• By Veronica Betancourt, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2007

Veronica BetancourtWith the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, a systematic movement has been sweeping the nation to improve how our increasingly diverse population of children are educated. Our collective goal should be to nurture the budding scientists and mathematicians of the 21st Century to explore, discover and expand our universe.

This is a much different concept than what traditionally has been seen in secondary classrooms. Reminiscing on personal math and science experiences may drum up scenarios of teachers with radiant cat-eye glasses attempting to maintain a room full of students through authoritative disciplinary measures. As scientific facts and figures were dragged out in one continuous sentence, students often wondered how all of this information was relevant to them. Even if there was an inkling of personal connection, the continuous lecture-style classes minimized time to process new information.

Listening to nonstop lecture was not confined to science alone. Walk down the hall to the math class that offered the same type of classroom environment – one where lower extremities lost all feeling as the time crept by and the tick-tick-ticking of the clock was the only audible sound. So, the golden question that must be asked is: What can educators actively do to change this unconstructive cycle of mundane, disconnected redundancy in math and science?

Creating the Learner-Centered Classroom

We can begin by focusing on the needs of the student and shifting the responsibility of learning from just the teacher, to active learning by the student, with facilitated guidance. Scientific exploration means engulfing students in a realm of uncertainty and exploration that may actually create uneasiness for many teachers. But diving into this unexplored region shifts science and math teaching as we know it.

A learner-centered environment is crucial to guiding students toward an interactive and constructivist approach to learning. This environment includes small group discussions, student-generated investigations, peer evaluations that reflect reasoning evidence, and personal interpretations (Stepanek, 2000).

We can no longer rely on the mediocrity of test-driven curricula where meeting the minimal requirements of high-stakes tests is cause for celebration or where scripted lessons and timelines dictate materials, lessons and assessments, with little room for creativity and valuing of students and teachers (Brown, 2006).

Creating an environment that is learner-centered is easier said than done. Students need to develop a thorough understanding of science and math at every angle, including what it is and what it is not, its current limitations and its limitless possibilities, and how it applies and contributes to cultures around the world. This shift is not effortless; it requires patience, acceptance and persistence.

What can be done to rejuvenate mathematical and scientific souls? Teachers can “facilitate activities unlike any they experienced themselves as learners” (Windschitl, 2006). Teachers can create and sustain an environment where students become active learners in a class filled with student excitement, engagement and inquiring minds that thirst for new knowledge through questioning, hypothesizing, discovering and challenging new concepts in math and science (Villarreal, 2006).

Neglecting the notion of community in the rush to cover curricula can eliminate a vital element of effective teaching (Williams, 2001). Following are some possibilities.

  • Demonstrate belief in every student’s intellect and capabilities. Modeling this belief in them will transform their attitudes toward math and science from that of passive recipients with no voice, to learning activists with vocal vitality.
  • Provide a safe haven for students, where the academic and social environments are non-threatening as well as academically challenging. This will allow for students to negotiate and construct their own ideas, theories, and meaning of topics and text.
  • Pace the class so that students can bring in their own life experiences and culture to enable them to process the information and solidify connections. It matters not how well-organized a mandated curriculum or scope and sequence is if students have no time to internalize it.
  • Allow for academic talk negotiations among students during small group activities and minimize the typical classroom language where teachers initiate the conversation, students respond, and teachers evaluate and move on (Williams, 2001).
  • Question students in ways that provoke and challenge their thinking and current academic beliefs through evaluation, analysis, justification, processing of information, inferencing and predicting. Steer away from an overabundance of factual information and move toward building new bridges between their current beliefs and scientific evidence in order to construct new knowledge.

Reflecting and Reasoning Actions

Breaking the bonds of boredom in science and math requires rethinking even the most basic assumptions and habits. In a recent discussion with a group of secondary science teachers, there was much debate over the effectiveness of classroom arrangement. The high school teachers felt a need to instill discipline, individualized responsibility and ownership of self; the middle school teachers convincingly conveyed their views on fostering student achievement through cooperative learning, collaborative problem solving and peer support.

The room arrangement at the high school was traditional: six rows of desks with each row consisting of five chairs, all facing the front of the room where the teacher typically stood for an extended lecture-style teach where students were expected to copy notes and then reinforce their learning through a pencil and paper task.

The high school teachers shared their views on why their rooms were arranged in this particular fashion:

  • To prepare for exit exams equated to foster responsibility,
  • To prepare for exit exams and to problem solve meant to promote individual thinking, and
  • To eliminate socializing and keep control of the class was their way of maintaining classroom control.

This scenario represents the type of traditional talk that Windschitl (2006) describes as a focus on student acquisition of scientific facts, concepts, principles and skills. While this is not a terrible thing, it also is not the most conducive environment to be placed in for 50 minutes a day, where exposure to abstract concepts and foreign academic terms may actually come across as vulgar if repeated out of context. This, in essence, is that same reminiscent classroom that you either experienced yourself or had friends who told you dramatic stories of the class. The National Research Council (1996) suggests that the characteristics of a classroom community include: respect for diversity of ideas, skills and experiences; responsibility of self and peer learning; and collaboration. Essentially, it emphasizes that “learning science is something students do, not something that is done to them” (NCR, 1996).

The middle school teachers had a very different outlook on the same question about the reasons for their room arrangements:

  • To pick each other’s brain meant to develop thinking abilities,
  • To build work ethics and learn to work with each other helped address real world needs while eliminating the “I don’t want to work with them,” attitude; and
  • To foster peer explanations when kids “just don’t get it.”

The middle school teachers shared a common initiative in which they were building on a sense of community learning by arranging the room into collective sets of fours. A classroom arrangement like this fosters the mini-roundtable discussions that are often necessary when trying to make sense of unfamiliar science “stuff.” Additionally, it recreates a feeling of comfort and safety for students who face a multitude of teachers, classmates, expectations and pressures that increase exponentially as they progress into each grade level.

Do not misconstrue a student-centered learning environment as a free-for-all where nothing is accomplished because discussions run amuck or where the teacher is rolled into a ball in the corner because he or she has lost control.

Rather, imagine a room filled with students who have learned to sit in small groups and still focus on the teacher for instructions, information or expectations; a room where the once penetrating ticking of the clock has been supplanted with the buzzing of children actively engaged in a math or science task; a room where questions fly out of the mouths of children because they have an inner desire to find the solution to some real-world problem that requires their expertise; and a room where you are no longer the central dispatch unit, but rather, the director of a highly orchestrated, well-disciplined group of active learners.

Imagine a room completely different from that of a previous era, where the models used to demonstrate concepts were rare gems that were too valuable to let inquiring minds actually touch and explore them. Imagine that room filled with academic conversation occurring among all students, regardless of cognitive, social, gender, ethnic or cultural differences as they engage in inquiry, determined to find a solution to the task at hand. You are not just breaking the old teaching bonds of boredom, you are actually freeing the scientists and mathematicians of the 21st Century to explore, discover and expand our universe.


Brown, K. “Re-Invigorating Math Curricula,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 2006).

National Research Council. National Science Education Standards (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996).

Stepanek, J. Mathematics and Science Classrooms: Building a Community of Learners. It’s Just Good Teaching (Portland, Ore.: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 2000).

Villarreal, A. “Strengthening Schools’ ‘Immune Systems’ to fight Mediocrity and Failure,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2006).

Williams, J.A. “Classroom Conversations: Opportunities to Learn for ESL Students in Mainstream Classrooms,” The Reading Teacher (May 2001) Vol.54, No 8.

Windschitl, M. “Sparking the Debate Over Science Reform Education,” The Education Digest (January 2006) pp. 20-31.

Veronica Betancourt, M.A., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at comment@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2007 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]