Find Your Reason to Engage
I was recently reflecting on events in the news and remembered that several years ago, National Public Radio had a story about a man named Stéphane Hessel, a World War II French resistance fighter, Nazi concentration camp survivor, and contributor to the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The story focused on a book he had published, Time for Outrage (2010).
In it, Hessel makes the argument that the worst attitude is indifference:
“Who is in charge; who are the decision makers? It’s not always easy to discern. We’re not dealing with a small elite anymore, whose actions we can clearly identify. We are dealing with a vast, interdependent world that is interconnected in unprecedented ways. But there are unbearable things all around us. You have to look for them; search carefully. Open your eyes and you will see. This is what I tell young people: If you spend a little time searching, you will find your reasons to engage. The worst attitude is indifference. ‘There’s nothing I can do; I get by’ – adopting this mindset will deprive you of one of the fundamental qualities of being human: outrage. Our capacity for protest is indispensable, as is our freedom to engage.”
His words make me take pause when I think of the status of science in the United States. A general “mistrust” of science is increasingly pervasive, as outlined in a New Yorker article from the summer of 2016. This mistrust manifests in concerning ways. Our current administration has broken the record for the longest delay in an appointment of a White House Science Advisor – to date, the position still has yet to be filled. General denial of evolution, climate change, and vaccines can have big impacts on families and communities. This fall, we learned that not only did the United States pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, it is now the only nation not to sign. Hessel’s writings reflect on the events of his youth, but they strike a chord with me today, especially as I almost become overwhelmed with a barrage of various stories I find disturbing in the news. His words illustrate the importance of not turning a blind eye and remind me of the importance of not sitting on the sidelines and, instead, engaging.
There is a great number of misunderstandings about what science is and what it does. This misunderstanding can manifest in interesting ways in our classrooms. As educators, we have the opportunity mediate much of this as one of the factors with the greatest impact on perceptions about science is learned in school. The experience kids will have with science in our classrooms is what they will hold on to as they move into adulthood. If science is elitist and only for the kids who can give us the answer we want quickly, or only for those students who work diligently; if science is a body of facts already known, taught dogmatically, or merely memorized — then students are not an authentic part of the scientific enterprise. They are not afforded the opportunity to engage. This results in the vast majority of these students growing to view science as some mysterious thing that other people do, not them, setting the stage for confusion and mistrust of science.
As educators, we must act; we must engage.
Fortunately, in 2012, we received our first guidance from a foundational document calling upon us to engage and set the stage for change in science education:
“The overarching goal of our framework for K-12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.” (A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, NRC, 2012, pg. 1)
This goal echoes our purpose as science educators and eventually birthed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Now, I’ll admit that it is a beautiful day when I learn that a former student has chosen to enter into a STEM field. It’s every teacher’s dream to have a student “come back” and identify that they were the inspiration for majoring in nursing, engineering, etc. But the real purpose of science education in our schools is to empower future parents, citizens, employers, and consumers to make informed decisions in their lives. To do this, we need to consistently provide opportunities for students to engage as scientists, understand that science is important to their context, and have their sense of awe fostered – no matter how hidden and buried that awe may appear to their teachers. It is critical we shift our perspective from educators who disseminate information to master architects who build opportunities for student sense-making.
Let’s acknowledge the challenge in this. Shifting perspectives in how we view the nature of our work is difficult because we all hold such a strong identity as science educators. Asking us to consider building a classroom community where science is experienced in a way that approximates the nature of science may be different from what we have done in the past, and that can be unsettling. Further, it’s difficult because we may believe we have been successful because test scores are good, or we have had students who come back and tell us we inspired them, or parents have told us that their child was prepared for a college class.
Despite the challenges, we need the shift. Our world needs people who understand science. It influences our day-to-day decisions about our families’ health, the environment, and the many other scenarios that require the use of evidence-based decision making. Our job is to teach kids (not standards) – to prepare them for the world they will live in, a world we can’t predict, and foster their ability to be scientifically literate. The NGSS were developed and California adopted them because it’s time to make some meaningful changes in science education that will shift the tide for students. The vision is to make science accessible to ALL and in doing so everyone is a part of the scientific enterprise.
Returning to the words of Hessel, find your reason to engage.
In this context, my way to engage is to take to heart the need to begin shifting my practice. In another context, it is working alongside a colleague who is struggling and needs a little support for implementing the NGSS. It’s also attending community meetings to advocate for adequate support (time, people, funding) of science education for these changes to happen. Engaging also mean maintaining membership with my state science teachers’ association, volunteering to work on a committee, and later, running for and serving on the CSTA board of directors. While Hessel did not have science education in mind when writing his book, I think the message of the critical importance of engagement is relevant and is worth consideration.
Find your reason to engage. There is much at stake.