Friday, October 29, 2010

On Science Education

I am not a science teacher by trade, but I have found myself teaching science more than any other subject area.  Perhaps this is in part a result of my upbringing - my mother is a science teacher - and perhaps a result of pure chance.  Regardless of why science has found me and I have found science, my background as a graduate of St. John's has followed close at hand, with the result that I think about science a little differently than many people do, a fact that has helped me to understand science myself, but has not always been to my advantage.

What do I mean by that?  Well, one of the most fundamental but unarticulated problems in science education is a failure among the important people in the process to agree on what science really is.  That's not to say they should agree, or that agreement is even possible, but rather to say that the lack of a clear definition of science has led to a hodge-podge of curricular methodologies and pedagogies that are non-complementary, and which do more to alienate and confuse students than to empower or interest them.

Scientists, ironically, are probably the most to blame for this situation.  There is great lamentation in scientific world about how poorly students do in science.  The solution, it seems to these people, is to make science more "real" for students.  That is, to align science classes closer to their own experiences as scientists.  The problem is, they perceive science to be, generally, a fairly static thing.  The average scientists definition of science (and I don't have research to back this up, just my own experiences) seems to be something like this: Science is a set of well-established theories and facts about the natural world arrived by employing a fixed methodology to places where our knowledge is lacking, in order to expand our understanding.

Now there's nothing particularly wrong with this, except it's extremely boring and a waste of student's time.  The idea that science is, at its heart, about theories and facts, and an easy-to-use scientific method, to me trivializes the real efforts of science.  No, science is not just collecting data and analyzing ad infinitum, the real power of science to affect people's lives lies in something more fundamental to it.  To me, science is about a process that is dynamic and contextual.  Scientific knowledge is conditional and flexible.  Being a scientist is about creativity, critical thinking, and learning.

How much more interesting is this perspective to students?  Frankly, they probably don't care how we define science.  More important is the result of this perspective on curriculum, on pedagogy, on what happens in the classroom.  In the former, the scientist's classroom, students sit and listen to lectures, they engage in laboratory sessions with known answers, they are asked multiple choice questions, they fill in worksheets with word banks.  Basically, they're miserable.  Even a field trip, in the traditional science classroom, generally leads to little more than the dissemination of information, the collection of useless and meaningless data, or the acquisition of some boring science "skill" that is irrelevant to a student's life.

On the other hand, the latter classroom is organized around the concept of science as inquiry, meaning students are encouraged to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how science really works.  That is, by giving students enough structure to keep them on task, but enough freedom to let them develop their own observations, questions, hypotheses, and even experiments and conclusions, students get to learn the real pitfalls of scientific work.  What's more, they still learn the content.  Perhaps not as much as if they were just lectured at for an hour straight, but what they do learn, they learn better.  More importantly, memorizing facts, equations, theories, and methods is a waste of time in our modern world; better to learn how to synthesize, how to analyze, and how to ask good questions.

To illustrate: How many of you readers out there remember anything about how to calculate the effect of friction on a moving body from your high school physics class?  For those of you who don't remember, how long do you think it would take you to look it up?  I'll give you hint, type in "friction" in Google, and click on the Wikipedia page.  There's your equation, plus explanations of how to use it.  Good thing your science teachers wanted you to memorize all that.

Beyond acquiring facts, which is manifestly a waste of time, the other biggest problem with traditional science education is that it is built around collecting data.  I certainly acknowledge that good data collection is important, but I will also say that data in itself is worthless unless there's some kind of analysis on the other end, not to mention some kind of purpose for collecting it on the front end.  It's easy, in pre-made experiments, to point to the supposed "purpose" of certain data, but the whole point of good science education, to my mind, is to get students to make those decisions themselves.  What data should they collect?  Why?  How will they use it?

Now an experienced educator will respond by saying that they need to see that process in action before they can do it themselves, and so we should provide them with situations where they are not designing experiments, where they are working with fake data, where they are performing analysis without doing the legwork to get there.  That's fair, but only if we call attention to why we're doing that.  Many teachers emphasize the importance of data analysis for its own sake, not as a part of a broader scientific process, and certainly not as a pathway towards meaning.

Ah, there's an interesting word.  I suppose, if I had to summarize the two approaches to science education I've discussed here, I would say that the first is about information and the second is about meaning.  The problem is, looking for meaning in science is not encouraged by scientists for reasons that are difficult to fathom (though the Freudian in me wants to suggest mean things about scientists being afraid of meaning because of the spiritual, emotional, and social emptiness of their own pursuit of information).  The cries that students do poorly in science, to me, reverses the reality: science does poorly for students.  Make science real, make it authentic, make is about ideas and not facts, make it about processes and not methods, make it about discussions and not dictation, and then you'll see students do well.

Science is a liberal art, in the root sense of the term.  The study of science can help free you from other people's conclusions, from propaganda, from drug commercials that say "studies show..."  Science, however, can also bind you and blind you.  Unfortunately, the classroom (and, more importantly, the legislator's table and the teacher training program) is, in this discipline as in many others, a battlefield.  A battlefield where the "fluffy," holistic, more authentic side is losing, not because it is actually worse, but because it's harder to do well, harder to assess, harder to standardize.  Those are fair criticisms, but it might be that part of what's wrong in education, broadly, is that we shy away from what's better but harder too often.


  1. I mirror your idealism, but caution what seems to be blame of scientists and science teachers (who also consider themselves active scientists if they approach education as I think they should).

    When teaching, it is thrilling to not only have the opportunity to work with a student to deeply understand a concept (such as scientific inquiry and creative analysis), but to be able to help the student achieve that understanding. However, such an opportunity is dependent upon the capabilities of a student, the flexibility of lessons/curriculum, class size, and most of all; the demands of the administration and community. Science teachers are expected to take 30 students at a time, some with learning disabilities, and make them all achieve required scores on standardized tests while also meeting state curriculum guidelines (which can include things like "students will understand how to calculate the effect of friction on a moving body").

    To be able to implement the ideal model of science education, our cultural and administrative approaches to science would have to change. I'm extremely hesitant to blame our flawed cultural approach on the way that career scientists define science (there is a lag, sometimes of many decades, of the understandings of scientists reaching public understanding). I don't know how to do this, but I'm confident in who I don't want to blame.

  2. Thanks for the comment Luc!

    You make an excellent point, and I didn't mean to sound as teacher-bashy as I have. Of course there are systematic and cultural factors at work here that are extremely problematic. Indeed, I feel like criticisms of "teachers" here could probably be read as "teacher-training programs" and "standards teachers are forced to teach to." Given that my own experience is in non-profits and independent schools, I have worked with teachers and scientists who are not stuck with the same systematic issues, but who remain less-than-excited about science as inquiry, and that's more the target of criticism here. As you say, even that is probably the result of a "flawed cultural approach," but I can only write that blog post so many times. :)

  3. Haha, yes, "flawed cultural approach" can so reasonably be a fundamental piece of an issue that I would not be surprised to find it in many of your posts. This is the first I've read since I heard about your blog, and I'll try to catch up with others.

    I see what you mean about experience with non-profits and independent schools. With my lack of experience in those areas, I suspect it can be difficult to tell the difference between disillusionment and misapplied intentions, but both are certainly frustrating. Thanks for receiving my input from the public school perspective so well. As science is a passion of mine, though not my field, I will be interested in finding out from my peers if their teacher-training science teachers would say, "Try as much as possible to infuse opportunities for genuine inquiry and creativity in your lessons," or if they limited themselves to, "These are the state standards, this is what the state tests, and this is how to teach it in a way that will reach all of your students."

    I must apologize that I'm posting under a pseudonym, but I've been blogging about student-teaching and trying to do so anonymously. I've been friends with James and DC (and you, of course, though we didn't get together too regularly) since Middle School, and was a student of your mother's.