Each February, students of all ages start their academic year. And waiting for them in classrooms, science labs and lecture theatres are educators who’ve dedicated their careers to sharing knowledge and inspiring students to think differently.
Dr David Hoxley, La Trobe lecturer in physics, is one of them – his introductory unit ‘Principles of Physics’ has featured on the iTunes U international homepage. He shares his insights into the six essential qualities of a great science teacher.
1. Make learning hands-on
Whether you realise it or not, science is part of your everyday life. There’s science in making coffee, in systematically boiling pasta, or in watching the direction water goes down a plughole. A great science teacher recognises this and seizes opportunities to make learning hands-on.
“There’s a famous scene in The Simpsons where all the parents have to teach school for a day. One of the scientists sits in front of a class, playing with a trolley that makes little balls pop up. A kid asks, ‘Excuse me sir, can we play with the toy?’ and he says, ‘No. You wouldn’t appreciate it on as many levels as I do’.
“A lot of science lessons can be a bit like that. But when people get hands-on and think about what they’re learning and doing, they realise that science can provide good answers to complicated questions.”
2. Encourage your students to embrace failure
Subjects like physics set a high bar. Every hunch has to be anchored in an experiment and proven through precise measurement – and failed experiments are common. For David, showing students how to handle setbacks is key to keeping them enjoying science.
“The biggest challenge I face as a teacher is helping students develop a healthy relationship with failure. Physics is a subject where there is a right and a wrong. You’re wrong all the time in physics – and people will see you do it. Yet a characteristic you see in many physicists is that they don’t take the failure particularly personally,” he says.
By encouraging mistakes and modelling resilience in the classroom, you can help students reduce the pressure they put on themselves to always ‘get it right’. Give students permission to be wrong before they get it right and they’ll learn that it’s okay to fail many times before they succeed.
“I tell students, ‘I want you to go up to the whiteboard and get it wrong. I don’t want you to go up there and write down the correct answer because that’s a waste of everyone’s time.’ We need to make mistakes and learn from them,” David says.
3. Know the limits of your own knowledge
As a teacher, it’s near impossible to have absolute command of the material you teach – so knowing the bounds of your knowledge is important.
“You need to know when you are off your own intellectual map, at the point at which you’re just faking it. And you need to have a strategy for what happens when your students drive you to the edge of your expertise,” says David.
How you handle being at the limits of your knowledge will affect your students’ enquiry. Some teachers don’t want to be close to that edge, so they strongly control the scope of questions students can ask.
But David believes that great teachers are open to enquiry. They pursue what’s called a maieutic, or Socratic, teaching style that constantly questions students and encourages questioning in return. He admits some bravery is needed: “Because if the students are going to drive it, they’re going to take you strange places”.
4. Use re-representation to check students’ understanding
Multi-model representation is a pedagogical technique that asks students to present the concepts you give them in a different way. For example, you might tell students something, then ask them to draw a picture about it. By changing the mode of representation, students demonstrate the depth of their understanding.
“When someone re-represents in science – say they’re given numbers on a dial and asked to make a graph – you get to understand how much they know about it. You force them to rethink how they communicate it. In that process, they begin to understand it. They tell a story to themselves about what it means,” says David.
By checking learning using multiple modes, you also make sure no student is ‘parroting’ information back without understanding.
5. Scale up learning to teach big groups
Have you ever felt daunted by the thought of teaching a huge class? A great teacher scales the lesson to the number of people they’re teaching. For David, it’s about modelling your population and breaking them into targetable groups.
“If you’ve got a lecture theatre of 500 students, it’s about identifying overlapping components among the students in front of you, categorising them into certain sorts of backgrounds, so you can kind of hit three or four of these groups at the same time,” he says.
6. Learn from your students
Teaching is a relationship that benefits students, sure. But seen as a two-way partnership, it also builds your self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and your ability to ‘think about thinking’.
“Teaching has given me the opportunity to know myself through my students,” says David.
“To be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses is really hard. But teachers must have the courage to identify what their teaching practice is teaching them about themselves.”