Big questions

cliche used? check!

cliche used? check!

Too often we treat our students with kid gloves.  We give them weak, watered down, sterile, sanitized, aseptic curriculum.  Curriculum that reminds you of grandmother’s powder room in which you were afraid to dirty the towels, so you dried you hands on your pants instead.

We don’t let students wrestle with the really big questions of life.  Instead, we try to give them “thinking skills” and teach them how to answer their own questions.  That is, as long as the questions are the “safe” ones.

I’ve been guilty of this at times myself.  This year I’m trying to force myself in the opposite direction.  It ain’t easy, for me or for the kids.

When it comes to evolution, students ask questions that many adults have yet to answer for themselves.  In many science classes, evolution is treated in a rigidly scientific manner.  This approach, while loyal to the content, allows students to compartmentalize.  They tell themselves that their teacher can only teach them what’s in “the standards” or “the book.”  The teacher uses this as an excuse to keep the carnage to a minimum.  Nobody wants the mess on their shoes.

Most science teachers take one of 3 approaches to controversial topics:

Option A - Ignore it; don’t cover it; avoid the controversy altogether.

Option B - Address it directly and scientifically.  Leave no room for debate, disagreement, or discomfort.  Heaven forbid you get a call from an angry parent (for what it’s worth, if you teach a topic they don’t like, they’ll call anyway…)

Option C - Preach the gospel of science, baby!  Convert your students to the church of Darwin & Dawkins.  Tell them what to believe and think and why.

Each of these approaches is wrong.

ostriches really do this???

ostriches really do this???

Option A is wrong because it sets students up for a life lived in denial and ignorance.

Option B is wrong because it ignores the nature of science.  Science is messy and constantly debated.  There is plenty of gray area in science.

Option C is wrong because it can offend people and drive them away from science forever.  People hold grudges against former teachers for the rest of their lives.

So what should we do?

mmm... truthiness

mmm... truthiness

I believe that we must allow students to wrestle with the really big questions of their world.  The very same questions that adults argue about endlessly.  The questions that have made CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News major players in the media market.  The same questions that have made The Daily Show and The Colbert Report so successful for their incisive spoofing of these “news” networks.

Does this mean we let them debate creationism vs. evolution in class.  Well, no.  However, I’m letting them examine such topics on their blogs as part of their current project.  Students have generated their own questions and are now diving in.  In about a week, the results of their research will be published on their blogs for all of the world to see.

At least it won’t be boring…

Self-lacing kid gloves from Wikimedia Commons
Ostrich picture from the flickr stream of Spartacus007
Stephen Colbert picture from the flickr stream of Mindsay Mohan

5 thoughts on “Big questions

  1. Hear, hear! Although I think fear of controversy not the only reason we shy away from these big questions. the other big limiting factor has to be time. To truly explore a contentious issue requires a time commitment that many of us cannot easily afford given our already overstuffed curricula. It’s even harder to defend when the discussions wander across disciplinary boundaries. But to raise the questions and then not devote the time necessary to examine them thoroughly–well that’s what those who call for you to “teach the controversy” are hoping for, isn’t it?

    BTW, I just finished a blog post that ends on a similar note where I think out loud about how to teach global warming in the classroom.

  2. I was just discussing this with a parent during conferences yesterday. Their daughter is frustrated in my class this year because last year her Science teacher had differently structured lessons where students read selections and then were able to choose correct answers and have them validated (I’m thinking graded). Well, this year not only am I not answering questions, I’m also letting students share their thoughts and questions. What’s happening is someone could think they’ve figured something out and then another students raises a question that forces rethinking! Students aren’t sure if they’re right and I’m seeing some great discourse and great thinking going on. That is really frustrating for those who just want the answer and want to move on. I feel for her but I want my students to be thinkers and be able to defend their understanding instead of getting the right answer and moving on to another topic. :o)

  3. It’s even harder to defend when the discussions wander across disciplinary boundaries

    It’s a sad statement that a teacher would feel like they need to defend interdisciplinary connections. To me, that is one of the core criteria of an authentic learning community. If kids are forced to learn science in a box, then they aren’t really learning science.

    I’m fortunate to not feel that I have to defend my practices. I wonder how long that will continue?

  4. It’s ironic that many of the most frustrated students in an inquiry-centered class are the most “achievement (read: grades) focused” kids.

    My kids often complain that I never answer their questions. Some get frustrated. Yet, every time they answer it for themselves, they feel such a sense of pride and accomplishment.

    I love it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>