What is Exemplary Science Teaching?

High school education has come a long way since I was in secondary education. However, the most drastic difference has been in the high school science classroom. I believe that the mission of exemplary teaching of science has not only become more complex, but has also improved in quality and effectiveness. So what does exemplary science teaching look like?

Exemplary science teaching will have 3 core features:

  1. The use of differentiated instruction (DI)
  2. Open inquiry and investigation
  3. The integration of science, technology, society, and the environment (STSE)

At the heart of these 3 features is one fundamental theme: reflecting students in the curriculum. The result of supporting this theme is greater student participation and access to higher order, critical thinking.

Photo on left by Rbut

Differentiated Instruction (DI)

If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach them the way they learn.

– Ignacio Estrada

DI can be explained as a teaching strategy that provides various options for students to learn based on how they learn best.

Reflecting back on my secondary education, science was only ever taught to a narrow group of students. If you learned best using logic or mathematics you probably would have done very well in science; if not, you may have struggled. Today’s science teacher will need to be aware of the multiple intelligences (MI, teachers love acronyms!) that exist in the classroom and use DI to engage all the different types of learners.

As a part of inclusive education, it is also important for science teachers to modify their pedagogy to teach all kinds of learners, especially with the many perspectives, behavioural, and cultural differences that exist in the classroom. When an educator teaches as if all students have the same cultural background or the background that the educator is familiar with, they can unknowingly marginalize students. This marginalization especially occurs when teachers fail to recognize their biases.

A crucial idea in using DI involves both the student learning about themselves and the teacher learning about and from the student. How can you best teach a student if you don’t get to know more about them? One of the ways I like to start the process is by giving students (as early in the term as possible) a multiple intelligence quiz as well as an interest survey. The MI quiz helps both the student and teacher learn more about how that student learns best. It’s not about how smart they are, but rather how they are smart.

Moreover, it helps the teacher not only offer options for the student to learn based on their strengths but also offer opportunities to help them positively improve their weaknesses. These options can be presented by giving students the ability to choose the content of the learning task, the process by which the task is done, the end product of the task, or the environment in which the task takes place — while assessing the same curriculum goals for all students.

The interest survey I administer asks the students questions like:

  • What is your favourite activity or subject in school?
  • What are three things you like to do when you have free time?
  • Do you prefer to work individually, in small groups, or in large groups?

This gives me vital information that I use when preparing to present curriculum to the students. By representing the student’s interest and learning styles in the curriculum, I can create learning tasks that the students find interesting and engaging. The importance of differentiated instruction should not be played down by science teachers; implementing DI is an excellent way to build community and a positive, supportive learning environment in the classroom.

Open Inquiry and Investigation

Curiosity and discovery of the unknown are central driving forces in the field of science. Exemplary science education should be based on facilitating these driving forces. Thinking back on my science education, tasks that involved investigation and inquiry were often pre-determined, highly structured tasks that only required students to confirm results and perform the final steps of a lab experiment.

Today’s example of exemplary science teaching will involve methods that move away typical cookie-cutter, “recipe” types of inquiry to more open, amorphous types of inquiry [PDF]. In an open inquiry experiment, educators provide guidance and facilitation toward the learning goals while allowing the students to develop the experiment themselves and discover the methods, questions, and results. In my teaching practice, I hope to use open inquiry-based learning as a tool to help students draw on prior knowledge, perform analysis, and achieve engagement in a fun and pleasurable way. Especially in way that encourages creativity by allowing them to make mistakes and take risks.

I hope to be able to facilitate the process of learning by giving problems to students and allowing them to solve them by relying on their own thinking while guiding students through questioning. Furthermore, I’ll need to focus on the process of the investigation and not entirely on the final result. As an educator, it’s sometimes hard to give up control in the classroom. However, I believe an important feature in exemplary science teaching is putting the classroom focus on the students rather than the teacher — allowing the students’ interests to guide the direction of the inquiry. This is a necessary element of reflecting students in the curriculum.

Integration of Science, Technology, Society, and the Environment (STSE)

Science is traditionally seen as an emotionless field reserved for science professionals and “nerds”. However, science has far reaching implications in our world, ones that affect families, the environment, politics, economics, and technology. There may be a widespread lack of scientific literacy and critical science thinking in our society and thus a responsibility lies with educators to correct misconceptions and make science relevant and relatable.

Exemplary science teaching addresses these concerns by integrating science with issues in technology, society, and the environment (STSE – yay another acronym!). Encouraging students to address the impact of science on these issues will help connect science to human values and everyday life. STSE education involves understanding science concepts, engaging in open inquiry, and critiquing the role of science.

In my teaching practice, I’ve seen firsthand how students are able to engage in higher level critical thinking by implementing STSE in the classroom. During my first practicum in a Grade 11 Chemistry class we discussed political, economical, environmental, and social issues surrounding the horrific Bhopal accident of 1984. The students were able to critique the science decisions made during the accident and think critically about the social decisions regarding the fallout. The activities helped to raise their consciousness around social justice and the role that science can play in who benefits or loses in society.

STSE education helps students make informed, educated, science literate decisions by giving students an opportunity to see the world from a multiplicity of views and cultural contexts. It gives meaning and relevance to science by allowing students to incorporate their opinions and values with the way science is done. Science can now be related to everyday actions and decisions and helps to increase science literacy.

In my pedagogy as a science teacher, I aim to pursue exemplary science teaching; teaching that first and foremost reflects the students in the curriculum. To take it a step further, students should be the curriculum. I look forward to implementing differentiated instruction is a way that helps students learn more about themselves and allows me to get to know more about them. I hope to show students the value in making mistakes and taking risks by providing a variety of continuous assessments, providing feedback and direction. I hope to provide inquiry and investigations that are less structured and more open, encouraging students to think and analyze instead of just following directions. In addition, the implementation of STSE will be a focus in my science pedagogy personalizing science for students and preparing them to be science-literate stewards of the future. With continuous reflection and analysis, I hope to continue learning more about being a great science teacher and to dynamically improve and tweak my pedagogy to best achieve student success.