How to teach: Some basic ways

By James Liu

This nation is plagued with a shortage of math and science teachers, and an overabundance of unemployed philosophy majors. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago has signed agreements with the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology to get math and science majors to teach in public schools. These programs help to streamline the certification process, help science majors adjust to the classroom, and require a three-year commitment to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As good as that sounds, it won’t solve the problem. Those programs will probably only catch the college students already interested in teaching math and science. The pool of qualified teachers has to be drastically expanded.

I have an odd idea. Let’s train humanities majors to teach middle school (maybe some high school too) math and science. It’s really not as farfetched as it sounds at first. Try to remember what math you’ve forgotten since middle school. It really isn’t all that complicated, and we all seem to have made it through all right. There exists a wide gulf between what one learns in college and what one would teach in middle school. Having a mastery over the narrative technique of James Joyce’s Ulysses doesn’t seem all that pertinent to teaching middle school kids how to write a five paragraph essay. Nor, for that matter, is a solid grasp of metric spaces all that necessary to explaining how the quadratic formula works, or how to plot y = 2x – 4. Mastery of organic molecule synthesis has little positive bearing on being able to teach the mechanics of simple machines. It is said that the more advanced the degree you have, the more you know about your specific corner of your discipline, and the less you know about the entirety of your discipline.

The science core at the College provides more than enough knowledge to teach these subjects to junior high students. In fact, it is all the more appropriate for teaching younger students, because these survey courses in the core eo ipso sacrifice depth in favor of breadth. What is needed in addition is a resource base for prospective teachers. That will matter more than advanced expertise in the subject matter. What good is advanced knowledge to the middle school student if the teacher cannot communicate it in a way suitable to the student?

This idea would require the cooperation of a plethora of organizations. The College will have to adapt sections of specific core science classes to teach the fundamentals of science teaching. I imagine a two quarter “Teaching Biological Sciences,” “Teaching Physical Sciences” and “Teaching Mathematical Sciences” sequences, as well as a four-quarter “Teaching Natural Sciences” sequence, which will be geared to teaching lower grade levels, with more effort spent on how to teach. The CPS and the city, would have to help by creating summer training programs, opening classrooms for student teaching, and so on. It would be especially helpful if Americorps and charitable foundations were on board in order to help smooth over the financial side of matters. (Ideally, a full Americorps package for two years of teaching to help pay loans acquired at the University of Chicago, money to pay stipends during the summer teacher training session, and if possible, even a scholarship to help with tuition for the final year at the College.)

This, of course, is only a very preliminary outline. Not included is how exactly all of this is to be achieved.