Ask a ScienceBlogger: Teaching Science

This week's Ask a ScienceBlogger question is a total meatball:

What makes a good science teacher?

Teaching science is a big part of what I do, so of course I have an answer for this. Which is basically the same answer as everybody else has already given, so let me try to put a slightly different spin on this, and object to the implicit premise of the question.

Let's be clear on one thing: Science is not special. The qualities that make a good science teacher are exactly the same qualities that make a good English teacher, or a good history teacher, or a good shop teacher, for that matter. There's nothing different about the process of teaching science that makes it harder to teach than any other subject. It's harder to find people with the necessary background, but the qualities you need to have to teach science are exactly the same as the qualities you need to have to teach anything else.


My list of traits for good teachers is essentially the same as what has been put forward by others, but I probably phrase it a little differently. I'd say that the three things you need to be a good teacher are patience, enthusiasm, and knowledge of the subject, and they're each approximately equally important.

Obviously, you need to know a subject well before you can teach it. Not only do you need to know the basic facts of a subject, but you need to have an idea of where the problem areas are-- what are the points in the field where a new student is most likely to go astray, and how to get them around those areas.

You also need to have some enthusiasm. You need to like the subject you're teaching, or there's no chance of getting the students to like it. If you're bored by the material, they're going to be bored by your presentation of the material, and tune it out.

And finally, you need to have patience. If you explain something a hundred times, you still need to be ready to go over it one more time (preferably in different words, with different examples) for that one student who still doesn't get it. This is probably the hardest part of the job for me-- I've got a good education, and I really love physics, but I'm not by nature a terribly patient person, and keeping a pleasant demeanor when asked about the same problem for the Nth time can be a real strain.

Again, these points are independent of discipline. It doesn't matter what you're teaching, you need to have knowledge, enthusiasm, and patience.

Everything else is just a matter of implementation, and that varies depending on the individuals involved. There are excellent science teachers who are very lively and humorous, and there are excellent teachers who are stern and unflappable, and everything in between. And what works for one person won't necessarily work for another. If you're not a funny person, you shouldn't try to give funny lectures, because it'll be a disaster, but if you've got a sense of humor, you shouldn't feel compelled to try to be serious.

(When I was first starting out, a colleague advised me never to say anything sarcastic in class, because some student might take it seriously, and get confused or offended. I managed to hold to that for maybe a week, but I just can't do that-- I get stiff and self-conscious, and it just doesn't work. My current lectures are full of snarky little asides, and I haven't had a problem with any students taking them the wrong way.)

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