Getting Students to Want to Learn More
Dec 14, 2013

"Let's keep class going. We don't want class to end. Let's keep going until school's out!" shouts a group of students at Hsinchu Guang-Hua Junior High School begging their biology teacher not to end their class. What is it about this class that captivates them so?

The class generating all the excitement is Chien Chih-hsiang's biology class. Mr. Chien's class is always full of surprises, like demonstrating blood circulation using a pig's heart, or the digestive system with a pig's intestines. For this particular class he has his students exploring the wonders visible under a microscope.

"You can catch anything you want on the campus, as long as no life form ends up dead," exhorts Chien.

"I can see the cell walls!" "Really? That's amazing!" "The translucent cell walls are so cool!" These are some the things students say as they look through microscopes with their undivided attention at the living world of the campus. The students are reluctant to leave until Mr. Chien announces that class is indeed over.

Mr. Chien – known to students as "Teacher A-chien," is pleased to see students enjoying class. He also happily shares his creative ideas for lessons on his blog.

Over the course of nine years, his blog, "A-chien's Biology Notebook," had grown to over 2000 entries. Yet he was still feeling a bit lonely until three years ago, when with a few strokes of the keyboard, Bio Potluck – a place to connect with teachers' knowledge and passion – was born. And with it, Teacher A-chien's hollow feeling of loneliness was swept away.

Good Teachers No Longer Lonely

Looking back on Bio Potluck's beginnings, Teacher A-chien, who still looks like a young man after 13 years of teaching, says: "I wrote a blog because I wanted people to read it, respond, and interact, but most people just stick to reading and there is little opportunity for interaction. Later I jumped aboard a micro blogging platform called Plurk and started interacting with people with great results."

Still, the interaction was not authentic enough for Teacher A-chien, who likes to go out and observe things with his own two eyes. First he attended a conference at Feng Chia University, where he watched a group of university biology professors share and practice teaching methods. Subsequently, he came across an online professional group organized by Japanese teachers.

"Teachers from different schools get together regularly at a school and get out science toys they have come across or discuss the latest in teaching approaches. I got so inspired after reading over transcripts of their discussions. Actually, I was so envious that I wanted to apply this model in Taiwan," Teacher A-chien relates.

This led to a brief entry on Plurk in 2010 that simply said, "Let's have a biology teacher get-together like that. How about it?"

However, A-chien had not anticipated such an enthusiastic response before posting his message. It turns out that many other biology teachers shared that feeling of lonesome isolation, feeling lost at the margins, and were eager to find partners with similar interests to learn and grow together with.

Now the question was, what would they do at their gatherings? And who would come and speak? Teacher A-chien knew what he did not want, and that was for the meetings to be like government-run seminars. "All of those involve people just sitting there listening to them talk about policies and course curricula, and we never get to learn anything about what we really want to know," he laments.

Teacher A-chien picked up on a good concept from a group of Japanese designers. Everybody in the group speaks, and each person presents 20 slides for 20 seconds per slide. This way, they tell an entire story over the course of 400 seconds. "The good thing about this is that you get to hear a lot of things in three hours. I also try to get featured speakers, who get a bit more time," he relates.

The first meeting, held on Sept. 11, 2010 at Frog Café in Taipei, established the foundation for the group's gatherings. Drawing around 20 participants, it also featured keynote speakers A-chien invited to make presentations.

Attendees were reluctant to let the gathering end, and were eager to keep the ball rolling. To date Teacher A-chien has held seven such get-togethers, announcing them through his blog and Plurk. In order to keep the quality of exchange high, he caps the events at around 30 people, attracting a capacity crowd each time. One of the gatherings was booked solid within eight minutes of his announcement.

Enthusiasm Even a Typhoon Couldn't Dampen

"The Biology Potluck is a gathering with a high entrance threshold. Oftentimes our events are held in remote areas, so you have to figure out how to get there and pay your own way, and there are no speaking fees or credit for research hours. So it is a learning opportunity you have to put a lot into, which is also why you appreciate it that much more when you do," Teacher A-chien offers.

In spite of the demands on time and money, the gatherings attract teachers from all around Taiwan, with people taking the Taiwan High Speed Rail from Kaohsiung and Pingtung to Taipei, driving from Taipei to Changhua, or coming to Taoyuan from Chiayi and Tainan. Why do these teachers love Bio Potluck so much?

Wu Yue-ling, a biology teacher at Fuxing Junior High School in Ilan, described her experience in these positive terms: "For the first time I did not feel so alone in the educational realm. I felt like people understood what I was saying."

Huang Yun-ching, a teacher at Daguan Junior High School in New Taipei City, said, "One soul touches another. When we all get together to share and learn, it is multiple souls touching me. So when I got back to my school I was motivated to make some changes."

Sharing, dialogue, and two-way exchange are the keys to the Bio Potluck gatherings, at which Teacher A-chien plays the role of facilitator.

"I tie a lot of resources together. When I put my feelers out and find new ways of teaching, that means there are people that can learn from us and change," he states.

Teacher A-chien has brought nearly one-tenth of Taiwan's junior high biology teachers together through the Bio Potluck series, many of whom have started up professional teachers' groups of their own upon returning to their respective schools. And even history, chemistry, and physics teachers have done the same.

Liu Li-ying, still a student teacher, is moved with emotion, saying "This is the best of the best, where passion and inspiration meet." Not only does it ignite fires in your own mind, but in other people's hearts and minds as well.

"Many people feel that education is hopeless, since policy keeps changing from above. But the real key is the relationships between teachers and students in the classroom where the teaching and learning takes place. Our intention to keep making students better and teachers better can only make education better and better." Normally somewhat of a joker, A-chien's eyes are full of sincerity as he speaks these words.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman