Wednesday, September 27, 2006

U.S. science education lags, study finds

U.S. science education lags, study finds
Science education in U.S. elementary and middle schools is overly broad and superficial, according to a government report issued on Thursday that also faults science curricula for assuming children are simplistic thinkers.

"All children have basic reasoning skills, personal knowledge of the natural world, and curiosity that teachers can build on to achieve proficiency in science," said the report from the National Research Council, one of the National Academies.

Part of the problem is that state and national learning standards for students in elementary and middle schools require children to memorize often-disconnected scientific facts, the report said.

Hoo boy. I feel a rant coming on. About what's wrong with U. S. science education.

I guess I could write a book on this, but I'll try to be briefer than that, since I don't have the time tonight and since I expect many people who read science blogs have given this much thought and have detailed opinions on this. (Many are probably, in fact, science teachers at some level.)

Basic premise: science education in the U. S. sucks, and indeed a large part of the educational system sucks. (Some earlier comments on this are here.)

Deficiences in U. S. science education are often noted in connection with the notorious failure of many in the U. S. public to either understand or accept the science of evolution. For instance, this post from Cosmic Variance discusses a study published recently in Science about how the U. S. was almost dead last in a comparative study with 32 European countries in the percentage of respondents surveyed who agreed with the assertion that “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.”

I have no problem with the teaching of facts, not even "often-disconnected facts". Facts make up the basic stuff of science. Kids need to learn all kinds of basic facts -- from important chemical elements, to classifications of animals, to standard parts of living cells. Definitions of key scientific terms also need to be learned. I realize that science teachers struggle even to get kids to learn such facts.

But of course, learning facts isn't enough. Learning how the facts and definitions are related in coherent general theories is also important. I'm not going to try to suggest how to improve the teaching of facts, definitions, and theories. That would take much too long, and I'm certainly no expert on teaching.

Rather than get into the tactics of teaching science, I want to just make some points about strategy.

First, teachers have to arouse curiosity in their students. Because curiosity is, in my opinion, what drives the whole scientific enterprise. Other things like practical applicability of scientific knowledge are useful byproducts, but certainly not primary motivators to students (and people in general) for learning and doing science. If a student isn't really curious to understand how an amazing thing such as a living cell (for example) works, the chances of learning much about it go way down.

Second, teachers have to educate students about some basic thinking skills -- what is sometimes called "critical thinking", including basic logic, "scientific method", and so forth. This is necessary in order for students to understand why some kinds of plausible theories are better, while others are just not even "scientific".

Third, teachers have to convey to students why science is important. This is a matter of philosophy (axiology, to be precise), because the importance of science has to be compared with that of various other endeavors that people undertake -- from raising a family to the "fine arts" to ... whatever. Doing this is, of course, a tall order, as it entails having some grounding in philosophical traditions of our culture (and of the cultures of others).

Thinking about this philosophical angle, I have to wonder whether there's not a basic problem in the intellectual culture of the U. S. that impedes the teaching of science. It seems quite likely to me that there is too much emphasis in U. S. traditions on "pragmatism" and the glorification of "what works" -- as opposed to other things that satisfy human aesthetic senses and curiosity. What I'm talking about here is part of what people such as (for instance) the American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

This kind of cultural tradition certainly has not made it impossible for U. S. scientists to have become extremely successful at discovering and creating basic (as well as applied) science over the past century. Instead, the effect of U. S. cultural tradition is manifested -- I would suggest -- in the lagging results of science education among the general public.

If there's any merit to this suggestion, the outlook for actually making much improvement in U. S. science teaching is not especially promising, at least on a time scale measured in units less than decades.

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Additional information:

On Not Becoming a Scientist - ScienceNOW article

Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8 - the actual NRC report

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