Introduction

Currently, I teach 8th Grade physical science at the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Missouri. (denns@pembrokehill.org).  I also serve as a coach on our middle school science olympiad team, which has had incredible success for the past decade due to the quality and drive of our students, parent volunteers, and teachers.

My previous position was middle school science teacher at the United Nations International School (UNIS) in New York City (www.unis.org).  Besides being a classroom teacher, I also served as the science curriculum coordinator, a role that allowed me to oversee the development and implementation of the UNIS science curriculum in the middle school.  One of my main goals as a teacher was to create a learning environment where students are able to develop into independent and creative thinkers.

 

Background

I have always been interested in the sciences. As a child, I spent countless hours wandering through the forest that surrounded my family home in Kingsville, Ontario, Canada, collecting samples of rocks, insects and other interesting things that I could find.  My parents would take the entire family on long camping trips in the summer time to national and provincial parks.  Besides camping in our small trailer, these trips always included long hikes where we were able to explore cliffs, waterfalls, wetlands, caves and other habitats.  These experiences strengthened my love for ecology and geology.

My father is a mechanical engineer whose hobby is building and flying homebuilt airplanes. When I was around 10 years old, he decided to restore his Bellanca Champ single-engine airplane.  Night after night, we would head out into the garage to work on various parts of the project: wings, elevators and rudders, fuselage, cockpit and engine. It was during these sessions that I developed an appreciation for all things mechanical.  Unfortunately, I don't possess the same engineering brain that my father and younger brother both naturally have, but these experiences taught me the value of precision, accuracy, problem solving, and most of all, hard work.

My mother is a retired middle school teacher who, according to her former students and colleagues, was an immensely talented educator.  After spending the entire day teaching lessons at school, she still made time to conduct lessons in our home in the evenings.  Our nightly classes involved topics in math, history, geography and many others.  As a young adolescent, I sometimes grew tired of the  frequent grammar lessons, but I am forever grateful for her high English standards!  Most importantly, my mother taught me that teaching is both an art and a science.  On one hand, a teacher is a performance artist who has the ability to instill passion in their students with their enthusiasm, confidence and skill.   On the other hand, a teacher is also a scientist who must approach each lesson with a deep understanding of the subject, their students, and how the class content relates to the wider world. 

 

My Teachers and Mentors

In addition to my mother, I have been inspired by a number of other teachers in my life. I'd especially like to mention the professors whom I worked with as a student in the Biology and Pharmacology Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.  This innovative program was built around the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) model and has since been copied by the Harvard Medical School, among other academic institutions.  Each PBL class was made up of six students and one professor and typically lasted three hours. Unlike most university classes where the professor gives a lecture to a mostly passive audience, each of our classes was planned, taught and evaluated by the students themselves. 

In many ways, each lesson followed a script like the hit TV show “House”.  The professor would present us with an index card that outlined a patient’s symptoms and a modicum of background information.  It was up to the students to choose the best course of action to solve the problem.  We we would typically start by collectively determining what we knew and what we didn’t know.  From there, we would divide ourselves into teams of two and head down to the medical library to research our chosen aspect of the problem.  The team would reconvene after an hour and we would teach each other what we had found out.  Once all of the new information was presented, the team would then determine if our findings allowed us to come to a conclusion.  If we were unable to do so, the team would repeat the process until we were fully satisfied.  One of the most interesting thing about those classes was that the professor never told us if we had correctly solved the problem.  I distinctly remember the first time we asked our professor if we were right.  He slowly took off his glasses, smirked and said, “Who am I to tell you that? I am only your teacher.” 

Surprisingly, it was my positive experience in the Biology and Pharmacology program that stopped me from becoming an actual pharmacologist.  With each passing course, I came to the realization that I was becoming far more interested in the way the content was being taught rather than the content itself; it was the methodologies of the program that I was  most passionate about.  In my final semester, I requested a meeting with the program director.  I began our meeting by praising the professors, the students and the PBL philosophy and then proceeded to drop out of the program so that I could pursue a career in education. 

 

My Teaching Philosophy

As a teacher of middle school students, I realize that I won’t ever be able to duplicate those Biology and Pharmacology lessons.  There are practical limitations of class size, resources and time.  There are also pedagogical limitations due to the fact that middle school students are young adolescents and not university students who applied and were accepted into a rigorous academic program.  However, I believe that children of all ages are fully capable of the type of flexible, creative and collaborative thinking that my pharmacology professors tried to instil in us.

To promotoethis kind of learning in the classroom, I try to incorporate as many PBL techniques into my lessons as I realistically can.  For example, I often present “real life” problems that are complex, ambiguous and have no easy answers.  One method I use is to start a lesson with a scenario or demonstration of something unusual or counterintuitive.  Another method I use is to introducte real or invented case studies that replicate the kinds of challenges faced by scientists in the field.  Both methods require students to call on what they already know or what they think they know. By focusing on their prior learning, students can test their assumptions and modify them when there is a conflict with the new information.  My ultimate goal is to introduce content through the process of problem solving, rather than problem solving after the introduction of content.

Science is less a subject than a way of thinking.  One doesn't learn science as much as they do science. In my view, one of the best things about science is that it can be messy, complicated, strange, challenging, fun, and exciting.  What I see in elementary school science lesson is very young students approaching each topic with an incredible sense of wonder; every lesson offers something brand new for them to discover.  The key to preserving that sense of wonder in older students is by presenting science as only one way of exploring the mysteries of life; mysteries where the teacher does not always have the answer.

 

 

- Douglas Enns

 

Last modified: Sunday, February 1, 2015 at 1:48 pm