Saturday, March 6, 2010

Salt the Oats

My friend was a pastor at a church.  He often referred to himself as an evangelist.  He really wasn't an evangelist, but he described evangelism as being his gift.  And he was right.  In a blink of an eye, he could turn a conversation about sports into a discussion of religion; and somehow you would never know that the topic had changed to religion until you were 10 minutes into the conversation.  His ability to subtly and naturally change the course of a conversation was amazing; and his ability to do it without offending even the most disinterested and resistive individual was equally amazing.  Regardless of where a person stood with respect to a religious belief, my friend had the uncanny ability to draw the person towards a serious discussion and consideration of matters of faith.

I often view my role in the classroom as being like that of an evangelist.  Many of my students are quite resistive to science or at least to some aspect of science.  As the instructor, one aspect of my role is to get as many as possible enthused about the topic, informed about its logic, and recognizing its value in answering questions.  My students are willing to sit in their seats and to be entertained and even educated by a well-planned science lesson. But when it comes time to being engaged in the act of doing science in a laboratory environment, so many quickly default to passivity. They adopt a sort of "science is cool for you, but I'm not really into it" attitude. Like my evangelist friend, I am faced with the challenge of getting the disinterested and the resistive to listen, to learn, to recognize the value of, and to ultimately embrace the practice of doing science.  For certain, enthusiasm, humor, energy, a repertoire of intriguing demonstrations, and a carefully crafted curriculum are among the ingredients to get the disinterested and the resistive to listen to a lesson and maybe give science a second look. But exactly how do I get these same couch potatoes to check their passivity at the door of the laboratory and to become actively engaged in scientific inquiry?

One day I asked my friend if he ever became frustrated by the disinterest and the resistance which others demonstrated towards his message.  I sensed that he was frequently victimized by the "you can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink" syndrome. Being curious, I asked him what he does when "he leads a horse to water but can't get it to drink."  His response was immediate: "I salt the oats." Salt the oats.  Of course! Thirsty horses will need to drink. And salty foods make horses thirsty (I think). What a brilliant idea! Salt the oats.

But what does that mean for a science teacher who is trying to get students interested and enthused about doing science?  How can I salt the oats and make students thirsty enough to drink? How can I entice Johnny and David and Sara and Julie and ... to become engaged in scientific inquiry during lab time?  In what way can I up the ante, change the medicine, modify the dosage, and salt the oats in order to get my students to drink up?

Over the next few weeks, our blog will turn its attention to a discussion of ways in which science teachers can salt the oats.  We will look at a variety of tactics which science teachers can use to get students more engaged during lab time.  In effect, the next several weeks of articles will be part of Lab Blab's Salt the Oats series.  Come back next week to learn how to salt the oats.

This week's article is contributed by Tom Henderson. Tom is the author of The Physics Classroom website.  He is a graduate of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. He has been a high school physics teacher since 1989. Tom currently teaches Honors ChemPhys (Physics portion) and Honors Chemistry at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, IL, where he has taught since 1989. 

1 comment:

  1. I think you would enjoy Dan Meyer's blog:

    "Salting the oats" is exactly what he's trying to do with his math students.

    Check out his "What Can You Do With This?" series:

    I am looking forward to your upcoming articles! Thanks, Tom!


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