I had a wonderful email exchange with Dr Karen Gallas, who wrote a book that I read and loved many years ago, Talking Their Way into Science. I used it in some of my elementary teacher preparation classes, because I thought it was fantastic! She now focuses on teaching yoga (and she also does psychotherapy). Yoga is actually not that far removed from teaching science to young children. Some fascinating connections…. Read on!
1. Please share a little background about your book, Talking Their Way into Science: Hearing Children’s Questions and Theories, Responding With Curricula. Why did you write about talk in science classrooms?
As a teacher of young children, one of the subjects I most loved to bring to children was science. The materials were rich, the opportunities for building on children’s curiosity and wonder were endless, and the process of teaching science with five, six or seven year olds was so dynamic. However, when I began to conduct teacher research on language and literacy in my classroom and really attend to children’s conversations, I observed something striking: Children in my classroom had the most fascinating and surprising discussions among themselves, usually in transition periods when I wasn’t in charge of orchestrating our conversations! I heard them asking each other questions like, ‘how do people get old?’, ‘why is snow white?’, ‘why do the leaves change color in the fall?’ Those questions were much more compelling than those that I elicited in the process of teaching the science curriculum. So I decided to create a space where their questions — their wonderings — would be brought to the surface and given a formal place for study in our classroom. That space was called “Science Talks.”
It began with me asking my students the first question: What is science? That question alone, provoked a great deal of inquiry. Then I would ask them what questions they had about science. Beginning in the fall and continuing throughout the year, we compiled a list of their questions. We would discover that some questions did not lend themselves to deeper discussion, for example, the question ‘who invented the telephone?,’ and other questions were more open ended and more exciting. Each week we would have a formal talk focused on one question. I recorded all the talks, transcribed them and began to look at how first and second graders talked collaboratively about science questions when I wasn’t leading the discussions. Usually our talks would be followed by a search for the answer to the question. Later, we would shape units of study around the questions. As my research expanded, I brought Science Talks to other classrooms and expanded my inquiry to include other grades.
2. You share a specific methodology in your book, the science talk. Although you are not in the science classroom any longer, do you consider this a method that would be useful in today’s elementary or other classroom? Any changes you would make if you were using this method?
From my research and from that of others who have replicated it in other settings, I remain absolutely sure that every science unit should begin with a science talk, and that the questions under consideration should be shaped by students rather than a pre-scripted curriculum. My book goes into a more complete look at why and how that should occur, but the main purpose is to uncover students’ theories so that they and their teachers can know the cognitive map they are working with. If we don’t know what kinds of unarticulated theories students are holding privately about a subject, its very difficult to address them in our teaching. As well, students need to understand and experience how the process of science works and how central questions, collaboration, and theorizing are to that process. My research for the Science Talk book and for my subsequent books on language and literacy left me convinced that literacy in any and all subjects begins with what I call “walking the walk and talking the talk” of the discipline under study, so I wouldn’t change this method.
3. Since 1995, when the book was published, how have your perspectives on learning and teaching science (or anything) evolved?
The last question alludes to the fact that my research over several years resulted in an unshakable conviction that students must be immersed in real science, real math, real writing, real social science and history, etc. That kind of immersion does not occur when the curriculum comes exclusively from a textbook. It requires action on the part of students so that they can experience what it means to engage with the subject. And the teacher’s role in this is much more collaborative, what I have termed “teacher as model, teacher as coach.” Inquiry is central to every subject, and each subject uses different language, tools, and forms of communication, so the teacher of a subject becomes the first example of what is means to be scientific, or to be a mathematician, a writer, a poet, an historian, an artist.
4. What is the role of the teacher in today’s world, particularly given the increased access to technology? The role of the parent?
Accomplished persons in every field retain a fascination with their work. They will tell you that they are constantly studying, and they will also tell you that technology is a tool which supports their work, but is not their only source of growth and inspiration. The best teachers, therefore, demonstrate by example what it means to be a lifelong learner. They are curious, imaginative, experimental, willing to take risks with their ideas, willing to acknowledge when they don’t know an answer, and they are not afraid to ask questions for which they don’t know the answer. They also understand that authentic relationships with students produce the best results. Parents are also role models for their children, demonstrating by their own actions what it means to be a father or mother, sister, brother, worker, student, etc. Children take their cues and build their values from the adults in their lives.
5. Are there connections between the teaching of yoga that you do now and the teaching of science that you did earlier in your career?
As a yoga teacher, I am teaching science all the time, but we work through the body. Yoga instruction, as I see it, is a process that helps my students become more ’embodied.’ We find out what the body and the mind can and can’t do in any given situation. Students begin to notice internal states, points of strength and weakness or stiffness and flexibility in their bodies, how their mind tries to distract them when a pose is difficult or gets overexcited when a pose feels easy. They learn anatomy and physiology; they tune into their respiration through our focus on the breath; they are able to track and, when necessary, quiet the fluctuations of the mind. All of this learning, of course, takes place in action as students engage with the yoga practice. And for me as their teacher, the characteristics I described in Question 4 hold true.
Dr. Karen Gallas taught for more than thirty years in urban, suburban and rural public schools as an early childhood and elementary teacher. Karen’s work as a teacher researcher is recognized nationally and internationally. Her publications include numerous articles and four books: The Languages of Learning; Talking Their Way into Science; ‘Sometimes I can be Anything’: Power, Gender and Identity in a Primary Classroom; and Imagination and Literacy. She also teaches yoga, maintains a small psychotherapy practice and writes from her home in Peacham, Vermont.