A Community of Learners

By Metz, Steve | The Science Teacher, April-May 2008 | Go to article overview
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A Community of Learners


Metz, Steve, The Science Teacher


In our biology and ecology classes, the concept of "community" is central. We understand that no organism can exist alone, but instead is embedded in the web of interactions with other organisms we call a community. We also know that in our classes, students learn best when, instead of working in isolation, they interact with peers through collaborative learning exercises, group projects, and interactive discussion. When we teach the history and nature of science, we stress that most scientists rarely work independently, that major discoveries are generally the result of collaboration, and that it takes an entire scientific community to review and verify scientific findings.

Why do we in our professional lives often seem to forget these lessons about the importance of community? Why do we so often work in isolation, apart from the potential support of our fellow teachers? I sometimes feel that I enter my classroom in September like a bear entering a cave, not to emerge until final exams are completed in June. Except for occasional staff or department meetings, teachers generally work alone, each of us in our own little cubbyhole. How often do we have the chance to talk with our colleagues about teaching strategies or cross-disciplinary collaboration? How often do we partner with businesses and other groups outside the classroom walls?

It seems clear that teaching becomes richer in an environment of interacting relationships, an organic web of partnerships. This wisdom is not new; it goes back almost 400 years to 17th-century English poet John Donne's commonly known quote: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." In contrast, the isolation of teachers is notorious. Failure to connect with the larger community is one of the major pitfalls of classroom teaching.

Fortunately, there is good news on at least three fronts. First, there is the internet, which now allows easy access to teaching ideas and strategies--particularly NSTA's website (www.nsta.org), which provides a wealth of information and resources. Second, there are the NSTA Conferences on Science Education, which are held four times each year. In addition to hundreds of workshops, seminars, and presentations, NSTA conferences offer opportunities to connect with science educators from all across the country in settings that encourage peer-to-peer interactions, whether in workshop sessions or informally over coffee or lunch.

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A Community of Learners
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