I have recently started reading a book entitled Scientific Teaching by Jo Handelsman, Sarah Miller and Christine Pfund. I have had this book for several years now and never found the time to open it. Not that I have a lot of extra time in my day for intellectual reading now, but I have at least made it through most of the introduction. It has made me think a bit about how teaching, science and parenting are all related.
The book talks about approaching teaching science in the same way that we approach research in science. I have not had any real training in teaching (or parenting!), but have had a lot of training as a scientific researcher, so it makes sense to make use of that training to help me in teaching and parenting. Also, as the book points out, teaching science should be done in the same way that we approach science – completely separating the two will never help our students learn what science is all about. Science is about being curious, exploring the world, and solving problems – these are all things that I hope are important to my daughter as she grows, whatever other things she ends up doing.
So how DO I approach my scientific research?
Curiosity is important. I need to want to know the answers and be interested in exploring new ideas. Experiments rarely work the way you expect and a desire to follow the experiment where it takes you is essential to making progress in science. This is easy for babies – they are naturally incredibly curious. Encouraging this in my students is sometimes more challenging, but helps make the class more interesting and engaging for everyone involved.
I start my research by clearly defining my goal or the problem I would like to solve. In my lab, this usually involves using lasers to make a better, more accurate microscope for looking at fiber optic circuits (the optical wires used to send information along the internet so you can read this blog). In teaching, this means deciding what skills and information I want my students to have when they leave my class. In parenting, this can range from helping my daughter learn how to sit up or fall asleep on her own to figuring out why she is so fussy and always spits up after eating.
The next step, which is one that is often overlooked, is determining how I will measure my success – how will I know if I succeeded? This was one of the most difficult issues in my research since I was measuring a completely unknown object – how do I know if my measurements are accurate? How do I know that my students have learned the Physics and problem solving skills that I wanted them to learn and that they have not just blindly memorized some facts and answers to certain problems? My daughter sleeping better on her own seems like an obvious indicator that I was successful in that, but how do I know what things make my daughter a fussy eater when there are so many factors that may affect her behavior? Success may seem clear in those cases, but if I do not understand what caused the success, then I cannot be sure she will remain happy (and sleeping well).
Once I have a goal and a method of measurement, I still need to figure out how to achieve that goal. I start with what I already know and use that information to design a set of experiments to learn more about the problem so that I can come up with a solution. For examples, I can give my students a pretest to see what they already know and then try different types of teaching methods and see how each affect their performance. I can alter my diet (since I am breastfeeding) to see what foods in my diet make my daughter upset. In scientific experiments, this is the part I find the most fun – the troubleshooting. It’s a lot like detective work (which is why all those crime shows on television really focus on the cool science behind solving crimes). It can also be incredibly frustrating since most things you try do not work. And if you really want to solve a problem, you need to slowly, systematically try many different approaches.
This sounds like a good, rational approach to parenting, but it is easier said than done. The consequence of not finding a solution fast enough with my daughter is lack of sleep and a very unhappy, screaming baby. Using a more systematic, calm approach will still likely result in a solution faster, but it is hard to be calm and methodical when my baby is upset (and while I am so sleep deprived). I do try to approach each new challenge in teaching and parenting with a scientific mind when I am well rested enough to think of it!
I am looking forward to finding more time to read this book on Scientific Teaching – both to improve my teaching of Physics and also to help give me ideas on approaches with my daughter. Much of parenting is teaching, after all, and she still has a lot of exciting things to learn.