Nature As A Teacher Essays On Success

Theoretically, using a critical perspective as a teaching method should vanquish the "silent classroom "; i.e., compulsive note taking, and lack of personal and intellectual involvement. In practice, that is not the case. In this essay, I present what I do to conquer the "silent classroom" while teaching Population Studies and Social Stratification. I then examine the possible determinants of student apathy and the failure of this approach, reaching the following conclusion: given the structure of higher education and the limited intellectual skills of most students, failure was unavoidable; I used a university-level teaching approach in an inappropriate context. Lectures (even if combined with films, videos, guest speakers, and mass media sources) might also be part of the problem; the use of active-learning techniques might be more conducive to teaching effectiveness. I question, however, their appropriateness in the context of university level teaching. The "silent classroom, " I conclude, might be an indicator of structural changes in U.S. education in which university level studies really begin, for all practical purposes, at the graduate level. Effectiveness in undergraduate teaching might be correlated with teachers' awareness of the real nature of what passes as university level education.

In a recent Doonesbury cartoon a teacher is upset because his students seem more intent on writing down what he says than on listening and understanding. He delivers a series of outrageous statements culminating with "Jefferson was the Antichrist! Democracy is fascism! Black is white! Night is day!" while students scribble frantically without pause. As the teacher collapses, saying "Teaching is dead," one student says, "Boy, this course is really getting interesting." Another answers, "You said it. I didn't know half that stuff."

In recent years I have often felt like that teacher, and many colleagues have told me of similar experiences. Most students, seemingly unconcerned with content, laboriously and uncritically write down whatever teachers say. They seldom challenge either the teacher or their readings; controversy and debate, when they arise, usually are about grading policies or requirements. This lack of interest and active engagement creates a distressing situation which led me to write about my experience in undergraduate teaching. In this essay I will present some observations based on my recent experiences and on concern for the growing gap that I, and other colleagues, perceive between what we expect from students and what most students seem able to do. This is not a research paper but a personal statement; as such, it is intended primarily to raise questions.

I teach from a critical perspective (challenging students' common-sense views as well as some which they may have acquired in the course of their education) as a method to encourage critical thinking. At the very least this approach should generate some discussion and debate. The fact that it does not requires an explanation. This essay is a preliminary examination of the conditions leading to student apathy in a teaching context which theoretically ought to preclude it. Consequently this essay also examines the conditions leading to the failure of the critical perspective used for generating debates and class participation and for fostering critical thinking.


Teaching from a critical perspective, in my view, means taking a critical stance toward ahistorical and one-sided explanations of social phenomena based (for example) in "natural laws," technological or ecological determinism, utilitarianism, human nature, or functionalism. This approach requires that we bring into the open the main theoretical assumptions about human nature, individual behavior, society, and social change which underlie all the social science perspectives pertinent to the topic under consideration, using as an underlying framework some of the main assumptions of historical materialism: 1) the relationship between experience and consciousness, 2) the importance of the organization of production in generating structural limits to institutional variation, and 3) the dialectical relationship between individuals' freedom "to make history" and the historical circumstances that establish the limits and content of their actions. In comparing the virtues and shortcomings of social science perspectives on specific issues, exploring the connections among their insights and research findings, and bringing together the various aspects of social reality that those perspectives help us to discover, students hypothetically should gain a more complete knowledge of the phenomena being studied. At the same time, they should be placed in a situation designed to help them develop 1) the capacity for critical thought (the ability to assess the merits and shortcomings of different social science perspectives); 2) the capacity for critical self-reflection, understanding themselves dialectically as historical and social beings who are unique individuals at the same time; and 3) the capacity for critical and informed social and political participation.

These goals presuppose a presentation of the subject matter and a structuring of the required work that seek to enhance students' knowledge and their capacity for critical and original thought. Therefore, teaching from a critical perspective is not equivalent to teaching an alternative theory. Students are not confronted by one more theory to be learned; they encounter a method of reasoning about social phenomena intended to enable them to gain the substantive knowledge and the analytical skills necessary to overcome ideological constraints. The ability to think critically and independently implies the ability to distance oneself from an unexamined view of the world and to develop one's own viewpoint on the basis of a reasoned and informed assessment of the claims of social scientists, intellectuals, professionals, politicians and the mass media. This ability implies the capacity to question the critical perspective itself as a mode of thinking about the connections among the various components of the object of study of the social sciences. These components include assumptions about the relationship among structure, consciousness, and behavior; the level of class relations and market-level behavior; production and reproduction; and freedom and necessity.

I developed these ideas independently of the literature; subsequently I learned that the meaning of critical thinking and its role in the learning process vary according to the intellectual tradition within which it is defined. Critical thinking can be conceptualized as a technical skill (following Dewey's philosophy of education) or as an approach to the world that seeks to understand the connections between freedom and necessity in a historical context (following Marx and contemporar neo-Marxists and critical theorists). The first conceptualization is intended to enhance problem-solving and decision-making skills; the second seeks to increase the ability to engage in democratic politics and self-emancipation. Both standpoints reject a passive mode of learning and emphasize the engagement of teachers and students in problem-solving and research activities. [note: I owe these insights to one of the anonymous reviewer of this essay.] In developing a method of teaching, I proceeded without relying on education theory, on the assumption that using a critical perspective as a teaching method also promoted the goals of teaching rational thinking: to educate well-informed, effective citizens (Baker and Jones 1981, p. 127).

The kernel of my approach to teaching is the idea that learning, both of content and of intellectual skills, is most likely to take place when one's common-sense, "natural" view of oneself and of social reality is questioned. To the extent that teaching from a critical perspective does exactly that, it should have a forceful effect on students; it should generate debates, or perhaps anger or distress. At the very least, it should create the desire to find out more about what one believes to be the case, in order to oppose the teacher's analysis of issues and his or her critique of textbook and common-sense theories about how things "really" are. It is in the context of passionate involvement and debate, through the desire to prove or disprove a point or defend a cherished belief, that intellectual skills and knowledge are best acquired and developed. As a student, I learned the most under such conditions. From this standpoint, success would be reflected in class discussions and examinations in which students use analytical skills in dealing with competing explanations of a given social pattern, with complex causal networks, and with theoretical analyses and/ or data that challenge their views. I wanted students to be critical and independent thinkers, able to support or critique a theoretical standpoint competently or to answer examination questions on the basis of reasoned sociological arguments and research findings rather than thoughtless memorization.

What takes place in practice is quite different; in the "silent classroom," challenges to common sense seem to be ignored or to be reduced to one more package of information and ideas to be remembered. In the section that follows, I will present a series of personal reflections and observations designed to show the reader what I actually do as a teacher, and why I developed the expectation-unreasonable, it seems, in the light of my experience-of eliciting a great deal of participation and controversy in the classroom, as students learn and sharpen their intellectual skills.


Since fall 1984, 1 have taught 244 students in undergraduate population studies (average class size = 40) and 114 in undergraduate social stratification (average class size = 38). Most students (74 percent) were enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences (average GPA = 2.76; Daily Camera 1988, p. IB); a relatively small percentage were sociology majors. [note: I was unable to obtain exact figures from the department office; I did not keep a record at the time because I had not envisioned using the information for an essay.]

I use standard teaching techniques: lectures (which I try to combine with discussions, though often without appreciable success) and handouts providing recent data, conceptual frameworks summarizing previous lectures, or supplementary information. I also use the mass media (asking students to watch certain TV programs and to read newspapers and magazines for relevant items), films, and videos. When possible, I present guest speakers (colleagues, members of other departments, or specialists from the community) whose views and/or current research can enhance the students' learning experience. As for course requirements, I have tried various combinations of multiple-choice and essay examinations, term papers, country projects (in the population courses), book reviews, and short essays. The combination might include a multiple-choice mid-term examination or four short essays plus a final composed of short-answer and essay questions. Before examinations, students receive a set of study questions to help them prepare. I construct questions to elicit thinking, not pattern recognition; to answer these questions, students must use reasoning, not memorization. I organize lectures to accomplish the following objectives:

1 ) to introduce and explain basic elements of

sociological analysis. Most students are not sociology majors, and even those who are often lack a solid analytical foundation. 2) to establish connections among readings and among seemingly unrelated sections of read- ings. 3) to establish, as a point of departure for considering the course content, the differ- ences and relationships among the levels of analysis used in psychology. psychohistory, social psychology, and sociology. 4) to locate theories, theoretical propositions, and common-sense views about causal rela- tionships within those levels of analyses. 5) to share my theoretical and empirical inquiry with students, illustrating from my own practice the logic of sociological research and processes of theory development. 6) to examine population issues and social stratification using a critical perspective (i.e., investigating the historically specific determi- nants of population structures and processes, and current patterns of social stratification). In this process I indicate a) the discrepancies between widely held beliefs and the results of theoretical analysis and empirical research; b) the connections among the different levels of analysis in which population and stratifi- cation phenomena are located, such as production, market, society, and state; c) the socially determined nature of the alternatives facing individuals-what sociologists call the "sociological predicament"; and d) the em- powering nature of knowledge.

These statements are an attempt to show how my lectures are affected by the methodological use of a critical perspective. Essentially this approach entails the transformation of the teacher into a "benign disrupter" [note: For a discussion of "benign disruption" as a means who for creating classroom conditions conducive to learning critical thinking skills, see Goldsmid and Wilson 1980, pp. 78-97, 297-298.] who challenges preconceptions and stereotypes. Such a teacher does not have a "line" that students must follow, but encourages them to develop their own viewpoint as long as it is well argued sociologically. [note: I explain to students that although it is important to discuss their feelings and beliefs in class, it is also important that they develop the ability to think sociologically about the course content.] Theoretically, my way of teaching should create "cognitive dissonance," generate debates, and enhance learning. In practice, however, this is not the case: students remain mostly silent, busily taking notes and trying to get every word on paper as if that process somehow would help them learn. Examination results generally are disappointing; with few exceptions, answers that do not reiterate stereotypes and ideological views (one-sided, empirically indefensible) tend to reflect memorization, not thinking and learning.


I often have asked myself why the majority of students behave like those in the Doonesbury cartoon. In every class a few students participate more than the rest, although class participation and dialogue, welcome as they are, remain within limited bounds and focus at best on conceptual clarification. A few students tell me outside the classroom that they enjoy the class and appreciate the challenges and new ideas; others, too shy perhaps to tell me personally how they feel about the class, write short messages on the last page of their final examinations. No matter how few they might be, they make it all worthwhile, but I always wonder and worry about the "silent majority" in the classroom and the reasons for their silence.

Because I teach in a state university where most of the students are affluent and white, the students' apathy may reflect their class background. This is not to say that students are conservative in their political outlook, but that their relatively secure position in the world makes their sense of self and reality impervious to the challenges implicit in teaching from a critical perspective. Other important structural determinants of student apathy, however, are rooted in the educational system itself, and in some characteristics of American society.

In the state university system, an important structural determinant of the "silent classroom" in sociology classes is an administrative policy that regards sociology as a service discipline useful for bolstering undergraduate enrollments by servicing preprofessional programs. Economic and political changes during the 1970s and 1980s led to declining enrollments in sociology (and in other social sciences as well), while enrollments in preprofessional and professional programs soared. In a time of shrinking funds for education, these developments have placed sociology in jeopardy. Administrative cuts or the threat of cuts can pressure sociology departments to develop survival strategies designed to market their discipline, tailoring course offerings to the needs of other university programs and to the job market. In those conditions, course requirements become counterproductive because they curtail enrollments, and the curriculum as a whole grows weak. These developments eventually undermine the quality of the department's course offerings and the academic credibility of the program; thus new administrative threats are generated (for a discussion of these issues, see Stark 1984, p. 11).

These departmental conditions (together with the "market" approach to undergraduate education) have a profound effect on teaching, particularly the teaching of upper-division courses: only a minority of students are likely to be sociology majors, and even they might not have the solid background in sociology which is conducive to greater class participation. As a result, I invariably must dedicate a few classes to presenting the basics and to explaining what the sociological perspective is all about. Lack of class participation might result in part from nonmajors' instrumental attitude to the course and from majors' lack of integrated knowledge of basic sociology and sociological perspectives.

A second important structural determinant, which establishes the conditions for the first, is the organization of undergraduate education itself. Education at this level operates like a marketplace, where most students shop around each semester and emerge with a schedule that often reflects their preferred use of time rather than well-considered choices. Even when students are fulfilling their requirements conscientiously, the ultimate result may be disappointing; the whole may be less than the sum of its parts.

Third, the conditions under which students must study are as inappropriate as the conditions for teaching. The university system makes enormous time demands on students; because they must complete successfully several courses per semester, they never have time to reflect, to conduct research on their own, to develop a self-directed style of study, or to acquire an independent orientation to the discipline or to a particular topic. In this situation, teachers like myself meet at cross-purposes with their students. From the students' standpoint, such teachers are too demanding: they require too much reading and too much writing.

A fourth determinant concerns the effects of American high school education, which is shaped by educational theories based on the notion that "learning should be problem centered rather than . . . concept centered" (Aronowitz and Giroux 1985, p. 50). Most students seem to reach the university lacking basic knowledge and skills: they are unable to express their thoughts orally or in writing in a clear, articulate way, and they experience enormous difficulties in dealing with abstractions. They manifest "a tendency towards literalness . . . (they) seem enslaved to the concrete"; thus "students exemplify an extreme form of empiricist epistemology" (Aronowitz and Giroux 1985, p. 49). The widespread use of simple multiple-choice questions (encouraged by textbooks that give teachers hundreds of ready-made questions for examinations) fosters the development of pattern recognition skills, while the ability to analyze, to synthesize, to develop inferences from data or from given premises, and to think independently and critically remain relatively undeveloped. My assessment of this problem is shared by colleagues. One professor of psychology at Boulder wrote recently:

[M]y own classroom experience suggests that there are profound deficiencies in the ability of many undergraduates to think logically and to employ analogical reasoning. This condition is closely associated with a disinclination and/or lack of ability to engage in critical thinking. Text is accepted without reflection, and authoritative status is granted without reservation. The provisional nature of opinion and of truth claims is not understood. If it is written down or presented by authority figure there is little disposition to entertain doubt (Gollin 1987, p. 3; emphasis in the text).

What goes on in schools, on the other hand, reflects what takes place in the social and cultural context. Mass culture, particularly television, has " . . . colonized the social space available to the ordinary person for reading, discussions, and critical thought" (Aronowitz and Giroux 1985, p. 51). The privatization of American life and the transformation of most people into passive consumers of entertainment have undermined their ability to think critically about themselves, their country, and world affairs; few students grow up in households where adults, relying on their own sense of lived history, engage in critical discourse as an ordinary activity.

A fifth structural determinant, obvious but crucial, is the fact that education-whatever lofty ideals administrators, politicians, and the mass media may express from time to time-is simply a means for employment. Young people come to the university (with some exceptions, no doubt) to obtain the credentials that will give them an edge in the job market. Understandably, they do their best to maximize their chances, and they approach their studies with market demands in mind. Therefore they have little time or desire for intellectual exploration for its own sake.

Last but not least is the possibility that my classroom experience may reflect my reliance on lectures. Research suggests that lectures are effective for transmitting information but "not as effective as discussion or other active-learning methods in promoting thought and developing higher order intellectual skills" (Goldsmid and Wilson 1980, p. 277; emphasis in text). On the other hand, lectures can be made effective; they do not have to be dominated by the instructor or made into boring exercises of exposition. There are ways of structuring form and content which (theoretically) can be as productive as other methods (see, for example, Goldsmid and Wilson 1980, p. 201-218).

As shown by my earlier statement about the goals of my lectures, I do not indulge in simple exposition. Ideally, my lectures should be effective; colleagues who invite me to be a guest speaker in their classes or who visit my classroom have given me positive feedback. Most students, however, seem unimpressed; some find lectures useful, while others complain that I am not covering the readings. I make it clear from the very beginning, however, that I take for granted their ability to read; although I will answer their questions and will explain concepts and theories, the lectures are designed to supplement and go beyond the readings.

Furthermore, students tend to find reading and writing requirements excessive, and consider both readings and examination questions "too hard." It seems that the empiricist epistemology which students bring to the classroom stands in the way of their ability to grasp abstractions and relationships between aspects of social life which have not been reified already into recognizable patterns. This situation would explain, for example, why students easily understand Davis and Moore's (1966) meritocratic theory of stratification but find Tumin's (1966) critique difficult and unconvincing.

Under the conditions described above, the "silent classroom" is to be expected. I still believe that any challenge to people's commonly held values and to their sense of self, place in society, and the nature of social reality is likely to generate controversy and debate, as long as the challenge is understood. It may be that lectures, whatever their structure and their intended methodological goals, are insufficient to challenge students' epistemological limitations. In turn, these limitations probably are reinforced in other classes and certainly are strengthened by the culture and the mass media.

Some teachers rely on unusual techniques to enhance learning and to make students more interested and involved. A temporary though superficial "success" might result from teaching games, techniques based on ethnomethodological practices designed to shake students' "normal" expectations in the classroom, or therapeutic techniques designed to help students "feel good" about the class and about themselves. Students might become angry or worshipful, depending on the technique, and might respond positively to the teacher's efforts, but the "silent classroom" has roots beyond the reach of teaching techniques, no matter how innovative they may be. (For an excellent critique of the "therapeutic classroom" see Elshtain 1978, pp. 291-313). Some of those techniques, particularly those which cater to the individualistic and psychologistic outlook that students bring to the classroom, actually might increase students' difficulty in dealing with structural and macro-level social science analysis.

Nevertheless, perhaps I should consider adopting some techniques that others have found successful, such as asking students to write autobiographies (Aronowitz and Giroux 1985, p. 54), to keep diaries (as is common in women's studies courses), or to design utopias which engage students in "consciousness raising around methodology and ideology" (Shor 1978, pp. 176-195). I might also increase my effectiveness as a teacher by reducing my reliance on lectures and by using other ways to generate discussions such as organizing a debate, dividing the class into small groups which then report to the class as a whole, or asking students to teach their peers.

I acknowledge research findings that give credence to the effectiveness of these and other active-learning methods, but one question remains unanswered to my satisfaction: Are they appropriate for university-level teaching? Aren't these techniques more appropriate in high school? Shouldn't students come to the university already in possession of considerable cognitive and writing skills so that the gap between teachers and students is narrower than at the present? This gap creates a situation conducive to the failure of students' and teachers' efforts. Teachers must choose either to fail as teachers for some of their undergraduate students while attempting to challenge them intellectually by treating them as learning peers, or to obtain good teaching evaluations at the price of simplifying and avoiding complexity and ambiguity. In Gill's (1986) words, "The system tends to reward those faculty who can produce the greatest discontinuity between the cognitive demands in research and those required from students" (Gill 1986, p. 16).


I have, it should be clear, no research evidence to support this analysis. It is based on my teaching experience alone, although colleagues here and in other universities agree with much of what I have said. The articles by professors Gollin (1986) and Gill (1986), from this university, also show that a great deal of similarity exists between their experiences and mine. On the other hand, experiences and forms of consciousness are not uniquely our own but are the product of multiple historical determinations. Thus, even though these statements are unsupported by hard data, they are likely to be echoed by many others who struggle under the same conditions.

The silent classroom is the outcome of many structural and ideological factors that subvert the potential for learning and for generating classroom debate; such potential is inherent in teaching from a critical perspective or any other viewpoint that seeks to increase students' knowledge and intellectual abilities. Stark (1984, pp. 11-12), facing similar problems in the course of teaching critical sociology, suggests that teachers should focus their energies on creating the required "preconditions"; specifically, teaching the thinking and writing skills that students should have learned in high school. After all, university-level teaching requires students with university-level skills.

Many teachers, including myself, recognize this elementary need and try to help students reach that level. This practice seems laudable in itself but has disturbing, though not unexpected, implications about the nature of higher education in the United States. It indicates more clearly than any amount of writing on the topic that what passes as university education at the undergraduate level is increasingly taking over the tasks of high school education. Meanwhile the latter consolidates and keeps primarily its sorting functions: placing young people into "tracks," directing them toward different kinds of job training and educational institutions (which sometimes are hard to differentiate, especially at the level of two-year colleges), or pushing them directly into the labor force.

Now that I have achieved this understanding of the structural context of higher education, it is time to engage in selfcriticism. I relied a great deal on lectures: regardless of my intended goals, that technique seems to be less suitable for attaining those goals, particularly when students focus on content rather than on structure. Furthermore, I disregarded the context in which teaching takes place; I used a method that gave me excellent results elsewhere (Dartmouth College and the University of Kent in England) without coming to terms, in practice, with the realities of mass education in a state university. In part, the silent classroom is a situation of my own making.

This point opens up a new line of inquiry which cannot be pursued in this essay: the relationship between successful teaching and job satisfaction among college teachers, and their awareness of the real, nonuniversity nature of the institutions where they teach. For example, the trend toward making universities accountable for what they do through "outcome assessment" processes which entail the definition of measurable educational goals is likely to narrow the gap between high school and university-level teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level. This practice is being established at the University of Colorado. University and college teachers might become more effective insofar as they recognize the realities behind the role of university professor and the degree to which universities are not exactly what they claim to be. The fact that many teachers already recognize this situation (consciously or unconsciously) is evident to me in the kinds of teaching techniques and games devised to entice undergraduate students to learn.

An analysis of the possible determinants of the silent classroom does not point to quick solutions which would improve teaching without lowering standards almost to high school levels. Having acknowledged my share of the responsibility, I intend to reexamine my teaching strategies. I plan to adopt several of the techniques described in Goldsmid and Wilson (1980) and in the Compendium of Good Ideas, circulated at the University of Colorado by the Faculty Teaching Excellence Program. Even so, I think that the structure of undergraduate education needs to be changed along the following or similar lines:

  1. Each department would prepare different paths for the attainment of a B.A. degree and would have a commitment to offer those courses regularly, regardless of the number of students enrolled. This arrangement would enable students to plan and pace their education from beginning to end.
  2. Students would enroll in as many courses as they think they can attend productively; courses would be taught as a combination of small seminars and lectures. Lecture attendance would be optional, but seminar attendance and participation would be required.
  3. This form of organizing teaching would

    require many more faculty members. Smaller classes and a narrower gap between their research interests and the students' would be conducive to greater job satisfaction among teachers and better learning opportunities for students.

  4. Examinations would be offered at regularly

    set times, perhaps three times a year, independently from the teaching. Students would have the option of taking as many examinations as they felt ready to take. Within this system, and depending on their personal talents and resources, some students would finish in two or three years while others would take a longer time.

Unavoidably these suggestions are brief and incomplete, but they illustrate what I mean by university-level teaching and studying. The aim of this kind of arrangement is clear: to establish the conditions for self-directed study and rewarding teaching, and to do away with some of the organizational constraints that presently create frustration for both students and teachers. I do not think, however, that if changes of this sort were implemented, most students would have the cognitive skills to take advantage of them.

In view of universities' and colleges' concern with cost-effectiveness and with measurement of teaching outcomes, it is not likely in the near future that we will witness organizational changes designed to create a better learning environment, where students are treated as adults and receive more responsibility, and where teachers encounter motivated and capable students. Also I am aware that the structural limitations to individuals' efforts to improve their teaching are overwhelming. It may be that "real" university education in the average state university which is relatively homogeneous in race, ethnicity, and social class-must begin at the graduate level. To acknowledge that fact, unwelcome as it is, might be a prerequisite for better undergraduate teaching. Individual changes leave structures unchanged: without qualitative changes in the conditions that shape education at all levels today, including a rethinking of "university-level" teaching and learning itself, and of the differences between high school and university education, the "silent classroom" is here to stay.


Aronowitz, Stanley and Henry A. Giroux. 1985. Education under Siege. The Conservative, Liberal and Radical Debate over Schooling. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Baker, Paul J., and J. S. Jones. 1981. "Teaching Rational Thinking in the Social Problems Course." Teaching Sociology, 8:123-147. Daily Camera, 1988. University News. April 13, p. IB. Boulder, CO. Davis, Kingsley, and W.E. Moore. 1966. "Some Principles of Stratification." Pp. 47-53 in Class, Status and Power, edited by R. Bendix and S.M. Lipset. New York: Free Press. Elshtain, Jean B. 1978. "The Social Relations of the Classroom: A Moral Perspective." Pp. 291-313 in Studies in Socialist Pedagogy, edited by T. Mills Norton and B. Ollman. New York: Monthly Review Press. Faculty Teaching Excellence Program. No date. Compen- dium of Good Ideas. Boulder: University of Colorado. Gill, Sam. 1986. "The Continuity of Research and Classroom Teaching, or How to Have Your Cake and Eat it Too." Mimeographed monograph, Faculty Teaching Excellence Program. Boulder: University of Colorado. Goldsmid, Charles A., and E.K.Wilson. 1980. Passing On Sociology. Washington, DC: American Sociologic- al Association Teaching Resources Center. Gollin, Eugene S. 1987. "Curriculum Reform Can Offset Failures in Student Preparation." Silver and Gold Record, March 5, p. 3. Shot, Ira. 1980. Critical Teaching and Everyday, Life, Boston: South End Press. Stark, Jerry. 1984. "Prospects for Teaching Critical Sociology." ASA Teaching Newsletter 9 (6):10-13. Tumin, Melvin M. 1966. "Some Principles of Stratifica- tion: A Critical Analysis." Pp. 53-58 in Class, Status and Power, edited by R. Bendix and S.M. Lipset. New York: Free Press.

Martha E. Gimenez is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of numerous articles in the fields of population theory, Marxist theory, and feminist theory. Address correspondence to Martha E. Gimenez, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309.

Last week’s Health of Australian Science report, by the Chief Scientist of Australia Ian Chubb, has again highlighted the issue of declining student engagement in science in primary and secondary schools.

Why are we in this position? One factor is a fundamental misunderstanding, at all levels, of the “nature of science” – no small thing! We’ll get to the nature of science shortly, but first …

Declining student engagement has been a source of angst for scientists and educators for some time, and has resulted in no end of solutions being offered by no end of well-meaning individuals – solutions that include streamlining the entry of practising scientists into schools, paying science teachers more than those of other subjects and improving pre-service teacher education.

Teaching teaching

It’s important to understand at least two things are essential for effective teaching. The first is knowledge of your subject content and processes; the second is general pedagogical knowledge, which is to say an understanding of teaching.

Knowledge of a subject is what you might get out of a degree in a particular discipline; pedagogical knowledge might come from teacher training in the form of postgraduate qualifications or an education degree.

Anyone familiar with the work of John Hattie – director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute – knows how critical, and quantifiably so, a teacher’s pedagogical knowledge is to student success.

The overlap of subject knowledge and teaching knowledge is where we find what is known as pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) – knowledge unique to, or at least characteristic of, a particular subject area.

Obviously it’s a different thing to teach chemistry than music, history than biology, and indeed physics than mathematics. PCK is something that begins in teacher training and is developed by experience in the classroom and discussion with colleagues.

Knowing which teaching techniques work well within your field, how students work with subject-specific concepts in terms of misconceptions and misunderstandings, and how to link and develop ideas as you guide students through a course of study, are part of what defines excellence in teaching.

But there’s something missing here – and it’s a biggie. What’s particularly disturbing about current science education at the primary, secondary and tertiary level is the almost complete lack of explicit consideration of what I’ve referred to as the “nature of science”.

Not only are many teachers unaware of the nature of science, they would have little idea how to teach it in detail even if their knowledge was developed.

This is a contentious claim, but it is supported by research and certainly matches my experience of teaching science in state and private schools over many years.

Nature of science

I mean something very specific by the term “nature of science”, as the following points will hopefully illustrate:

  • it’s about the philosophical and practical understanding of the processes and reasoning of science, including its nature as a very human endeavour

  • it’s knowing what the difference is between hypotheses, laws and theories (and how most science textbooks get this wrong) and what the characteristics of a good hypothesis are

  • it’s about how the structures and processes of science are the way they are, in large part, to account for our cognitive biases, and that unique subjective experience is not foundational in science as it is in other areas of knowledge

  • it’s about knowing that there is no one scientific method, but that there are many scientific methodologies and that what makes an idea scientific is the goal of maximum explanatory and predictive power combined with exquisite falsifiability

  • it’s understanding that solid scientific ideas have many defined parameters – the more the better - and that this is what separates them from pseudoscience, where goalposts are constantly shifted (ever seen a psychic renege on a promise to read minds because the presence of a sceptic is “disrupting the energy”?)

  • it’s being able to explain the difference between induction and deduction, to characterise and instantiate the types of inferential reasoning that are acceptable in science and what problems and opportunities this presents in public understanding

  • it’s realising that the search for certainty in much of science is a fool’s game, but to ignore levels of confidence makes you a bigger fool.

Thinking critically in science means, in large part, to be able to do such things.

Moving forwards

All the above and much more can be articulated and taught alongside traditional science content but hardly ever is. The pressure of content-driven standards, in which factual content is pegged out to signpost progress and the learning of which is the key indicator of success, is overwhelming and simply crowds out what are seen as less quantifiable aspects of science.

Even experimental work is all too often prescribed via worksheets that lay out methods to follow and hypotheses for testing that leave little room for serious reflection, imagination or understanding.

Some (many) even contain phrases such as “has the hypothesis been proved?”, which shows a miserable understanding of the nature of experimentation.

So discussion in classrooms about the nature of science is scarce because:

1) the nature of science is not well understood by science teachers or even scientists

2) the clear implication that without content knowledge in the nature of science there can be no pedagogical content knowledge

3) science curricula rarely articulate exactly what skills or knowledge are constituent of an understanding of the nature of science.

The Australian Curriculum has developed what it calls General Capabilities (GCs) in Critical and Creative Thinking, which are quite well presented but in very general terms.

How they link to what is a very ordinary content-based structure is indicated by an icon – and that’s it. There is no detail given and no guidance for developing PCK outlined, and no sense of how these GCs are to be understood or delivered.

Teachers need assistance to ask and answer pointed questions. How do you teach about the nature of science? What are the techniques, strategies, opportunities, unique mental processes to be aware of and best examples to do this within a curriculum that does not acknowledge its importance, as many do not?

This is a difficult challenge, and an important one, as it is very often these themes that students find engaging and which provide a narrative to their experience of science. It is almost farcical that these are seldom explicitly outlined in programs of work.

Knowledge of the nature of science is as least as important in creating scientifically literate citizens as factual content knowledge – perhaps more so.

Few of us can claim a deep knowledge of all the scientific knowledge relevant, indeed critical, to our lives. But at least through knowing something of the nature of science we can appreciate the epistemic credibility of what comes out of scientific inquiry.

The Health of Australian Science report laments that students are bored with, and do not see the relevance of, science. Conversation revolves around availability of teachers and delivery of standard courses, and curriculum design remains driven by factual content.

Meanwhile, the potential to create more engaged, scientifically literate students who themselves might be more inclined to teach and communicate science sits relatively untapped.

We should change that – and soon.

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