This morning I conquered, or at least met head on, a huge personal fear: speaking in front of a large group of peers. You may assume because I have a job that requires me to stand in front of students and even some teachers, that this would come easily. It does not. Every time it is terrifying. (Well, not speaking in front of kids.) It's always been a challenge for me.
In June, I received an email out of the blue from one of the CSUF California Teachers Summit organizers asking me if I would agree to serve as one of the two EdTalk speakers. The pitch seemed simple to start, talk about my experiences to a group of teachers. I don't remember that the fact was disclosed that the group of teachers was 1000+ strong. That came later.
Thursday after I saw the venue and got the opportunity to walk up onto the stage and see what it was going to look like. The stage manager, David, was wonderful and walked me through what I needed to know. What I realized was that beyond the first row of tables you couldn't really see the audience. So much better for imagining that they don't exist. :)
The whole experience was absolutely terrifying, but it was also incredible. Once I got past the first little bit, I didn't feel as nervous as I was expecting. The only tough part was I swear time moved faster when I was on stage than when I practiced. The last two minutes were a bit rushed, but it worked out. Overall, I'm proud of the message I shared about science and change. I'm both thankful for the opportunity and the fact that it's over! Below is the intended text of my spiel today.
Belief in a Sea of Change
Belief. Take a very short moment to consider the beliefs that you hold most dear. I believe that we live in an amazingly beautiful world and that, through science, we can make sense of what we see and experience. For me, science is a vehicle for questioning, exploration, discovery, and even personal introspection. I’m privileged to share my love of science with others by providing science professional development to all of the K-8 teachers in my district. Specifically, though, most people just see me as a science nerd. You know, that one - which according to some means that I’m a bit socially awkward, though somewhat intelligent, and incredibly passionate about science and education. So, bear with me today.
Of course, I haven’t always been a Teacher on Special Assignment or TOSA. I spent nine years teaching middle school science at a K-8 public school not too far from here. I loved being both a classroom teacher and a Science Olympiad coach. Like so many of you, I thrived in the classroom. And not to be too pompous, but I was pretty good at my job - at least according to our annual test results. I actually had two classes, in a row, that scored 100% proficient and advanced on the CST and no class ever scored below 92%. We applauded those scores, but the truth is that those scores didn’t mean that I was a good science teacher. I was proud of my students but felt that something was missing. Something, in the back of my mind, didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what, exactly, just something.
And so, I can vividly remember when the first draft of the Next Generation Science Standards was released. I remember clicking on that link and downloading the file...anxiously waiting for it to open. I was eager, hopeful, and worried. Worried… There was so much initial misunderstanding around the release of earlier standards and I was worried that science would follow the same pattern. Would it just be a repeat? At last, the file opened. I scrolled and I started to read. “Conduct an investigation…” “Engage in argument from evidence…” “Make observations…” I kept scrolling. And as I scrolled down, down the tears fell. Perhaps not for the reason you’d think, though.
Because, finally…finally, there was a moment of clarity. I understood both what was missing and what I could do to make it whole again. You see, I think science education has a problem - a very real problem. It’s an image problem and I think our new science standards have the potential to address that problem.
Let me explain. Have you ever asked a child to draw a scientist? It’s an enlightening experience and very much worth your time. I promise. I can tell you what you’re likely to get: a man, wearing a lab coat, probably with glasses and crazy hair, holding either a magnifying glass or something that is or is about to explode. Almost every time, it’s the same. Man. Lab coat. Glasses. Crazy hair. Explosion. And if that drawing could somehow capture intelligence, they’d tell you that he’s really smart. Maybe that’s why he wears glasses, because people who wear glasses are smart, right?
I’ve always wondered though, why is it that our students don’t just draw pictures of themselves? Children are natural born scientists. After all, their favorite question is…”Why?” So, why doesn’t that picture look like them? Why is it that people like me are called nerds? Aren’t we just curious thinkers? I think, sadly, that science education shoulders much of the blame for this, and unwittingly, we’ve all been pawns in the propagation of this myth in one form or another.
Beginning in 1998, teachers across the state implemented what was, at the time at least, considered to be a cutting edge new framework for science education. It was the first of its kind and contained within it were lists of new science standards. They were all eerily similar, however, because they all started with the phrase, “Students know that…”
“Students know the common properties of salts. Students know Earth is composed of several layers. Students know light travels in straight lines.” Gosh, it’s actually a bit painful to read them. And I want to let you in on a little secret. You didn’t actually have to do science in order to teach these standards because I’d argue that these standards do not accurately reflect the discipline. Reading, answering questions, and completing workbook pages can get kids to recite discrete facts. Did they understand the significance of the science? Did they understand how scientists came to those conclusions? Did they appreciate how science plays a part in their daily lives? Nope. But that wasn’t included in the standards or on the test.
So, science, in our classrooms, became a hollow shell of itself - if it was taught at all. These were notably dark times in science education. But thankfully, and I do mean thankfully, change is the only constant in life. And I’m sure that we would all agree that we are now living in the single greatest time of change in education’s history here in the United States. With the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards and the development of Preschool Learning Foundations in the area of science, we can no longer portray science as a passive process or a list of facts to simply know.
Yes, there are still disciplinary core ideas that students must grapple with over time. But, science is a process, an active process, that students must engage in, just as scientists and engineers do in their day-to-day work. Finally, we have a beautiful marriage of both content and process in the NGSS. Every performance expectation starts with an active phrase that denotes how they may engage with content and a broader theme that may provide a context for exploration. Learning must be rich and multifaceted.
This year, an incredible group of kindergarten students under the leadership of their amazing teacher, Mrs. Stephanie Burcombe embarked on a year-long “Twitter Buddy” partnership with a classroom in Texas. You may recall earlier this year that some cities in Texas experienced severe flooding and that many families were displaced from their homes. The empathetic “Burcombe Bunch,” as they are known, wanted to know how they could help their friends. And after attending an introductory NGSS training, Mrs. Burcombe had an idea about how to take their first baby steps from the 1998 standards towards the NGSS. As a class, they decided to build floatation devices for their friends, to help keep them safe during the flooding. They tested building materials in tubs of water, collected data, and classified materials into two groups: materials that were suitable for their floatation devices...and those that weren’t. They sketched possible designs for their devices, built, tested, and refined them...all while remaining focused on what they saw as a very real need: the safety of their friends. Not only did they learn about the design process, but they also learned that they have the ability to solve problems they see in the world. This is exciting and empowering. This is science and engineering. But you know what? It’s also math, reading, writing, communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity. To do science, we must engage in each of these because science cannot and should not ever stand alone. I’m thrilled that we have a new generation of young scientists, like the “Burcombe bunch”, experiencing this rebirth of science education.
Science certainly isn’t the only discipline to have undergone significant change in the past five years, nor will it be the last. We can have very much the same conversation about reading, mathematics, social studies, and so on. These changes are also reflected in the new ELA/ELD standards and throughout the curricula in California which emphasizes a 21st century perspective. We have changes all around. And you know what? Change is hard. It hurts. Some would say that change poses problems. I’d prefer to consider them as opportunities for personal and professional growth. Either way, problems or opportunities, we all, regardless of grade level or subject area, have a choice to make because we are all experiencing change. For the sake of our children, I hope that we all choose to be part of the solution.
But, I’ll be honest. I’m a bit greedy. I hope you’ll forgive me because I hope we go one step beyond that. I hope each of us chooses to lead that change in some way. That might look different for different people. Maybe it means volunteering to try out a new lesson sequence in your room. Or, perhaps, it’s asking to attend a conference and sharing your findings with your colleagues. Maybe it’s leading a professional book club for your department or PLC team. Whatever it is, like our students, we all need to take an active role in this process. Thus far, I’ve been fortunate enough to see our amazing teachers take the first steps forward to help address what I see as science education’s image problem. And, together, we are trying to reimagine an education where science, math, art, reading and writing all work in concert to produce a cohesive educational experience for our students. Like our disciplines, we truly are all better together than we could ever be apart.
So, as we get ready to start this next school year, I challenge us all to remember those beliefs we called to mind a bit ago. Reflect on them. Think about how we can sustain and foster those beliefs as we travel through this sea of change. Remember that change, though difficult, is an opportunity for personal and professional growth if that’s the choice we make. So, consider carefully what role we all play in the change process because our students are going to take their lead from us. They’re counting on us, all of us, to lead the way down the path to a brighter future. Thank you!