The words below are excerpted from Steven Prilliman’s commencement address for the Oklahoma City University’s 2016 graduation. Steven was the recipient of OCU’s 2016 Outstanding Faculty Award (http://www.okcu.edu/faculty-staff/awards/).
When I was asked to give the graduate commencement address, I started thinking about my own graduate commencement. I spent five years in the alternate universe that is grad school, but that was coming to an end and I had to decide what to do next. My choices were to either stay in science and move to a new lab somewhere else, or I could do something different.
In the back of my head I’d always had this crazy idea about teaching high school science. For advice I turned to a very influential person in my life, my high school chemistry teacher, Cynthia Macarevich. When I took chemistry from “Mrs. Mac”, it was an epiphany. The angels sang, the light shone down and I knew that chemistry was the thing I both loved and was good at. And I wanted to be the kind of teacher that made students feel the same way… I was going to be the best science teacher ever. The reality, of course, was somewhat different.
One day in my second year of teaching intro chemistry, I was giving a lecture about color. As an example I was using beta-carotene, the compound that gives carrots their orange color. I had this whole back story about not all carrots being orange. Some are, in fact, white or yellow or even purple. The orange color we have today was carefully selected by growers in part to please the royal House of Orange, which my students were also studying in European History. In the middle of what I thought was this great lecture a student raised his hand and said “OK, I’m confused, where do carrots come from?” This caught me off guard, but I started to say “You know, you put the seed in the soil and you water it,” when the student interrupted me, “Wait, you mean carrots are plants?”
I paused a moment and said “Of course they’re plants.” After another pause I said “Who was your biology teacher last year?” I already knew the answer, of course, but the student had to think about, then he said “You were!”
This was a turning point in my teaching career. It bothered me for months. This moment, which I now think of as “The Carrot Incident”, crystallized a year and a half of frustration, of realizing I was not seeing the results in my students I wanted. In spite of the hours I spent working on my lectures and preparing clever lab experiments for them, they weren’t learning. This was obvious to me every time I graded an exam. When my students did “learn” I had trouble pushing them past the level of memorization. They weren’t learning science in my class. Most of the time they were copying down notes and failing to make any sense of them.
The Carrot Incident forced me to begin to rethink the way I was teaching. You see, I couldn’t blame anyone else for this. I was this students’ teacher, and I had every opportunity when I taught biology to have my students grow plants from seeds, to water and care for them, to measure and observe their growth, to study their flowers, to pollinate them. It would have been a simple, inexpensive and really effective project, but one that never occurred to me. I could have had them handling real fossils and not just talking about them, I could have had them doing reactions and making measurements instead of focusing so much on symbols and equations. In other words, I could have had them doing science instead of telling them about it.
I was also beginning to realize I had been making a lot of assumptions. I was assuming these kids would be able to learn the same way I did. I was also forgetting that I grew up in a house with garden in the back and helped out with planting, harvesting and at least sometimes eating what came out of the garden. I was beginning to realize that I had layers of assumptions and biases about what teaching looked like and that I would have overcome these to become a better teacher.
As a new teacher you wonder “Maybe it’s just my students”, but one year I had the opportunity to be a grader for the AP Chemistry exam. That year they locked 250 of us in a barn at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds for 7 hours a day in absolute silence. Over 8 days we graded 100,000 exams.
I was assigned what I thought was a simple essay question, but most students (mind you, these are the best and brightest high school students in the nation) received either 0 or 1 out of 8 possible points. These were not blank pages, these were page after page explanations that were completely wrong. Not just a little wrong. The exact opposite of correct. We had a lot of what we called “hard earned zeros”.
Other people grading that question were outraged at what they were reading. They kept saying, “Well, what I tell my students is….”. And I wanted to scream “Apparently, it doesn’t matter what you tell your students.” Because out of the 1500 or so answers I scored that week, 2 papers were completely correct.
But that’s just it. What you say in a classroom setting doesn’t matter. The research is quite clear on this. What matters is creating an environment and situations in which students can talk and discuss their own ideas and confront their own misconceptions. It turns out that a bunch of people had already reached the same conclusion and figured out what to do about it. And I was lucky enough to wander into a workshop they were giving at an American Chemical Society conference in 2005.
I learned from that workshop and many others how to teach in a completely different way. I almost never give a lecture anymore. My students walk into the classroom, sit in groups of 3 or 4 and work through activities that I’ve written. Those activities ask them questions that force them to look at data, then analyze, question, and argue with each other about the data. Somewhere in the middle the activity will introduce a new concept or an equation, then the students will apply that new knowledge, and walk out the door with the same chemistry they would learn if I were lecturing. I walk around and answer questions, usually with more questions. But most of the time I hide in the corner and listen as they figure it out on their own.
Along the way the students learn chemistry and they also learn how to work with other people, how to manage their time and, most important, how to begin to be independent thinkers.