by Wakerobin Gendel Sattler
My decision to attend the Fall 2019 OSTA Conference in Eugene this year was at the encouragement of a colleague who, having attended conferences in the past, thought it would be an opportunity for us to collaborate, learn and connect with other science teachers throughout the state. Initially I was hesitant: my background and training is in mathematics and, although I am passionate about science, I don’t have a lot of experience or training in science instruction. Admittedly, I fell into my current teaching assignment only because my middle school adopted a block schedule, which meant math teachers taught both math and science, and vice versa. Thus, I was a little intimidated presenting myself as a science instructor, knowing that the collective audience had a lot more content knowledge and understanding of current pedagogy. On the other hand, I came with open eyes and a fresh perspective.
It is hard to quantify what I learned from the experience. The focus of the workshops I attended were not on learning objectives, but on engagement and discovery. This was reiterated by the keynote speaker: science instruction in the early to middle school grades has shifted away from content acquisition toward building student understanding and appreciation for the scientific process and inquiry methods. Rather than teaching facts, we are expected to inspire students to ask questions, develop their own routes of discovery, and communicate their learning with others. Instead of teaching in the traditional sense, we are charged with the task of being the facilitators of student learning. We are science “coaches”, if you will, providing safe boundaries and the means for students to engage and explore.
Although this shift in instructional models is exciting, it also presents new challenges. Assessment of student knowledge may feel subjective, even when possible outcomes and the criteria for success are well thought out. It is not always possible to anticipate where a student’s journeys may take them. One must be open to unexpected outcomes and be ready to drift from what might have been a well thought out course. This could be challenging for teachers who are bound by scope and sequence or curriculum adoptions. Still, it is important that student inquiry and questioning drive the instructional process. The challenge becomes finding routes to make learning relevant to the content standards, as well as developing ways to ensure content standards capture student interest.
Our role in this new teacher-student dichotomy presents challenges, but also presents new opportunities. Mastery of the teaching profession will not be judged on content knowledge, but on one’s ability to be responsive and exhibit flexible thinking, forcing us to constantly refine our craft. In the end, although I anticipate many obstacles, the opportunity to reevaluate my own professional practice leaves me with a sense of excitement and wonder, which I hope I can instill in the students in my tutelage.