The Carrot Incident: Address to the OCU 2016 graduate commencement

GradSpeechSmThe following is the prepared version of the address I gave at the Oklahoma City University Graduate Commencement on May 7, 2016.

If you would rather watch the speech, it begins at 24:00 here.

When I was asked to give the graduate commencement address, I started thinking about my own graduate commencement. I spent five years in the alternate universe that is grad school, but that was coming to an end and I had to decide what to do next. My choices were to either stay in science and move to a new lab somewhere else, or I could do something different.

In the back of my head I’d always had this crazy idea about teaching high school science. For advice I turned to a very influential person in my life, my high school chemistry teacher, Cynthia Macarevich. When I took chemistry from “Mrs. Mac” just down the street here at Northwest Classen, it was an epiphany.  The angels sang, the light shone down and I knew that chemistry was the thing I both loved and was good at.  And I wanted to be the kind of teacher that made his students feel the same way.

Macarevich was very encouraging and told me she’d contact some friends. About a week later I had first an interview, then a job offer to teach science at a brand new school, Harding Charter Prep High School, here in Oklahoma City. The moral of this part of the story is, be nice to your teachers, they may get you a job someday.

By the day of my own graduate commencement, the day I got this hood, I knew I was going to be a high school teacher. I was excited and maybe a little over-confident, because I was going to be the best science teacher ever. The reality, of course, was somewhat different.

I struggled through my first year of teaching, which is always the toughest, then one day my second year of teaching in my intro chemistry class and I was giving a lecture about color. As an example I was using beta-carotene, the compound that gives carrots their orange color. I had this whole back story about not all carrots being orange. Some are in fact white or yellow, even purple, and the orange color we have today was carefully selected by growers in part to please the royal House of Orange, which my students were also studying in European History. In the middle of what I thought was this great lecture a student raised his hand and said “OK, I’m confused, where do carrots come from?” This caught me off guard, but I started to say “You know, you put the seed in the soil and you water it,” when the student interrupted me, “Wait, you mean carrots are plants?”

I paused a moment and said “Of course they’re plants.” After another pause I said “Who was your biology teacher last year?” I already knew the answer, of course, but the student had to think about, then he said “You were!”

This was a turning point in my teaching career. It bothered me for months. This moment, which I now think of as “The Carrot Incident”, crystallized a year and a half of frustration, of realizing I was not seeing the results in my students I wanted. In spite of the hours I spent working on my lectures and preparing clever lab experiments for them, they weren’t learning. This was obvious to me every time I graded an exam. When my students did “learn” I had trouble pushing them past the level of memorization. They weren’t learning science in my class. Most of the time they were copying down notes and failing to make any sense of them.

The Carrot Incident forced me to begin to rethink the way I was teaching. You see, I couldn’t blame anyone else for this. I was this students’ teacher, and I had every opportunity when I taught biology to have my students grow plants from seeds, to water and care for them, to measure and observe their growth, to study their flowers, to pollinate them. It would have been a simple, inexpensive and really effective project, but one that never occurred to me. I could have had them handling real fossils and not just talking about them, I could have had them doing reactions and making measurements instead of focusing so much on symbols and equations. In other words, I could have had them doing science instead of telling them about it.

I was also beginning to realize I had been making a lot of assumptions. I was assuming these kids would be able to learn the same way I did. I was also forgetting that I grew up in a house with garden in the back and helped out with planting, harvesting and at least sometimes eating what came out of the garden. I was beginning to realize that I had layers of assumptions and biases about what teaching looked like and that I would have overcome these to become a better teacher.

As a new teacher you wonder “Maybe it’s just my students”, but one year I had the opportunity to be a grader for the AP Chemistry exam. That year they locked 250 of us in a barn at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds for 7 hours a day in absolute silence. Over 8 days we graded 100,000 exams.

I was assigned what I thought was a simple essay question, but most students (mind you, theses are the best and brightest high school students in the nation) received either 0 or 1 out of 8 possible points. These were not blank pages, these were page after page explanations that were completely wrong. Not just a little wrong. The exact opposite of correct. We had a lot of what we called “hard earned zeros”.

Other people grading that question were outraged at what they were reading. They kept saying, “Well, what I tell my students is….”.  And I wanted to scream “Apparently, it doesn’t matter what you tell your students.” Because out of the 1500 or so answers I scored that week, 2 papers were completely correct.

But that’s just it. What you say in a classroom setting doesn’t matter. The research is quite clear on this. What matters is creating an environment and situations in which students can talk and discuss their own ideas and confront their own misconceptions. It turns out that a bunch of people had already reached the same conclusion and figured out what to do about it.  And I was lucky enough to wander into a workshop they were giving at an American Chemical Society conference in 2005.

I learned from that workshop and many others how to teach in a completely different way. I almost never give a lecture anymore. My students walk into the classroom, sit in groups of 3 or 4 and work through activities that I’ve written. Those activities ask them questions that force them to look at data, then analyze, question, and argue with each other about the data. Somewhere in the middle the activity will introduce a new concept or an equation, then the students will apply that new knowledge, and walk out the door with the same chemistry they would learn if I were lecturing. I walk around and answer questions, usually with more questions. But most of the time I hide in the corner and listen as they figure it out on their own.

Along the way they learn not only the chemistry but also how to work with other people, how to manage their time and, most important, how to begin to be independent thinkers.

Getting used to teaching this way has taken a lot of reorganizing what I think it means to be a teacher. You have to understand that we are all part of, and are products of, universities. And universities are steeped in tradition. The university grew out of monasteries in medieval Europe, and you’ll notice that we’re still wearing their clothes. But we’re not just wearing their clothes, we’re still using their teaching methods.

The use of lecture in universities pre-dates the printing press in Europe, but it is still held in highest esteem in academia. We honor people by asking them to give a talk. Since I got this award my students have been teasing me that it’s funny that I, of all people, have to get up today and give a lecture.

Chemical education researchers have shown that after 5 minutes of a lecture about 90% of the students in the room have become distracted. So, graduates, I want to make two points, and then I’m done.  First, if you have kids, please plant a garden with them, or at least a window box or even a little container in the window. Their science teachers will thank you later. Every spring, Jennifer and I involve the kids in planting our garden. My son’s favorite thing to grow just happens to be purple carrots.

My second point and final point is that even though most of you will not become teachers or professors, you will be leaders in your company or your hospital or wherever you find yourself. And at some point, you will realize that something you have assumed, something you took for granted about your field, is completely wrong. You will have a Carrot Incident. And when you do, you will be frustrated and confused, but then you will start to see everything in a new light and suddenly you will realize that all of the evidence has been there, staring you in the face. You will also look around and find there are others who have the same problem, and then you can get to work figuring out how to do things in a new and better way.

Graduates, I wish you the best of luck, and Godspeed. Thank you.

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