(Note: This post is an approximation of the welcome speech I gave as part of the Supporting Science Inquiry With Technology Conference, a partnership between Learning Forward VA, VASCD, VAST, VSTE, and VSUP offered in Albemarle County, Virginia on July 24, 2014. Check out the accompanying presentation created with Haiku Deck.)
In considering how to get the ball rolling during a conference focused on supporting science inquiry using technology, this question came to mind: What is technology’s role in science education?
Technology in science education
I recently heard a stand-up bit by a comedian named Pete Holmes about having Google in your pocket that encapsulates exactly where I think we as educators often misstep. While I recognize that I’m painting with a broad brush, I would contend that we have a propensity to use technology as a highway to the internet, which we then use as a place to get answers:
To borrow from Holmes’ bit, use of technology in this way means “there’s no time for wonder or mystery…the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” I don’t know about you, but a sense of curiosity and wonder is pretty high on my list of humanity’s most valuable traits, so I’m not too keen on letting it get trampled on if I don’t have to.
So I guess it stands to reason that my personal stance is to eschew technology’s role as “the sole provider of immediate answers.” If that’s not technology’s role in science education, than what is? I think that in order to answer this question fully, we have to start from the other end of the conversation. Instead of starting with the tools, let’s start with the purpose: what do we believe about science education and what it should look like?
Inquiry in science education
I’m a big proponent of inquiry as a central tenet of an ideal science education, so I refer back to one of my favorite definitions of inquiry (which happens to have been written by Dr. Randy Bell, my advisor while at UVA’s Curry School of Education):
There’s something about this definition that is so simple and yet so powerful that I refer back to it often when centering myself on what to look for in science education. Our students need to be active learners. Our students need to ask research questions. Our students need to analyze data to answer those questions. So simple, and yet so many implications.
There’s a story about Dr. Bell that years later I recognize as having a huge impact on me as an educator, and also seems to apply to this conversation about the role of technology in science education.
You see, Dr. Bell had a pet hawk, and I always thought that was pretty strange.
While Dr. Bell had comprehensive experience in working in all of the sciences, he tended to have a “critter-focused” lens, pointing out a variety of facets of life science around us. This was especially true with hawks. On each of the trips that our cohort group would take across central Virginia, he would point out every one of the animals that was flying the skies: “Look- a red-tailed hawk!” he would exclaim as we chuckled and shrugged. As a physics education major, “critters” were not exactly one of my passions, so it was only years later that I began to appreciate what I learned as a result of his interest.
I found out later that Dr. Bell was a card-carrying falconer, which meant (or so I thought) that he kept hawks that he captured as “pets” at his house. This I thought was a little far afield, taking the whole “science guy” identity to an unnecessary new level. Basically, I just thought a hawk was one strange pet to keep.
Upwards of a decade later, I got the chance to have a longer conversation with Dr. Bell about the concept of being a falconer. For him, being a falconer wasn’t about keeping the animal as a pet, nor was it about having a cool “science guy” hobby.
Being a falconer is about serving the needs of these hawks to help them survive.
Falconry as a metaphor for education
Falconers, he explained, capture younger birds of prey in the late summer / early fall who have not yet learned how to hunt. During the colder winter months, the falconer keeps the bird safe from the elements, while also helping it develop its hunting skills. When falconers take these birds out into the wild, they’re not necessarily doing it “just for kicks”, or because it’s a cool thing to do. They bring the birds out in order to rustle up prey that the bird can eat.
During trips into the wild, the falconer’s job is to find places where “food” for these birds might be living- in piles of leaves, brush, or anywhere else where small animals might lay in hiding. The falconer “flushes out the game” by moving some of the brush that hides the prey. Once the prey emerges from its hiding spot, the falcon spots it, catches it, and eats it.
Over the course of the fall and winter, the falconer and falcon repeat these trips together, helping the bird develop its strength as well as its hunting skills. As the bird builds its capacity for self-sufficiency, it then learns to live independent of the falconer, and eventually flies back out into the wild. Ultimately, without the falconer’s assistance, the hawk would not have survived the winter.
Once I finally understood the role of the falconer, Dr. Bell’s interest in the animal finally made sense. It wasn’t being a “science guy” that made him into a falconer- it was being an educator. This image of the falconer flushing out game for the hawk learning to fly reminds me of the role of the teacher in science education, with one key exception. It’s not game we as science educators are flushing out: it’s understanding.
Our job is to try to identify what it is that obscures understanding for our learners. With our questions, we poke and prod at the barriers and obstacles until one of those questions is able to force understanding out from its hiding place. Consequently, the learner eyes the understanding, catches it, and swallows it whole. Over the course of our relationship together, the student starts to learn how to uncover that understanding for themselves. In their metaphorical spring, they fly away, now skilled enough and strong enough to hunt for understanding on their own.
This approach to teaching and learning surrounds me. It’s central to the tutorial process within the AVID system for learning, within which I have found myself as a tutor trainer. It’s central to the process of instructional coaching, within which I have found myself as a model designer. And as it relates to this context, it’s central to inquiry-based learning in science instruction, within which I have found myself as a division leader. When I think about the metaphor through that lens, it looks to me as if Dr. Bell has been a falconer in many more ways than in the literal sense.
Technology in science education…redux
So how does this story help to answer the original question: What is technology’s role in science education?
If science education is, at its heart, an active learning process where students answer research questions through data analysis, then technology needs to serve as a tool to help in all aspects of that process- not just in the providence of answers, but also in development of wonder. Technology needs to help our students to ask better questions. Technology needs to help our students plan and conduct investigations. Technology needs to help our students evaluate and communicate information. And of course, technology needs to help our students construct explanations.
To borrow the falconry metaphor, these tools need to help our students become better hunters, and not do all of the hunting for them. Otherwise, they will not be equipped to survive those metaphorical winter months on their own.