I’m a first year physics teacher. I hear my colleagues talk about what they learn from their students. This puzzles me—what can I learn from students who don’t have the content knowledge that I do?
—Wendy, Elizabeth, New Jersey
This question caused me to reflect on the students I’ve met over the years. While it’s true they didn’t always have a depth of knowledge in science, when I paid attention to their questions, behaviors, and attitudes, my students made me think about my approach to teaching and learning. Here’s a sample what I learned from students:
After a unit test, “Sandra” looked very dejected. When I asked her what was wrong, she replied, “I know a lot about this, but you asked the wrong questions.” That stopped me in my tracks. I was the teacher—the one supposed to have all of the questions and answers. I asked her what should have been on the test, and she told me what she knew about the topic from working on scout badges, visiting museums, reading books, and watching TV programs. She was right—for her I didn’t ask enough of the right questions. She taught me the value of providing a variety of ways for students to share what they know and can do. For example, at the end of unit tests I included an optional item: “Tell me about what you know about the topic that was not on the test.” It was thought provoking to discover what students found interesting enough to remember and explore how they could supplement the lesson objectives with their own knowledge.
When I first started teaching, my middle school had a hierarchy of homogeneously grouped sections, determined by test scores in math. The students were in the same grouping for all of their subjects, including science. Being the newbie, I was assigned the “lowest” of the nine sections of seventh and eighth graders. I didn’t accept the stereotype that these students also had little ability in science. I found them to be genuinely curious and they responded well to class discussions and hands-on activities. (I actually had more discipline problems with the one “higher” section I was assigned). Fast forward 10 years…I met up with one of these students at a football game. She mentioned she had recently graduated from the local community college’s nursing program. She then said, “I’ll bet there are teachers who never thought that someone from section 7-9 would ever graduate from college.” I was blown away by the fact that this poised 20-something woman still carried around the stigma of being labeled as the lowest of the low in seventh grade. From her, I learned to trust my own observations and judgment about students, rather than relying on stereotypes and labels. (I can’t speak for other subjects and grade levels, but I was glad when we changed our scheduling to a non-labeled, more heterogeneous one.)
During a unit on insects, I noticed “Molly” writing copious notes. I glanced over her shoulder and saw she had a page of arthropod names and their origins in mythology (e.g., the Luna moth, nymphs, arachnids, the Cyclops copepod). I asked her if this was an assignment for English class (which included a unit on mythology), and she looked at me as if I had a head like Medusa and replied, “No, I just think this is really interesting.” So thanks to Molly, I learned helping students make connections between science and literature, social studies, and the arts is good for all subjects.
I tried to incorporate skills like notetaking in my class, and I encouraged students to outline or create study cards. One day, “Bobby” and “Kris” asked if they could try something different. In a previous unit, we used a matrix graphic organizer to summarize information for a report. They wondered if they could try this instead of outlining the chapter. They showed me a mockup: the rows listed the three types of rocks and the columns had headings such as how formed, where found, examples, how to identify. I told them to give it a try. When they were finished, I asked them to share with the class, and other students found this method more useful than a long outline. From these two students, I learned to say, “Here’s how you could do this assignment, but if you have a different idea, let’s talk about it.” I should also thank them for the idea that eventually morphed into part of my dissertation
Of course, it is possible some of your students will surprise you with content knowledge beyond yours, based on their interests and experiences. Listen to what they say, even if you are a content expert, “That’s really interesting. Tell me more.” And they will.