The Best Interest of the Students

The GRS team has been reading a lot on the roles of language and identity in science education over the last few weeks. Language and identity serve an important role in teaching and learning, particularly if you hold a constructivist view of knowledge. I am beginning to see how teachers help students “bridge” the language they bring to the classroom to language that is used by the larger scientific community. They also help students’ reconcile their outside-of-the-classroom identity with a new scientific identity they are developing. In Ball and Wilson (1996) describe a teacher’s duty as a balance between a knowledge endeavor and a moral enterprise. This is a balance that I’m struggling with as I think of how the theory I learn needs to be applied in the classroom.

In Integrity in Teaching, Ball describes teaching fractions to third graders. One student, Sheena, is adamant that 4/4 does not equal 5/5. She reasons that if you have a cookie divided into fourths, you cannot share it with five friends. However, if that cookie is divided into fifths, you can. Ball states:

I worried about what was in the best interest of the children. Which children? Only 4 out of 19 children were waging this battle – all girls. Two of the four – Jeannie and Sheena – were not regular participants in whole group discussions, and I was glad to have them involved. But I wondered what others were thinking. Were they engaged with this argument, and, if so, what was their position? I wanted to help all the students learn, not just teach four children, while the others observed. But how best to do it? (p. 169)

Ball does not come up with a solution that solved this problem and several students believed that 4/4≠5/5 when the class ends. Sheena was given the opportunity to present her, rather strong, argument as to why this was the case and won students over to her side.

I try to reconcile that anecdote with some of the teaching practices suggested in our reading. Cartier, Smith, and Ross (2013) describe “calling for volunteers but then strategically selecting from among them, the teacher signals appreciation for students’ spontaneous contributions, while at the same time keeping control of the ideas that are publically presented” (p. 31). I can understand why the authors recommend that teachers control the ideas that presented in their classrooms after reading Ball describe how conflicted she felt about the misconception that gained traction in her classroom. However, I love the discourse in Ball’s classroom. Though Sheena did not regularly participate in-group discussions, she was willing to present an argument and challenge the teacher. I would feel much more accomplished as a teacher if I had students willing to engage in discourse like Sheena. However, I struggle with whether or not students can afford to hold on to misconceptions. The fraction lesson Ball described happened at the very end of the school year and it is possible some of her students entered fourth grade not understanding this point. Thinking specifically of marginalized students, I wonder if it is in the best interests of the students to teach them the “right” answer or give them the tools and confidence to participate in discourse. I realize, like Ball and Wilson, that there is a balance. Yet there are times a choice has to be made.

Ball, D. L., & Wilson, S. W. (1996). Integrity in teaching: Recognizing the fusion of the moral and the intellectual. American Educational Research Journal, 33(1), 155-192.

Cartier, J., Smith, M.S., Stein, M.K. & Ross, D. (2013). 5 Practices for Orchestrating Task-Based Discussions in Science , NCTM, Reston, VA, (pp1-18).

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