Of The Winds of Curiosity
One of the lecturers I especially respected through university was the head of teaching in the Physics department at the time, Simon Bates. I respected Professor Bates because he was passionate about the students, and about education. He even got me a spare laptop when mine broke down a week or so before a big final project was due. He was there because he wanted to teach, and improve teaching in the university. He also paved the way for my first technology in teaching and learning assignment You can read it here if you want!.
Every month the Physics Department would have either a guest or employed professor do a lecture on something interesting in their field. On one occasion, Professor Bates was the speaker. I took two things away from this lecture:
- Firstly, how to name a lecture or class:
(An alternative title for this post is: ‘Of The Effects of Homogenous, Antiquated Pedagogical Techniques on Adolescent Tutelage: For Dummies. Or something…)
- The second take away was from an application made to the university for a lecturing position. Part of the letter lost him the job, specifically the bit that suggested no lecturers really cared about the students, and that lecturing was something you did just so you could do your research. Some of the lecturers in the room do doubt squirmed at this, knowing full well they were in the same mindset.
Teachers undoubtedly have different motivations to professors when they apply for a job, but some fall into a similar trap over time. After only seven years of teaching I will admit, I am bored of some of the topics I teach. What I am not bored of however is how I get the students to learn it, which I modify every year reflecting on how it had gone previously.
I however work in a private international school. Instead of 1100 hours teaching per year (Green, E. 2014), I teach 650 hours. I have a modest PD budget, and a fierce curriculum director who works tooth and nail to ensure teachers get the PD they want and need. We get time out of classes to meet with our middle school to set the course of science in the coming year. In a UK public school, curriculum directors are full time teachers in their subjects. PD budget is a phrase I didn’t hear in my four years at that school.
Those classes I think are boring are probably boring for students, so I will improve them. I have time to, so I can.
This week I read an article on Math education in the US. The general idea is that Americans are doing a fantastic job of bringing into existence new research on how to teach math well, but they aren’t implementing it (either at the teacher training level or in school). Change isn’t necessarily resisted, but the professional development time given to US math teachers is simply not enough to help them change their methods. When it is done it isn’t necessarily done well, and with no time to visit other classrooms you can understand why bad methods become ingrained. Quite understandably when you are teaching 1100 hours per year, with grading on top, its hard to be motivated to attend conferences, even if your school will allow you to do so, and especially if they pay.
The article talked about adopting a ‘You, Y’all, We’ method to teaching, where students were invited much more to investigate a given problem. ‘I, We, You’, which is the standard way of teaching math in the US is where students are told how to solve it, and then practice on problems. Writing this is easy, but from experience implementation is not. I personally find it a very hard thing to differentiate with in a South East Asian culture. The students are afraid to be wrong, which is, as a science teacher, very difficult to work with sometimes. Some students have absorbed the textbook over the summer and when asked a simple question will reply with an equation (which is a capital offence – my most frustrating is the question ‘What do you think it means to have power?’, to which I get the answer ‘Energy divided by time’).
Coincidentally during the past week I have been reading a book called ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’.
If you ever want a book that teaches you the power of answering your own problems, this is it. The premise of the book is that of a poverty stricken boy in Malawi, William Kamkwamba. Forced to drop out of school at 11, William changed the fortunes of his entire village. By reading an old American textbook, he managed to build a wind turbine to generate power for his own home. Not only this, but he built a lighting system, a circuit breaker to prevent fires and a transformer so he could charge other peoples phones. What humbled me most about William was the motivation for his project, which was to light his home after 7pm, and to build a water pump so they could have two harvests a year and eat well the year around.
The power of curiosity is formidable, and as educators we need to nurture that. Both the boy who harnessed the wind, and the students taught in the ‘You, Y’All, We’ classes excelled given their situations because they were curious and inquisitive. We need to get our students interested in something and then have them find stuff out about it, with teachers as a guide, as opposed to a leader. Students need to lead their own learning. But first teachers need to know how to build this environment and schools need to ensure they are doing all they can to support this and get it off the ground in the right way.
We need our students to build their own windmills, and discover for themselves how to harness the electric wind.
Green, E. (2014, July 23). Why Do Americans Stink at Math? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/magazine/why-do-americans-stink-at-math.html