This post is based on ideas from a presentation by Rachel Scherr of the University of Maryland and Seattle Pacific University.
Teachers, Rachel says, are disenfranchised. Just as students who have no voice in what and how they learn in the classroom, professional development is often inflicted upon teachers who have no voice in the process. Just like disenfranchised low-income students can be empowered, economically, by learning mathematics (see Radical Equations), science can be a gateway for teachers to become professionally empowered.
At Pacific Seattle University they do some rather radically different things for teacher professional development in order to attain this goal. To start, they take them out of the classroom. The kinds of conversations that happen once you’re out in the world are different. Robert Moses, a teacher in Cambridge, takes his middle school students on a field trip onto the subway system. The subway map can become an analogy for a number line, with the stops equivalent to positive and negative numbers. (This is from the Algebra Project, a revolutionary project to bring math to inner city kids in a way they can relate to). How can we create this kind of empowering revolution for teachers?
Their entire professional development curriculum is based on this idea — they ask teachers to create and represent physical ideas on their own. This is basically interactive engagement, but specifically with allowing some freedom on the teachers’ part. For example, teachers came up with the primary features of energy, and decided on the most important ones. They made drawings and diagrams to explain how energy is transferred from a person’s hands to a box to create motion when the box is pushed. They did a little bit of “energy theater” where people played the role of different types of energy (so that teachers would start to see energy as a thing.
I like what they’re doing, and the point. I don’t think that this is the only way to do it (“social construction of knowledge.”). I think it’s really hard to do education in a way that is empowering and respectful for participants. That’s why I’ve loved doing teacher professional development. Science teachers are a very forgiving and curious group of people, and willingly engage in this kind of activity. They’re so interested in it all. Rachel was very enthusiastic about the amazing quality of the representations that teachers came up with, and how much they learned from constructing their own knowledge. They want teachers to both value development of rich content knowledge for themselves (and thus their students) and to recognize themselves (and thus their students) as intelligent agents whose ideas merit careful attention and who can figure things out.
Tough job for the teachers teaching these courses for teachers! Kudos to Hunter and Eleanor Close. But maybe even harder job for the teachers to implement these ideas in their classroom. When they got their Foss Kits (kits for teaching a certain topic in the classroom) they went right back to their normal style of pedagogy – a tendency that a lot of professional development folks struggle with. And one teacher explicitly said, “How much of this stuff am I expected to be able to do in my classroom before I get fired??”
Teachers need to navigate within the existing system, and doing these more open-ended activities is tough within that structure. Of course, if students had learned their science better in 5th grade, then 8th grade teachers wouldn’t have to re-teach these topics, so they would end up saving time in instruction. But, that kind of change will only happen after many years. <sigh> Reform is long and slow.