Metacognition and the Challenges of Teaching Geosciences in an Era of Fundamental Change

by Thomas Brown, Department of Physical Sciences, Austin Community College

I am relatively new to geoscience classroom teaching, having spent much of my career in the technical and consulting world. I am in the process of reconfiguring my presentation strategies from conducting client training and technical seminars to teaching at the undergraduate level. Ideally, I do not see myself as the dispenser of geologic facts and figures but rather as a catalyst for each person to develop their own worldview—their own paradigm on how they see reality.

In the community college environment, very few students are likely to major in the geosciences, so it is my philosophy to present geosciences as "science and the citizen" in a manner that addresses general interest while providing a strong foundation for those who might elect to major in the geosciences or associated fields. As far as the application of metacognitive practices is concerned, I see my role as assisting students in the development of their own worldview, using and developing their own intellectual "tool kits" for personal knowledge and success whatever the outcome of their education.

I find the classroom to be challenging, especially given the various degrees of academic preparation among the students, and their diverse educational backgrounds. Many of my students do not have a strong background in the basics of scientific methodology, chemistry, geography, mathematics or evolutionary theory; or even a well-developed intuitive sense of these subjects. There is a special need for the training of critical thinking. The scientific method is especially well suited for this purpose.

When I extend what I experience in my own classroom to the world at large, implications arise to the challenges we face teaching any technical and scientific subject. There can be no doubt that large-scale structural changes are coming forward in the world involving new systems of global finance, nonhydrocarbon-based energy generation, new technologies, population pressures, geopolitical instabilities and global climate change all intersecting at once. My concern is not just imparting knowledge about the geosciences to my students, but helping them develop their individual worldviews and metacognitive abilities to fathom the nature of these subjects. To be an engaged citizen these days, one must be able to assimilate and parse an enormous amount of information (much of it of suspect quality), while remaining intellectually, emotionally and spiritually balanced in an increasingly challenging politico-economic environment; and yet make educated, even enlightened, decisions on the basis of reason and logic.

Teaching scientific methodology is critical, as we appear to be in a revolution of thought and belief impacting our perceptions of economic, scientific, geopolitical and political affairs. An emerging paradigm derived from the current structure will ideally rest on the shoulders of classical science, involving research, critical thinking and creativity, as these approaches have proven to be of inestimable value. While it seems that scientific methodology will be preserved going forward, there may no guarantee of such, unless we impart it to the next generation.

My goal as a teacher is to consider new ways to present material, engage my students within the context of geology or environmental science and additionally, help them improve upon their own intellectual processes. I can show them the water and encourage their thirst, but it is ultimately their responsibility and desire to go and drink.