Podcast: Encouraging Teachers to Teach with Big Concepts | Steve Barkley

Podcast: Encouraging Teachers to Teach with Big Concepts

Using science teaching and learning as an example, Dr. Stephanie Sisk-Hilton illustrates the importance of exploring big concepts and connected systems with students. She shares her work with colleagues, designing a program leading to a Climate Justice Education certificate. Suggestions on how coaches can assist teachers to expand current instructional practices are included.

Email Dr. Sisk-Hilton: stephsh@sfsu.edu
Read, “A New Program Will Train Teachers to Teach Climate Change, Without the ‘Doom and Gloom’” here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!


Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud Podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.

Steve: 00:35 Encouraging teachers to teach with big concepts. Joining the podcast today is Dr. Stephanie Sisk- Hilton, who is a professor in the Department of Elementary Education at San Francisco State University. Her teaching and her research focus on the intersections of children’s science learning, cognition and development, and collaborative teacher learning. I was introduced to Dr. Sisk-Hilton’s work through an article in Education Week that described a program her university is offering that leads to a climate justice education certificate. As I explored her work and her interest further, I was anxious to ask her to join me on the podcast. Welcome, Stephanie.

Stephanie: 01:22 Hi, Steve.

Steve: 01:24 Glad you’re with us.

Stephanie: 01:25 Thanks so much.

Steve: 01:27 I’m wondering, for starters, if you’d talk a little bit about your teaching background and your interest in teaching science.

Stephanie: 01:35 Sure. So I started my career as an elementary teacher – long time ago now. I was a science resource teacher in an elementary school and then a multiple subject, everything elementary teacher. I’ve also been a middle school math and science teacher, I’ve worked as an instructional coach, was very briefly a principal and then for the past 18 years, have been primarily a college professor. But especially during my years, primarily as a classroom teacher, I was really lucky to work in several different schools that used project-based learning in different forms in different ways and I think that that has really grounded my approach to teaching and learning. So now my main job is helping new teachers, particularly in science education, but also working on teacher research as a way to engage in reflective practice and watching them build their confidence in teaching science, something that they often don’t come in confident in is one of the most satisfying parts of my job.

Steve: 02:39 So I started my career a whole lot earlier than you on the years here and that science issue existed then. I mean, I was an elementary teacher and it was pretty quick to discover that very few of us with elementary credentials had the background to work in science content.

Stephanie: 03:04 Absolutely. And most often, I actually do have something of a science background, but most often folks who become elementary teachers, they weren’t science majors. They’re supposed to teach 12 different subjects and science is just one of them and it may not have any space. And in fact, one of the reasons I became really passionate about teaching science and teaching teachers science education is that the more I taught, the more I began to really see it as a justice issue. If you think about who gets access to science, especially early in their schooling and who doesn’t, very often it’s kids who are going to school in predominantly lower income communities where science simply isn’t taught. And yet, if you go to higher income, more resourced communities, science is a given. And so then we wonder by the time kids get up to middle school and high school and college why we don’t have enough scientists, well, that’s one of the reasons. We we block a lot of our kids from even developing that interest. So that’s something that I really care about and have kind of centered in my career.

Steve: 04:07 Well, it sounds like you’ve hit on giving us at least a piece of the explanation of what the climate justice education certificate is. You want to spell that out a little more?

Stephanie: 04:20 Yeah, sure. So my colleagues and I at San Francisco State, we’re still in the development phases of this – we’re hoping to
launch next summer. But how we got to this is we know that most teachers and most parents, really over 80%, think that climate science should be taught in schools. So sometimes we act like this is a big controversy. It’s not that big of a controversy. Most people really think it should be happening. But simultaneously, we know that fewer than half of teacher report teaching for climate science. And some of that is, of course, we have teachers who teach all different subjects, so they feel like it’s important, but they aren’t really sure how to do it, and they’re not really sure if it’s their job to do it. If you’re a high school earth science teacher, yeah, of course.

Stephanie: 05:07 But if you’re an art teacher, should you be teaching for climate justice? If you’re a kindergarten teacher, should you be doing this? And I guess my colleagues and I think, yes. It maybe isn’t the main thing that every teacher teaches, but that it needs to be a systemic goal. It’s one of the biggest issues facing our society, our world right now, and that it really needs to underlie what we’re doing in schools. And so we’re developing a program that is intentionally multidisciplinary. We’re not planning to separate the elementary teachers from the high school teachers. We’re planning it to be open to all educators, both formal and informal. And the idea is to foreground issues of climate science through a community justice lens. So helping teachers understand what the climat-based issues are in their communities, and engaging in what we call a pedagogy of hope, to help them think about how they might bring these issues to kids in ways that build them up and help them feel powerful as agents of change rather than terrifying everybody. So we’re aiming, we’re aiming at systems-level change hopefully moving away from just taking the most enthusiastic teachers and helping them be even more magnificent than they are and more towards, how do we use a program like this for teachers to be leaders in their schools towards whole systems change?

Steve: 06:36 As I look through your stuff, I found this sentence I’d like you to just spell it out a little bit more. The words you used were “disaster pedagogy isn’t helpful.” Tell us about that.

Stephanie: 06:52 Yeah. So, climate change is terrifying, right? The impacts that are already happening, the things that are gonna be happening in the future. And so it’s scary and it’s easy to feel powerless, and it’s especially easy to feel powerless when we frame the issue in terms of individual action. So I can drive an electric car, I can eat a vegan diet, I can just never turn on the heat in my house. And guess what? We’re gonna statistically be like, no closer to reducing greenhouse gas eme emissions. I’m just gonna be hungry, right? So it’s really easy to kind of throw up our hands and say, well, what can I do? And part of the problem is that we frame this in terms of individuals all need to change and they all need to change on their own. And there’s a couple of problems with that.

Stephanie: 07:42 And the first is that when we’re scared, we feel powerless. And the parts of our brains that think and innovate and problem solve, they literally shut down. I can’t remember when I first read the term, “amygdala hijack,” but it I use it a lot because that’s exactly what happens. The oldest most primitive part of our brain, which keeps us alive when we’re scared, that’s what takes over. And our logical response is flee. So if the world is just, forget it, there’s nothing we can do, my diet’s not gonna make a difference, whatever, I’m just gonna run away, because that’s what keeps me safe. And I think we sometimes unintentionally do that in our attempts to teach about climate science. That when we focus on what’s terrifying, we’re not actually inviting folks to engage.

Stephanie: 08:40 So if we wanna help kids build their knowledge base and grow up into leaders who can actually work on these problems and address them, we can’t do it from this place of catastrophe and fear, even if that’s what I may be feeling some of the time when I’m teaching this. So what we’re trying to do is reframe the approach. And there’s a couple of things in that. One is to move away from this focus on individual action because honestly, individual actions not what’s going to make a real difference and move towards community-based solutions. So to go back to my eating, me adopting a more sustainable diet by myself doesn’t do very much. But if we develop a whole network of community gardens and farmer’s markets that provide fresh local produce to communities that previously were in food deserts, that’s doing something. That’s doing something that has a meaningful impact on climate change.

Stephanie: 09:43 And it humanizes, it makes our our communities more livable. It has a direct impact on, on wellbeing, and it feels powerful. When you look at kids who are involved in things like community garden projects, they feel like they’re doing something important and it’s something that they can do, as opposed to like telling their families what groceries to buy, which very often is based on conomic need, not on climate sustainability. So that’s one is move away from the individual, sort of more systems-focused. And then the kind of second part of that is to really focus climate education on this idea of hope-filled action. Not just learning about all that’s wrong, but what can we do, what can we do in community, even little kids. What can kids do? How can they advocate for change? How can they actually be a part of change so that we feel like we’re engaging in meaningful action and not just learning about all that’s wrong in the world.

Steve: 10:46 Powerful. Makes a ton of sense. I know that you’re interested in encouraging educators to move away from a misconception that students have to do all the basics before they can deal with the the the big ideas. And certainly you’re talking big idea here. So would you talk
about the impact that that has on learning?

Stephanie: 11:10 Yeah. So my poor college students – they get so tired of me talking about this, because this is one of the things that I really care about and I’ve spent a long time studying. But for generations of educators, we’re basically taught that little kids aren’t capable of understanding big abstract ideas. And we’ve actually known for a really long time that that’s not true. We have lots of counter evidence, but a lot of our education system is kind of grounded in this belief. And so oftentimes when we look at what’s taught, particularly in science to younger children, even up through like middle school, sometimes even high school, we tend to see this kind of little pieces approach. This idea that we’re gonna teach this little piece and this little piece and this little piece, and then when kids are older and more advanced, they’re gonna somehow put it all together.

Stephanie: 12:01 But that doesn’t really happen. And what happens is people just like check out of science. They’re like, yeah, I’m done with all these little pieces and they never get to that part, right? And we know that that’s fundamentally not how the brain works. Our brain is constantly making connections and when we aren’t able to connect a new piece of information, we forget it. So if we’re learning individual facts about basic types of soil but we don’t have any experience with soil, we’re just like looking at it in a classroom, we’re gonna forget that. But if we learn about it in the context of growing food that we’re gonna eat and we see the impact of that on the plants that we grow, then it matters and we remember it. So I think sometimes we think of systems thinking as this really complex thing that can only happen with a fully developed adult brain, but it’s as simple as understanding a garden, which is not a simple system at all actually, but kids can garden.

Stephanie: 13:05 And I will say that the current iteration of our academic standards, particularly the next generation science standards, are really based in a more systems-oriented approach. But I think as educators, we just need lots of really strong examples of what that looks like because it’s not the way most of us learned. It’s not the way most of us experience science. And so to ask us to do something totally different can be a little bit of a lift. I also go back again and again to the garden example, just because I feel like that’s one where teachers are like, yeah, of course. Preschoolers can be in a garden, high schoolers can be in a garden. It’s kind of accessible to everybody and yet it’s this great laboratory for looking at how living and non-living things interact and the role insects play.

Stephanie: 13:54 It’s a system and it’s the basis of our food system, which is incredibly important to humans, and it’s incredibly important to addressing climate change. I think it’s a third of our greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to some point in the food system. So it’s related to climate change and it’s related to human wellbeing. And kids can watch a bee going to a plant and learn about what it’s doing and think about what would it be like if there aren’t bees? We have a critical issue with pollinators right now. Bees pollinate some huge percentage of food crops in the US and yet we have an ever decreasing bee population. And so thinking about how do we make more be friendly environments? How do we how do we create systems that support our pollinators? That’s something that young kids can do. It’s something that older kids can understand at a greater level of detail. But this understanding of systems, I think really needs to underlie all of the science teaching we do, and that it’s not something that it has to wait for later.

Steve: 15:00 So many of our listeners are teacher leaders and instructional coaches and school administrators. What kind of conversations do you suggest or approaches they use to assist teachers in exploring the concept of big concepts? Because often our curriculum doesn’t come to us like that.

Stephanie: 15:22 Yeah, it’s a great question because in my experience, teachers are excited to do this kind of work. They love seeing examples of it in action, but often I think, we get scared either that we don’t know enough or that doing this just gonna make people angry, we’re gonna be in trouble, or that we’ll do it in some sort of wrong way that that damages kids. So I think good coaching can really play a huge role in bringing this to life. And I think in many cases, it looks like helping teachers see what they’re already doing, that they could tweak and adjust and change to make it more about climate science, to make it more about issues of justice, to make it more about understanding a system. So I can give an example – we’ll keep going with the plant and garden example.

Stephanie: 16:14 A few years ago I was co-teaching with a first grade teacher who was fairly new and she was really excited to have caterpillars in her classroom and watch them grow into butterflies. A classic kindergarten, first grade kind of activity. And at the same time, I was working with the school to think about really integrating issues of environment and climate across the curriculum. So we used this as an opportunity to think about this. So she was super excited and was already planning to do this butterfly unit. And so what I helped her do was really think about, okay, why do we want kids to know about butterflies? It’s fascinating to watch them metamorphosize and yet, caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis, maybe not the most important scientific concept. So what is the thing that really matters here?

Stephanie: 17:09 Well, butterflies are really important pollinators. And where I live in the San Francisco Bay area, we have monarch butterflies who come through, we have swallow tail butterflies, it’s not just one kind of butterfly, right? And they pollinate very specific kinds of plants and they need different plants at the caterpillar stage versus at the adult butterfly stage. So she used this project that she had already had done before and was already planning to do, and kind of expanded it out to think not just about the butterflies that come in the mail order kit that they were gonna grow, but what butterflies lived around the school and what do they need to live? And this was in an urban area. Do we have a butterfly friendly habitat around our school or is it just concrete and non-native plants that these butterflies don’t help them survive.

Stephanie: 18:02 And so what her students ended up doing was, while they were watching these caterpillars, it’s kind of a long wait. So they were also studying what butterflies live in our area and I think there was a donation maybe from a parent or from a plant nursery, but they ended up planting native plants in a little area between the school gate and the sidewalk. There was this little patch of dirt. And they planted native plants there, and they made signs that we laminated so they could get rained on that explained how the butterflies pollinated these plants. So it was a really first grade friendly project, but it moved it from, let’s just look at the lifecycle of a butterfly to, let’s think about how butterflies fit in a system. So I think that’s the kind of thing that a coach can really help a teacher think through it and instead of starting with something they’ve never thought of doing before, start with a thing that they love and that they’re excited about and grow it out.

Steve: 19:03 Cool. Cool. I know that you’re working on a book right now about teaching climate change. Want to just tell folks a little bit about where that’s headed?

Stephanie: 19:14 Yeah, sure. So it’s a book specifically aimed at elementary school teachers for the reasons we’ve already talked about, that oftentimes elementary teachers aren’t trainined science specialists and they want to engage in this work, but they’re not always really sure how. So I’m hoping that the book both provides some of this climate science content, but also provides lots of examples of how you might bring this to life in elementary school. And honestly, I don’t really think that elementary school is the place where we need to be drilling in on the exact details of global climate systems and exactly how humans are impacting the climate with greenhouse gas emissions. But instead, if we really focus elementary school on understanding systems and interactions and on understanding our role in communities, I think we are setting kids up to then – it’s kind of the opposite of little pieces first, right?

Stephanie: 20:12 Start with a big picture and then they’re in a good position to add in the details later. So I’m using a three-part framework that’s gonna sound repetitive based on what we’re talking about. So the first piece is understanding the earth as a set of interdependent systems. The second is grounding elementary science in place-based learning, really learning about your own community and where you live and your place in it. It’s absolutely great to learn about the Amazon Rainforest and to learn about many other places in the world and I think we need to ground the learning in kids’ own place, both because they can directly experience it and also because that’s where they can feel the ability to engage in action. So then the third pillar of this framework is engaging in hope-filed action, like learning about something and then doing something with that so that we build this understanding from the earliest ages that we can use science knowledge to improve our communities.

Steve: 21:11 I love it. Love it. You got a projected timeline when the book will be out?

Stephanie: 21:18 It should be out in the early fall. My manuscript is due to the publishers at the end of the spring, and it usually takes a couple months to get it from manuscript to published book. So that’s the hope.

Steve: 21:30 We will be on the lookout. Well, Stephanie, I really, really appreciated the conversation with you. I’m wondering if you’d share with with listeners the best way that they might follow up with you with some questions or take a look at some of the writing that you’ve done.

Stephanie: 21:45 Sure. I have a really old website that I’m hoping to get back up and running, but it’s not yet. So I think the best way to get hold of me is just through email, which is stephsh@sfsu.edu. And I should warn you, I’m on sabbatical this semester, so anyone who contacts me is gonna get my little sabbatical auto response, but I do check email from time to time.

Steve: 22:11 Just wait because I got that too and then I got your notes. So we’ll be sure to post that that email in the lead-in and make it
easier for folks to find. Thank you so much.

Stephanie: 22:21 Thanks Steve.

Steve: 22:23 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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