Serious Fun vs Edutainment
It’s hard to resist the temptation to become an edutainer in our culture. Physical science instruction is especially tempting for the following reasons:
a. There are genuinely great demos to be done that seem like magic – playing with dry ice, bunsen burners, fooling around with trolleys and Hot Wheels, the egg launch, explosions in the Chemical Reactions unit and on and on.
The trick is to make the fun serious – link it to student’s prior understandings and real lives. Link the coolness to serious concepts that they will be fascinated to truly understand and apply. Sometimes the excitement and energy comes after a struggle – with figuring out a concept over several days – or with the eventual successful completion of a project. Witness our current struggle with holding kids accountable with the Sports Project and Grow Food Project. (Stay tuned to see if it’s successful at more than torturing kids!)
b. Because much of the content is difficult for both teachers and students to fully understand. Very few of us have a single subject credential in physical science. I’m finding that I have to deeply understand a concept before I can extract a simplified version that will lead students to the more nuanced understanding they’ll develop in HS physics and chemistry.
It’s hard, and a bit scary to be in a learning mindset as a teacher. You have to admit you don’t know it all, and be willing to retire your own fond misconceptions (aka ‘developing conceptions – a kinder and more accurate term). You have to read and think and sometimes make last minute changes to lesson plans. Like, say, the 9.30am last-minute boat-float buoyancy lab developed between 1st and 2nd period last week. Extra exhausting because of the equipment needs, running around the department flinging open cupboards looking for clay and foil with kids coming in.
But damn, it is frustrating to be operating in a culture where quick, easy and entertaining is what students expect.
I feel compelled to keep trying for the right mix of serious fun, to keep coaching, keep patient and compassionate and keep my eye on the prize: Students who feel empowered to make things happen, who understand and can apply novel ideas, and who might use that in their adult lives. Preferably by taking and succeeding in high school physics and chemistry. Both gateway subjects to engineering and medical fields. Both amazing areas of endeavor central to our future economy and to our survival in a changing climate.
Edutainment might have them choose HS physics and chemistry, but it won’t give them a good enough foundation. Taking it and failing it. Worse than not doing it at all, I’d say. Very few girls take HS physics in particular, perhaps because many traditional Phys Sci demos are around traditionally male interests (explosions, mechanical stuff, smells :-). Many students report specifically NOT considering any career that requires math and of course physical science is closely linked to that.
Here’s my 2 cents on the hard fixes with best legs:
– We need more administrators who know enough science to get deeply involved with exactly what is taught in their physical science class rooms.
– We need physical science majors in the class room who love kids and are up for learning great pedagogy.
– And we need state standards organized around central concepts, with relevance and inquiry woven through everything. Better standards = better texts = better tests = what will happen in class rooms.
– Oh yeah, and we need science labs with sinks, gas taps, classes with fewer than 30 kids and enough budget for materials so that teachers are not buying them from their own pay checks in ALL schools, not just wealthy communities like mine.