Monday, June 02, 2008

Why I'm Homeschooling--Misguided Science

This link for an Op-Ed on science in the New York Times was sent out in one of the on-line Yahoo homeschooling support groups (Well Trained Mind Secular). The op-ed derides the boring science education of today that doesn't seem relevant to the learner and that doesn't introduce the mind-boggling concepts that scientists at the forefront of their field are trying to puzzle out.

...our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.

...’s easy to see how science (and the technology to which it leads) is woven into the fabric of our day-to-day activities.


These are the standard — and enormously important — reasons many would give in explaining why science matters.


Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.


It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.


Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension.


As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it’s a profound loss.


But most of these studies (and their suggestions) avoid an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.

In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”


At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, it’s a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities — solving this equation, balancing that reaction, grasping the discrete parts of the cell — the verticality of science is unassailable.


Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.

It’s the birthright of every child, it’s a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world, as the soldier in Iraq did, and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us.

I agree with a number of points: science today in today's pedagogy is boring, disjointed, and irrelevant, an understanding of scientific principles is required to understand some issues that affect all people, the understanding that reality is predictable, reliable, and non-mystic, and that understanding science can lead to hopeful, inspired, and inventive adults. That's a lot to agree on!

I would never, never, ever put science in the same category as music, art, or literature. Those categories are niceties, not necessities, like science (with a caveat for literature, because literature can have a great benefit in allowing one to experience different character traits and how they might play out with consequences, etc). Science is absolutely necessary to understand the world today--how we discovered that the world is orderly. One need not ever actually be exposed to art and music in school to live a very purposeful life. Art and music are nice, but not nearly as fundamental as science. Then there is that weird formulation of science as a birthright. Of course that would imply that we'll be jailing and suing all of those schools that violated our children's right by not teaching them science.

I posit that the author has missed the true pedagogy of science today. The textbooks today present disjointed snippets of information in a magazine format. All scientific knowledge is presented as a disjointed jumble of extraneous facts not to be questioned. Children then learn that they cannot question because even many of the teachers can't answer 'how do we know that?' or 'why did they think that instead of this?' The author believes that 'verticality' is still used in schools. Some may, but from my experience, it is more 'any random topic a month.' And even a traditional 'verticality' is devoid of explanations of how we know this and is thus presented as (usually boring) facts to be memorized.

In another area of agreement, I too feel that student motivation is lacking. I don't think one needs to rely on interesting but advanced abstractions to pique a student's interest. How about what studying science would mean for the child today? It means that humans CAN understand the world. It means that they themselves can discover scientific principles. As my daughter puts it when she discusses why she likes history, "it helps me understand how we got to where we are today." Perhaps if educators framed motivation in terms of how it is of actual use to the child and less like a video game, we would see more interest. More interest cannot just come from that change alone. (For wonderfully in-depth and lengthy articles on motivation, please see Pedagogically Correct by Lisa VanDamme.)

When science is presented in a historical frame work, the drama that the author thinks is lacking is brought to full force. How did the first scientist break with tradition? How did the world change after a major scientific breakthrough? What happened when science clashed with religion? What were some of the more subtle discoveries that eventually paved the way for Newton to postulate a law that subsumed the whole universe? That's drama, and interest, and hope, and inspiration (after all, we once knew almost nothing of the workings of the world and now we can emulate the inner-workings of stars). It's also a fabulous example of how new knowledge is attained so that the students understand how thinking skills are used.

To understand how each new bit of knowledge is gained, and to see the evidence that supports it, of course science needs to be presented so that the student is not introduced to a new, higher-level concept without understanding the previous one. If he or she doesn't understand the base of the next leap, they will be without a foundation for that leap. I firmly believe that children do need to understand each underlying concept in order to have real knowledge.

There is a legitimate worry that presenting all of the scientific history (as though schools were anywhere near doing something like that) might mean that students run out of time to get to the concerns of modern physicists. I do think that science should be taught methodically as early as possible. There is also a limit to how much material needs to be introduced (hint--stick with the discoveries that people actually had to rely on). Another point is that colleges are the schools that ought to be teaching about quantum theory and advanced cosmology.

The author points out (yet another) severe problem with education today. Science, like math, has been the victim of bad pedagogy and the result is students who don't identify with science, who are scared of it, and who are not interested in pursuing any careers in it. The author identifies the issue as not introducing the new big ideas soon enough. I identify the issue as not introducing the first big ideas properly.


Mike N said...

Excellent post Kim. It's true that there is no hierarchy in subject curriculum today and that today's teachers employ rote as their main teaching tool. This message needs to get out more. Keep up the great work.

softwareNerd said...

Great post. Reading it, the thought I had was this: I wonder if an heirarchically-appropriate approach can be laid out for science, and packaged in a way analogous to the way "Hooked-On-Phonics" packaged the phonics approach, and made it popular and respectable.

Kim said...

SoftwareNerd, great point. Perhaps it even deserves its own post.

There are so many 'pop' science things going on. They are all making money and trying to interest kids in science. The biggest problem with them is taking this approach that the author of the article advocates.

They make goo--which is a colloid that has interesting behavior but understanding why it behaves the way it does is a long process. So they'll do diet coke fountains (anyone remember nucleation?). They're all packaged under the heading of 'making science fun.'

Sure, those things are cool to watch and play with--but you know what? None of those kids understands why it works (they can memorize the explanation). They know it too. That's the kicker. You can't fool kids. They know that those things are advanced and that they wouldn't have been able to do any of it without that science-person leading them by the nose.

Mike, I do hope to do a lot of education posting as I'm in the middle of it myself and think that there are others who are trying to figure it out as well.