PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
David L. Smith
F21 Class of 1994 Statements Revisited
Question: What are the current challenges you are facing in your professional life?
Answer: It is tempting to name several different aspects of my current work with teachers (I run teacher professional development programs for a hands-on science center in Allentown, PA) and districts, however, without a doubt, the greatest challenge I face is the challenge of continuing to find funding for my work, from grants, from donors, or directly from school districts. Part of this reflects a lack of commitment to significant and ongoing professional development, part of it reflects the dismal track record of professional development as far as producing real change (which in turn reflects the lack of commitment as well as poor quality control).
Given funding, there are a number of other challenges, but one I confront in many different guises is the lack of any sort of consensus position on what constitutes good teaching practice. This is true at any level, but especially true in secondary and higher education. NCLB requires states and districts to have “highly qualified teachers,” but there is no coherent vision about what those teachers know or do. There are huge performance variations among teachers within individual school systems, much bigger than the performance variations between systems, on average. The problem is not a lack of research. The science education community has a fairly unified view of what counts in effective teaching, but this view is not widely shared beyond that community.
Another critical challenge for me is finding a way to promote the use of authentic scientific practice in school and college classrooms. I am working to replace science fairs with Kids Inquiry Conferences (see great book by Wendy Saul et al.), to shift laboratories to inquiry, and also to bring authentic science investigation to the exhibit floor of the science center where I work.
Personally, I am challenged to maintain an appropriate balance in my life, especially when I am involved with an organization where those above and around me may not do that. I am challenged to take all that I know about school science and science teaching and work effectively with my daughter’s teachers to help her get a quality education without alienating them. I am challenged to continue to develop the leadership skills that will allow me to share my work with others and thereby broaden my alliances and increase my capacity, rather than taking it all on myself.
Question: What do you view as your most promising options and opportunities for the future?
Answer: With public interest in science education at a high water mark, we are in a position, if we can begin to speak with a coherent vision, to create high quality practice out of chaos. The National Academy has laid out what we know about how students learn STEM subjects. Black and Williams, Marzano, and others have documented large achievement effects from a handful of strategies. Those documents present a compelling call for change and we have the opportunity, while we have the spotlight, to create major change. I have the fortunate opportunity to be in an institution that represents neutral ground and has the support and trust of different stakeholders, allowing me to work with those institions to build partnerships and begin to forge shared visions and the programs to turn the vision into reality.
Question: What will undergraduate STEM be like in 2016, given the urgency of new challenges and opportunities facing our nation?
Answer: I hate being a curmudgeon, but, unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that undergraduate STEM will be pretty much the same in 2016 as it is now. Most students experiencing undergraduate STEM are experiencing it at state universities and community colleges and many of those experiences are taught by adjunct faculty. Institutions of higher education are fundamentally conservative and slow to change and most STEM faculty that I interact with, even those who have been to teaching workshops, see information transfer and coverage as the most important parameters of their teaching. True inquiry and constructivism aren't really even on the radar.
There are two challenges of scale here. Reform has been scaled up locally to the institutional level, but now also needs to be scaled up to the systems and national level. How soon do you think the chancellors of the state university systems could all come together to agree on fundamental reforms in STEM education? How long would it take to implement such a plan? The second scale challenge is inside the classrooms of those who are already participating in reform. This scale challenge is to move reform from individual activities to something that permeates every day of instruction in every course. Truly constructivist teaching on that scale is very difficult (See George Hein’s The Challenge of Constructivist Teaching). How long will it take to get modern ideas about teaching and learning embedded in graduate programs as part of the training of all faculty? What would have to change in our culture to drive that shift?