Star Talking

18 Takeaways From the Discussion Between Neil deGrasse Tyson & Carmen Fariña

I had the pleasure of hearing two well-known former New York students and current New York educators discuss the strengths and flaws of our modern educational system. Carmen Fariña, the current New York City Schools Chancellor, had a riveting conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the renowned astrophysicist and author, at the NYC Department of Education’s summer STEM Institute. While Dr. Tyson made it clear that many of the ideas he discussed were still ‘percolating in his thought stove’ there was no shortage of bold ideas being presented. Here are my biggest takeaways from that conversation. These are generally paraphrased quotes or a synthesis of what I understood from the discussion.

When I close my eyes, I see the planets as pirouetting dancers in a cosmic ballet, choreographed by the forces of gravity.

  1. Part of scientific inquiry is knowing the joy in being wrong. Through wrong answers we can whittle down to correct ones.
  2. When asked who (insinuating a teacher) inspired him as a child, Tyson was quick to point out that he was not highly regarded by his teachers. He was not a top student, but those tests didn’t take his motivation into account.
  3. Often the greatest thinkers are not the most well-behaved students. They are the ones who challenge the status quo. They are the ones who aren’t dedicated to a grade but to real learning.
  4. Ultimately he remarked about the dedication of his parents, but one of his greatest motivators was a place, the Hayden Planetarium. It was there where he saw his life’s purpose which is why he believes some of the best learning happens at cultural institutions like museums.
  5. The urge to learn doesn’t often begin in a classroom. It begins with an exciting experience at museums or seeing something in nature that moves you. Some of the best learning comes from non-traditional places like roller coasters or baseball games That’s why doesn’t only host scientists
  6. If you don’t have excitement, you can’t be a good teacher regardless of your content knowledge. If you don’t believe that, ask a student.
  7. Think of your favorite classes as a child. Was it great because of your final grade? The quality of of a class is based not on grades but enthusiasm which flows through the teacher.
  8. Carmen Fariña is committed to meeting the needs of ELL (English language learners) and special needs students, but she recognizes that the STEM project-based learning that best helps the most vulnerable students helps all students. And in the best classrooms you cannot tell those students apart.
  9. The future of learning should be individualized.
  10. Are you teaching your students to win the assessment foot race or teaching them to be lifelong learners?
  11. Students who earn straight “A”s in school do so not because of good teachers but in spite of bad teachers. This isn’t said to challenge a teacher’s role. Tyson is one. It’s about growth. The good teacher raises the lowest boats and further challenges those who are already soaring.
  12. When asked about what he felt was the role of STEM and project-based learning in education, Tyson responded saying that inspiration is the most important skill for an educator. It might take an amazing teacher to do that without buttons, petri dishes, and other tech tools, but without it those are just meaningless objects.
  13. Teachers shouldn’t be in the practice of checking boxes but blowing minds.

  14. When asked about organizations that promote STEM diversity like Girls Who Code or Black Girls Code, Tyson became reflective commenting on the roles of change makers like Jackie Robinson. Hopefully a day will come when organizations promoting a singular group are unnecessary and learning for all is normalized. Until that day though, these groups have a role in making the problem visible.
  15. When forced to discuss some of America’s current anti-science sentiment, Tyson mentioned the prevalence of modern flat-earth theorists. He said it was a prime example of the failures of the educational system. That isn’t to say a it’s a failure of individual teachers. They didn’t teach that. Rather it’s about the failure of understanding and teaching the nature of science. Scientific literacy is not just about memorizing facts but about understanding the process of querying nature. It’s about examination leading to information which becomes knowledge and ultimately can lead to wisdom.
  16. Neil turnedNeil refuses to speak to politicians about their scientific proclamations since they merely reflect the electorate. He’d rather tell people, “Don’t accept people telling you what’s true or false. Learn how to find out what is true.”
  17. Imagine a future with AP centers throughout the city. Then your achievement will be based on your ambition and not whether you arbitrarily got into ‘the right school’. Fariña promises that that AP courses are soon to be available in every high school in the city.
  18. If you want to show you’re a successful school, don’t accept high-achievers and keep them achieving. Take in all students and guide them to success.

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