Focusing on Simple Facts Misses the Wonder of Exploration
Most children start out curious, but later science education sometimes turns into a list of boring facts.
By Lee Dye
In a now classic video of graduating ceremonies at Harvard University in 1989, 25 graduates and faculty were asked a simple question: "Why is it warm in the summer and cold in the winter?"
Astonishingly, 22 got it wrong. Most said it is warmer in the summer because Earth is closer to the sun. The correct answer is the tilt of Earth causes more sunlight to fall on the Northern Hemisphere in the summer than in the winter. The distance from the sun varies little.
Costs of Scientific Illiteracy
Educators often cite that video as evidence of the abysmal condition of science education in this country, and more recent research is even more troubling. High school seniors in the United States were among the lowest scoring students from 41 nations that participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study a few years ago. There has been some recent improvement, but it is very slight.
This is not simply a problem of kids not understanding basic science. Science literacy among young people who will be entering the work force in the immediate future is so poor that it threatens the economic prosperity of the country.
Science education also helps students avoid the pitfalls of pseudo-science. It constantly amazes me how many people pick the most unscientific explanations for events that can clearly be explained by good science.
Presidential science adviser Neal Lane has campaigned across the United States for better science education, warning repeatedly that science and technology are the drivers of the U.S. economy. If we fail to improve science education, the country simply will not have the skilled work force, or the scientific breakthroughs, it will need in the years ahead, according to Lane.
"Without a science-literate population, the outlook for a better world is not promising," says former astronaut George D. Nelson, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061, which is trying to address the issue.
That is not to say all kids need to grow up to be scientists. We also need artists, politicians, ministers, teachers, and all the other disciplines that make our culture work.
But science plays a critical role because what we learn today largely determines what we will become tomorrow. And the workplace of tomorrow will be far more complex than it is today, demanding workers with technical skills who can compete in the rapidly changing global economy.
The Reasons Why
It seems a bit ironic that a nation that has led the way so much of the time toward higher levels of scientific and technological achievement should find itself threatened by science illiteracy. How did it come to this?
A growing number of educators are reaching similar conclusions.
We have tried to teach science with the "once over lightly" technique. Give the kids a smattering of science, but don't ask them to dig too deeply, and heavens forbid that they should become so enamored with any one field that they turn into nerds.
A top educator once told me that all kids begin their education as scientists - curious, investigative, eager to learn. And then somewhere along the way, we beat it out of them.
We do that partly by boring them to death. Instead of learning how to do science, our kids learn about science, trying to memorize the words and the theorems and the concepts instead of understanding the science behind them.
And we try to paint with such a broad brush, making sure that everybody knows a little science, that few students learn very much.
That's the heart of the problem, according to education professor Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley. Linn argues that the attempt to cover all aspects of science spreads the material so thin that little of it is retained.
More on Less
It would be far better, she argues, to give the students a chance to delve more deeply into a few areas than to try to learn a little about a lot. Only then, she says, will students retain enough information to help them build a solid foundation in science.
It would also allow more students to get involved deeply enough to realize just how much fun science can be.
Although we tend to blame our high schools and colleges for the problem, it actually begins much earlier.
Donald P. Hayes, professor of sociology emeritus at Cornell University, has found that "dumb-downed" textbooks used in elementary grades are so badly done that students are poorly equipped to understand the more difficult texts they receive in high school.
"There is a gulf between the two bodies of work in the schools, and the gulf isn't getting smaller," Hayes says.
"Today's science textbooks and methods of instruction, far from helping, often actually impede progress toward science literacy," adds Project 2061's Nelson. "They emphasize the learning of answers more than the exploration of questions, memory at the expense of critical thought, bits and pieces of information instead of understandings in context, recitation over argument, reading rather than doing."
No Satisfactory Middle School Texts
Indeed, a recent study by the organization found that "most textbooks cover too many topics and don't develop any of them well."
Not one of the widely used science textbooks for middle schools was rated satisfactory by Project 2061, which is sponsored partly by the National Science Foundation. (The project was started in 1985, the year Halley's Comet came into view, and is designed to address the scientific and technological changes in the years before the comet returns again, 2061.)
Other studies have cited a lack of adequate funding to supply the tools students need to perform experiments, inadequate attention by the scientific community itself, and poor teaching. I find the latter a bit surprising because a number of K-12 science teachers I have met over the years were both inspired and inspiring. But apparently in many cases teachers are assigned to science classes arbitrarily, whether they are qualified or not.
Perhaps there is a more basic reason for the condition we face today. The nation as a whole has simply not come to grips with the scale of the problem.
We are a smug people, with many achievements to our credit. That says volumes about the past. But what about the future? --------------------- Questions to Ask of Schools
The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061 suggests 10 questions for parents to ask their local school about science education:
1) Is science literacy for all high-school graduates a major goal of the K-12 program?
2) What provisions are made in the curriculum for students of different interests, talents, and ambitions?
3) What is the proportion of females and minorities enrolled in advanced classes?
4) Do teachers at different grade levels work together to clarify what ideas will be learned when?
5) Are students learning connected concepts rather than simply memorizing isolated facts, formulas, and technical terms?
6) Is the learning active?
7) Do teachers welcome curiosity, reward creativity, and encourage healthy questioning?
8) Are teachers given encouragement, time, and resources?
9) Do teachers look for and deal with students' misconceptions about how the world works?
10) What guidelines do teachers and school administrators use to improve student learning? -------------------- Lee Dye's column appears Wednesdays on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska. *******************************************************
Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618) 453-4244 Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office) (618) 457-8903 (home) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org