Teacher Takeaways for Leading Informal Science Learning

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to teach photography and environmental science over the past six months. I want to use this space to reflect on what I’ve learned, to create a time capsule I can look back on, and to hear feedback from others on their teaching tips. I never imagined when I was a kid that being an informal science teacher was a job. But I love it! So if you’re thinking of being a teacher or just exploring what’s out there, the resources below could be helpful for you!

Eventually I’ll get back to writing about travels and posting photographs. But teaching is the most prevalent part of my life right now. (This post is focused on teaching science. More on teaching photography to come!)

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This week I’ve had the flu, turned into a phlegm monster, and attended two days of professional teacher development. The garden where I work teaches their teachers how to teach (ha) through two frameworks called BEETLES and ROP. BEETLES (Better Environmental Education, Teaching, Learning & Expertise Sharing) is an informal teaching method for outdoor science education. It focuses a lot on empowering students to think critically and support each other. With the shy-kid part of me still deep down somewhere I appreciate that BEETLES offers tools and language to students that take the pressure off of responding to teachers. Questions are observation and opinion based, or focused on refining and reflecting on what a classmate said. As a student, you can’t feel wrong. ROP (Reflecting On Practice) is a practice for teachers to reflect on their own methods. It’s used in informal and museum education.

Here are three top takeaways from BEETLES to make teaching more enriching:

  • Asking broad questions can make more students feel comfortable answering and inspire higher levels of critical thinking. However, it’s mostly done based on feelings and rarely used in science. I am guilty of this even in a science museum. I often ask—“how does this biome feel?”—or use an open statement like—“I bet this next environment will feel really different.” That’s a great start. It’s not the same as “How are you connected to the organisms in this environment?” or “What types of organisms could live in this environment?”

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  • Waiting three seconds after asking a question or saying “Let’s think about this quietly for one minute” improves responses and participation. I would imagine it would keep the energy levels of a class down too. That can be a positive, if you lead classes in narrow or public spaces. (Anyone have other tips for channeling excitement and students’ need to move around into learning?)

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  • Praising good discussion behaviors and risk taking helps you connect to students and promotes fair conversations.

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  • Acting like a learner alongside your students makes the power dynamic more equal and the learning experience authentic. It’s okay to say you learned something from a book. It’s okay to think through a question out loud with a student. It’s even better to ask a student to “tell you more about their idea” or have a second student answer the first student’s question.

Here are more of my favorite hand-outs:

Click here for access to even more BEETLES handouts to promote discussion. Or here for handouts about questioning strategies.

What practices and methods for science topics, observation-based learning, and discussion-making do you find successful in your classroom? Leave a comment below!

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