As a fan of the singer-songwriter, Chris Rea, I have always loved the title of his album, ‘New Light through Old Windows’.
The shifting play of light through the windows on the album cover evokes images of hope and possibility – the ability to reimagine and reinvent oneself. In the here and now of 2021, following a seismic shift in education, these words have become profoundly personal to me and symbolic of the reawakening and rekindling of my passion and my purpose.
When a level 5 lockdown was announced in South Africa last year and we had to revert to fully remote teaching, there was a collective gasp from teachers all over the country, and a scramble to become edified in the art of digital instruction.
As an older educator, I considered myself fairly au fait with most of the commonly used technology. However, when faced with the enormity of the task ahead of me, I was overwhelmed and contemplated walking away from the profession to which I have dedicated 30 years of my life.
We should teach students that a scientist is not so much concerned with getting answers as with asking better questions.
Surrender to hope
I have much experience in the classroom, having taught biology and physical sciences in several very different high schools. Due to various circumstances over the years, not least in trying to cope with the demands of a voluminous curriculum, I have been through stages where I was just going through the motions of standing in front of a classroom and imparting knowledge. Teaching had become somewhat like walking through a desert for me – a parched and arid landscape where survival is your only focus, and the clouds bringing life-giving rain are nowhere on the horizon. I had become good at survival mode in the desert, but perhaps this was the time for me to surrender my teaching career to the desert.
After many pensive nights, I decided to embrace my growth mind-set and draw on the inner strength that has made me who I am. I joined social media groups of teachers from all over the world, read many articles, went to numerous training sessions, watched countless YouTube ‘how to’ videos, and was mentored by various experts in their fields. I surrendered myself to faith and hope instead of allowing the voices of the desert to take over. It started to rain on that desert of mine… slowly at first, and then a deluge. My teaching desert was irrigated again and new life started to emerge.
Stop pushing content
The problem, I believe, is that many science educators, like me, have become disillusioned: we have lost sight of what inspired us in the first place – we no longer take the time to allow our students to drink in the wonderment and awe of science. We have become more concerned with pushing content than stimulating curiosity. By the time a student has reached Grade 10 (on average 15 years old in South Africa), they should be developing innate curiosity; be starting to think critically and taking ownership of their learning for the sake of learning itself.
When I think of the years that I have sat in classrooms without my curiosity being sparked, and without sparking curiosity, my reawakening has made me determined not to perpetuate this way of teaching. We should be extracting thinking from students to empower them to identify what they need to learn – posing more questions requiring creativity, evaluation, analysis and critical thinking; reverting to student-centred classrooms. We should teach students that a scientist is not so much concerned with getting answers as with asking better questions. Many of us think we already do this, but after what I have learnt over the past year, I believe we can do it so much better, and be intentional about how we do it.
Many will be familiar with the official phrase ‘inquiry-based learning’. From a student point-of-view, inquiry- based learning focuses on investigating an open question or problem. The students use evidence-based reasoning and creative problem solving to reach a conclusion. From a teacher point-of-view, inquiry-based teaching focuses on moving students beyond general curiosity into the realms of critical thinking and understanding by asking the right kind of questions and supporting them through the investigation process.
I noticed that using these principles in my e-books enabled my students to enjoy virtual experiential learning in an exciting and engaging manner, which sparked their curiosity.
The 5E Model of Instruction for inquiry-based science education – developed by curriculum-building and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education experts Rodger Bybee and Nancy Landes1 – embraces these principles. I tried to incorporate this model in five digital science books I wrote to use with my Grade 8 students (who are, on average, 13 years old), using a dynamic and innovative education technology programme called NODMA.
The term ‘NODMA’ is short for ‘a nod to mind advancement’, which signifies the mind enrichment and learning that transpires when reading and working on the digital workbooks. I noticed that using the NOMA principles in my e-books enabled my students to enjoy virtual experiential learning in a manner that sparked their curiosity.
The 5E Model is a carefully planned sequence of instruction, throughout which students are placed at the centre of learning. Teachers first engage students by probing for prior knowledge, probing curiosity and making them wonder. Next, there is exploration by the students themselves, using their processing powers through observation. Only then does the teacher explain what they have experienced, introducing the correct terminology for the first time, linking patterns observed. Elaboration follows, which gives students an opportunity to test ideas and apply their knowledge.
Finally, there is evaluation, which is an opportunity to reflect on and review the whole process.
Through the interactive e-books, I encouraged my students to explore and experience the science for themselves before I explained it. I used to be the prime culprit of not doing this, because I was impatient to impart my knowledge to them. We, as teachers, should not actually be the source of knowledge, merely the facilitators.
Too much content pushing often leads to disengagement on the part of the students, training them to be helpless and dependent on ‘spoon-feeding’ from the teacher. ‘Explore before explain’ should be our mantra and we should work to pull ideas out of students.
Mark Salata, a science pedagogy expert based in San Diego, has inspired me to use inquiry-based science education more effectively and to rekindle curiosity in my classroom. He has provided endless hours of mentorship and sage advice in the use of the 5Es, and tutorship in the NODMA programme.
These different influences have inspired me to alter my pedagogy with my Grade 8 students, to transform their learning to be more student-centred. After planting these seeds with my junior grade students and seeing the fruits of my efforts, I was challenged to do the same in my senior grades. These approaches have crystallised how I frame my lessons and sparked more curiosity, engagement, and metacognition amongst my students.
The NODMA programme has provided greater autonomy for my students and some ownership of their ideas by giving them their own books – books that are much more about reflection and sharing ideas, interactive presentation and engagement than any conventional textbooks could be.
Moreover, the material is in their currency – their own digital science diaries, designed and delivered in such a way as to personalise their learning experience.
I have found it especially effective with teaching girls, as it serves as a tool to help me advocate gender equality in the sciences. Historically, science has been a male dominated world: I am committed to helping girls believe they can do science and to contributing to the societal shift where girls can also feel they are true scientists.
Learners are made, not born. We are lifelong learners as all teachers have discovered in the past year. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau was the epitome of a lifelong learner: known for his ability to inspire students and foster creativity. He believed education should inform a community’s ethos, turning all members of society into a team of mutually supportive learners: ‘I am still a learner, not a teacher, feeding somewhat omnivorously, browsing both stalks and leaves.’
It’s never too late to learn
My aim is to be a teacher who keeps on learning, inspiring and motivating my students to greater heights. Curiosity is a spark to a flame, a powerful driving force in teaching. I want to encourage fellow teachers to fan that spark, to ignite the fire in your students and thereby to reignite your own passion. No matter what your style of teaching is or has been, it is never too late to try new approaches.