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“An inventor is simply a fellow who doesn’t take his education too seriously. You see, from the time a person is six years old until he graduates from college he has to take three or four examinations a year. If he flunks once, he is out. But an inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he’s in. We often say that the biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work.”
- Charles Kettering
That last sentence epitomizes my teaching philosophy. It rests on a foundation of experimentation. Although I am a science teacher I do not mean experiment in a strict sense with test tubes, skinned cats or motion detectors even though my students may be using any one of those as they seek to uncover scientific truths. During my time teaching I have observed myself and my students and I have found that no two classes are the same, indeed no two students are the same and what I find to "work" in one circumstance may not fit new circumstances . The exciting part of every day is my quest to help students find "what will work" to gain a deep and meaningful understanding of the content.
It is my belief that the goal of education is not to pass on a collection of facts and classify the best and the brightest as those students who can memorize large volumes of material with ease. Those bits of information are important but should be treated as puzzle pieces. Periodically the student should be allowed - no, encouraged - no, mentored in the craft of putting those pieces together in the hope of discovery. We should no longer be training assembly line workers, rather we should be preparing our students to be the idea people, the inventors, the ones who change the world for the better.
To do this I, as the teacher, play an integral role. My responsibility to my students becomes teaching them how to think. I need to not only be skilled in the art of questioning my students but in finding ways to help them question themselves. My words, my actions, my assignments all need to lead them to complex visualizations in their head about the content. I need my students to feel empowered and to do so they must have a voice in the classroom. Therefore, the role of the student goes hand in hand with my role as the teacher. I try hard to respond to the needs of my students but that requires them to offer their feedback. They should support me as I take risks to meet their needs and tell me not only when what I do in the classroom helped them but be critical of how or why it helped them so I can carry that forward to new situations. The same goes for when things do not work. I do not like making the same mistake twice so to prevent that mistake from being a perpetual hindrance to my, and ultimately their, quest for greatness my students need to be upfront and honest and offer their insights on why that particular experience was not useful. In approaching my agenda this way I am modeling what I feel are the two biggest actions a student needs to do to grow in the classroom: take risks and reflect critically in a positive way about the outcome. In so doing the students will be gaining skills that will better them for the classroom and for fulfilling their role in the community.
So, the nature of my Chemistry curriculum is two-fold. Much of our time is spent on the particulars of describing and classifying matter, building complex molecules out of atoms, using the structure of the atoms to describe why the atoms form new larger substances, using the structure of those substances to infer why they have certain properties, and predicting how much product will form from certain starting materials. However, my approach has evolved away from my initial assumption that through words alone I am able to guide my students to deep understanding of the material. Notes and practice problems, regardless of the quality of the notes and problems do not lead students to take ownership of the material. At best the students are able to disguise your understanding about the information as their own and remember it long enough to pass the test. This is only as good as the short term memory of your students and if you have ever misplaced your keys or a phone number you know that relying on your short term memory for things, regardless of how important they are, ultimately leads to frustration.
To minimize my own frustration in the classroom I have incorporated a lot of different varieties of what I will call problem based learning experiences. All of which are invented to create a conflict in the student that result in a need to know the material I would like them to internalize. The best varieties of these safely put the student in a state of disequilibrium with the intent to guide them through the process of assimilation or accommodation of what they know with what I want them to know. The bottom line is that I have finally come to accept that even though it would make my life easier I will never be a binder teacher. That is a teacher who pulls the same binder out year in and year out, repeating without modification the activities of years past. My curriculum changes because my students change and ultimately I should find that my binders are not big enough to hold all of my choices that I have found, modified or created to help me deliver my chemistry content.