April 14, 2013

On Light, Shadows and Experience

Co-authored by Jenna Callaghan
Cross-posted on the Calgary Science School's Connect!

We began a recent investigation into Light and Shadows in Grade 4 by posing the question “What is Light?” to our students. Before beginning the conversation, we reminded students that the world is not nearly as concrete or easily-understood as over-simplified statements of "fact" might often imply. We talked about how scientists are by nature inquisitive, always open to possibility and a reinvention of old ideas. We suggested that throughout our inquiry, they too might have the potential to share a completely new perspective, contribute to making new discoveries and either support or disprove current thoughts. With two of us in the classroom, we were able to capture some of our students’ opening ideas about 'Light' and have embedded them below.

The complexity of the idea that the world is not completely knowable left me with an uneasy feeling this week as I was forced to acknowledge that even as the “teacher” I too have to admit that I just don’t have all the answers. Our opening conversation with students about Light was followed by an investigation into “What Light Isn’t”, and as students explored how to create and manipulate shadows in the classroom they were asking extraordinary questions; questions that I just didn’t always know how to respond to correctly. While scouring resources in order to continue to investigate the topic, I voiced my concern about not having all the answers to Deirdre. The conversation that unfolded was an important reminder for me of my real purpose as a teacher and the resulting understandings will certainly guide my role through the rest of this exploration.

Our role as teachers is not to be an “expert” in every subject and topic within the curriculum we teach. Education is learner-centred; it is no longer about the teacher as the source of all answers or holder of knowledge, and it wouldn’t be real to pretend that we could provide an answer to every question our students might ask. Our role is certainly to have an evolving understanding and curiosity for the ideas we explore in Science, but more importantly it is to be experienced in how to be a researcher, how to ask meaningful questions, and how to be genuinely curious about the way things in this world work. If we presume to always know the answer to every question that is asked there is no doubt that learning will be less meaningful for students. Who wants to investigate, only to be “given the answers” in the end? What is necessary is that we guide students, give them the tools to look for answers themselves, and continue to demonstrate passion for living in a way that is open to possibility. When students are asking questions that we don’t know the answers to, they are curious enough to look for answers. When we explore these ideas together, we are on our way to doing what good teachers should be doing.

My conversation with Jenna reminded me of how uncomfortable it can feel to be put in a space where there is the expectation that as teachers, we are the holders of all relevant knowledge. The perception that we should have all the answers is outdated and impossible. To paraphrase David Jardine in his article On the Nature of Inquiry: The Experienced Teacher: “it is troublesome to expect that teachers should have final, foreclosing or definitive knowledge, such that further experiences become less necessary, possible or interesting.” That said, acknowledging that teachers should not expect or presume to know everything about Light and Shadows before embarking on an investigation into the topic does not mean that we simply turn things over to the students and step back. Rather, it should be because of our own investigations into the topic that we are properly attuned to detecting important ideas, questions or opportunities in the students’ questions. I don’t have all the answers, but it is because of my own research and passionate interest in the subject that I am capable of helping the students identify the right questions. As Sharon Friesen reminds us in her brilliant EdTalk on Creating Knowledge Building Environments, “teachers can’t let go of good quality teaching. They must guide and steward student learning in a deliberate and intentional way. Capture and captivate student interests and learning so they can take their best next step forward.”

More to come as we continue to push each other to bump up against what we think we know to be true.

Link to our "Light and Shadows" Planning Document (In progress...)


  1. You two seem to have a wonderful collaboration going. I'll bet your day is a fun one.

    1. Thanks Jeff! We really enjoy working together and definitely have a little bit of fun throughout each day. :)

  2. Another amazing example of authentic, discipline-based inquiry in the making. I'm excited to see what the kids will come to understand once they have been given opportunities to further explore and make discoveries through the hands-on, engaging tasks you have designed. By the end of this scientific inquiry, it'll be interesting to show the kids this video again and see how their thinking has changed or if their ideas are reaffirmed.

    1. Thanks Mrs. Park!!! We've learned from the best! :-)