[[PERC Talk, Fostering science learning in diverse urban settings, Kenneth Tobin, CUNY]]
Dr.Tobin told us the story of when he plunged into a challenging experiment – to teach high school physics in urban Philadelphia. It was, needless to say, a challenge. He was an older white Australian, in a classroom with at-risk African American youth. We were both speaking English, he says, but we had no idea what the other was saying. He just didn’t understand the culture and language of urban black youth, and they didn’t understand or trust this older white man.

The solution he came up with, when working later with a class in the Bronx, was co-generational dialogues. Let’s just talk to one another, he suggested. So, they discussed with students in groups, how we might best teach you? They came up with ideas such as having the students teach one another. The teacher might be speaking, but another student would be simultaneously working with the students near him or her to teach them. They found this to be very effective, and gave the students a lot of power to take control of their own learning. The students liked learning from their peers because they were better able to understand one another because they shared a common culture and language. The students also began to have more self-confidence and those who were on the verge of dropping out ended up going on to college. He showed a powerful video clip of one of the students explaining how the class had been run to the new teacher who would be teaching the class the next semester. The teacher was skeptical of doing this peer instruction in the class, but the student was adamant about why this method was best.

This kind of teaching method, of course, requires the teacher to let go of some of the power and control they hold in the classroom. This is particularly difficult in high school where the measure of the success of a teacher is how much control they have over their class. This is even a struggle in college. For instance, the SCALE-UP curriculum restructures the classroom into small groups working together on a task with an instructor circulating as a guide, rather than all students on the same task as defined by the instructor who is in complete control. This is difficult for many faculty, and the classroom does look quite chaotic.

I think that making these kinds of changes can be very difficult – it requires a lot of soul-searching and the strong desire to see some changes in the outcomes of teaching. If you’re trying this sort of thing, be easy on yourself.