A "Eureka!" Experience in my Development as a Teacher

Lee Gass
November 2002

In 1968 I accepted a job as Assistant Director of an NSF-sponsored Academic Year Institute at Oregon, for high school biology teachers from across the USA. Part of that job was to teach a teaching methods course, “Laboratory and Field Methods in the Biological Sciences”, some of whose clientele were in-service teachers like the AYI participants and others were teacher candidates going for their certificates . It ran each year in the summer.

As a relatively new teacher with only two years’ experience, I taught the course for the first time using the information-transfer model I had absorbed from most of my own teachers. I considered the object of the course to disseminate teaching methods to teachers, and I came in like Santa Claus with a great big bag of methods to distribute. The course progressed on schedule, everything worked, and everyone went home with a bag full of methods to use on their students. It was OK by any reasonable measure of success, but not magnificent. Nothing really shifted in how the teachers thought about teaching. And although they acquired knowledge in the form of methods, they achieved little understanding of what methods are; in general they are ways of solving problems. Nor did they gain much experience of creating effective teaching methods to solve real learning problems, and I worried that because of this they improved relatively little as teachers in the world of real teaching problems.

In the interval between the first and second iterations of the methods course, I experienced something of an epiphany. I stopped thinking of myself as a purveyor of methods. By the second coming, I saw my role as to create situations in which real learning problems in my students (i.e. the teachers) would arise, articulate themselves, and be operated on by methods. If and when they did arise (and they always did), my next job was to facilitate the creation of teaching methods to deal with them. Many things flowed from that simple realization about the relationship between content (in that case, the methods) and process (the crafting of situations, the facilitation of self-revelation on the part of the students on my part, and the development of creativity and facility in dealing with situations on the students’ part). The second coming was deeply and powerfully magnificent for everyone in the group, including myself and my TA, and I still hear from some of the teachers in that group about methods they have created to deal with learning problems they encountered in their work.

One exercise in particular will illustrate the shift. I had noticed over the years that biologists tend to be fearful of quantitative relationships, and of methods for dealing with them including logarithmic graphing, and decided to develop a method to address that fear and cure it if possible. I had also noticed that science teachers in general seemed allergic to science, and it bugged me that their students learned so little about doing it. My intention was for the teachers to embrace quantitative methodology as a tool for answering a scientific question, and develop courage to pull similar tricks with their own students.

I came to class with several water striders in a cardboard box and two beakers of water (to one of which I had added a bit of PhotoFlo detergent to reduce surface tension). I talked for a few minutes about water striders in general, drawing from the group various statements on the topic, and then dropped one water strider into the beaker of pure water and it began to skate. When I dropped another strider into the beaker with the detergent it sank to the bottom. Every time I’ve done this exercise, students have assumed at first that something was wrong with the second strider, and it has taken a few minutes of experimentation to for them to determine that the water and not just the strider deserved their attention. With little guidance, every class has generated a testable model of interaction between strider and water based on surface tension, and sketched out ways of testing it. Progressively, each group has generated a method using the width of the shadow of the metatarsal foot as an index of surface tension (the method was “telegraphed” by the collection of materials I had made available in the room).

With a little guidance, they also embraced the idea of controlling for things about the striders by using the width of the shadow of a floating steel needle as a comparison. Then, using serial dilutions of PhotoFlo to establish a gradient of surface tension, they quantified the responses of striders and needles to concentration of detergent. It shocked most students to discover that the simple 2-variable relationships they measured formed a straight line on semi-log graph paper, that the lines for striders and needles had the same slopes, and that striders and needles sank at the same serial dilution (the needle sank at the concentration at which striders plunged to their “shoulders”). Mechanistic interpretation has been a real challenge for every group I’ve done this with. This experience provided a rich experience of quantitative and experimental, hypothesis-testing biology, of creativity in teaching, and of the mapping of sometimes daunting methodology to situations in real-life teaching. But the point here is that I’ve never been the same since my epiphany.