Browsing for Teaching (and Otherwise)

This week I report on some reading I did on a couple of current stories related to teaching. There was a lot to read about one of them, the Beacon School lab fire in Manhattan. For those of you who haven’t read about it, a science teacher was doing a demonstration of combustion in a lab when fumes from the “combustion accelerant” (fuel) exploded outward, engulfing a student and critically burning him while injuring a classmate. It turns out that the school’s labs lacked needed safety equipment and procedures, and that this particular demonstration has a history of going dangerously awry.

One experienced science teacher and safety administrator was reported as questioning the idea of using a fuel known to produce inflammable fumes at room temperature for a show in which the students “look, look at the colors.” I like pretty colors as much as the next person, but I’d rather see them on a Matisse or a Helen Frankenthaler than in lab fires that can explode. I wrote a former colleague of mine, Dr. H., a retired chemistry teacher, to ask him about the demonstration. He said there is a safer way to handle these chemicals that involves making aqueous solutions of the salts and igniting them in a procedure he described using a Bunsen burner. He said that then the students can examine the controlled burns with hand-held spectrometers.

But one of the strange things about this demonstration is that there doesn’t seem to be much learning of chemistry involved.  Dr. H’s first assumption was that the fires would be set in order to provide students an opportunity to investigate the ignited chemicals’ properties. I don’t think he even envisioned lab fires as spectator sports. And the Beacon School’s website itself says that it focuses strongly on inquiry-based learning, though no inquiry is intended in this demonstration, which is not even an experiment. But I am not blaming the science teacher, apparently an earnest young woman who could not be expected to have Dr. H’s experience and understanding. I would like to know whether she and teachers like her have the chance to discuss their plans with other, more experienced teachers and to take advantage of this shared experience. One also reads that this demonstration was the object of a federal warning, not as widely circulated as it evidently should have been. Why not?

Properly equipped science laboratories are rather expensive, and I fear that some schools, in a misbegotten effort to save costs, cut corners. We do not know the explanation for Beacon’s unsatisfactory laboratories and must reserve judgment till we do know, but I have another former colleague, the science department chair at a school where he and I taught, who resigned rather than continue to teach in unsafe labs. The school accepted his resignation and did not make the needed improvements in its labs’ safety. So far no one has been caught in a lab fire there, but that is not very reassuring. I guess that New York City will be on the safety violations instantly, but it would obviously have been better to have a more effective pre-accident inspection and safety instruction program.

Speaking of investigations: more indictments and guilty pleas are coming out in the Atlanta cheating scandal. Having commented on it on and off for over three years, I am interested to see how things finally end up; but it looks as if the reprehensible former superintendent of Atlanta’s schools is in trouble. What puzzles me in retrospect is how she attained the great reputation she had before the tarnish started showing on her halo. See my posting linked above for some of my reasons, but consider what Stephen Jay Gould said in warning about being data driven: “If the data appear to be too good to be true, it’s because they probably are.” Look at the incredible improvements reported in Atlanta classrooms, and you will see what I mean—classrooms bursting with little Stakhanovs of learning who needed only a data-driven superintendent to “unleash” their potential, and nothing like the critical eye turned on them or their schools that was turned on the original Stakhanov when his heroic exploits in the mines were reported by Pravda. The wrongness of Atlanta’s data seems obvious now. Why didn’t it then?


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