I wonder ...

Paul Andersen

I discovered something peculiar while drinking a beer on my deck last summer. The bubbles in my beer accelerated as they moved from the bottom of the pint glass to the top. I used my phone to record the bubbles in slow motion and used motion-tracking software to measure the acceleration. Each bubble would start slowly from the bottom of the glass and then accelerate to join the others in the foam at the top.

I wondered why the bubbles in the beer were accelerating.

Resist the temptation to Google the answer to this question. This is an exercise in wondering and looking up answers on the Internet will defeat the purpose. You will also be underwhelmed and confused by the information available online. I want to know what you think, not what the internet thinks. Give yourself time to think about the bubbles. Sketch out your ideas and share them with others. Encourage them to do the same. Work together to come up with a shared explanation for the accelerating bubbles. This works very well using cocktail napkins at your local drinking establishment. Welcome to the wonderful world of scientific modeling. Welcome to wondering.

As a science teacher, I discovered early on that the quickest way to shut down wondering is to explain the phenomenon. Think back on your own science classes. If they were anything like mine, they were nothing but explanation. The source of all knowledge was twofold: teacher and textbook. The labs were foregone conclusions we would follow like steps in a cookbook. Even the walls of the room were covered in scientific models that had been created by someone else.

Explanation is an important part of science education but it should not be the only part of science education. When given first, explanation can shut down curiosity and turn students off to the open-ended wonder of science.Starting with good questions is the easiest way to foster wonder in the science classroom. Questions engage each student’s innate curiosity and lead to meaningful, open-ended laboratory experiences. Good questions also promote internal reflection. Constructing new knowledge requires addressing knowledge already in place. I present groups of students with (non-beer-related) questions like the bubble example above. They take turns sharing their ideas and asking questions for clarity. The goal of this exercise is not to find the one correct explanation but rather to explore all possible explanations. This exercise is then repeated at the class level, and leads to creating a shared model of our understanding. Explanation comes much later.


Paul Andersen is a former science teacher and current educational consultant living in Bozeman, MT. In addition to teaching Paul has created hundreds of science tutorials that can be viewed on his Bozeman Science YouTube channel. When he is not working, Paul enjoys spending time with his family, and skiing and hiking in the mountains around Bozeman.

Small Ideas, Large Impacts

Karen Avery

I would be proud if my students go into science, and some of them will. But many won’t. For now, I would love them to have fun and explore, unlocking both the simple and complex secrets of life for themselves.

For instance, when they ask, “Mrs. Avery, I fed the lizard mealworms … did you put beetles in the tank?”

Or “Why did some of the flowers turn into pods, and some didn’t?”

Or “Wait, that apple is a ripened ovary?”

I love those accidental discoveries. So, is a love for unelicited discoveries the most important thing that I can foster in them - or is there something bigger? What, in the end, do we want for all our students? In many cases, we share as much time with our students as we do with our own families, and we treasure our students as well.

Ultimately, I want to teach them to be positive contributors to humanity and happy members of our big and evolving world - but what does that mean? Like any lesson, once we define our goal, we need to dissect that goal into the skills or qualities that we need to foster.

It would be difficult for any of us to decide what we want for our students without acknowledging the fabric of experiences that have shaped us. I am fortunate to work with a few teachers who skillfully weave important lessons into their subject matter. Their students know that they are being taught science, English, music, or math. Meanwhile, these teachers are also guiding these students toward lifelong understandings: the importance of being a lifelong learner and the significance of being a compassionate human. I, like any good thief, watch the actions of these teachers closely.

Going back further, I am an educator now because at a critical point in my high school career, a teacher recognized that I was a struggling teen, the possibilities for my future plummeting with each bad decision. In title, she was my algebra teacher, but the day she pulled me out of class and told me that she believed that I was much more than the rumors about my life outside of school portrayed me to be, she became an important touchstone for my future. Looking back on this interaction reminds me of the impact teachers have on the young adults around us as they develop their values and self-image.

Some of the most important skills are those that students can be reluctant to learn. While their parents and society are pushing them to achieve and progress, I am attempting to convince them that failure is important, and that hard work and struggle provide important lessons. Taking creative risks is essential, even if the results are sometimes unexpected. I want my students to be patient with themselves even as I learn to be patient with myself.

Students should discover that learning for learning’s sake is important, even if just for interesting conversation, and that working with people we don’t know or don’t agree with often yields rich results. I want my students to realize that when they ask questions, they are showing strength and initiative, not vulnerability. I want to teach them that growth is built on pursuing questions that lead to more questions in science and elsewhere.

I chose science as a platform to foster these skills. The words “science” and “progress” are often coupled. How can we teach our students to be analytical about contributing to advancements that are truly advancements? Not all of my students are going into science. Some will be applying their high school experiences to careers in music, theatre, law, business, or other unpredictable directions. All will serve some role in society, possibly as voters, board members, landowners, parents, caregivers, members of the military, or just astute conversationalists.

The implications of a curious mind as it applies to the natural world are far-reaching. Even when students share their ideas and opinions on social media, they are changing the world. Artists apply their knowledge about natural systems to their work. Voters elect policymakers based on what voters know about their world. Parents teach their children how to choose healthy foods and to be active. Landowners decide what species to plant in their yards, how to use power and water, how to get to work each day.

Small things have large impacts. In a world that is approaching 7.4 billion people, it can be difficult for each of our students to realize that their choices have an impact on that world. Using an analogy at the molecular level, we see so many places where small things have large impacts. Replacing just one nucleotide in a DNA molecule can have a dramatic outcome on the resulting protein, which can have a profound effect on the organism in which the change takes place. The impact of this change may never be recognized by us, or perhaps the impact will be discovered much later. I would love if each student left my classroom knowing that the things they do, how they use their gifts and their knowledge, are important, if even on a small scale.

The most important thing I endeavor to teach my students is a collection of skills and knowledge that I hope will help them to learn about our world and about living systems. I want to help them find ways of looking at science that inspire them to contribute to their world effectively, allowing them to make small changes with big impacts. Ultimately, I hope that this ability brings them joy and excitement for the natural phenomena around them.


Karen Avery is a biology teacher and Science National Honor Society advisor at Montoursville Area High School in Montoursville, PA. She and her students coordinate the annual Biology Teachers Workshop at Lycoming College. Karen also enjoys collaborating with teachers and dear friends she has made through the Center for Biomolecular Modeling. When not contemplating how to make the next lesson a little better, she plays the role of biggest fan and support team to her two offspring.

Evaluation and Value

Sydney Bergman

A student of mine is crying. It should come as no surprise to most people who know me – there seems to be a lot of crying in Room 12, most of it incited by such inflammatory questions as, ‘How are you?’ Maybe it’s the lack of windows.

She’s crying because she came to speak with me about her schedule for next year. She wants to add an extra AP course, and doing so would push her schedule around so that she would need to do a class as an independent study – essentially, as a post-hours course.

I ask her why she wants to do this; her response is to boost her already impressive GPA that much more, to better ensure she can obtain admission to a university that will, importantly, pay for her to attend.

This particular student was struggling with what many extraordinary low-income students struggle with: attending college for free or not attending at all. She’s crying because she knows how much work this extra class will be, and that she already feels the weight of a seemingly impossible demand – to gin up the approximately $200,000 she’ll need to attend college.

Yes, student loans exist. I cannot in good conscious counsel such a student into shouldering 10 to 20 years of such burdens. If current trends continue, her generation will have more student loan debt than any previous, with the graduating college class of 2015 saddled, on average, with more than $35,000 in debt. (The average in D.C. is even higher.)

Nor can I counsel her to forgo college altogether. Women, particularly women of color, generally need to earn a bachelor’s before they out-earn their white male counterparts with high school diplomas. Unemployment sits at 2 percent for those with bachelor’s degrees, and more than double that for those only with high school diplomas.

Such advice would be an insult to this student. We all have students like this – students for whom we want to open every door, or rather, students for whom we want to shake the world so that doors that open easily for others rattle open for them as well. And here she was, valuing herself by fractions of a number that, ultimately, could but should not determine her outcome in life.

Here was a student who, despite having gone above and beyond what any adult could reasonably expect from her, came to value herself for only what she could accomplish in very narrow terms. And here I was complicit in that valuation, because for her, those terms dictated her future.

I’ll be the first to admit that I ask a lot of kids. I want them to know and to be able to do things, to read critically and write passionately and science the snot out of things, to paraphrase The Martian. I want them to accomplish more than they thought themselves capable of, to walk on the hot coals of their own intellects, to dream and to think and to do beyond the four windowless walls of my classroom.

Most teachers I know bristle at the labeling of students that our seemingly perpetual state of testing engenders. We define educational attainment through a tiered labeling system that lauds some students as ‘advanced’ and damns others as ‘below basic.’ Why not be honest, and label students ‘haves,’ and ‘have-nots,’ since those labels are essentially proxies for students’ socioeconomic circumstances? The United States’ PISA scores reflect this: If you examine only low-poverty schools, the US’s rankings jump from ‘troubling’ to ‘remarkable.’

We can soften these terms even further and designate students not ‘college or career ready,’ without, of course, answering the more difficult question of what we as a society have done to make them more college and career ready.

What, then, does my crying student have to do with all of this? She has likely scored ‘advanced’ on every test given, an exception to an unfortunate rule about students living in poverty. I am lucky. I teach many such exceptional students.

What strikes me about the interaction is that hers is the American dream in microcosm: The idea of bettering yourself through perseverance and good humor, to be justly rewarded for effort. And all of her work, her effort, might be meaningless if the universities she’s applying to take her income-level into account in her application. Not every college is ‘need-blind’ - that is, many colleges have to balance the challenge of having a diverse incoming class with their own financial concerns - and with recruiting students who otherwise would attend more prestigious universities through ‘merit’ scholarships. These scholarships disproportionately go to upper-income students.

Taking on a low-income student is, in many ways, taking on the cost of that student’s education, so colleges can sometimes reject otherwise worthy applicants due to the fact of their circumstances alone. The reality is that even ‘need-blind’ schools can discern if a student is low-income or not based on other materials in their application. As an administrator for enrollment management told the Hechinger Report: “All of those things conspire against a kid who doesn’t have a college counselor who knows him, who doesn’t know you have to proof the essay seven times, doesn’t know he has to get on the track for AP courses. Every single factor in that file screams privilege or wealth or poverty or lack of opportunity.1

In essence, through her success - she did proof her essay and took numerous APs - she’s working to conceal who she is in the hope that a college will not weigh her qualifications against the cost of her education and find her wanting. We should be celebrating the accomplishments of such a student rather than telling her to hide herself. What could be more valuable, more American; than this: Working to overcome, to dream boldly, to envision a better life for yourself and to labor toward that?

And yet, we tell her to hide, to diminish, to minimize, lest her exceptionality is not be found to be exceptional enough. We celebrate authenticity, so long as it’s not authenticity that might be expensive or demanding. The reality is that socioeconomic mobility is a rare thing, and that college acceptance, and college attendance and graduation are not one in the same, particularly for low-income students. Not every ‘need-blind’ college that admits students offers enough aid to cover their education. Approximately 92 percent of public universities are need-blind, but only 32 percent fully meet students’ financial needs. (The numbers are worse for private colleges - 82 percent are ‘need-blind’ but only 18 percent meet full need, and many are moving away from being need-blind to stay fiscally solvent.)

So, after working twice as hard, she may get half as far - and our current system looks at the the load she took upon herself and adds another weight to that burden. No wonder she’s crying.

We have a generation facing staggering debt, an economy increasingly divided between those who have and those who don’t, and a waning public commitment toward remedying these disparities, particularly in terms of public funding for college. I’m cognizant of the fact that the world isn’t fair, though I bristle when it’s said frequently and flippantly by those with their thumbs on the scale. Of course the world isn’t fair - we made it that way.

We are complicit in systems that pore over each application with microscopic detail, that leaves exceptional, extraordinary students asking if they’re enough, and yet fail to apply those same standards to ourselves. We allow a system in which we fail to meet the needs of children, from the one in five children who is food insecure to the two-thirds of public college students whose financial needs aren’t met, then wonder why our test scores are low and our debts high. We evaluate them over and over and over, without answering more difficult question of when we’ll stop evaluating students and start valuing children.

If I had an answer to what it’s important to teach students, it’s this: You are more than the labels and designations society gives you, more than circumstances that you’re born into. Dream. Strive. Walk on the hot coals of your own intellect.

We made a bargain; if you work hard and pursue happiness, you’ll be supported, rewarded, celebrated. We have, in most meaningful ways, failed at holding up our end. If there’s anything to teach you, it’s that the world is unfair and the only way to make it more fair is to reshape it. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that you have to.

What happened with my crying student? She didn’t take the extra class. She did get into a top-choice college, one with need-blind admissions. It’s too early to know how her financial situation will shake out, and I hope that the university meets her financial needs. She’s got the right tools for her future, and a drive and motivation to achieve whatever she wants to – and now, possibly, the money with which to achieve it. She’s both talented and deserving, two things we have a tendency to confuse with ‘lucky.’ I have to believe she’ll be fine.

It’s the rest of us I’m more worried about.


1. Marcus, J. (2015, December 18). How one top college bucked a trend to take more poor and nonwhite applicants - The Hechinger Report. Retrieved May 30, 2016, from http://hechingerreport.org/how-one-top-college-bucked-a-trend-to-take-more-poor-and-nonwhite-applicants/

Sydney Bergman teaches biology, AP Biology, and research at School Without Walls SHS, a public magnet school in Washington, DC. She is a recipient of the Rubenstein Award for Highly Effective Teaching and the Kim Foglia AP Biology Service Award. She holds leadership positions at her school and in D.C., and is a STEM Ambassador for the DC STEM Network. In her (ha!) spare time, she reads, writes, cooks, obsesses about sports (Let’s go, Nats!) and Hamilton, and co-parents the world's most poorly behaved cat.

Don’t Believe Everything I Teach You!

Pamela Close

The most important thing I can teach you, as a learner in my classroom, is that I don’t have all the answers in biology. Even if I give you a direct answer, citing the generally accepted explanation today, by tomorrow, it might be shown to be wrong!

The take-home message is ‘Don’t take my word for it!’ Science, especially biology is incredibly dynamic. Any arbitrary criterion that a student might learn in a biology class is begging for an exception. In fact, as soon as an explanation for a phenomenon is universally accepted and published in a textbook, one can lay odds that a study is already underway that will identify an alternative mechanism or an exception to the ‘rule.’ The conventional wisdom that people shouldn’t believe everything a politician says, is also true of science teachers, however with a major caveat.

Unlike politicians, we will tell you upfront not to trust us, but trust science as a way of finding out the truth. And what constitutes the truth is always under construction. It will almost certainly change as we devise new ways to answer questions about the natural world without introducing misleading bias into our results.

Carl Sagan elegantly articulated the unattainable but worthy pursuit of the scientist: “Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science — by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans — teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.”1

Scientists, and others in science-related professions (including teachers,) are acutely aware that we chase a moving target of comprehensive understanding of our field, even within the narrow slices of the discipline in which we specialize. But the same unattainable goal is also what fuels our passion and sustains us in our pursuit. As a student of science, you must accept that you will never ‘know it all’ nor even come close. But you will be able to build skills and a knowledge base and contribute your ideas and efforts to building the collective understanding of your chosen question. A diversity of viewpoints moves humanity forward. Your contribution is of value.

A word of caution, however: Many aspiring problem-solvers have stumbled along the path of discovery by allowing healthy introspection and respect for one’s limits to develop into paralyzing self-doubt. As you move forward in training, assimilating the bank of content knowledge and development of skills in preparation for a career in science (or any other discipline), you may experience imposter syndrome. This condition is often described as an overwhelming sense that one is vastly unprepared for the professional task ahead and that others will be able to immediately sense your ‘nakedness’ behind the façade of pseudo-confidence.

Understand that anyone who submits to periodic honest self-assessment will find themselves in this internal dialogue. Based upon anecdotal evidence gathered from personal experience, and conversations with colleagues in science and science education, this anxiety is not restricted to novices but equally afflicts seasoned professionals.

In science, perseverance - accompanied by honest reflection and acknowledgement of one’s limits - moves the investigator forward. Arrogance and false confidence in scientific pursuits may work against the pursuit of truth, blinding a researcher to an alternative explanation. A student of nature who can accept the uncertainty of obtaining a definitive answer to a scientific question within their lifetime, but who enjoys the excitement of ‘the chase,’ has found a true and satisfying vocation.


1. Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1995). The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House; as quoted in Popova, Maria; Brainpickings https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/09/carl-sagan-science-democracy/

Pam Close is an AP Biology Teacher at Hickman High School in Columbia, MO. She arrived at teaching as a second career 22 years ago. She continues to learn from her students, colleagues, and nature, and is finally at peace with never having the final answer to a biological question.

Death is for the Living

Michael Doyle

“Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” - Erik Erikson (Erikson, 1993)1

Every year, I introduce my classes to a hand-cranked generator, a simple device in which a coil of wire spins inside a few horseshoe magnets. A couple of wires lead to a light bulb, then extend beyond the bulb to two contacts, enticing the fingers of children.

Chemical energy transformed from last June’s sunlight and held in this morning’s bagel, gets transformed into the mechanical energy of our arms then back to light again. That’s the lesson, but it’s not the point.

A student eyes the bare contacts extending beyond the bulb.

“Dr. Doyle, if I touch these while I crank it, will I die?” she asks.

“Of course,” I say, not grimly.

The child grins — she’s heard the answer before; If you ask me “Will I die if … ,” my reply is always the same.

The most important thing we can teach our students is that each and every one of us dies. We are mortal, magnificent mammals created from muck and air, powered by the grace of sunlight. But unlike our gods, our magnificence cannot save us.

I (mostly) teach children biology, the study of life. You cannot know life, in any real sense, without knowing death. The essentials for human life come down to a few practices: Grow things, build things, love things, find and protect a water source, procreate, and share stories.

The most important things our children can take away from school are empathy, kindness, and the ability to be useful in the places where they live. I doubt that kindness or empathy can be taught well in our current schools where competition drives all. Science teachers in particular may not be so good at teaching empathy; our specialty has been to take things apart, to reduce the universe to bits and pieces.

So I do the next best thing, teach what I know to be true. Life is finite but not fragile. We are all here for a short while, but we are here now, our bodies as real as the earth that will reclaim us, and when we see this in ourselves, we cannot help but see it in others. We share the same needs,; we share the same fate. It only makes sense to care for each other.


1. Erikson, E. (1993). Childhood and society (p. 269). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Michael Doyle was very briefly a longshoreman, briefly a lab tech in a booze factory, more recently a pediatrician in the projects, and is now a high school biology teacher in his hometown of Bloomfield, NJ. He likes to ramble on his blog Science Teacher.

In Quest of the Most Important Thing

Cindy Gay

What is the most important thing that we can teach our students? Could the Unity and Diversity Writing Project have picked a more challenging prompt? Grappling with a clear, concise answer to this question has filled most of my contemplation and procrastination time this fall. I’ve come to realize that this question has been at the heart of my 34-year journey to become a better educator, and that my answer to this question has evolved over the years - and that I’m still struggling to find a singular Most Important Thing.

As a first-year teacher, the ink on my undergraduate diploma still damp, the Most Important Thing would have assuredly been content-based. As a beginning teacher, I’m certain I felt that all content was equally important, but as this became too overwhelming to manage, I honed my focus to specific disciplines of biology: evolution, molecular genetics, and most frequently, ecology. Variations on the notion of content as the Most Important Thing emerged over the first decades of my career, shifting from specific disciplines to overarching themes such as interrelationships and structure-function.

In the middle decades of my career, skills supplanted content as the Most Important Thing. I learned that students who lacked the skills to access, interpret, analyze, and apply content were little better off than those who had never been exposed to the content at all. It was during this time that Grant WigginsSome text with a footnote.1’ concept of Enduring Understanding was gaining traction in education practice. Understanding meant something much greater than having knowledge, even expert content knowledge. Focusing on skills, particularly the skills of scholarship became the Most Important Thing. The phrase “being a scholar” became part of the lexicon of my classroom. Letters and notes from former students confirm this shift, often asking if I’m still turning my current students into scholars.

I can still make a strong case for the importance of content and skills. I now believe, however, the Most Important Thing I can teach my students is caring. I want them to care about each other, care about our planet, care about their education and to care about something, anything, deeply and with passion. I know this may sound corny. Some of you may stop reading now because “caring” sounds fluffy and lacking in rigor. Some of you will say I’m cheating because I’m talking about caring at different levels and thus it’s not really THE Most Important Thing.

I want my students to care about the humanity that exists in each of us. Creating a caring, respectful community in my classroom has created the space for students to struggle, to fail, to succeed, and to grow as scholars. It has provided my at-risk students hope. Caring for each other as learners creates a safe and supportive space to take academic risks, to consider alternatives, to be creative and innovative. Caring about each other allows me to nurture an ethic of excellence and allows each of us to be learners and teachers. Caring about those who share our classroom opens the possibility to caring about those who share our school, our community, our planet.

I want my students to care about our planet as the source of life itself. Caring about our planet, both its living and nonliving components, enables us to be filled with a sense of wonder and see the elegance and beauty that exists at all scales, from the microscopic to the geomorphologic. If we care about the planet, we will be instilled with the responsibility to be its steward. On a planet of diminishing resources ever taxed by a burgeoning human population, we must care about the planet that sustains us to begin to tackle the growing global issues facing our future.

I want my students to care about their education and to understand the privileges that education provides. I want them to develop a global perspective, realizing that in many parts of the world, education is inaccessible because of economic circumstances, religious restrictions or political climate. I want my students to care about their education, not only as a gift, a privilege, but also as critical consumers. I don’t want them to blindly accept the gift of education, to merely care about having one, but to care about the quality of education they are receiving. To expect, and - when necessary - demand, opportunities to challenge their current worldview; opportunities to identify and confront underlying assumptions; opportunities to apply their education in the solution of authentic and important problems. Students who care about their education will become adults able to see beyond popular media, beyond cultural misconceptions, and to make thoughtful, informed decisions.

I want my students to care deeply about something. Anything. A subject, a discipline, a cause. Caring about something leads to passion. Passion evokes courage, discipline, persistence, and action. I endeavor to share my passion for biology daily with my students. I care that they understand why I’m passionate about the discipline. This caring underlies the late nights and early mornings, the bad biology jokes and songs. In a framed student letter on my desk, Kayla wrote, “I hope that someday I will be as passionate about something as you are about teaching us biology.” That is my hope, not only for Kayla, but for each of my students. That they will care deeply about something - their education, each other, the planet. This, I believe, is the Most Important Thing.

As I write this essay, I realize that the Most Important Thing has become broader and more elusive. Content knowledge, while continuously growing in quantity, can be more clearly defined, taught, and assessed. Defining, teaching and assessing skills has proven more difficult than content but is still manageable. I continually find myself struggling with the teaching and assessing of caring as the Most Important Thing. Can caring be taught, let alone assessed in the span of a single course? The challenge is great, and I will seek the help and support of many, knowing full well that the Most Important Thing will continue to evolve in the future.


1. Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Cindy Gay has been teaching science to high school and college students for the past 34 years. She currently teaches general biology, AP Biology, and human anatomy & physiology at Steamboat Springs High School in Steamboat Springs, CO. Cindy is grateful for many learning opportunities as a member of the BSCS/NABT AP Biology Leadership Academy, an HHMI Ambassador, and the advisory board for the Center for Biomolecular Modeling. In her spare time, Cindy enjoys hiking, mountain biking, gardening, and spending time with her husband and two children. Her daughter, Jamie Gay, is a first-year biology teacher who also contributed to this project.

Scaffolding Kindness

Jamie Gay

I am a nerd. Dork. Geek. I love my science. I love the connections I can make, the way it explains our world, how simple and complex it can be. But that’s not the most important thing I teach - not by a long shot.

Let me tell you a story about my 4th block chemistry class. During my first semester teaching (which was this fall semester in 2015), I taught a section of sophomores that stretched my very-much-still-developing classroom management skills to the limit on a regular basis. On our alternating block schedule, 4th is both the class after lunch and the last class of the day. Combine this with chemistry, which few of my students see a need for, five or so loud volatile personalities, and a large class with a strong sense of learned helplessness and need for constant attention, and you’d get my 4th block.

As much as this class stressed me out, I learned more from them than any of my other classes, particularly about the impacts of our education system. May and Jacob (these, and all names, are pseudonyms) raged against state testing when I told them they couldn’t listen to music during a unit exam. Fate, who was pregnant, and Ian, her boyfriend, threw a fit every time they were separated or treated like they weren’t adults. Simon sulked in the back, muttering about the truancy system and how it made so much sense to send truant kids to jail so they missed even more school.

One day, May was in a particularly precarious mood, throwing out May-like comments to get a reaction out of the rest of the class. Simon, rolling his eyes, told May to sit down and shut the f--- up. The shouting match that ensued left all the kids watching gleefully as I struggled to regain control of my classroom. When everyone was finally sitting and calm again, I asked them to reflect on their frustrations.

Fate, being very uninterested in chemistry and very interested in gossiping, wrote nasty things about May, sitting next to her, in inch-high letters in her notebook. May, of course, read Fate’s comments, stood up, and launched into another tirade, threatening to throw punches.

Completely fed up, I put the two girls in separate spaces. The rest of the class was not allowed to leave their seats and worked (mostly) quietly on a (completely useless) worksheet for the remaining 15 minutes of class. As I watched them, I realized I was mostly distressed by how the rest of the class was so delighted in watching their peers threaten to punch each other.

I required an exit ticket from every student that day, with two questions. The first was something about chemistry that no one remembers, including me. The second question was “How can you show kindness in this chemistry classroom?”

Out of my 26 students in that class, 18 of them responded that the best was to show kindness was to “be quiet.” Not for the first or last time that semester, I put my face in my hands and tried, unsuccessfully, not to cry.

There are several indicators our brains look for when trying to decide what’s important; one of them is repetition. How many times do we tell our students to be quiet, to stop talking, to give us their attention, to bring some focus, to lower the volume, to shut up already? We’re teaching our kids that being quiet is the most important skill they can take from our classrooms. We are not teaching them kindness.

So how do I, a first-year teacher, overwhelmed by three different preps in three different classrooms and 170 students, endeavor to teach them kindness? How do I step away from the science content that I love so much and feel so much pressure to get through quickly? Well, just like any other skill, I scaffold it and I break it into pieces.

What my students taught me that day was that they don’t know what kindness is. So maybe I start by modelling. I can tell my kids I appreciate their hard work or their sense of humor. I can notice when kids add a new color to their pink-purple-turquoise hair, or when a kid seems sad or withdrawn. I can listen to them.

But just because I model kindness doesn’t mean my kids will see it. Often, I think my kids are so wrapped up in their own lives they don’t even see themselves, let alone me. Before I teach them kindness, I need to teach them awareness, both of themselves and of others.

Imagine awareness like several spheres nested inside each other. The first innermost sphere is instinctual: self-awareness of basic needs. As children grow, this develops into basic wants as well; toddlers grab at what they want with no concept of how that impacts their playmates. But there is more to self-awareness; there is awareness of how we feel emotionally, how we react to that, how we motivate ourselves to work towards goals. Our self-awareness is constantly deepening and growing. Without this awareness, we can’t manage our own feelings and reactions, and we can’t practice kindness to ourselves.

The second sphere is awareness of those people in our immediate physical or emotional vicinity. When I say something funny, other people laugh. If I take my brother’s toy, he cries. This is also present at a basic level in young children, but it also has to be developed to more depth and sophistication as we grow. If we don’t understand how our actions affect others, we will never be able to practice kindness. Some people call this compassion and, if it’s also linked back to self-awareness, we call it empathy.

The spheres surrounding these include people who are farther from us, in terms of location, time, or emotional connection. They stretch to our non-human environment, including issues such as caring for our planet. Caring about people we’ve never met or our planet doesn’t really feel like kindness, but I believe they still count.

Often, people run away from awareness because so much of what they see is pain and loss. This can happen to anyone, but I see its impacts most clearly in students who have difficult home lives. We don’t need to be constantly, bluntly aware of every single thing in our lives; finding deep constant awareness of everything isn’t my goal for students. But I can ask students to find academic awareness. This is the goal of formative assessment; to help students become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. And I can ask students to make observations of how their own emotions impact their behavior, even if this is as basic as, “When I’m having a bad day, I play games on my iPad more than normal.”

The next step is helping students figure out what to do with this information. Once students know which sections of material they still need help with, how do they frame questions and find answers? How do I ask my students to create a gap between feeling something and reacting to it?

This is not easy work. I have no idea how I’m actually going to pull it off in practice. In some ways, it feels like the wrong focus; I should be teaching my students how to balance equations and explain how we know the structure of the atom. But what good will that do Fate when she has her daughter and gets frustrated with her boyfriend? How will that help May make friends or get a job? When I stop and ask myself these questions, the importance is clear. In order to be successful in our ever-more-connected world, students need to be aware of their own passions and feelings, their interactions with other people, and their short-term and long-term impacts on the world. Teaching my students to be aware of themselves and their impacts on other people, teaching them to be kind, is the most important thing.


Jamie Gay is a first-year teacher at Longmont High School in Longmont, CO, teaching biology, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology. She’s loved science since she was little, learning how to name the local wildflowers from her mother. Jamie is excited to be joining the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation team as a first-year fellow next year to learn more about the craft of teaching. When she’s not at school Jamie hikes, skis, bakes, and knits.

Sage Advice: What is the most important thing that we can teach our students?

Robin Groch

There is a tremendous risk of personal hubris attached to even broaching the subject of this year’s topic. The school I spent the last 25 years at periodically tasked us to develop a mission statement, and I sat on innumerable committees trying to hash out just what that global and well-meaning goal should encompass. Worthy expected schoolwide learning results (ESLRs) demanded specifics: curricular skills; complex and critical thinking; and speaking, listening, writing. But, most importantly, integrity and responsibility.1

However, I presume - definitely a dangerous practice - that the topic specifically really wants a thorough exploration of what attitude or mindset or practice a science teacher can pass on to their students. This deeply personal question led me to looking at many of the quotes I used to share with students. Isaac Asimov featured most prominently with gems like:

“A subtle thought that is in error may yet give rise to fruitful inquiry that can establish truths of great value.” - Isaac Asimov 2

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries is not ‘Eureka!’ (‘I found it!’), but, ‘That's funny … .’" - Isaac Asimov 3

“Klieg, Klieg, Klieg-Du bist a Nar. You are smart, smart, smart – but you are not so smart!” - a Yiddish saying 4

“Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.” - Daniel J. Boorstin 5

“An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't.” - Anatole France 6

In fact after a bunch of false trails, I found I needed to go into my own back history to find my personal answer. I recalled a teacher saying something about being a fool if you study alone. As my students did I looked on Google and found the source:

“There is an ancient saying: ‘The one who studies Talmud alone is a fool.’ The Talmud is so incredibly profound that one of its nicknames is ‘The Sea.’ People trying to swim in it without the proper guidance can become lost, overwhelmed or misled by misconceptions.”7

I have thoroughly mixed up my Hebrew High philosophy classes with the ocean of science knowledge and practices I have swum these 40 years. So simply and to the point, the most important thing we can give our students is a list of sage advice. Here is my top 10:

  1. Work collaboratively. (Only a fool works alone and doesn’t share.) Everyone’s contribution is hopefully useful; talk your ideas out, and get feedback.
  2. Science is a sea full of misconceptions; your job is to clarify.
  3. Whoopsies and failures are OK. Repeat, refine, and look for new ways to solve the problem.
  4. Making mistakes may be important - think Velcro, LSD, Viagra, penicillin. 8
  5. You never know what you will find until you find it.
  6. Perseverance is important, especially with student driven inquiry.
  7. Act tenaciously, and go for it.
  8. Never ever be satisfied with the “correct” answer; always go beyond the correct answer; learning is more important than the grade.
  9. The Internet does and does not have all the answers.
  10. Live long and prosper by paying it forward with the following generation.


1. Mission & ESLRs. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2015, from http://www.srvhs.net/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=57423&type=d&pREC_ID=82972

2. Isaac Asimov. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved December 7, 2015, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/i/isaacasimo140876.html

3. Winter, D. (2011, July 18). Sunday Spinelessness - What the... ? Retrieved December 7, 2015, from http://theatavism.blogspot.com/2011/07/sunday-spinelessness-what.html

4. 20 Favorite Jewish Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2015, from http://www.aish.com/sp/ph/20-Favorite-Jewish-Quotes.html

5. Daniel J. Boorstin. (n.d.). BrainyQuote.com. Retrieved December 7, 2015, from BrainyQuote.com Web site: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/danieljbo104920.html

6. Anatole France quote. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/anatolefra101422.html

7. Doliner, R. (n.d.). RoyDoliner. Retrieved December 17, 2015, from http://www.roydoliner.com/talmud.html

8. 10 Accidental Inventions You Won’t Believe. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from http://www.geniusstuff.com/blog/list/10-accidental-inventions/

Robin Groch is a teacher of 28 years, most recently at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, CA, where she taught general biology, ninth grade accelerated biology with research, as well as AP Biology for 20 years. She has also taught seventh and eighth grade science as well as ninth grade physical and earth sciences. She retired at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, but foolishly taught 2nd semester 2016 as a favor for a friend. She is now the Assistant Director of the Alameda County Science & Engineering Fair (through 6/2016) and will be substituting in her spare time.

A Plea for Compassion

Camden Hanzlick-Burton

Today, many schools and school districts are preparing ‘the next generation of college and career ready’ students, including mine. But what does it actually mean to be ‘college and career ready’? Preparing a college and career ready student is no small task.

Go ahead and Google ‘college and career ready school mission statement’ and notice just how many schools employ this phrase as a mission statement. It is certainly important.

However, as a teacher, how do I possibly decide what to teach students when considering what makes them ready for colleges and careers? Considering this, I began thinking about successful college students and professionals in my own life. What characteristics do they share, and how can I teach these skills to students? My research led me to the obvious traits: work ethic, persistence, focus, flexibility, respect, etc. The list goes on. I acknowledge these skills are valuable, but I can’t help but think of recent headlines: “Woman and Man Brutally Caned For Crime of Affectionate Contact,” “Couple Convicted of Plotting Terrorist Bombings,” and “No Charges in Tamir Rice Killing.”

I love science and teaching it but, if these are the most important events of today, I wonder what my students spend their time thinking about or dealing with. Are STEM and its associated skills and content meeting them where they are? Thinking scientifically is certainly something our students need to be able to do, but, more importantly, what do I think they need? If I had to choose one skill above all else to teach my students, it would be compassion. My experience and reflection has led me to believe that the most important thing is not asking questions, using mathematics, analyzing data, or even learning specific content, such as evolution, climate change, or genetics; rather, it’s compassion.

As sad as it is to say, as a new teacher, I can sometimes get so caught up in lesson planning, classroom management, meetings, professional development, grading, coaching, advising, and much more, that it is easy to forget about the people who are truly important - the students. In my fifth year, those professional obligations have not diminished, but I have made more time to get to know my students. My first four years of teaching took place at a school in the wealthiest county in Kansas, with a student population that was considerably different, ethnically and socioeconomically, than in Seattle, where I teach now.

So then, what changed in my approach to teaching? The need to focus on science skills and content did not change. These students did not need anything different from what every student needs: a high quality teacher and a high quality education. What changed was me. I realized that the best way to teach these students was through compassion. In a school where I am asked to mentor 21 of our freshman for their four short years of high school, I’ve learned much more about my students and I encourage them to get to know one another. By listening and empathizing with their fellow students and with their teachers, the students in my classes can begin their high school careers with the strong foundation of compassion. As much as I enjoy seeing students conquer the misconception that humans did not evolve from chimps or hearing from a parent that their daughter now loves science after hating it previously, I know that what got me to that point was developing personal relationships with the people I teach. I have learned that getting to know students and having compassion and empathy for them made it not only easier for me to understand them as people, but also for students to begin to see and know me too.

“Reach me before you teach me.” Easy to say, difficult to do. Reaching students takes more than asking someone their favorite sports team (mine: Kansas City Royals, World Series champions); it takes getting to know them on a deeper level. There is a difference between being a student’s friend and caring about them. Letting them use their phones in class makes you a “cool teacher;” texting or calling a student’s parents after they ace the test they worked so hard on makes you a compassionate one. So does a nice email or call home when you see a student do the right thing when no one was watching. Or heck, even inviting the parents of an advisory group to a potluck would work too.

Compassion for students models what compassion for each other looks like. In teaching practices like Restorative Justice, schools are challenging and breaking the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline. Bullying is not simply met with a detention or suspension. The bullies and victims are brought in along with the rest of the community involved. Students are allowed to share how they were hurt, both bully and victim alike. How often today do we hear about students who were “lost” or “isolated” in school, sometimes unfortunately after devastating tragedies?

Giving students a chance to be heard and included in their community is one way to fix this problem. When teachers know students and when students know each other they all begin to do something remarkable: They care for each other, they involve each other, and they teach each other. What happens when the student who never sees their mom who works night-shifts gets to learn with the student who has had the privilege to go to space camp every year? Learning happens in every way imaginable, far beyond the academic realm. Perhaps one student helps another take notes or learn how to study Spanish vocabulary.

Maybe the other student develops an understanding of privilege and differences in their world. As neighborhoods grow more racially and socioeconomically segregated, the divide in some cities like Chicago, Atlanta, or Milwaukee grows greater than that of even pre-Civil Rights era, this scenario is becoming more rare, but it cannot be an excuse to not give students a chance to know each other. A chance for students to break from the sometimes competitive college admissions race and instead taking a chance to get to know each other may lead to new and inspiring outcomes.

There it is, one story, one data point, one teacher. Teaching inspires me, science is my expertise, but I write here with a plea: Show compassion and teach compassion. Believe me, as a public school teacher, I know that no single thing is a panacea, and none of what I have said or say is simply a dichotomy. But as a teacher who has found new relevance and passion in teaching, it is not more testing, more technology, or even more STEM programs that has reinvigorated me and given me hope that education in the United States is improving and that my students will make our future a better place: It’s compassion.


Camden Hanzlick-Burton (twitter) (blog), a native Jayhawk of Kansas, teaches biology and AP Biology at Summit Sierra High School in Seattle, WA. He is a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow and actively collaborates with his fellow alumni of the UKanTeach program as well as with other teachers. He is a member of NSTA, NABT, and KABT (Kansas Assn. of Biology Teachers). When not teaching or thinking about teaching, (so the other 40 minutes of the day), he enjoys adventuring with his spouse, doing improvisational comedy, and watching the Kansas City Royals.

Care: An Allegory

Chi Klein

Quiet settled in the time between knowledge and recognition, with comprehension lagging behind. A voice from long ago stated, “Individual humans cannot evolve; we can, however, adapt.”

Staring at a backlit screen, a second-year graduate student searches his memories. What words does one use to describe the person who changed the trajectory of countless lives?

Nine years earlier, running from one class to another, texting along the way, his younger self missed an opportunity to relieve himself.

“Hey, can I go to the bathroom?” he asked brusquely as he entered the room. Mrs. Mendez, arms precariously cradling a laptop, textbook, gradebook, and stacked folders, was also rushing from another classroom.

“Sit down, please,” was the firm response.

The class massed out sodium bicarbonate for a photosynthesis lab. “Why doesn’t she just call it baking soda?” The student nudged his closest peer, pointing out the pale orange box on the lab bench. He took a spatula and started forming tidy, parallel lines on the balance - a drug reference that was funny to his lab partners for its irreverence.

“Excuse me,” Mrs. Mendez said as she took the circular base and dumped it in the awaiting garbage can. A variant of a four-letter expletive, heard by all present, hung dangerously in the air.

“Michael, come with me,” the teacher commanded sternly. The student got up more loudly than was necessary and followed her out of the room.

“That is not appropriate for a school environment. You have a detention after school,” Mrs. Mendez said in an exasperated voice. A conflicting mix of silent anger and deep remorse simmered within the student, only slightly clouded by the pressure from his bladder.

After school, the student showed up for his detention. The day mellowed his anger, giving way to the start of reason. There were a couple of teachers talking as he walked in, exchanging ideas and planning. He was directed to wash labware and clean the boards, which seemed like an ancient way to discipline. Overhearing the teachers’ conversation, the student was surprised at the amount of care they took in deciding ways to help various students (whose names they whispered) and at the thoughtful ways they discussed “lesson plans” and “learning outcomes.” He had never thought about what teachers did outside of class.

As the student finished wiping the remaining equations and notes from the board, Mrs. Mendez directed her attention to him as her colleague left. “Do you know why today’s incident disappointed me?” she asked, pausing briefly before answering her own question. “You have such great potential.” Potential, that oft-stated reason for teachers to compliment and admonish students, rung in the student’s ear. Although he had heard the word before, it rarely followed “disappointed.”

“It’s up to you as to what you will do with that potential. There may be lessons that bore you. There may be situations that upset you. There will be times when things are beyond your control. How will you adapt?”

The student was quiet. This was the first time someone had seen beyond his well-constructed facade, which masked the emptiness left by the death of a parent and the struggles that remained in a volatile and destabilized home. Mrs. Mendez held her hand out to shake the student’s. It was a formal gesture that felt at once awkward and appropriate. “Let’s start again tomorrow,” she responded.

Later that week, Mrs. Mendez pulled the student aside to discuss a hastily submitted lab report. The student dreaded what might come next. “I know that you can do better,” were the only words uttered as the paper was handed from teacher to student. There were questions written in red ink throughout the pages.

Not much of a discussion, thought the student. “Whatever,” he said under his breath, but guilt quickly flushed over him before the word was fully formed. He rewrote the lab report with greater detail and deeper analysis before resubmission. The student sought harder to discover connections and found them.

Although he observed others being pulled aside that day and knew that he was not the only one to disappoint, the student had difficulty refocusing on the next lab. The rest of the class was cutting Planaria with scalpels to observe regeneration. It seemed freakishly interesting to most of them, and one boy whispered, “I can’t believe she’s trusting us with sharp objects.” Only flatworms were cut that day, and something began stirring in the student.

The student saw Mrs. Mendez taking risks with new strategies to reach the disengaged among his class with varied degrees of success and failure. Many of the students seemed to appreciate the chances for inquiry and challenge that the teacher worked hard to present every day. Others, however, learned despite their complacency and occasional rudeness.

Midyear, she presented a challenge to her classes. Pick one problem that you see in the local environment and think of a way to solve it. The student, once detached, found himself developing a plan for neighborhood children to learn about plants and grow a garden. It was not a novel idea, but it involved an internal shift that found him changing plans after school and on weekends to dig in the dirt with younger kids on his own accord.

As the school year progressed, the student found himself caring about things he hadn’t before - the quality of his work, the relationships that he was forming, and the direction of his life.

Toward the end of their time together, Michael asked his teacher, “Why do you keep doing this year in and year out?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you keep teaching? It seems so hard.”

“And I seem so old?” Mrs. Mendez asked.

“No, that’s not what I meant.”

“Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”

“I don’t think I could do it. I was awful in the beginning, and I wasn’t the only one.”

“You were testing boundaries and learning to navigate your environment. You adapted.”

“So, you do this to see students evolve?”

“Individual humans cannot evolve; we can, however, adapt. I get to challenge students to adapt, to grow, and most importantly, to care.” Mrs. Mendez gave the student a hug good-bye.

Compelled by emotions that had lain dormant until recent events forced them to surface, the graduate student began his message of consolation to strangers who he hoped to meet. A cancer that he first learned about in a class long ago took the life of the teacher who taught him about it. Both he and his teacher dealt with struggles each kept from the other.

To the family of Mrs. Mendez,

Your grandmother changed my life …


Chi Klein serves as the Academic Dean of the Upper School and teaches AP Biology at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton, FL. She has a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in Biological Sciences from Northern Illinois University. Her interests include encouraging students to follow their intellectual passions and supporting teachers as dedicated professionals in their field.

The Long-Term Project

David Knuffke

“It is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly.” - The Scarecrow, “The Wizard of Oz”

I have a lot of fun doing my job. I think it’s a really great job, but I also think that’s largely a function of how much fun I have doing it. I understand that doing a job that you actually like doing is not the most common thing in the world. From a professional standpoint, it’s a fortunate place to be.

Fun is important. Like all of the teachers who are writing this year, I’ve got my favorite topics and my favorite lessons. Like all of the teachers who are writing this year, these topics and lessons span a variety of topics and time spans over the course of the year that I work with students. I’m sure I could pick any of those to talk about here and write a compelling narrative for why they are my favorites.

I’m not going to do that - because that’s not the topic. We are here to talk about the most important thing we teach our students. I’ve thought about the topic a lot, particularly over the past few months, and I don’t think there’s any way around this central thought: The most important thing I teach my students is not my favorite thing to teach my students.

Let’s zoom out a bit. U.S. public education is not without its flaws, but pound for pound, I think it holds its own against any other similarly long-term, free, public education system that has ever been attempted. The major virtue of the system is that, in its most idealized conception, it is offered to anyone who can show up to receive it, removed from any real consideration of its external value. It is offered as the only real, widely available avenue toward self improvement that our society has. These are fancy ways of saying that it is a gift in the truest sense of the term- given freely with no obligation of repayment.

That said, there is a ceaseless parallel conversation in America about what, exactly, the extrinsic purpose and value of the project is. This kind of thinking shows up in many parts of the public system, the majority of which I find disagreeable. Some of these are overtly hostile to the project: The driving logic behind corporate reform efforts for example, or the larger notion that schools should function as businesses. And others are much more benevolent: The recent push for ensuring “college and career readiness” in students, or the STEM/STEAM/STREAM fad.

But, having acknowledged that these types of conversations are extant for the sake of completeness, in what follows I’m going to do what I would like to do about them in reality. I’ll pretend they don’t exist.

If we take the premise that the purpose of U.S. education is to learn for the sake of learning, then I think it follows that the most important thing that I can teach my students is how to be a learner. Here I am not using “learner” in the diminutive that public school teachers typically employ, which is to say “child-aged students.” Instead I use the term to mean a mature and functional member of a society that has decided that the main project of the first 18-to-25 years of life should be learning for its own sake.

This is not a fixed target. The project does not end with a person receives their diploma. It is a process that must last for their entire lifetime. So, in the year I have with my own group of learners, the imperative is to develop those attitudes, skills, and behaviors in my students that are going to serve them in the longest term that they have.

That’s the most important thing I teach my students. My own particular subject specialization means that the lens by which I work to accomplish this is largely focused on the scientific enterprise, but that doesn’t really affect the larger project. In some sense it does, but only for the same reason that my colleagues who teach English, or art, or any of the other subjects that are offered in my school have similarly specific lessons to give our students: There are fundamental parts of knowledge in every subject that serve to ground thinking about what it means to learn about what it means to be a human.

Those of us who teach science have no monopoly on the teaching of insights, however much some of us might want to believe that we do. Besides, I don’t think that the science is the most important part of the most important thing that I teach. That designation is reserved for the ways of thinking that I work to foster in my students. There is a benefit here in teaching science, as the entire discipline is about learning how to learn. More than anything else, it seems to me that at its root, science is just a somewhat formalized process of learning. In that sense, I’m lucky in my choice of teaching topic.

Subject and coursework considerations aside, the most important lesson I teach is taught in many other ways in my class. It’s taught in how I interact with my students, how I approach the hard problems that we encounter, and how I respond to their difficulties. It’s taught through all of the micro-interactions that make up a teacher’s day. It’s taught when I tell them about myself, about my life, and about the things that I have learned and the things that I am learning about, and why those things are interesting and important to me.

It’s taught when I remind them that I am not the authority, only one specific “expert” with one specific thought process, and that my thought process is just as prone to error as any other, but that I am, perhaps, a bit more practiced at finding and dealing with those errors when they appear. It’s taught to them in who I am: one example of what an adult can look like in this place and time.

I am one version of a human being engaged in the lifelong project of learning what that means. This is the most important thing that I teach my students. And it is my hope that more than anything else, this is what I help them learn about when I am fortunate enough to be their teacher. If it all goes to plan, when our year together ends, I will have helped them in this enterprise.


David Knuffke teaches children science in Deer Park, NY, where he has had the good fortune to spend the entirety of a 12-year career. Outside of the immediate interests of his job, his major foci are his family, and the professional networks that he is a part of. He is the current moderator of the College Board’s AP Biology Teacher Community, a New York State Master Teacher, and the co-host of “Horizontal Transfer,” a weekly podcast about education.

Being Open-Minded with a Skeptical Filter

Bob Kuhn

“By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” - Richard Dawkins1

Bunny Lebowski: “Uli doesn't care about anything. He's a Nihilist.”

The Dude: “Ah, that must be exhausting.”

- “The Big Lebowski”2

 

Each year when kids enter high school they bring with them their experiences in their thoughts, ideas, morals and convictions. None of this is very original. How can it be? For 14 years they have been taught by older humans with the best intentions of ensuring that they ‘grow up right’. They get molded, trained, indoctrinated, encouraged, and sometimes warped by someone else's ideas and perspectives. It takes a lot of energy to chip away at that.

As a teacher, I think it is a total leap of faith by the parent that they would turn their kids over to an institution that will instruct their kids for 12 years. As a parent, I remember putting my 6 year old on the bus that first day and watching it roll away knowing that she now would be in the hands of other adults for a large part of her life. What responsibility we have in educating young people. In large part, the subject matter is the least of our worries. The most of our worries come from how students carry themselves, what they think and how they develop. It is also hard to impart wisdom in doses while not being a controlling figure in their lives. The most important thing we can teach our students is to have an open mind that is protected by skepticism.

I normally get information about what students think as a biology teacher. In many ways the kids come into my class ‘pre-loaded’ with ideas about the world. They carry their parent’s belief systems, and the morals and ethics built by their tribe. They also have been influenced about what happens after high school and what they might become. Many times when asked they are not very clued in about why they should believe what they believe or why they should do something like go to college. In part, they are carrying and sustaining themselves on their parent’s dreams and expectations. As they get older, these systems start to transform into other systems influenced heavily by their peer group, coaches and non-related adults. With new freedom they are exposed to foul language, temptations and perhaps things they should not be seeing or posting. On the other hand, they are for the first time taking adults ideas (other than their parents) into consideration.

So how do we teach our students to have an open mind, but to to also be skeptics? Kids pay attention to us in two ways: classroom instruction and how we relate outside of class. The low hanging fruit of controversy in the biology classroom is evolution. Most of my students carry their parent’s view of religion. In many cases it has been suggested that evolution will run contrary to their beliefs and to be on guard for that. Chipping away at the armor they are surrounded with is really not that difficult. Presenting biological evolution based on principles and examples normally does the trick. But am I trying to indoctrinate them into abandoning and jumping ship to another religion? Once their mind is open to the science and evidence, they must pass this information through their skeptical filter and determine for themselves whether there is enough evidence to consider evolutionary forces as a mechanism of micro- and macroevolution.

I tell them that being a skeptic does not mean being a cynic. The cynic weighs no evidence. They expect the idea in question to have a certain outcome. The skeptic processes the idea based on the evidence to reach some sort of conclusion. The conclusion may or may not be different from where they started. So many times I have had students who are very religious tell me that evolution makes sense but that after weighing the evidence they are uncomfortable with how it makes them feel in their religious upbringing. My intention is not to have them abandon their religious beliefs but to logically see where (or if) evolution fits into their overall system of understanding. The uncomfortable feeling in many cases indicates growth and consideration.

Vaccines are another biological issue where students enter the conversation with a preconceived mindset. Many students think that anyone who would not get a vaccine is stupid. When pressed, they often cannot tell me what a vaccine is or how it protects them. They also can’t tell me why not having a vaccine would potentially be dangerous to others. This is a classic case of cynicism. They are judging based on what they have been told and not through weighing evidence. It makes them uncomfortable to work through it but they leave with an open mind to the other side of the issue and the biological knowledge to decide for themselves.

One of the hardest things to teach is to be a skeptic when you are the only skeptic in the room. It is easy to be encouraged to go along with the crowd or not to rock boats. A great example of this is with climate change. In 1991 Bjorn Lomborg wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, looked for any environmental scientists to debate Lomborg about his claims. Not one environmental scientist took him up on it, invoking “There is no debate” and “We don’t want to dignify the book”. One of the editors of Skeptic Magazine did debate Lomborg and a lively discussion ensued3. Schermer goes on to explain that his turnaround on global warming came from a number of diverse sources and experiences that included the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a TED conference and numerous publications on many sides of the topic. Still today the human contribution to climate change is one of the hardest discussions to have because so many scientists and science teachers won’t even entertain the thought of a skeptical thought on the issue.

It is riskier to ask questions and demand evidence before adhering to a cause or way of thinking than to just go along with the crowd. To be brave like this applies to taking drugs at a party as much as it does to a scientific concept. It also applies to how we approach and interact with kids in our schools. Many teachers are naturally cynical about kids and what they do. Case in point. In my school it seems like there are always too many kids in the hallway during classes than to be expected. The cynic in me might stop a kid, ask their name, hear their excuse and assume they are lying or trying to deflect the reason they are really out in the hall. The skeptical teacher in me would approach the same situation with an open mind but formulate an opinion based on the evidence the child gives for being in the hall. Kids learn from us in these ways. They see how we deal with them and our approach. By not assuming the worst in them and demanding evidence, better decisions can be made and they view us as more human in the process.

I feel that not teaching kids how have an open mind and how to be skeptical to protect their open mind, would be doing them a disservice. By working through examples on having an open mind to ideas by passing them through a skeptical filter, I hope to impart to kids how to make better decisions. I don’t hope to help them be like me or less like their parents, but more like themselves.


1. Dawkins, Richard, 1996. in "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder," The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1 Television

2. Coen, Ethan and Coen, Joel, 1998. The Big Lebowski. Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Working Title.

3. Shermer, Michael, 2008. Confessions of a former environmental skeptic. http://www.michaelshermer.com/2008/04/confessions-of-a-former-environmental-skeptic/

Bob Kuhn has been teacher at Centennial High School in Roswell, GA, for 18 years. He has taught biology and AP Biology for more than 12 years. He can be reached at ucapugulator@gmail.com or @apbioroswell on Twitter.

Ask how we know what we know.

Kirstin J. Milks

I am a teacher. Of science - because science is fun and interesting and that’s what I did before I started in the classroom.

But I am first and foremost a teacher of young people on their way to adulthood. Responsibility to my students, and the adults they will become, motivates and informs my work as much, if not more, than high-stakes tests or state standards.

Science isn’t a collection of facts or a lab manual of rote protocols, although the science classes I took in school were an unappealing mix of the two. Actual science, breathtaking in both its complexity and elegance, is the collection of ways we ask a vital, golden question about the natural world: How do we know what we know?

Each morning, I see AP biology students who go on to attend our nation's most prestigious universities. In the afternoon, I co-teach our high school’s introductory-level science course with a special education teacher. The two populations of students I get to work with could hardly be more different in terms of prior academic achievements. But the intellectual demands I make on them are strikingly similar, focused on uncovering what we know and using that work to solve more challenging or intricate problems. I’ve tried to build my classroom practice to engage and motivate students so they’ll take the risks required to learn science as an intellectual practice, not just a body of factual knowledge1. In addition, students and I learn together how to find reliable sources when we don’t have the background to fully grasp a complicated scientific situation like climate change or CRISPR.

My goal is not to build rooms of future scientists. Rather, I hope that my wonderful, often-vulnerable teenagers will take this way of thinking, this wondering about what’s behind the curtain of what we take for granted, into their adulthood. Like many folks who find a career they love, I find myself constantly discovering and learning in deeply fulfilling ways. That’s why I care so much about giving my students opportunities to practice habits of mind that will enable success outside the classroom, particularly habits they can use to keep learning and growing regardless of where they find themselves in the world.

The battle to reignite the patience and curiosity required to ask how we know what we know is constant in the trenches of U.S. high schools. Too many of my students, once kindergarteners wondering endlessly aloud, have been pressure-cooked into fact-memorizing list-checkers on an unending race to nowhere,2 pallatives for which litter a recent explosion3 of popular4 books5. Other students in my classes have become deeply disempowered in their educations by the methods their teachers have used, or haven’t used, to teach and assess learning.

Those of us who teach our nation’s teenagers are also living in parallels of both these realities, often bound by high-stakes testing emphasizing rote memorization and teacher evaluations that focus on shallow subsets of assessment data. Before I started in the classroom, I vilified teachers whose courses looked more like test prep than places of actual learning. Now, though, I feel only empathy for well-meaning educators who, trapped in pressure-cooker environments themselves, find a ‘just-the-facts’ approach better rewarded and more comfortable6 than helping students develop their skills authentically.

By building a memorization-tocracy, we disconnect students who would be more motivated to learn and develop their literacy and numeracy skills by actually engaging in intellectual practices. And we minimize the amount of uncertainty and struggle that our students feel is comfortable during challenges. By asking what how we know what we know, and finding ways for students to unpack the answers, we can replenish some of the intellectual curiosity and resiliency of early childhood in our teenagers.

All of this is well-covered ground in education. But here’s the secret I’ve learned from my time in schools: Investigating our own beliefs and assumptions about our personal and professional lives is just as important for strong, resilient, capable adulthood as any of the academic skills we develop in the classroom. The power of asking what we know and how we know it is far, far greater than becoming a successful college student or a savvy consumer of media and advertising.

Early in my student teaching, I found my assumptions about a bright but low-performing student blown open. It turned out his disquieting lack of effort at school was linked to the equally disquieting reality of being an undocumented adolescent. As a result of that interaction and our continuing work that year - his, as he began to do more of his schoolwork, and mine, as I began teaching English language learners, specifically recent immigrants, with his input - that student became one of my most valuable collaborators and is now on the path to U.S. citizenship. Quite a story, I know, but I have countless others, all stemming from my still-developing ability to step back and ask myself and others about what’s really going on in my classroom.

This mindset of asking where our assumptions come from, in science and as learners and as humans, allows people to grow into their best possible selves. After all, at the heart of each of us is the collection of stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who others are, and the narratives we use to describe what’s happening. What is the outcome of telling these stories? Are there other stories to tell? How do we know?


1. K.J. Milks. (2015, June 5). Falling is not failing. Retrieved from http://www.unitydiversity.org/2014/2015/6/5/falling-is-not-failing

2. Abeles, V. (Producer and Director), & Congdon, J. (Director). (2011). Race to Nowhere [Motion picture]. USA: Reel Link Films.

3. Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

4. Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

5. Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015). How to raise an adult: Break free of the overparenting trap and prepare your kid for success. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

6. S. Traphagen. (2015, June 5). If we want students to feel safe, teachers need to model it first. Retrieved from http://www.unitydiversity.org/2014/2015/6/5/if-we-want-students-to-feel-safe-to-fail-teachers-need-to-model-it-first

Kirstin J. Milks teaches at Bloomington High School South in Bloomington, IN, where she learns with and from AP Biology and Earth/space science students. In addition to her 2014 contribution to Unity & Diversity, she has published articles and reflections on teaching in The American Biology Teacher and Education Leadership. Kirstin is a National Board Certified Teacher and a senior fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, where she is an editor of the journal Kaleidoscope.

It’s Not About the Content

Heidi Park

I’ve had discussions, and even arguments, with my coworkers about ‘what is important’ to include in our shared curriculum map and how to phrase learning objectives. There are currently 89 learning objectives in our chemistry curriculum map, covering six different units. This is less than the 94 learning objectives in last year’s curriculum map (and we didn’t actually get to all of these last year).

I’ve had discussions about whether our curriculum is ‘really’ an ‘honors chemistry’ curriculum, whether our students ‘can handle’ everything, and ‘what’s necessary.’ And these are all good and interesting discussions to have as teachers. We’re trying to focus the curriculum and to think about how students learn and how to help them learn. I teach chemistry because I absolutely love how chemistry and science explain so many things about the world we encounter every day.

But I recognize that many of my students will not go into STEM fields when they are done with high school. And, despite all the push for STEM education in this country, I don’t think that all or even most of my students should pursue STEM fields. There is also some compelling evidence that there are currently more STEM degrees awarded in the United States than jobs available.1,2

I would love to see my students develop a genuine love for science, but I also want it to be OK for them to have other interests. After all, what world would it be if everyone was a scientist? Then again, I don’t want my students to think, ‘Chemistry is just really hard so I’m not going to get it’ or, ‘Oh, I’m just not a science person.’ The mindset I want them to develop is, ‘I can do science, but I choose this other thing I’m passionate about instead.’ I want them to be comfortable with science and scientific reasoning.

And to get them to the point of feeling capable with science, I’d like my students to be able to think scientifically. To be able to look at a model or analyze someone’s statement, and decide for themselves whether they agree with the conclusions that have been drawn. When a student asks me a question about an assignment, my response is often (but not always), “I don’t know. What do you think?” And just as often, my students’ frustrated response is, “But you know! Why won’t you just tell us?”

My reply to this frustration is that I want them to think about it, that they are capable of figuring things out. I should go this route more often, but I readily admit that sometimes it’s much easier to just point them toward the right answer.

And when I do this, I do them a disservice, because I’m short-circuiting their thinking and I’m sending them the message, “You can’t do this yourself so I will do it for you because I am more capable than you are.” Instead, I want to send my students the message, “You can totally figure this out; you have all the information in front of you that you need, and even though this looks difficult, you are capable thinkers.” My goal is to build their self-competence. That wasn’t a typo for self-confidence, by the way. I don’t necessarily want them to feel confident, I want my students to see themselves as competent - able to perform a specific job/activity properly.3

The class structures I choose are intended to help students in this development. I use a lot of group work in my class, and I lecture as little as possible. This is partly because I myself dislike lecturing - I’m not a center of attention kind of person, and I find it frustrating when students are dropping off during a lecture, which inevitably happens. I find it easier to keep students engaged with group work than a lecture. I do my best to give them real ‘group worthy’ or ‘conversation worthy’ tasks (as discussed further in Horn’s book “Strength in Numbers”4), although I admit that it can be difficult. I rely on resources vetted by other teachers, such as the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL)5 resources and the Modeling Instruction resources.6

Some students have said that my class is harder than their AP U.S. History class, but I remind them that they’ve seen some parts of U.S. History in the past, whereas this might be the first time they’re really seeing chemistry. It is easy, sometimes, to forget that my students are still developing mentally because physically, many of them are taller than me, and they look like adults. But for some of my students, my class is the first time they are struggling in school. For others of my students, they struggled in freshman physics so they come in with a mindset that they just can’t do science.

And it’s also easy for me to get caught up in the content - they still don’t understand naming ionic compounds! Why didn’t they memorize the elements I assigned at the start of the year like I asked them to? The organization and layout of the periodic table is fascinating, and it makes chemistry so much easier to understand - why can’t they see that too? I have to pause, and remind myself that the end goal is not a wonderful mastery of chemical knowledge (although I hope that would be a byproduct of all of this!), because it’s not about the content. In reality, there isn’t an end goal; instead, I am stepping along side them on this part of their journey, doing my best to give them just enough support so that they can realize how much they can do on their own, with their own brains.


1. Hacker, A. (2015, July 9) The Frenzy about High Tech Talent. The New York Review of Books, 62(12). Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/07/09/frenzy-about-high-tech-talent/

2. Teitelbaum, M.S. (2014, March 19) The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/03/the-myth-of-the-science-and-engineering-shortage/284359/

3. Hunt, A. (2011, September 5). Competence vs. Confidence. Retrieved from http://psygrammer.com/2011/09/05/competence-and-confidence/

4. Horn, I. (2012) Strength in Numbers: Collaborative Learning in Secondary Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

5. POGIL Project. (n.d.) www.pogil.org

6. American Modeling Teachers Association (n.d.) http://modelinginstruction.org/

Heidi Park is a chemistry (and sometimes physics) teacher at Jones College Prep HS in Chicago, IL. She is also a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow and can be found on twitter @heidijpark. Heidi blogs at http://urbanscienceed.wordpress.com/ about her thoughts on teaching, education policy, and other education-related things that may be on her mind.

A Most Important Cheat

Daniella G. Ellingson

What is the most important thing we can teach our students? I had to ask my students because I did not have a straightforward answer. This is surely the result of having been a middle school teacher for only two years at the time of this writing. In fact, why am I writing this?

While teaching undergraduate college students, it was clear that the most important thing I could teach them was how to write for a science class: How to write an essay, a paragraph, a sentence. It was also clear that the most important thing I could teach college students was the difference between evidence and opinion. “‘Because everyone knows that doesn’t count as evidence” is something I said often. It was also clear that the most important thing I could teach college students was that the sciences do not happen in isolation; that science is a human enterprise affected by the human condition, as are all other human endeavours. Not all scientists wear lab coats, and lab coats are not a barrier to humanity (or a guarantee of one). I had a few ‘most important thing’ moments.

In my credentialing program, we were told that the most important thing you can teach students is that you care. The underlying sentiment in credentialing programs for urban populations is that students will not care about learning if they assume you will give up on them.1 We armed ourselves with social justice theory,2 and off we went. While deeply important, I learned that one size does not fit all. The most important thing I can teach differs considerably from student to student.

I currently have a students reading several grades below their level. The most important thing I can teach them is to read.3 I have a student who reads at college level. The most important thing I can teach her is to find ways to challenge herself. I have a student who says science is too hard and shuts down. The most important thing I can teach him is that struggle is a good thing. I have a student who thinks himself a superstar and finishes everything first. The most important thing I can teach him is to slow down, so he can do superstar work. I have a student who says daily, “I don’t know what to do.” The most important thing I can teach him is to be self-reliant.

I have too many students who Google a question and copy/paste an answer instead of reading a text for evidence they can explain. The most important thing I can teach these students is critical thinking.

But what is the most important of all the important things? I thought I was being to pragmatic. I needed help, so I turned to my students. I thought their answers would help me narrow down my own, as I was contemplating several ideas. I anticipated they would be confused by the broad scope of the question, so I tried to help them narrow down their thoughts. I gave them a Google form asking them the following four questions:

  1. What is the most important thing you can learn in science?
  2. What is the most important thing you can learn in school?
  3. What is the most important thing Ms. Perry can teach you?
  4. What is the most important thing you can learn from a teacher?

I gave subject-dependent options to choose from for questions one and two. I left blank fields for questions three and four. There are, of course, limitations with this survey, including sample size, demographic, student expectations, one inappropriate answer, etc. The results were interesting nonetheless. This was a voluntary survey, for which the students were told their answers would be shared. I received 129 responses out of 149 students (86.58 percent return).

I was hoping most of them would say the most important thing to learn from a teacher is to be a better person. (Two students, 1.34 percent, said this; three students, if you count, “How life works and how to do things the right way.”) I also was hoping most of them would choose the most important thing to learn in science is human impact on the environment (indeed, nearly 30 chose this). I was also anxious about their answers because does this not mean I have to deliver? I better invoke Team Bring It. (Please note, this video involves The Rock and is mildly NSFW).

I received many different answers. Some were narrow in scope (“dinosaurs”); some were nebulous (“everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Note the 17 exclamation points); some were nihilistic (“nothing”); and some were poetic (“how to ball like Lebron James”). Many chose “science” as the most important thing to learn in school (about 20.3 percent), with “how to learn” taking second place (around 17 percent). A response that stood out to me because of the community in which I work was this: “I think the most important thing you can learn from a teacher is how to keep your stress level down during school and how to keep on doing your work when people are bothering u.”4 The most chosen was “Other” at nearly 23 percent, but no one typed what “other” may be.


You can see a spreadsheet of all the answers here and a summary here. As much as I wanted the most important thing to be was for students to know and understand human impact, or to learn to be kind to one another, the reality in my classroom is that priorities are different depending on many things: reading level, comprehension, attention span, living conditions, economic status, social-emotional capacity, stress, passions, wants, needs … What was evident is that, in practice, the most important thing is necessarily subjective and varied. It is a cheat, but I decided “the most important thing” for me is “the most important things.”


1. There are numerous academic articles on this. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center has a concise summary “how-to” with links to a few journal articles here.

2. I attended Loyola Marymount University’s School of Education in Los Angeles. You can see their theoretical framework, “Respect, Educate, Advocate, Lead (REAL),” here.

3. Most students enter our middle school anywhere from 1 to 6 grade levels behind in reading. The actual number of students who need to learn how to read at grade level is very high. Our entire faculty and staff are dedicated to increasing literacy and comprehension in our students.

4. On top of middle-school hormonal concerns, our students deal with substantial external struggles. I work in East Los Angeles, where only 3.7% of residents hold a college degree, and the median income is $38,621 (2008 dollars). There are at least 34 gangs in the greater East LA area, some having a lengthy history. Many of our students’ families are involved in this.

Daniella Ellingson is an integrated science teacher at Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy #8 in Los Angeles, CA. Ellingson has spent a few years teaching college students both science and history while working on a doctorate in History of Science at the University of California - Los Angeles. She is taking a break from dissertation while learning how to be a teacher. Ellingson has been teaching middle school science for only two years, so welcomes All The Learning. She has a husband, a dog, and a pet moss ball, and wants to be an astronaut, writer, and presidential library archivist when she grows up.

Beyond Fear, There Is Only Sky

Michael Ralph

Every year, on a hot afternoon in August, I find myself at the center of a whirlwind of excitement. A group of children chaotically scramble to reach a goal for which they have only a cursory appreciation. Some children appear more gifted than others, but almost all are enthusiastic and have raw adrenaline-charged energy. Gone is the teenage disinterest that often seems so difficult to shake. There is only a need to act, even if each child is only dimly aware of what that action might be.

At its essence, science is a discovery process. Through all the mistaken conjectures, failed inventions, misinterpreted data, rejected hypotheses, and frustrated retractions, our field maintains a culture of creation. There are times I marvel at the dichotomy between how we as scientists perceive our profession and how we experience it. A study with 100 trials and a single successful attempt is published as a resounding success. The experimenter recalls the adrenaline rush of the positive result, and the other 99 trials are seen as triumphant evidence of how not to create the desired result.

Failure is a pathway to success. Indeed it is the only pathway to success. Deliberate practice and reflection is a forge that crafts failures into robust knowledge. A scientist must feed the machine with attempts, revisions, and improvement. Students, on the other hand, are trained from an early age to fear mistakes. They experience education as an assembly line; each student passes through their career like a widget on a production floor. Even some of the most high profile enrichment programs provide exciting experiences, but those experiences are scripted and predefined for the majority of participants.

So I return every August to a new group of young people conditioned to learn responses to my prompts. They are programmed to flee each opportunity for failure, else they bear grade deductions and corrections for failing to reproduce exactly the response I expect. My first order of business in all of my classes is to thoroughly and completely reject such a premise. This year I started one class asking them to reproduce natural water filtration. They had very little context and I certainly didn’t define a way to assign points or a due date. Their only way forward was to take a risk. In the last days of class they still remember that first day as a shocking and formative experience, when they were forced to take risk and confront uncertainty in a way they never had before.

The students resist initially. Nearly all want to know the rules or request guidance toward the right answer. My more advanced students in AP Biology and biotechnology often struggle to let go of the need for concrete direction. But there is always one. I can name most of those students going back several years because they always stand out and signal the beginning of something great.

The first student who thinks, “Okay, fine. I will try.” And they begin tinkering. They request materials. They reach their first glorious failure, and the reaction I give! “How wonderful that you have identified your first need for revisions.” Others join in. Nothing bad ever happens. There is never punishment. A worksheet is never distributed. So more want to play.

And eventually the room is abuzz with chaotic exploration. Things break. Organisms escape. And students take control. They understand the nebulous nature of their goal and are comfortable seeking whatever they may find in their wandering. What is most important is that all students are capable of exploring in this room. The advanced students work alongside those enrolled in remedial classes. Anyone can create an advanced class and allow accelerated students to continue being accelerated. Our job is to help new students grow to this place of scientific freedom.

There is a tyranny in STEM education right now of selection for the most dramatic and complex. Too many assume only the few people who were playing with junior chemistry kits at age two are able to excel in STEM endeavors. While the most advanced students who have been practicing for years deserve support and praise for their impressive accomplishments, it is equally important to grow a love and appreciation for scientific practice in students new to the field. A senior art student, a junior football player and a freshman novice learner all have something valuable to offer in the science classroom.

The same attitude applies to advanced courses such as my AP Biology and biotechnology courses. I was guilty of seeing students struggle in the first weeks of years past and thinking, “They need to get out of this class before they fail.” A few lucky students will enter my classroom already understanding the value of struggle. The majority have absolutely no reason to expect that their earnest struggle will lead to their success in my classroom. They have an abundance of evidence that it won’t. My job is to help more students grow to meet my expectations for conducting science.

So I have purpose in my career. I cherish the memory of each moment when another student comes to understand the agency they have over their own work. One student started her own research inquiry which continues to this day, and she still offers mentorship and guidance from college. Another student started his own 3D printing business as a senior using the experience he gained during his high school years.

My job is to model for students what they can accomplish through trial, struggle, and growth. The most important thing we teach students is not any single topic, but when we teach them how to explore an interest. I want to show young people the freedom they have to craft their own story. My developing citizens need neither permission nor institution. Each student must only find a goal worthy of their determination and seek it. I want each student to leave my classroom and empowered individual ready to explore the world around them through productive struggle.


Michael Ralph teaches general biology, AP Biology and biotechnology at Olathe East High School in the Kansas City, KS, area. He is a graduate of the UKanTeach program and focuses on inquiry instruction and the impact practice has on skill improvement. He is an author of Biology Rocks! and works to promote inquiry methodology around the country through professional development and collegial collaboration. Contact him on Twitter @ralph0305 to exchange ideas and become better professionals.

We Are All Works In Progress

Moses Rifkin

What is the most important thing we can teach our students? How to convert between units. Because, you know, there was that Mars orbiter that got lost that one time.

I’m kidding, of course, but with a purpose: As science teachers, I do think we let ourselves get boxed in by our content. When I’m not careful, I find myself thinking of my job in terms of how it includes the content that will most help my students to make sense of, find wonder in, and navigate the world. I get this image of my students, all grown up, reading a newspaper and understanding the science-related things they read, nodding sagely.

All of these outcomes are perfectly wonderful, of course, but I think they’re thinking too small.

I became a science teacher because I loved science, and I loved the idea of getting paid to talk with kids about science. Maybe (probably), through talking with me, they’d learn to love science as much as I do. Because science is the best!

With every year that I teach science, though, I find that I care less about the material I’m teaching and more about the bigger picture that our shared experience is a part of. By bigger picture, I mean really big: the way my students feel about themselves; the way they treat other people; and the way they view the world and their role in making it better. If you were to transcribe the dialogue in my classroom (or, I think, any of our classrooms), it would look like we were talking about unit conversions. What I try to think about, though, are the ways in which we’re also talking about how to be in the world.

So, with all of that said, I’ll finally answer the question: The most important thing we can teach our students is that it is OK to be a work in progress. I would choose this over the newspaper daydream. (Though, in reality, I think I can have it both ways.) When I picture my students walking out of school after taking my classes, this idea is the thing that I most want them to have learned.

When I talk to my students about how we’re all works in progress, either explicitly or implicitly, I get the sense that they’re uncomfortable with the idea. We all live in a culture that tells us that the goal of learning is to be done with it and, by extension, that if our students aren’t done learning then they need to hurry up and get there. How many times do our students respond to mistakes on assessments with disappointment, rather than recognition or resolve or even enthusiasm? Yes, I know that sounds incredibly naïve; that’s kind of my point: A mistake is disappointing when you think it reflects some failing on your part. Even the widely popular idea of “grit” seems to suggest that making mistakes is something to be endured or survived, instead of embraced.

I hope this isn’t just moral windbaggery: I honestly feel like our cultural emphasis on getting things right often stands in the way of continued learning. I don’t think we can say that we want our students to be “lifelong learners” without helping them see that mistakes are both inevitable and fantastic opportunities. If we want our students to embark on that journey, we’d better give them some tools and perspective to survive and enjoy it.

I also think that, in order to teach them this most important thing, I also have to help my students learn other important things along they way. They learn that they actually are works in progress, that they have more learning to do and always will. They learn that this learning is worthwhile and, I hope, something they will keep choosing. They learn that other people around them are also works in progress, which brings kindness, empathy, and a sense that we are all in it together.

This all sounds good, but what about those unit conversions? Seriously, my job description is Science Teacher, not Life Coach. How do I help my students to view themselves – and others, and learning, and the world – differently while I’m teaching them science content?

I think I already am, and the only shift is to be a tiny bit more intentional about the messages I’m sending. So I spend a little bit of time before I hand back quizzes talking about how they might view what they see. I give them small opportunities to reflect on their prior work before they start a new assessment, giving them chances to practice this way of approaching themselves. I thank students for asking questions and celebrate students when they make mistakes. I try to practice what I preach by showing them summaries of the feedback that they’ve given me at the end of terms and talking about the changes I hope to make as a result. I hang signs in my room that say “everyone learns differently” and, at the front of my room, “If you ask a stupid question, you may feel stupid. If you don’t ask a stupid question, you remain stupid.”

I don’t mean these examples to suggest that I’m an enlightened teacher but, rather, that these are the small things that I view most important. I love demoing physics concepts or helping a student see the relevance of Newton’s Laws or whatever. But what feels most important to me is when I see a student make a mistake, learn from it, and feel good about that process of getting smarter. Those are the moments that feel most important.

So when a student makes a mistake doing unit conversions in front of the class, we laugh and talk about what that mistake can teach us all: What it taught that student, what it taught her peers, what it taught me about how my students understand (and do not understand) conversations. And then we move on, a little smarter and, I hope, a little more willing to make and learn from mistakes in the future. I don’t expect that my students will ever be super-excited to make mistakes – though a teacher can dream – but I’m hopeful that helping them embrace those mistakes is the way I can make their lives and our world a better place.


Moses Rifkin is a high school physics teacher and Ultimate coach at University Prep, an independent school in Seattle, WA. He is especially interested in the overlap between science teaching and social justice. He tweets at @RiPhysKin, occasionally and inadvertently appears on Fox News, and lets his students run his class Instagram account.

Learning: It’s more than ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’

Phyllis Robinson

What do I want my students to learn? Of course, as a biology teacher, I want them to learn biological facts and concepts, and the connections between those concepts. There is an emphasis on biotechnology and molecular biology in the modern curriculum, to which I admit to having a certain fondness. But I also want them to them to look outward and learn that nature is full of the weird and the wonderful. I want them to be able to walk in the woods, identify what they see, and understand how those organisms might be linked. I want them to be able to tell the ‘carrots from the parrots’ as an old saying goes.

We all want these things, right? But what else is important? When I reflect on my classroom over the years, here’s what rises to the surface. Thinking about the day-to-day content in my classroom, I want my biology students to learn that, on a cellular level, they are really quite busy. I say this to my students frequently. The sophisticated operating systems of mitochondria and ribosomes, the delicate process of signal transduction cascades – there is so much going on in there, and the intricate dance that keeps each cell humming along is simply astounding.

Couple that with the interactions of all the cells that make up each organism, and my students’ minds are blown. I love seeing when this concept suddenly sinks in for each student – one kid’s gaze turns inward reflectively, another squirms a little in her chair as she thinks about all those cells inside. But then one face after another lights up with sudden understanding. That’s one of my favorite moments in the year. On my end-of-year course evaluation, I ask my introductory biology students what I hoped they learned this year. Many of them have answered with, “On a cellular level, I’m really quite busy!” so I guess they get it.

But that’s just the starting point. More importantly, I want my students to learn how to learn. I want them to understand that the plasticity of the human brain means that they are capable of pushing their own boundaries. A student might not understand oxidative phosphorylation – yet – but with effort and a growth mindset he can learn it (Dweck 2006)1. I want my students to understand the importance of their amygdala, which acts as an emotional switching station, leading either to a stress-induced reactive state of mind, or a reflective thinking mind that is open to learning. High stress barriers to learning (such as fear, humiliation, boredom, and obstacles in their home lives like poverty or abuse) force a person’s brain into survival mode rather than open to learning.

On the flip side, I want them to see that it is possible to circumvent these obstacles and do the hard work of learning nonetheless. As teacher, I have an important role to play here, too. Maintaining a safe environment for learning in my classroom is one key to my students’ success. Additionally, I want students to see that being forced outside of their comfort zone and into the realm “desirable difficulty” will allow them to truly learn something, since going through the hard work of making sense of a difficult concept will help them remember it better (Brown 2014)2.

I want students to see that the purpose behind my constant insistence on warm-ups that include activities such as, “Write down everything you remember about chromosomes” is a self-quizzing strategy they can and should use on their own to review. I want them to discover that learning specific facts is fun, that learning broad concepts will help them tie those facts together in meaningful ways, and that learning to interact with their peers in a socially competent manner provides important academic and social rewards in the biology classroom and throughout their school day.

I want my AP Biology students to develop the persistence that is integral to learning hard stuff on their own. I want them to feel the tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes from mastering a difficult concept that, at first, seemed impossible. Of course, there are concepts that need an explanation by a teacher before a student truly understands it (CRISPR, anyone?). But my AP kids are going off to college next year, with the expectation of more learning on their own than they ever had in high school (and in a variety of ways), and they need to be prepared. The more a student can learn outside of a formal classroom setting, the more prepared she will be for learning new skills in college, in new jobs, in volunteer organizations, and throughout her life.

But mostly I want my students to learn to love learning in general, and enjoy and appreciate biological topics as they journey along that path. Oh, and I want them to be able to tell the carrots from the parrots.


1. Dweck, Carol (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.

2. Brown, Michael et al. (2014) Make It Stick. Harvard University Press

Phyllis Robinson has taught at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, MD, for the past 30 years. She currently teaches biology and AP Biology, and also taught 15 years of middle school math. She was a member of Cohort 3 of the AP Biology Leadership Academy, and has been an AP Exam Reader for more than a decade. She is envious of her (retired) husband who has had the time to become a Master Naturalist in their county, and looks forward to doing the same one day.

No One Thing

Helen Snodgrass

Wise people have argued and disagreed about the purpose of education since long before the advent of the modern educational system.

So I guess I should not have felt too bad when I really struggled trying to answer the question of what the one most important thing is to teach students. It seemed like an impossible question to answer since we teach our students so many things, hopefully the majority of which we think are really important. So, I initially put off really thinking and writing about my own ideas because I was not yet convinced that I would be able to, or even should, get to just one answer. But having extolled the virtues of struggle to my students so frequently in class, I knew I needed to try and trust that something useful, if not one clear answer, would come out of the process.

I began with some simple brainstorming without worrying too much about whether anything on the list could really be The One Most Important Thing. A few of the many ideas I came up with were the importance of struggle and failure, how to critically evaluate claims, how to ask questions and search for answers, how to work well with others, how to increase literacy skills, and how to foster a passion for learning.

While this step did not help me narrow things down too much, it did allow me to see some commonalities among the things that I think are important. Most obvious was that there were no specific pieces of content on my list. I, of course, love biology and think developing a deep understanding of big concepts is important for my students, but I cannot really say that any single piece of content is the most important thing that I teach my students. I also noticed that all of the skills or mindsets on my list were transferrable, both beyond science and beyond school. While I hope some of my students go on to study science, I do not think they all will or need to. But skills such as asking questions and being creative useful in any field and will hopefully stick with and be relevant to them no matter what they do in the years after leaving my class.

Still not much closer to a single answer, I realized I had not yet asked the group of people who would probably be the most affected by my answer to that question: my students. When I asked them, their answers indicated both some things that I have chosen to prioritize this year and some things that I thought were important but that did not stand out to my students. They were also just as divided as I was, with a few focusing on content, some on mindsets, and one on practical life skills. Here are a few of the responses they have when I asked them what the most important thing was that they have learned or should learn in science class:

  • “Evolution is more complicated than a monkey turning into a human.”
  • “Curiosity.”
  • “Failing doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t ever understand or know how to do something. It’s a chance to grow from your mistakes.”
  • “Failing is okay. With failure, new science is born and new things are discovered.”
  • “Preparation for the outside world — how to do your taxes, change a tire, and buy a house.”

While I am so very glad that my students are leaving my AP Biology class with a more complex view of human evolution than they came in with, I had already decided that any one piece of content was not the most important thing I could teach them. (Although if I had to pick one most important concept from my course, it would probably be evolution.) Most students, however, had picked skills or mindsets more similar to things on my list. Comparing their responses to my initial ideas, it was clear that while my emphasis on the importance of failure and struggle had come through, other things that I think are important in a science class, like the various practices of science, did not seem to stand as much to students and I needed to reconsider my approach. After all of this, I still didn’t have a clear answer, but, as expected, had learned or been reminded of some important ideas along the way.

  • What happens in your class on a daily (or at least weekly) basis should be a reflection of the things you think are most important to teach your students. I said my top priorities in class were more focused on students developing certain skills and mindsets than on content, but do I really give students sufficient opportunities to do that in class? If it is not happening enough, when else could it happen?
  • When in doubt, ask your students. They are the ones with the most at stake when it comes to our instructional choices as teachers and yet we probably do not ask for their opinions often enough. When we do, not only do we show them that we value their ideas and input, but we also learn a lot about what is most salient to them, which might not be what we thought we was emphasizing. So, both for regular class feedback and any time we are facing a particular dilemma related to our teaching, we should all just go ahead and ask and we might be surprised by what we learn.
  • We all need to find a group of colleagues who will push us to grow and reflect in ways that we otherwise might not on our own. This is not a process I would have necessarily pushed myself through without the support of great colleagues, something every teacher needs.
  • There is no ‘One Thing’ - no one right or static answer to this question of the single most important thing to teach for all students or all teachers - and that is OK. We change as teachers, the contexts in which we teach change, and our students and their needs change.

Finally, I realized that, while what felt like the most important skill or concept to teach students might change over time or with context, there was something that wouldn’t change and would always be more important to me than any skills or concepts I could teach.

This idea has been rattling around in my head for the past few months as I have thought about how to best help the students most in need of support at my school, the ones with years of bad experiences in school who really needed a reason to want to be there and do their best. The ones who I had seen thrive in one classroom and completely shut down in another. This was not a new idea or one I had never thought about before, but, as I mulled over all of these important things that I teach, it felt more essential than any of them. It felt like what had to come first before any of the other important things could matter.

What I realized was that the most important thing for me was for my students to know that they are valued. That I am glad that they are there every single day and that their ideas and contributions are important, whether or not it is always easy to feel that way in any given moment. I hope that, if I am successful in that, some of those important concepts and skills I was able to reflect on in this process will come through as well.


Helen Snodgrass is an AP Biology teacher at YES Prep North Forest and the Science Director for YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, TX. She is a senior fellow of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation and a former Woodrow Wilson Annenberg Fellow. She enjoys learning new things with and from her students every day.

The Language of Power

Sophie State

As an idealistic fourth-year high school science teacher, I do not find it challenging to write about my teaching goals with the optimism of a recent graduate. However, this year’s question stumped me: how could I possibly narrow my understanding of the most important thing I teach my students?

I wondered how much my teaching context influenced my own response. After all, I’m not a kindergarten teacher, so the need to teach my students how to share or let me know when they need to use the restroom is a less central - yet still crucial (!?) - learning goal. I’m not a foreign language teacher, so helping my students understand the value of cultural competency is rarely a standard for the day.

As I narrowed my thoughts, I encountered a question that I imagine makes many science teachers squirm: is my subject even the most important thing I teach? My students’ feedback has indicated that their impressions of what they are learning is much less about what they have learned, and much more about how they felt as they learned; it doesn’t get much more touchy-feely than that.

Even my science content loses importance when I think about what is most important to teach. The truth is that what I teach my students is not one concept - Khan Academy, Wikipedia, or any number of reputable online sources can do justice to about any topic my students are interested. While this is perhaps a dangerous proposition, I believe what I teach students as a high school science teacher is immeasurably more important.

The most important thing I teach my students is the language of power.

In my classroom the language of power is, yes, language. It is academic language, the bricks and mortar of English for those who don’t speak it in our standardized form1. But it is beyond the spoken word as well. The language of power is skillful communication, both verbal and nonverbal. It involves understanding reputable sources and how to present information in a convincing, convicting, and context-appropriate fashion. Crucial within my own subject, it is understanding that debate exists, that uncertainty exists, that uncharted territory exists, and that - regardless of their status and background - my students have the tools to enter into these dialogues.

And what a word: power. This, similarly, is a dangerous proposition for many, particularly in the context of our national dialogue about race, use of force, and power. But the truth is that teaching power and the language of power in schools has never not been a dangerous proposition. What does it mean to teach students how to access power, and, perhaps through using the language of power, to overthrow that power? It is inherently revolutionary. Progressive educational theorists have long held this practically Marxist position. Paulo Freire argued that education that truly liberates, “consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.”2 I am hard-pressed to find a more eloquent way explain how teaching my content is not at all about teaching information.

And while I don’t see what I do on a daily basis as a part of arming the revolution, I do believe that this purpose of my teaching is precisely why it is so dangerous when children are denied access to an excellent education. When students are denied access to an excellent education at all grade levels - either explicitly or by circumstance - because of their gender, socioeconomic status, or geographic residence, they no longer have access to the language of power.

This is why education is the path to upward mobility, the route to better health outcomes, the vehicle of social change we so deeply want to believe it is: because it gives students access to the language of power. It is the reason why we have decided the right to a free education in the United States cannot be denied, and it is certainly behind the reasons we wrestle so mightily over what should and shouldn’t be taught in public schools. As an educator, Freire reminds me that I have a duty not to be neutral when it comes to the need for my students to have access to this dialogue.3

Yet, the class I teach has a title. It is not “Power and Language,” nor is it “Language and its Discontents.” I teach biology, and there is a reason for it. I find biology perhaps the most welcome venue for teaching this language of power. The majority of my students enter biology thinking they will leave with a backpack’s worth of new terminology, of notes on biological processes, of graphs and diagrams and charts.

However, I hope they leave with something entirely different: a satchel full of tools for learning about life. I hope they leave my class with an understanding of how crucial it is that they attend to the impact they have on the natural world around them. I hope they leave my class with the tools they need to collect data, to synthesize and interpret it, and ultimately, to determine how they can proceed based on logical reasoning. I hope they leave with an understanding that science is one way of looking at the world, and while not the only way, one that is hugely important. In my classroom, these are the languages in which they need to become fluent in order to be successful.

These learnings are scientific tools and skills, yes, but at their core, I believe they are more. These tools are the grammar of rational thought and analysis, currency in academia and governance. I would like to know that my students can answer a multiple choice question about osmosis, or even interpret a graph of water potential. But even more, I’d like to believe that they know how to transfer their use of this language of critical evaluation and reasoning outside the walls of our classroom to do more beyond it - as researchers, physicians, and as educated citizens.

If this learning is so important to me, then I hold the success stories most dear. Success stories like the first generation college-bound Latina student who was accepted to a top university as a pre-medical student following her work in AP Biology. Like the freshmen whose mother was diagnosed with cancer during our school year, who could speak to her mother’s treatment options. Successes such as watching my selectively-mute junior with a rare genetic disorder describe how she wanted to share about her condition with the class. These are not successes purely of science learning, but of students learning how they can use the science they have learned to engage in the language of power. These small successes help me remain an idealist, though perhaps hopelessly so.

But I’m also a realist when it comes to evaluating how I’m doing, and, to the degree that I can, how we are doing as a community of science teachers. We can have successes on the levels of individual students, and as a classroom teacher, that’s all that matters to me. But as a citizen, and as someone who desires equity in education, I also believe we have a long way to go in teaching this language of power.

First, to what degree do we recognize that this is what we are doing? To what degree do we understand our jobs as teachers to be more than the filling up of an empty backpack? And to what degree do our teaching methods reflect this goal?

Second, how do we use this understanding to influence the way we advocate for our students and for their education? Do we see our students as limited by their educational tracks, backgrounds, and academic history? Or do we assume that all who are willing to put in the effort are worthy of challenging curricula?

Finally, as teachers of biology, how explicit are we with our students about what we are doing: teaching them this language through the context of the world around them? If we asked our students what the most important thing is they have learned, I hope their responses would be beyond Punnett Squares, Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and hydrophobic interactions.

I hope they know that when we teach them biology, we teach them how to become fluent in the language they will use their lives long, the language that empowers them to engage in the dialogue of governance, the language that is as much non-verbal as it is verbal; that they will know we have taught them the language of power.


1. Zwiers, J (2008). Building Academic Language, 2nd Ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2. Freire, P. (1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing.

3. Horton, M. & Freire, P. (1990). We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press.

Sophie State is a fourth-year high school instructor at Westlake High School in Westlake Village, CA. She enjoys the challenge of teaching freshmen and AP Biology as well as English Support. As a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow and Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellow, Sophie spends time reflecting on how she can better incorporate scientific practices, academic discourse, and a growth mindset in her work as an early-career teacher. In her spare time, she relishes the task of being a San Francisco Giants fan in Dodger country and trying to find time and space to get out for a run.