Yesterday, this terrific Q+A post by Joseph Hanson came to my attention. He answered a poignant question from a reader who is interested in a career in research science but isn’tt sure if he can do it because of his less than perfect achievement on school science tasks such as tests and quizzes. As Joseph points out in his answer, this is a common worry. Dispelling it though is complicated because many aspects of school science don’t reflect laboratory and research science. School science can tend to reward memorizing, replication and conformity while research science is more about intense curiosity, and creative and innovative thinking. (This is of course a very broad generalization and there are many science teachers and science educators out there working very hard to create a science education that encourages and rewards students for engaging in challenging scientific inquiries). I was really impressed with Joseph’s candid answer to the question and with the follow-up discussion that happened on twitter. Several people responded with agreement that they had heard students say things like this and they themselves had held similar beliefs in the past.
In the “About” tab above I wrote that as a science teacher I was frustrated by the ways that students would talk themselves out of being part of science. I always remember one Grade 10 student in particular, Kara. She stayed after class one afternoon to help me clean up in the lab. As we were chatting. I complimented her on the great improvement I’d seen in her work in science and the really insightful comments that she had made in a recent discussion. She had good marks overall (~85% overall if I recall correctly), not the top in the class but certainly good, and to me she had shown real scientific curiosity creativity of thought. So I asked her which science courses she was planning to take the following year (in Grade 11 science courses were optional and students could choose between physics, chemistry and biology). Her response really surprised me – she laughed and responded with complete bemusement, “Who me? Oh no miss, you don’t understand. I’m not a science person.” What? Not a science person? Why not?
I asked her to tell me more: To her, science students were quiet, diligent students who always did all of their homework, wrote perfect neat lab reports and always got 100% on tests and quizzes. The next year, when I began graduate studies in science education, students like Kara were always on my mind. I wanted to know how and why students didn’t see themselves as the right type of people.
Over Twitter, I mentioned to Joseph that I have a paper coming out soon related to this idea. I’ll write about it some more when it is finally published (I just sent back the proofs so it should be out fairly soon) but his post got me thinking more about the ways that we can start to change students’ minds. In my study, I collected high school students opinions of the expectations that they face in school science – specifically what type of people they feel they need to be (how do they need to ask, what skills and attributes do they need to have). I used their responses to create a model of their perceived ideal and compared this to ideals in other subject areas to see if these fears are specific to science. For example, do students ask the same questions about being a historian or is getting 100% on all the tests and quizzes something that seems specifically important to science. Students presented a wide array of expectations, some that were clearly relevent to the practice of science and others, like quiz marks, that were really school expectations. One thing I was surprised to find is how common these perceptions are even when students go to different schools and have different teachers. There were small differences based on things that their teachers said and did, but overall most of the students had the same perceptions – meaning that challenging them is very very hard.
I wonder though about the potential value of comments like Joseph’s post to contribute to changing students’ perceptions. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would value responses like his to share with students.
So that’s what I’m asking. If you’ve read this and have had a similar experience, could you help me build a collection of stories to share with high school science students who are interested in science but not sure they have what it takes. Think about any answers that you could share that fit the following basic format:
“I used to think that to be a scientist you needed to __________ but now I know that __________.”
Thanks so much for any contributions that you are willing to share!