What makes a good science teacher?

Just as I’m finally answering last week’s question comes a new one:

What makes a good science teacher?

Thoughts after the jump…

For me, I think it comes down to three E’s: Education, Explanation, and Enthusiasm.

I’ll start with education, since it’s the most obvious. Clearly, one should know their stuff when they’re teaching, whether it’s to first-graders or college students.

However, it’s often the case that with increasing education comes a decreased ability to explain basic concepts to a beginning audience. It can be tough to remember that not everyone understands all the underlying concepts that go into any scientific discussion, and the more immersed one becomes in the jargon and high-level discussion, the more difficult it can be to present the science at a level that’s appropriate to the audience. This is something I know I struggle with, and certainly don’t always succeed.

Still, the knowledge–and the ability to present it clearly–may make for an adequate science teacher, but in my opinion, not a “good” one (though we could quibble about just what “good” means, I suppose). Hence, my inclusion of enthusiasm as a criterion. A love of the material can be infectious, and can make all the difference between having students just memorize the information, and really understand (and, hopefully, enjoy!) it.

10 Replies to “What makes a good science teacher?”

  1. I can’t quarrel with education and enthusiasm but I am not sure about explanation. It suggests that you need some kind of gift for explanation or you won’t succeed as a teacher. It helps to have a gift, but a teacher without that gift can make up for it by understanding about how kids learn and planning well structured lessons – which will probably be learner centred. I think this is true whatever the subject.

  2. Being able to explain something well may not be absolutely necessary, but it sure helps! A good teacher should be able to couch his or her subject in terms that students can understand or at least relate to. The explanations need not be verbal or written. Students are not the only ones with different kinds of intelligence and learning styles.

    Education is important, as well, but an effective teacher also has to understand the subject thoroughly. We all could recall teachers (or others) who had the necessary paper credentials, but little comprehension of the subject in question.

    College profs can have the specialization syndrome, as Tara admits, but high school teachers can have the “knows enough to be dangerous, but too little to be comprehensible” syndrome. These are the ones who know only as much the textbook imparts and what their memories of college courses provide. So good teachers never give up learning their subject; they remain students.

  3. Richard Feynman once said something which I can only remember approximately, but which I think is very good. When teaching a subject, he said, “Imagine you are explaining it to your smart but ignorant former self at the beginning of your studies.”

  4. I think you need a power to conceive ignorance, or maybe it’s just put yourself in the shoes of your audience. I think that’s why being full of yourself is such a liability as a teacher, and so why so many top flight academics are incompetent teachers.

  5. Knowledge and understanding of the subject is critical but not sufficient. Knowledge of how kids learn, whatever the level, is equally important. And the capacity to explain in plain language is just as critical. But above all, if the teacher can’t ask probing questions that challenge the students, they might as well work as a clerk in a store. I’ve watched dozens of teachers in classrooms and the ones that clicked were those who mostly answered questions with questions, pushing the students to think about the questions they asked. Invariably the students answered their own questions or figured out how to go about answering it. Teachers who were content to just lecture or explain, allowing the students to remain passive, invariably fell short.

  6. Ahhhh…the Socratic method of teaching!!! I am glad to read I’m not the only one who holds onto the “anwser a question with a question” philosophy. Although I have read and (been forced to) attended workshops on the new, latest, and greatest teaching methods that rear their heads every year or two, I stand my ground that Socrates had gotten this teaching thing mostly right many moons ago.

    In my (very opinionated) opinion, a good science teacher should:

    1. pose some sort of a problem or question
    2. lead a brainstorming discussion on possible solutions to the problem
    3. allow the students to pick which (if any) of the brainstorming ideas might work
    4. guide the students in forming formal hypotheses
    5. help the students to design experiments to test their hypothses

    This really can be done at any age level where the student/child is able to communicate. I have a 3.5 year old son who I have already groomed to always ask questions. One of his lates questions is “who would win a fight…a dolphin or a shark?” (does anyone now an answer to this?) I, of course asked him what he thought would happen if a dolphin and a shark got into a fight. With each answer, I asked another question (can anyone say child abuse). He actually loves playing this game (when he is not tired and cranky). Of course we have no way of testing some of his guesses for solving such conundrums, he does understand that getting answers to “things” is not always easy.

    I hope he gets something out of our chats. I feel sorry for his elementary school teachers when he gets there.


  7. Jay – consider yourself fortunate you are only asked which would win, a dolphin or a shark. We regularly got asked questions like ‘What would win, a killer whale or a tiger?’ Suggesting that they would never meet or asking why they would want to fight was not considered an adequate answer.

    Yes, I agree asking questions is a good way to get students to learn. I’ve given agriculture/economic botany courses in rural Africa and on Indian reserves in Canada and in both places students were keen to find out the traditional practices from parents and grandparents, and most responded by putting in a major effort.

    With first year university students, I’ve told them that some of what they learn in university science courses will be wrong, not because the lecturer is uninformed but because people in general have the wrong idea. They are generally a bit taken aback but I feel it helps to get them used to the idea that there are still many things to find out.

  8. Man, I always hated the Socratic method for learning facts! If you know the answer, and I don’t, don’t make me guess!

    Figuring out something can be a good method, but I really hate those classes where the teacher just keeps asking what the students think over and over and over again…

    That said, I admit to making my students figure out why the grammar of the sentence means their first guess at translation is completely backwards.

  9. One of his lates questions is “who would win a fight…a dolphin or a shark?” (does anyone now an answer to this?)

    I don’t think there is one correct answer to this. It would depend on the circumstances of the fight. Dolphins have been known to kill small sharks, but dolphin remains have also been taken out of shark stomachs. Plus, dolphins are more likely to gang up, and that’s just not fair.

    My bet would be that in a one-on-one battle between similar sized creatures, the shark would come out on top pretty much every time. Dolphins are smarter without a doubt, but you don’t gotta be all that smart in a street fight.

  10. As an added fillup to this discussion, loosely related, I’ve always liked the comment of David Hilbert, the German mathematician: “A mathematical theory is not to be considered complete until you have made it so clear that you can explain it to the first man whom you meet on the street.” For me it applies to scientific theories and teachers–their understanding of their discipline. As a long time science textbook editor (K-12), but now retired, I’ve watched countless teachers, in both public and private schools (and significant numbers at the college level too), who couldn’t explain one iota of what they taught, much less pose a question in a Socratic dialogue. They relied entirely on the textbook and multiple choice tests to the detriment of their students’ education. That phenomenon made text book writing/publishing supremely frustrating.

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