional associations might find useful to better train science teachers. Some may seem obvious to the outsider, but you’d be surprised how seldom they are implemented. And, of course, our students get shortchanged.

(1) For high school math and science, a teacher should have at least a bachelor’s degree with a major in the main subject they teach. This not only increases the likelihood that the potential teacher’s basics have been reinforced, but it gives him an inkling of where a particular concept or skill can lead. Equally important, knowing that he is only scratching the surface of his subject, the teacher with a better background can be more convincing that the very basics are within anybody’s reach—as long as there’s a bit of an effort on the part of both the student and the teacher.

(2) Work experience related to the subject is more of an asset that some people realize. Working in three different analytical labs gave me a lot of practical skills that came in handy in managing labs and keeping better standards for my students. Ideally, occasional work terms should replace so-called “professional development”, which often amounts to little more than exposing teachers to sales pitches from educational industry representatives or to people promoting the latest flavour of the year in pedagogy.

(3) Student teachers do not have to be sent into the field for the very long periods that have unfortunately become customary. Given that most student teachers are not as effective as most experienced teachers, a large chunk of the high school student’s course is compromised. As an alternative, student teachers can prepare several lessons and lab activities for other student teachers while being filmed. Peers along with the supervisor and student teacher can then view the films and give constructive criticism.

(4) The most common role model for human beings is the electron because most people choose the path of least resistance. If, by setting an example, a teacher can prevent at least some of his students from imitating the negatively charged constituent of matter, he will have taught them one of life’s most valuable lessons.



Tackling the Problem of Scientific Semi-Literacy

We are all too aware of individuals and organisations who borrow vocabulary from science without necessarily being scientific. Usually their efforts are not beneficial to society. And although they are often exposed, like figures of organized crime they either continue to thrive, or they are merely replaced by others.  Pinning the problem exclusively on the gullibility of victims and selfish side of human nature is also fruitless. Some deception comes from scaremongers, food-fad-cult leaders and conspiracy theorists. But there are also more subtle forms that are at least as pernicious: consumer front groups and insincere think thanks who, among other things, spread climate change denial.

merchantsofdoubtThe book Merchants of Doubt reveals that politics has motivated a small of minority of scientists to side with specific polluters and tobacco companies. In the United States there is a strong carryover over of anti-communism from the Cold War with the former USSR. Any reminder of it, including forms of social democracy embedded within an overall capitalistic system, is viewed with suspicion. Moreover, to these individuals, health and environmental regulation demand more government intervention, leading to bigger government, which they perceive to be a threat to their individual and economic freedom.  It’s why a few scientists or science-trained individuals side with the irresponsible agenda of some industries. Continue reading “Tackling the Problem of Scientific Semi-Literacy”

Horizontal Propaganda: Impact on Science and Education

Propaganda_Jacques_Ellul_1973In the book Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul argued that although hubris may lead intellectuals to believe that they are immune to propaganda, it influences everyone. Intellectuals are more equipped than the average person to explore a variety of issues, but their curiosity exposes them to a vast volume of literature, generalizations and out-of-specialty ideas. Since they do not have the time to explore everything critically, they become at least as vulnerable to propaganda as anyone else.

How was propaganda defined by Ellul?

The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief.

Ellul wrote Propaganda in 1962, identifying key sociological myths such as that of historical progress, happiness as a life-goal and the innate good nature of humanity. Three to four decades later, thanks to the world wide web and its millions of websites, blogs, Facebook accounts and other social media, propaganda has not only gone digital, but its horizontal scope has been amplified exponentially. Due to economic investments and rewards, more myths have spread recently, and they have had a huge impact on science and education. Here are examples of myths perpetuated and the action they have provoked.

Self-worth(1) Everyone can benefit from selling their image. But in reality, the pervasiveness of marketing techniques has come with a price. Blog and book publishers expect writers to provide biographies, give talks and market their work, and they comply, sacrificing time for relaxation, incubation and production itself.  Scientists, self-conscious of metrics while securing research grants, compromise on their selection of topics for research. High school students spread their talents thinly, committing themselves to an avalanche of activities because they’ve been told that it looks good on their CVs. Schools advertise and compete with others, as if their primary function is to sell a service to the consumer.

(2) Technology brings the world together. We can easily phone, email, Skype, text or chat with people across the planet. We can converse with people having similar interests. Without technology we would never have known these people existed. Yet anyone can tell you that technology cannot transmit a person’s physical presence or their body language. The ease of having multiple interactions reduces the time spent with given individuals, the latter ironically being the hallmark of friendship. Of course, every popular social media network has no real concern for bonding people. While drawing in millions by providing either the veneer of interaction or a medium for narcissism, media sites sell advertising to sponsors who can now more specifically target people. Their task is made easier and more desirable because most users volunteer information about themselves. The on-the-go usage and small format on cell phones and tablets encourages the use of images, short videos and slogans to convey ideas. People are then exposed to hundreds of such stimuli; even those linked to literature are at best quickly read without further research. What better way is there for horizontal propaganda to spread?

It is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image.

-Jacques Ellul, from Propaganda

(3) Online learning is a more powerful educational tool than traditional crafts. In essence digital media are just another set of tools that have to be complemented by a host of other methods to be effective. But currently teachers are pressured to believe that chalkboards and lectures are a thing of the past. Its popular alternative, “active learning”, a title presumptuous because it implies that previous learning was passive, relies heavily on online media. Yet learning from an experienced specialist who is in the same room; gaining from real experiments and demonstrations; and thinking and imagining quietly in the absence of any gadgets remain essential to see concepts at work in different settings.

(4) Colleges do a better job when they focus on preparing students for the job market. As William Deresiewicz argues, educational institutions have surrendered their soul to the market and neoliberalism. A century ago colleges were committed to

developing in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully ,

but now they are primarily concerned with practical fields such as business and technology and in whatever brings in money for graduates and the college, as in the billions of dollars obtained from sports TV broadcasting contracts. This has had a detrimental impact on learning for its own sake and on studying for the purpose of enriching life.

since the 1960s, the percentage majoring in the physical sciences — physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and so forth — has fallen even more (than English majors), by some 60 percent. As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of those subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math.

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