“Finding slug eggs, making the bulb light up, getting the microscope to focus, seeing cells for the first time, nurturing a seed, harvesting a tomato, catching the mealworm beetle as it “hatches” out of its pupa, making a “floater” sink and a “sinker” float, building a taller block building, getting a marble to run through a maze. Discovery that is the result of an imaginative act– one’s own “wonderful idea”– is a powerful thing. I believe that when children experience their own agency in this way, they learn that they can change the world.” – Abbe Futterman, teacher.

The above is just part of an interview with an artist-turned-science teacher named Abbe Futterman. She’s the sort of teacher I’d like my girls to experience. Science teaching, I believe, is so much about art, so little, really, about science itself. The science teacher is not a scientist, but an artist. We create art that creates itself.

I love teaching. I also love learning about science. But I’ve had the nagging suspicion for some time now that these two things are actually quite distinct. And I think that my own personal journey through science, which has taken me to places as different as the interior of the nucleus, the wondrous creatures of the Burgess Shale, and the bizarre and surprising moons of Jupiter, is just that, personal, valuable to me because it reflects my own choices, exciting to me because it is my own wonder I’ve ignited. It’s not a path anyone else could or should take. Everyone’s wonder will be, must be, their own.

My job as a teacher is to throw out many sparks. What I find amazing, wondrous, thrilling, may not do a thing for a particular learner. And that’s ok. It only takes one spark to set off that “wonderful idea,” the idea that will start the learner on her own path of discovery. When she looks back, she may never know that it all began today, with one little spark that I, in my wild flailings, happened to throw in just the right place at just the right time. And that’s ok, too.

“A sense of wonder,” Richard Fortey said, “cannot be purchased over the counter at the superstore. Nor can it be wheeled out of the corner cupboard at the behest of some curriculum or other. Instead,” he wrote, “it steals up on the child unexpectedly.”

I believe that when we encourage our learners to discover, we are encouraging them to be artists. Scientists are artists, creating their own models of the world. Science, like art, like music, like dance, like theater, and like writing, is one of the things people do. But our learners are not really doing science, not yet, not with the rigor and the insistence on skepticism that science so rightly demands. Instead, they are fiddling, tinkering, trying things out, exploring what’s interesting, what might happen if I mix this with that, if I hold this next to that, if I connect this piece with that piece. All these things are ways of changing the world, leaving a mark, making a difference.

The teaching I want to do is about inspiration. It’s about lighting a fire that will burn and burn and burn. It’s about starting my learners on a journey, maybe waving occasionally as we pass one another along the way, but always remembering that it’s their journey, not my own. Those stirring moments of discovery come not from me, but from my learners, from their own “wonderful ideas.”

It’s not about me, it’s about them. The good news is, I get to have a great time along the way, sharing my own passion as a tool for igniting theirs. That’s the sort of teacher I want to be.

If you want to read the entire Abbe Futterman interview, it’s here.

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