5 April 2016


 Robert’s musings #2

 Teachers of Science are Storytellers and Classroom Researchers


In considering Roland’s question of interest: Science Teachers are not Scientists. Any thoughts – I felt that the statement “Science Teachers are not Scientists” if posed as a Rensis Likert self-assessment item would probably illuminate the ‘spread’ of possible responses/perceptions: strongly agree, agree, unsure, disagree and strongly disagree, etc. And that each of us would be able to ‘locate’ ourselves along the spectrum.


I did not however feel that this line of inquiry would be particularly fruitful in regard to developing a better understanding of the nature of teaching; teaching of science and of the role – if any – of research training (natural science/social science) would have on our practice as STEM educators/teachers.

So, I decided to use the statement, “Science teachers are not Scientists” to focus my attention when examining/analysing/interpreting the self-disclosed thoughts/insights of ‘practice’ from the perspectives of two ‘teachers of science’: a high school science teacher, Tyler Dewitt and a Harvard University Professor of Physics, Dr. Eric Mazur.


In each case I have referred to their discussion of their teaching practice and have included the you tube link.


 Science Teachers as Storytellers

I found the 2013 TED Talk of high school science teacher Tyler Dewitt: “Hey science teachers make it fun” (15m.56s), to be an interesting place to start.


Tyler observes the ‘practice’ of teachers, himself included, of asking students to read a passage from a science text as   a means of initiating a discussion. He observed that ‘silence’ was the response of students when asked to explain the main ideas described in the reading. His realization that students may not be learning anything from these ‘routine’ reading tasks was dramatically brought home when a student remarked: I didn’t understand a word of it. It’s boring. Who cares, and it [reading] sucks.

Tyler’s ‘solution’ to the ‘communication’ and engagement problem was to tell a story: to become a storyteller.


I suspect that Tyler’s decision to become a ‘storyteller’ may be (mis)interpreted/criticised as challenging the ‘traditional’ role of ‘objectivity’ and ‘precision’ in the practice and communication of Science. Tyler understands that ‘storytelling’ will be resisted by institutional ‘Gatekeepers’ of Science and its practices. He points to the activities of social institutions and their representatives such as Educational Publishing and the teams of professional editors and science writers as ‘agents of the status quo extending a ‘protective’ influence into the realm of ‘science education’.


Tyler describes Good story telling in terms of “emotional connections”: we have to convince our students that what we are talking about matters. As science teachers we have to decide what details to include and what to leave out: so that teachers and students can discuss the things that matter. He is aware of the criticism that in their ‘storytelling’ science teachers may be in danger of ‘dumbing down’ science. Tyler understands that a distinction should be made between the need for rigor in conversations between scientists, and the level of precision and accuracy needed in the language used in helping young children/students learn about science.


In pursuing his belief that storytelling is synonymous with the effective teaching of science, Tyler suggests that teachers should circumvent the ‘traditional representation of what constitutes good science teaching’ – the institutional/academy’s perspective. He suggests that teachers Should/can challenge ‘traditional’ teaching practice by using (self-published) internet online resources, for instance, the use of teacher made science videos to explain difficult concepts. To explain science in simple understandable ways, in language any child can understand.



For Tyler: Science teachers should be storytellers and producers of science education resources designed to actively engage students in making sense of their natural world.


This example of Tyler Dewitt’s self-published science video resource: “introduction to oxidation reduction (redox) reactions 2015”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rtJdjas-mY is freely available for teacher and student use.

The video elicited many comments and this is one:


Natalie Hoffman 5 months ago

Tyler: I think I speak for most of us when I say thank you for finding time to make these videos! It means the WORLD to me and a bunch of other students. Professors and teachers these days just don't care enough to properly teach these things but keeping students interested, they hand you a book and expect you to get it. Your use of diagrams and the calm pace at which you explain things makes us feel like we really /can/ learn this stuff. The world needs more teachers like you.


Tyler’s ‘storytelling’ approach in science teaching raises for me an interesting question: What is the nature of the relationship between ‘Science’ and ‘Science Education’? As a science teacher/educator I wonder where ‘should’/’do’ my allegiances lie: with the discipline of science, with the needs of my students in the learning of science, or some place in between? As a STEM educator what is my responsibility to the institution of STEM, to the institution of STEM education? Can these apparent competing interests be reconciled in order to accommodate the needs and interests of students engaged in STEM activities?



A Scientists Approach to Teaching and Learning Science

In my search for examples/demonstrations of the nexus between the scientist and the science teacher I discovered the ‘teaching’ of Dr, Eric Mazur, a Professor of Physics at Harvard University. He is an internationally recognized scientist and researcher, who leads and supervises a research program in optical physics and a research program in education investigating verifiable ways to improve science education. I was particularly impressed with Dr. Mazur because he believes that “better science education for all - not just science majors - is vital for continued scientific progress”.


Dr. Eric Mazur 2013: Scientific teaching: using classroom data to improve learning and teaching (1H 40m) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5iVP-07Lm8

Scientific teaching: making
decisions about teaching practice using classroom data

At the beginning of his lecture Dr. Eric Mazur explains that as a scientist he enjoys talking about the role of data in the decisions we make about teaching and learning. He then described problems of interest, experimental design, collection and analysis of data and the subsequent changes he made to his teaching practice and how students are active learners.


I found his introductory remarks/comments/insights/explanations in which he set the ‘stage’ for his ‘lecture on data and pedagogical change’ quite revealing. I found his ‘storytelling’ revealed how he thinks about data: whether in relation to the natural world of physics or the social world of teachers and learners. For instance in referring to a research paper from MIT Media Lab on Neural Activity in the Brain He drew our attention to his ‘interest’ in the data relating to one particular MIT student: the data which was collected via a wearable wrist-watch sensor plotted against activity as documented in the participant’s logbook. He drew our attention to what he had noticed in the trace data, that is, that the neural activity trace was flat when watching TV, when asleep and in class!

He commented that he was pleased that he now had Data which backed up what people had been intuitively feeling for some time, quoting Albert Camus: “Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep.”


Dr. Mazur explains/interprets the meaning of the trace data finding of the neural activity study as a way of understanding how lecturing induces a “meditative state”. He explains that when the “brain encounters a continuous stream of information”. Students have “no time to think”. Their “minds” are held captive by the speaker/teacher/professor. There is no time to think- to analyse the data to make sense of the information. There is no “aah haa” moment. They are for all intents and purposes ‘asleep’ in the class/lecture.


Having established in our minds his interest in data he then describes how his collection and analysis of classroom data (and that of colleagues) resulted in changes to his approach to teaching: abandoning the traditional lecture in favour of “peer instruction”


Dr. Mazur explains that his ‘conversion’ story begins when in 1984 he was first appointed to Harvard as an assistant professor lecturing to students taking pre-med (undergraduate) courses. He began academic teaching in physics with the notion that the purpose/objective of the lecture was to ‘transfer information’:  from professors to students. Dr. Mazur explains that in traditionally taught courses, including his own, the Force concept inventory (FCI) is used to test students’ understanding of the concepts behind Newtonian mechanics.

In referring to the University of Minnesota’s test scores, He reported that there was no significant difference in student understanding between their pre- and post-test instruction. So instead of becoming Newtonian thinkers the students remained Aristotelian thinkers.

A second phenomenon caught his attention, namely, that there was statistically significant difference between the performance of males and females on their pre and post-test scores. The statistically significant difference between the scores of male and female physics students from different institutions indicated that a Gender Gap exists of about 10%.

When he saw the scores from the University of Minnesota he re-analysed his data confirming a similar gender gap of about 10%.



Initially he speculated  that the small amount of physics that was currently taught in high schools  compared to the larger amount of physics that he was taught as a student was the ‘cause’ of the “little movement from Aristotelian thinking to Newtonian thinking”. Dr. Mazur cautions us against blindly trusting our intuition, claiming: the mistake that we all make is to project our own experiences on the world around us. I probably did well as a student in spite of the way I was educated not because of the way I was educated. Nevertheless, “knowing how poorly my students did on the test I decided to change my approach to teaching.”


Is there something that can be done at the classroom level to improve student understanding of the concepts in physics?

In his reading he discovered that “a collaborative environment - as opposed to a competitive environment – is one in which there are many verbal interactions which actually benefits female students.” That sounded to him like “Peer Instruction” (http://mazur.harvard.edu/research/detailspage.php?rowid=8) – an instructional approach he developed in the early 1990’s for teaching large classes interactively. “Rather than teach by telling … I teach by questioning. Transfer takes place outside the class. They either read a book or watch a video of a lecture that I have given before. In class I teach by asking questions.


I walk in and ask a question. I let the class think in silence for about a minute. They commit to an answer – this can be done on a piece of paper, or with a clicker or web enabled device.  And then I tell them, ‘Now try and find a neighbour with a different answer, and try and convince that neighbour to change their answer or at least convince them that your answer is more valid than theirs. Especially in situations when there are no right or wrong answers and you have to defend your point of view.


“The first time I did this I had no expectations. In the lecture room 250 students began talking – there was complete chaos. Utter chaos. They all started talking. I had never seen that before from the front of the classroom.”


Dr. Mazur reported that very soon the students were talking and teaching each other: trying to persuade each other of their point of view. These pairs of different perspectives – right/wrong, agree/disagree, etc - needed to be explored and the differences explained: As an instructor you are not able to do this - at best you wrap up after having a few students explaining to the rest of the class their point of view.


Dr. Mazur explains, “I collected data before I switched my approach to teaching.  AS a scientist I have always been a data junky: From the very first day I taught I started collecting data and putting them in a spreadsheet. By the time I switched I already had 7 years of data accumulated that I could analyse.”


In providing these examples of how Dr. Mazur used classroom data in making decisions about his teaching and student learning I have attempted to illustrate how a scientist thinks about data: “I see my classroom as an extension of my research laboratory. I collect data as a means of improving my teaching.” (Dr. Eric Mazur, 2013)


Dr. Eric Mazur’s ‘conversion’ did not happen suddenly or without ‘evidence’ and challenges to his belief system. In a lecture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Mazur describes his ‘epiphany on his road to Damascus’. I have provided both the unabridged and the abridged versions.


Dr. Eric Mazur 2009: Confessions of a converted lecturer: UMBC Unabridged


Dr. Eric Mazur 2009: Confessions of a converted lecturer: UMBC abridged 18 minutes


Reshaping the Conversation

In this discussion I have taken the claim, “Science Teachers are not Scientists” as a comment rather than a debating point. I have intentionally reshaped the conversation to extend beyond the context/argument between James Davis and Mike McGarry. Inn this ‘musing’ after watching/listening to Tyler Dewitt’s and Dr. Eric Mazur’s ‘stories’ I was left with the impression  that  both stories and classroom data have the potential to improve the quality of the learning experience. I am now interested in exploring the notion that “Teachers of Science are Storytellers and Classroom Researchers”.


Finally, Father Guido Sarducci, in introducing his innovative start-up “the Five minute University”, in responding to B. F. Skinner’s claim: Education is what is left after everything that you learned is forgotten, asks “Why waste time teaching what the average college student forgets?”



Dr. Robert

My May musings are here