Edit July 2020 – this is a little outdated. The diversity section, in particular, is somewhat cringe-inducing. Update coming soon.
The goal of science education at all levels is to provide students the tools to answer the question how do we know what we know? In primary and secondary school, these tools equip learners to grapple with the increasing scientific and technological sophistication of the world around them1. As a postsecondary instructor, my intent is different: I want my students to develop the skills they’ll need to pursue scientific and technical careers of their own. This overarching goal motivates my teaching philosophy around three core values: constructivism, authenticity and diversity.
Constructivism: A Model for Effective Learning
I am an unabashed cognitive constructivist. Originating from studies in cognitive psychology2, constructivism is a theory of knowledge based on a model of human learning: that learners construct their own knowledge representations rather than having them transmitted en bloc by the instructor3. Constructivism reformulates the relationship between student and teacher; if a student is responsible for her own learning, then my role is not to transmit information but to facilitate that learning by providing opportunities for my students to construct their own knowledge.
I like constructivism because it is predictive: it suggests that some teaching strategies work better than others because they address more directly the way we learn4. For example, a key implication is that all learning happens in context5, with students assimilating new information by relating it to prior knowledge. Thus, part of my job as a teacher is to guide the assembly of this knowledge structure by drawing attention to relationships and making this context explicit. This leads directly to specific teaching practices that activate prior knowledge and contextualize new material. For example, I frequently begin class with a brief mini-review of previous material and how the current class will build on it. Alternately, a motivating example, demonstration or problem could serve the same purpose, creating a “time for telling”6 that primes the associations I want my students to make.
Constructivism also puts heavy emphasis on practice and feedback: if my students are building their own understanding, they need frequent opportunities to assess whether their understanding is correct. I give my students authentic opportunities to build and assess their knowledge structures using active learning activities7 tailored to the classroom environment and the material being covered. In-class activities allow me to direct and structure students’ learning more closely than out-of-class activities, and they provide opportunities for immediate feedback (from both teachers and peers). I structure these activities in a way that’s appropriate for the classroom environment and the material being taught: for example, a large class would provide opportunities for think-pair-share activities, while smaller classes are amenable to problem-based learning and small-group techniques that require more coordination.
Authenticity: Real Performance, Real Significance
In high school, I was an expert test-taker. I was incredibly good at recapitulating the content and tone of the textbook without ever really thinking deeply about the material I was supposed to master. It wasn’t until I got to college that my teachers challenged me with some truly open-ended questions, leading me to develop not only the skills to address them but a true passion for science and research.
My goal as a teacher is to develop my students’ authentic mastery8 of the material I am teaching. The process of constructive alignment9 directly informs my process: I start by defining my learning objectives in terms of what my students will be able to do when I’m done teaching them. Then, I construct assessments that demand “performances of understanding”10, asking students to apply their skills in situations they haven’t seen before. This can be a guiding principle for designing a traditional exam for a large class just as well as it could motivate larger, less well-defined projects for a smaller class. If my students can transfer their skills and knowledge to a novel situation, I take that as good evidence they’ve achieved my learning objective and instead of just regurgitating the textbook.
Authentic assessments also directly model the process of a practicing scientist. Especially in activities using project-based learning and extended group work, authentic assessments can address both my content-based and affective intended learning outcomes. I want to give my students the satisfaction of addressing challenging problems with real-world significance that I found so inspiring.
Diversity: Varied Viewpoints for Improved Learning Outcomes
Even though I check all the “privileged” boxes – American, male, white, heterosexual, cis-gender, middle-class – as a child I was something of an outsider. I would rather read books and write computer programs than go to movies or football games. Attending a math and science magnet high school was a transformative experience: for the first time in my life I was surrounded by people that were more interested in what I had to say than what I looked like or how I acted. My classmates were as different from me as I was from them, but we found that those varied strengths and interests and backgrounds were something we grew from and benefited by; our diversity enriched our work and our learning.
I want the same experience for my students: not just some token lip service to diversity and inclusivity but a real appreciation for how the best science is done in diverse groups11. Science leverages diversity of interests, of backgrounds, of modes of reasoning and problem solving: linear thinkers and lateral thinkers, detail-oriented people and big-picture folks. I structure my classes to emphasize the diversity of the students and demand that they use it to solve authentic problems in support of ambitious learning objectives. For small to medium-sized classes, this revolves around cooperative and project-based learning; for larger classes, I’ll use peer instruction and asynchronous “social” assignments that highlight contribution from the entire class.
Finally, the literature shows unambiguously that inclusive teaching leads to better learning outcomes12, even with relatively modest interventions. I was made profoundly uncomfortable recently by my first encounter with Peggy McIntosh’s “The Invisible Knapsack” — but I like to think that being forced to unpack my own privilege has improved my sensitivity towards the diversity in my classroom. As facilitator of my students’ learning, I am responsible for both providing opportunities and removing impediments; I expect (and enforce if necessary) a welcoming, inclusive learning environment and model an appreciation for my students diversity just as seriously as I model the thinking and problem-solving skills of a practicing scientist.
1. Marincola, E. Why is public science education important? J. Transl. Med. 4, 7 (2006).
2. Singer, D. G. & Revenson, T. A. A Piaget Primer. (1996).
3. Fosnot, C. T. & Perry, R. S. in Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practices 28 (1996).
4. Quartz, S. R. & Sejnowski, T. J. The neural basis of cognitive development: a constructivist manifesto. Behav. Brain Sci. 20, 537–556; discussion 556–596 (1997).
5. Duffy, T. & Cunningham, D. in Handbook of Research for Educational Communications and Technology (ed. Jonassen, D. H.) (Lawrence Earlbaum, 2001).
6. Schwartz, D. L. & Bransford, J. D. A Time For Telling. Cognition and Instruction 16, 475–523 (1998).
7. Freeman, S. et al. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 111, 8410–5 (2014).
8. McClymer, J. F. & Knoles, L. Z. Ersatz Learning, Inauthentic Testing. J. Excell. Coll. Teach. 3, 33–50 (1991).
9. Biggs, J. Enhancing Teaching through Constructive Alignment. High. Educ. 32, 347–64 (1995).
10. Gardner, H. & Boix-Mansilla, V. Teaching for Understanding — Within and Across the Disciplines. Educ. Leadersh. 51, 14–18 (1994).
11. Phillips, K. W. How Diversity Works. Sci. Am. 311, 42–47 (2014).
12. Yeager, D. S. & Walton, G. M. Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic. Rev. Educ. Res. 81, 267–301 (2011).