The collection of essays that follows stems from two complementary thoughts, easily combined. The primary concern is my weariness at seeing umpteen books about education being published by umpteen individuals who don’t seem to be teachers. To be fair, there are quite a few books written about teaching by actual teachers, though these seem to generally be written by folks who are pushing one particular way of teaching, extolling the virtues of teaching like an “esoteric noun/unexpected noun-verb combination here.” Personally, I don’t find either of these genres all that appealing to my own educational sensibilities, in much the same way that I find books written about any profession are most interesting when penned by practitioners of those professions who are not trying to sell something to the reader.
The secondary issue is a pang of friendly, lingering jealousy that I have for “Edge” and their annual question series, wherein a variety of interesting thinkers consider an interesting topic, with the best being collected and published annually. That’s an awesome format, and I’ve always enjoyed reading them. And while the folks at “The Edge” are a clever group, I don’t personally believe that they are any cleverer than many of the great people that we have doing the important work of teaching children.
So it was that, in summer 2014, I realized that these two notions could be combined into an educator’s version of an annual question, provided that I could convince a group of teachers to find some space in their lives and write essays on a common topic. Fortunately, in this age of connected national communities of teachers, it was not hard to come up with a group-generated list of more than 50 folks who expressed an initial interest and were willing to contribute possible topics. A little more effort to put the suggested topics to a vote, and the inevitable attrition of folks to the varied and intense demands of the school year, has resulted in the work that follows: more than 20 science teachers, all writing to address a common question: What is the value of letting students struggle in class?
I am impressed by these essays, both for how similar the themes they cover are and for the different approaches they take. Each is rooted in the unique perspective and experience of the teacher who has written it, as seen in both content and form. But they all speak to similar pedagogical aims: The need to allow students to struggle with making their own meanings in the classes we teach, the difficulties of encouraging students to take risks in learning, and the importance of doing everything possible to provide an environment that allows students to struggle safely.
Reading these, I can not help but be impressed with the amount of thought that these teachers are putting in to their profession and how deeply committed they are to the larger project of educating the students they teach, both in the content of their courses and the ways in which scientists work to make meaning of the world. It makes me feel good about my job - and the folks who do it with me - and it is something I am proud to share with anyone who is interested in what, exactly, is going on in the secondary science classrooms of America.
Which is a roundabout way of noting that all of the contributors to this work are science teachers. This is the result of a deliberate choice made during the initial casting about for contributors; it was determined that, to be asked to participate, a teacher had to be teaching school during the 2014-2015 school year. Combining this restriction with the fact that the professional communities that I am a part of are communities of science teachers, and our contributor pool was somewhat constrained. At first blush, this may seem like a limitation in what follows, but I’m personally of the opinion that it is a strength. Had we cast our net wider to include teachers of other subjects, I think the work would have ballooned to unmanageable proportions, with its focus suffering as a result.
I am also of the somewhat selfish hope that - should this book find its way in to the hands of an elementary school teacher, or a math teacher, or any teacher of something that is not science - it might serve as an inspiration for them to approach their own professional community to create something similar on a topic of their own interest. As noted at the beginning, there is a shortage of worthwhile books about teaching written by teachers. Maybe that can change.