The Messy Business of Teaching Science

image2“It didn’t go like I wanted it to.”

The tears were streaming down her face before she even sat down.

A half hour earlier, I received an email from Marshall: “Are you in your office? Can I come meet with you about my lessons?” I assumed she needed to borrow materials or perhaps alter the next day’s plan, so I was a bit shaken when she immediately began crying as she entered my office. The capstone assignment for the science methods course is to plan and teach a 3-day mini-unit. In the course, we have talked about teaching and learning through inquiry, the 5-E cycle of instruction, STEM . . . all to prepare students for the experience of teaching hands-on, exploratory science. The week had finally arrived and the students were ready.

“It didn’t go like I wanted it to.” By her expression, I thought that maybe a student was injured.

“Okay, take a deep breath and tell me what happened. It’s going to be fine.” I was already familiar with her mini-unit, as we did a great deal of collaborating in class.

She wiped her face and explained, “Well you know I’m in first grade and we did a lesson on pollution so I had buckets of water and they had to work with their group to filter the water until it was clean so that we could talk about how hard it is to clean pollution and how we need to not pollute our surrounding bodies of water, because you know we had the oil spill a few years ago, and I thought it was going to be really good.” She talked so quickly, without a breath, like she was eager to unburden. She continued, “Well it was a disaster. The water got everywhere and the kids were talking too loud and my cooperating teacher hated it because they were being noisy and it was so hard to get them to be quiet.”

image1“So did the water have anything in it that could stain their clothes?”

“No, but it was all over the place.”

“Did they clean it up?”

“Well, yeah, we had paper towels.”

“Do you think they were learning?”

Her eyes were still red, but she was calmer at this point. “They were definitely talking about what I wanted them to talk about. They were just so excited that I couldn’t get them to be quiet, and the teacher hated that.”

“Just so I’m understanding . . . you’re upset because they were excited and noisy and made a mess . . . with water.”

“Yeah.”

I was relieved and almost felt like laughing.

We were confronted with a true teachable moment for a future teacher.

“Listen,” I said, “There are definitely classroom management lessons to be learned here. But science is messy sometimes, and that’s fine. It should be. They’re first graders, and you gave them tubs of water, then told them to touch it. Of course it’s going to make a mess!” She giggled. “Water dries. If your students are exploring and learning, then making noise and messes is part of the process.” She still had 2 days left to teach, so we then spent a few minutes talking about ways to truly manage the noise and mess, not eliminate it.

Marshall had fallen prey to a feeling that many teachers often struggle with: the discomfort of giving up control.

It’s a delicate balancing act of maintaining a safe and positive classroom environment with the freedom to explore, and even fail sometimes—letting go of the need to be perfect, to be right, to be “in charge.”

This is a frightening, but liberating, experience for a preservice teacher—one that I wish more teachers experienced!

elizabeth-allisonDr. Elizabeth Allison is an assistant professor of elementary science education at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. She enjoys teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in the K-6 program as part of the Department of Leadership and Teacher Education. When working with any students, whether in the k-12 setting or in teacher education courses, she strives to instill a love and respect for science and education.

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