How To Improve Science Teaching

I’ve been asked to teach a class at Hunter College this Spring for the New Visions-Hunter Math and Science Teacher Residency program. The class is titled Pedagogical Content Knowledge II: Biology Education. This is the second in a series and I will be running teacher workshops covering evolution and ecology. The first series covered molecular biology and genetics. The teacher learners are enrolled in the M.A. program in the Education Department at Hunter through the Teacher Education Program in Adolescent Biology (Grades 7-12). This course is designed to provide them with graduate level biological content knowledge while also serving the in-classroom fieldwork needs of the New Visions program. I’ve been asked to teach the class because of my background in evolutionary biology and my years of education experience. In addition to covering ecology and evolutionary biology topics at the graduate level, the class will spend a considerable amount of time exploring pedagogical approaches to teaching high school level biology. In this I will be joined by instructors from the Hunter Education Department and education professionals from the New York Hall of Science. The class will be split between pedagogy and science content.

Venn diagram showing overlap of technical, pedagogical, and content knowledge

I’m excited about this opportunity at Hunter because I’ll have the chance to test out an idea about how to improve adolescent science education. The idea is really simple: teach the science teachers more science. This is one of the ideas behind the recent MOOCs I’ve been involved in at AMNH (the last of which concludes this week: Evolution, A Course for Educators) and is the basis of the Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) class at Hunter. The PCK approach stipulates that the teacher have a firm grasp of the science content—the better to surface prior knowledge, misconceptions, and to know what makes learning difficult in the particular.

The key to effective science teaching (effective meaning that the students learn) is the teacher’s solid knowledge of the content. While it’s important to know how to make a subject comprehensible to a learner (the pedagogy), one can’t even approach that goal without a solid, thorough, robust, and up-to-date understanding of the subject area. Domain knowledge is paramount. I believe everything else a teacher does in the classroom should follow from this first principle. Once the educator truly understands the content then they can effectively design approaches to teaching. Inverting the relationship dooms the learners and the teacher to rote learning and perpetuating misconceptions.

My goals will be to: (1) get the future masters teachers up to speed on subject areas (biological evolution and ecosystems in this case) and (2) enable these educators to stay there by teaching them ways to stay current. To do this, I expect that my curriculum for the Hunter program will extend beyond PCK and into the technological knowledge sphere, teaching the educators how to use technology to stay current with evolutionary biology and ecology. What would be really great is to also see more of a commitment from active researchers to science communication with educators (not merely the public). Where is there a place that educators can informally work with, learn from, and discuss science with scientists?

— Samuel