“Just delivering information doesn’t change students’ view of the world,” said Matthew Weinstein, UW Tacoma’s 2011 Distinguished Teaching Award recipient. Weinstein, professor of science education, has been on the UW Tacoma faculty since 2006. He finds poking and prodding an important part of the teaching process — whether it’s his freshman core students learning how to learn on a university level, or his master’s of education students learning how to teach teenagers.
“I push people to learn,” he said. “When they get stuck, I give them a little poke.”
The fine art of teaching by poke and prod allows students the self-satisfaction that’s important to learning. “Teachers are not trivial in that process,” Weinstein said. It’s an approach he uses in his classroom and teaches to his master’s students for use in their classrooms.
When he does this with his master’s students, it creates a sort of mirror-in-a-mirror effect, if you think about it too much. Weinstein models the practice and skills used in teaching by modeling the practice and skills used in teaching.
If that hurts too much to think about, try this. Weinstein employs theatricality and imagination in his lesson plans. He doesn’t mean that the teachers should perform, but that the students should. In a science lab, for example, students try on the role of scientists. They imagine themselves as scholars and intellectuals. By pretending to be engaged, they are engaged.
Weinstein gets his secondary science student teachers to think about how teachers walk, how they talk, even how they write on a whiteboard. Practicing a teacher persona gives them a sense of confidence or authority, which comes in handy when they’re walking into a classroom of 30 kids all going different directions.
Knowing how to emote as the teacher-in-charge is essential to learning how to manage a classroom and communicate with students.
“It’s so much of what it means to be a teacher,” Weinstein explained. “If teachers can’t be compelling, nothing is going to happen in that class.”
Teachers have to build 30 meaningful relationships an hour, he added, so he teaches them to make time to do that. “You have to remember the relational aspect of teaching. You can’t focus on the periodic table or Newton’s laws without that relationship.”
Teaching science is different from teaching history or literature, Weinstein said. Science knowledge changes constantly. And science is behind many hot-button issues: global warming, the age of the universe, the energy crisis and evolution. Weinstein and his students spend a lot of time talking about how to teach science to students who may believe in creationism or intelligent design.
“I tell my students that their students may reject science — but they still have to understand it,” he said. “They can’t intelligently reject ideas if they don’t understand what they mean.”
His freshman students, Weinstein said, struggle most with writing. He builds a lot of revision into his courses, so students can keep trying until they get it right. “It’s more important that students get the idea, than that they get it right the first time,” he said. Sometimes students resent having to re-do assignments, not understanding that the goal is to learn the material, not just to complete the assignment. He tells them, “I want to see that you grasp this key idea — not just check it off a list.”
Weinstein often uses his research in the classroom, both for freshmen and graduate students. “My teaching is deeply influenced by the anthropological framework that underlies my research and training,” Weinstein wrote in a personal statement.
He describes himself as an ethnographer, a scientist who describes society through field observation and case studies. He is interested in the connections between social justice and science. Earlier in his scholarly career his research revolved around a group of people who earned a living as human subjects in scientific experiments. The people he studied, who referred to themselves as professional guinea pigs, formed a community with its own culture.
His more recent research involves a similar group: “action medics” or “street medics.” These are people, some with extensive medical backgrounds and some with more informal medical education, trained to deal with medical needs in chaotic situations, particularly public protests. Like first-responders, they administer on-the-spot treatment for tear gas and pepper spray, as well as injuries. The 1999 WTO protests in Seattle sparked a renaissance of action medics, and they, too, have formed an underground community and culture.
In Weinstein’s class, learning is like a piñata full of experience, just needing a good poke to reveal other views of the world.