Why do I teach? Simple. I enjoy the process of teaching and learning. I teach therefore I learn.
To answer the following two questions, I must revisit and modify an educational philosophy I had written many years ago.
- What do you want your students to get out of your classes?
- How do you situate yourself in the classroom?
In a science classroom, one can be in congruence that there are different methods of learning among students and can be met at a mid-point. To state an exact mid-point would be superficial. The school and science classroom environment must first be assessed in order to come to such a conclusion. In the classroom, the teacher can create an environment that is not hindering but rather enabling where innovation is encouraged, differences are valued, openness is encouraged. An open environment combined with great motivational factors can certainly result in the overall high academic success of the students.
Open environment: creating a climate of trust
As a teacher, I believe it is part of my duty to set the stage for overall high academic success for my students. In order to do such, an open environment along with great motivational factors must first be determined. An open environment creates a climate of trust where students’ contributions to dialogue and other class activities are valued and respected. A student should feel at ease, satisfied and a sense of belonging in the classroom environment.
A series of events and techniques must first take place to create an open environment. To create an open environment, the teacher must first build a bridge of trust between his/herself and the students.
Open environment: Finding an opening
My first teaching job was as a substitute teacher at a high school where 95% of the student population were boys. Many of these boys were from homes that were not very supportive of their learning. It was a very difficult time for me and I had to find ways to engage these students in even a conversation. My approach was instead of teaching the material, I would first take some time to get to know these kids and help them realize that someone cares about them. I quickly realized that they needed someone to listen to them because their parents either did not have the time to or simply just did not care. Some of them did not have parents. It was not an overnight process, but it worked and eventually, I found my duties were redefined (teacher/counselor/substitute mother) through these interactions with the students. Eventually, lunch (the only down time) was no longer mine, since many of the kids would seek me out just to hang out and talk. What a rewarding time that was for me and the students. According to students, “I get them.” Getting them to engage in the material was a lot easier to do after having gain their respect and trust, but it still was not enough for them to succeed. I asked myself, “What else is needed?” The answer did not produce one solution but several other techniques that I must explore with the students. I also realized that each student is unique and one technique cannot be applied to all. Hence the importance of getting to know your students before delving into subject content.
Open environment: Setting goals
After an environment of trust is established, getting the students engaged in the subject content should follow. I found that encouraging students to set goals and expectations for the science classroom allows for more student engagement in the subject content. The students’ perspectives and views on what is needed for them to succeed in the classroom is clear and can be transferred to life outside of the classroom.
Engaging students in goal setting can have a significant impact on the success of the student setting a goal will allow the students to focus on a specific assigned task while ignoring activities that are not relevant to the set goal. Help them set goals that are attainable and challenging to keep them engaged in the assignment.
Open environment: Setting goals
Apart from setting goals, verbal persuasion is another key factor in the academic success of the student. Let the student know that you assigned them to this task because you believe that he/she is capable of doing such. The student will know that you have a high expectancy of him/her. Doing so will encourage the student to believe that he/she has the capability to be successful at the assigned task. Be ready to give a feedback in order for the individual to know exactly where they are and how far they are from completing the task.
Give examples of people who have been assigned the same task and were successful at it. For example, explore with the students people who have chosen the same career path and if possible, allow the student to observe such an individual at work. Connecting academics with real-life is important to achieving student academic success.
Motivational Factors: Indigenous knowledge
One technique that I have employed in my teaching science to students is creating awareness of contributions to and the impact that other cultures have in the development of scientific theories, ideas, technologies, etc. I found students to be more engaged, responsive, and creative when the material taught in the classroom ties in with some aspect of their cultural background. Catherine Milne (2011), suggests in her book “The Invention of Science,” that the Pluralist model approach to science can give a clearer perspective of the disconnect between youths and understanding of science, while redirecting misinformed educators. I quote “misinformed” because as the argument goes, “science in the general sense of systematic knowledge was never uniquely western because examples of science can be found in all historic and contemporary human societies. There are cultures that have profound knowledge on intricate workings of many plants and herbs, and their effects on the human body, all done without the complex tools used by researchers today. Yet this Indigenous knowledge is viewed as miniscule in the science world.
Motivational factors: Connecting to real life issues
I am an avid supporter of the developmental-interaction approach to education. Students need to be able to connect contents of material taught to them to real-life situation. I do not believe in the traditional recitation of question and answers or sitting through a lecture and merely being tested on. Instead, emphasis should be placed on understanding concepts rather than being lecture to and being frequently tested on mere facts. For example, the focus should not only be on the students achieving the correct answer (a good guess can sometimes produce such) but rather the path taken to the answer. The students need to explore and connect the dots between lectures, class activities, and real life.
Motivational factors: A game of musical chairs (A technique I used teaching high school students)
The bell rings and students are shuffled from one class to another with the expectation of being orderly and getting right to work. My approach to beginning each class is unconventional and may even raise a few eyebrows. I have found that students are more alert and attentive when exercise is part of the classroom routine. At the beginning of most of my classes, I play a game, usually musical chairs with the students. In a class where sometimes thirty students make up the population, a bit of creativity is needed to be safe and, include each student. Sometimes a student is just content to watch on while others participate, but the spectator often seems to benefit (becomes more upbeat and cheerful) as well. Although this ritual takes approximately ten minutes, I have found that students are relaxed, engaged, and more classwork is accomplished. However, not every student is able to engage in this type of physical activity. I have discovered the art of deep breathing exercises that every student can engage in, although I am yet to explore this route with my college students.
Professors Ken Tobin and Konstantinos Alexakos teach a course on mindfulness at the CUNY graduate center. Tobin and Alexakos engage their students in a ritual of deep breathing exercises and meditation at the start of each class. The idea behind ‘mindfulness’ is to become aware of ‘self’ and others. Alexakos and Tobin engage in educational research in ‘transformative education’ and the transformation of the mind through ‘mindfulness practices’ to improve teaching and learning in the classroom for students and teachers. Emotions play a very important part in teaching and learning, therefore becoming aware of self and others can lend to a healthier environment for educators as well as students. Powietrzynska (2012) wrote, “Mindfulness may be a powerful tool in raising awareness of and ameliorating intense emotions that often accompany teaching and learning.”
Conclusion (an ideal classroom setting)
In summary, we teach not in part but to the whole student. An open environment creates a climate of trust and inclusiveness while eliminating hostility in the classroom. A student should feel a sense of belonging comfortable enough to ask questions, and contribute to dialogue and activities. Since the American urban classroom is becoming increasingly diverse, the science curriculum should include Indigenous knowledge that reflects its importance in the world of science. There are many factors that contribute to students’ academic success, but as mentioned earlier, each student is unique and therefore a teacher must first get to know the student before deciding which factor works best.