The Child as Unit of Consideration: So, What Do You Teach?

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From the Fall 2009 Caller

By Paul Dickinson

One of my students sat there in tears. She was only one month into her freshman year and sadly disappointed with her science test results. She told me she had never gotten such a bad score—13 out of 30 on a difficult test. She was a keen participant in my class, so I knew she should have done better. Going over the test with her later, I quickly came to see why it was so hard for her.
One test question asked: “An evaporating dish with a total mass of 79.56 grams of liquid was boiled until all that remained was a white solid. The dish with the solid was found to have a mass of 59.39 grams. After the solid was removed, the dish had a mass of 51.86 grams. What mass of water was boiled away in the process?” I asked her to illustrate the test question as if it were a comic strip, labeling each stage with its quantities. Using this visual approach, she quickly found the correct answer. When she retook the test, she answered 24 of the 30 problems correctly. She couldn’t help being pleased.
It is precisely this kind of mastery after struggling with something difficult that builds a student’s self-confidence. I see and hear my colleagues working to help students experience such efforts and successes nearly every day. Another simple yet helpful technique that I teach was suggested by my colleague John Wiser, during a discussion of how I could help one of my advisees. He said that each paragraph should be viewed as the answer to a question, and that my student should read carefully and reflectively enough to figure out what question was answered by each paragraph. Science texts, like history texts, are densely packed with information. So, with freshmen, I begin the year with some practice reading of paragraphs. They learn to pin down the question, and identify the topic sentence. It teaches students, early on, how to engage the material and how slowly they must read a science text to gain understanding.
Because of learning differences, students find different methods to their liking. What works for one is not helpful to another, so I introduce different methods as the year progresses. In many cases I sit down with an individual student to try a series of methods. This year, my student Lauren was perplexed by physics problems that involved organizing and keeping track of all the numbers needed to solve equations. She and I worked out a data table that she could fill in to identify the variable she had to solve. When we presented it in class, it proved helpful to many other students in the class. From now on I will call that method the “Laurenian diagram” in her honor for her contribution to the all of our learning as well as future students. I have another trick in my bag.
When I took a two-day seminar from Mel Levine, the originator of the famous “All Kinds of Minds” program, we read lists of the many things that have to go right in the human brain for someone to focus, hear, analyze, and act, just to follow a single instruction. Those lists gave me a wealth of knowledge to fashion different strategies for different students.
So when someone asks, “Do you teach science?” I smile to myself, and for the sake of simplicity, I answer “That’s what it says on my contract.” What we know now about how people learn and how we apply that, and the individualized methods we work out with our students, are what “teaching” really is—and science merely gives me the wonderful, exciting, and timely activities that provide the vehicle for teaching.
Upper School science teacher Paul Dickinson (“Mr. D”) has been a faculty member since 1969.