Sep 05 2008

How To Improve Science Education

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The stated “mission” of the loosely defined “skeptical movement” is to promote science and reason. At the core of this mission is the promotion of life-long quality science education. The many blogs, podcasts, magazines, lectures, and books primarily serve this purpose – to popularize science and help teach scientific philosophy, methodology, and facts to the public.

But what about formal public science education? There appears to be general agreement among skeptics that the quality of science education is generally poor, and yet is critical to our goals. But what have we done about it? Too little, I think.

We have contributed to the defense of science education from coordinated ideological attack, such as from the various guises of evolution denial. I think we have helped to teach and give some tools to individual science teachers. I have lectured to science teachers about scientific skepticism and the nature of science.

In terms of the public science education infrastructure, however, we have done little more than fill the role of outside critics. We have criticized the textbook industry for generally abysmal quality and subverting facts to ideological agendas. We have examined the various state science standards (some are good, some are bad). And we have been sharply critical of the lack of critical thinking within science education.

We are largely talking to ourselves, however, and are not part of any meaningful conversation with those responsible for the quality of science education. I see the reasons for this as two-fold: the education infrastructure is simply not interested in our kibitzing, and skeptics generally don’t know what do to, other than complain.

I have heard exhortations for skeptics to get involved with local school boards, and even to work their way up in the education hierarchy. This is a good idea, but even still would have limited potential to fix science education. We need a systematic overhaul.

Here are my suggestions to improve science education.

Teach how we know what we know.

Science is a process, not a list of accepted facts. However, it is generally taught as a body of knowledge with historical references to people and maybe classic experiments that established this knowledge. Rather, science should be taught as the messy process it is. Emphasis should be placed on methodology, what constitutes a proper scientific hypothesis, and how the scientific process unfolds over time.

This will necessary include discussions of things that are currently unknown, or very controversial. If students were made to debate whether or not the dinosaurs were wiped out as a result of a single collision, or died slowly over time as a consequence of multiple factors – they would learn the relevant facts and process much better than simple memorization.

Include example from popular culture and current controversies

This is where I think the skeptical community has the most to offer. We are experts at using popular myths and misconceptions to teach scientific methodology. Science curricula should not shy away from such questions as whether or not bigfoot is likely to exist. Questions that grab the imagination and already exist in popular culture are great fodder for discussion. The goal should be to show students how to formulate scientific arguments. How to assess the quality of evidence. What are the minimum criteria for a scientific hypothesis? What are the roles played by plausibility and logic in forming scientific opinions?

Teach how to access scientific information

Higher level courses should include lessons on how to find reliable scientific information, and then assess that information to form an opinion or answer a question. The internet now provides an excellent and easy resource for such lessons, but books, magazine, and encyclopedias should also be utilized.

Such lessons could include teaching how to properly reference your sources, and the difference between a primary source and a secondary source.

Hands on

Humans learn better when they are actively involved then when just passively receiving information. Getting students to actually perform experiments is therefore an obvious idea. Recently Adam Savage from the Mythbusters made this point in an article he wrote for Popular Mechanics on how to fix science education.

However, I think we need to go beyond merely getting the student’s hands dirty. This concept has already been incorporated into science education, but the execution has failed. Students are often made to repeat experiments with a known outcome – so they are just going through the motions. Rather, I would have students design experiments to test a question, and then carry out those experiments. They can also be fed some pre-fab experiments, but should not be told what results to expect. Students need to learn that experiment and observation are tools for scientifically answering questions.

Students could also be tasked to run experiments to test certain unknowns, and the results compared among the class. This would demonstrate the variability of research outcomes and why replication is so important.

In other words – students should not just get their hands dirty, they need to get their minds dirty as well.

Demonstrations also play an important role. Here the students are more passive observers. Rather than doing an experiment they can be shown a demonstration of whatever scientific principle they are being taught. Such demonstrations are always cool and engaging.

Critical Thinking

And of course, critical thinking skills should be woven into every part of the science curriculum. Science is, first and foremost, a way of thinking about the work and figuring out how it works. The primary tool of science is the mind – and while curiosity may come naturally to humans, scientific thinking is a discipline that requires teaching and practice.

Conclusion

I am not saying that the features of good science education I outlined above are not already occurring in some science classrooms. I have met and heard from many science teachers who have told me how they incorporate one or more of these methods into their classroom. The problem is that these teachers generally are doing a good job despite the system, not because of it.

The biggest problem I see with the system is that science textbooks are generally terrible. The textbook industry appears flawed beyond hope – trapped in a quagmire of ideologies and politics, and suffering from simple poor quality.

It seems to me that the single best thing we can do to improve science education is to start from scratch and create a K-12 science curriculum that incorporates all the ideals I outlined above. Wouldn’t it be great to have science textbooks written by actual scientists – those with a special talent and inclination for teaching science? Imagine if graduating high school seniors had 13 years of a coordinated science program that taught them the methods of science, critical thinking, how we know what we know, the nature of experimentation, and the key findings of the major scientific disciplines – and in addition gave them a love and appreciation for the power and beauty of science, and prepared them either for careers in science or at least the ability to continue life-long learning about science.

This is why I have proposed to some of my skeptical colleagues that we focus our efforts on just such a project. The obvious way to do this would be by creating a free online Wiki-style series of science textbooks. This way the efforts of many authors can easily be coordinated. Supervision and editing would still be required for quality control and cohesiveness – but content would flow from many scientists and writers.

Such a project would also be highly democratic – it would provide the best quality science textbooks to even the poorest school districts.

This is a project I want to make happen. Advice and help is welcome, and I will keep readers updated on how it progresses. Right now it is just an idea, but I have found that the combination of skeptical activists and the internet is sufficient to make such ideas become a reality.

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80 responses so far

80 Responses to “How To Improve Science Education”

  1. Cronanon 05 Sep 2008 at 8:13 am

    A wiki of science text-books is a simply magnificent idea.

  2. w_nightshadeon 05 Sep 2008 at 8:32 am

    Dr. Novella,

    I sincerely hope that someday history recognises the great achievement that you propose in this post. I want it to happen, I want it to succeed, and I want people to recognise the efforts of skeptics like yourself who made it possible. I want to tell my Grandchildren (Yes, I was listening to Dr. Novella on the SGU Podcast when I was younger..what? A podcast… yes, you listen to it… yes, with your ears…”

  3. Joeon 05 Sep 2008 at 8:36 am

    Yes, it is an excellent idea.

    Massimo Pigliucci (Biology, Stony Brook U., NY) has suggested that teaching science from a historical perspective is the way to go. Perhaps you already know “evolution deniers” is his term for creationists.

  4. Nitpickingon 05 Sep 2008 at 8:43 am

    Phil Plaitt has stated that this is one of his goals as President of JREF.

  5. Steven Novellaon 05 Sep 2008 at 9:04 am

    Yeah – I was the one who proposed this idea to Phil. I just talked to him about it last night. He is on-board, although it is unclear what precise role the JREF will play. Again – just in the idea stage.

  6. JustinWilsonon 05 Sep 2008 at 9:45 am

    I think the project mentioned is a wonderful idea. I think most textbooks should come in the form of an online encyclopedia. I don’t think textbooks are necessary in the classroom. They become outdated by the time they get shipped and they become expensive for school systems who are already on a tight budget.

  7. Radoslav Harmanon 05 Sep 2008 at 10:35 am

    Of course, the online textbooks project is a very good idea; it could be very useful worldwide (I am from Slovakia). Nevertheless, I’m afraid that it is very difficult to coordinate the effort of many people writing an online textbook; certainly much more difficult than writing an online encyclopedia, such as Wikipedia. A textbook requires much more that amassing facts. For instance, any textbook must have a clear large-scale structure, strict selection of only the most important facts, unified notation etc. That is the reason why all textbooks are usually written by one or only a few authors.

  8. tayproon 05 Sep 2008 at 11:30 am

    There really are very few people out there who understand how science works. I think the fact most of us learned science by memorizing terms and equations is very unfortunate.

    I really think there should be less emphasis on the mathematical component of science in middle and high school classes. The everyday person doesn’t ever use the speed of light equation or count outer shell electrons, and that person would benefit much more from understanding how to make decisions based on a body of evidence instead of what he sees on a commercial for a miracle weight loss pill.

    However, we should also be preparing children at these ages to become scientists (because obviously, some of them will), and I think it is pretty important to understand the mathematical basis of scientific concepts as you learn them. So… what do we do? I think this is a big issue. I don’t see a simple fix, and I haven’t really seen it addressed.

    I DO believe the best improvement to science education would be to start from scratch, but I don’t know likely (unfortunately) that is to happen in the near future.

    I have a lot more hope than I used to, though. Things like this, actually laying out a plan and putting it out there, do so much more than just finger-pointing and blaming someone else.

  9. rc_mooreon 05 Sep 2008 at 11:55 am

    I am an engineer and scientist, but have also spent over 500 hours in the last 2 years in my local public schools assisting science teachers. Here are my personal observations, for what it is worth:

    There is a small percentage of students who are excelling in science (far beyond my generation) They succeed in spite of bad textbooks, untrained teachers, and inadequate funding.

    Most of the students are illiterate by any modern measure. For them, science textbooks are irrelevant.

    Most science teachers have no science background, and know little more than what they teach. They give out as much misinformation as information. They spend most of their time in classroom management anyway — of a 50 minute period, maybe 10 minutes is spent on science education. Science teachers exist in a box without outside quality references. Most truly believe they are doing a good job, and dismiss standardized test scores showing they are ineffective.

    It is not possible to do scientific debate, critical thinking, and experiments in the modern classroom as a norm. There is no time, especially if one is constantly preparing for standardized tests. If we drop the standardized testing, then we lose the one semi-scientific thing we are doing to improve science education. And in many classrooms, such freedom would create total chaos.

    While those of us in science realize that it is extremely important to future generations, the mass media only deliverers psuedo-science to our young people. This “double-lie” resonates with their most basic instincts, like fast-food and popular music. You can’t teach intellectual sophistication in this environment.

    Dr. Novella’s ideas are of course excellent for that small percentage of students who excel in school. It is unfortunate that many of the best students cannot take advantage of such techniques, as most of the classroom curriculum is aimed at raising the standardized test scores.

  10. Traveleron 05 Sep 2008 at 12:40 pm

    Maybe in addition to wiki text books we also need wiki standardized tests and wiki teacher training to go with them.

  11. themightylearton 05 Sep 2008 at 1:18 pm

    It’s a great idea, however the main issue is quality control I think. Wikipedia is great, however by its very nature the information contained there has a big chance of being wrong.

    So the main question is how do you authenticate users so that only experts in a given topic can edit that topic. You wouldn’t want just about anybody to be able to make edits, so it is important to figure out a way to authenticate real scientist only as users with edit privileges, and only in their respective areas of expertise.

    Does it make sense to have a few experts in charge of reviewing and approving changes and additions BEFORE they hit the site? For example, on the astronomy topic (I know there’s probably many more specific topics than simply astronomy but bear with my for the arguments sake) you would have a Phil Plait or Pamela Gay in charge of reviewing and approving edits from other authenticated users.

    Furthermore, if this is meant to be a “online textbook” then there ought to be a way to organise the info under one topic into different levels for the different grades in the typical HS. Kinda like an Astronomy 101, 102, 103 etc. It would be good to be able to go to any specific subtopic and get all the information on that subtopic regardless of grade (such as anything there is to know about the Moon) but also be able to pull up Astronomy suitable for say the 6th grade and such. The use of some sort of Tags should accommodate this.

    This last thing I think is very very important especially to regular (read non-experts) who would like to research a specific topic, such as for example Rubella or the MMR Vaccine.

    There are so many features that could be incorporated in the website that would be welcome, such as links to related studies for the people that really want to dig into the actual science. Or how cool would it be to have a “Experiments you can perform” related to the topic, for the people who want to get down and dirty. Or how about a YouTube section with videos directly related to the topic? I am sure people could come up with better suggestions.

    If such thing came to fruition and it is set up in a way that is intuitive and makes it easy to get the information it would undoubtedly be AWESOME.

  12. Roy Nileson 05 Sep 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Exercises in the nature of a scientific hypothesis and in developing the kind of curiosity needed to inspire such formations would make the crucial difference in stimulating a student’s interest in becoming a scientist as opposed to becoming a scientific technician.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  13. Fred Cunninghamon 05 Sep 2008 at 3:21 pm

    You should read Richard Feynman’s account of his experience on a school board when textbooks had to be selected. He actually tried to read them, which did not go over with the other board members. As I recall they wanted to select on the best under the table deal for themselves.

  14. podblackon 05 Sep 2008 at 3:28 pm

    A great pity you weren’t on the panel with Dr Plait, Dr Karen Stollznow, Lori Lipman Brown and myself… you might have had some comments for the panel inspired by the late Jeff Medkeff (Blue Collar Scientist) – on Science Education (http://podblack.com/?p=811).

    Issues In Education: http://www.skeptrack.org/event-SKP015.html

    Did you attend that panel, Dr Novella? It’ll be on the Skepticality podcast, I’m certain. There were some very interesting, practical concerns that were touched upon, which have hindered the progress you seek. Lori Lipman Brown made a few comments about the ‘ease’ of strategies in the face of opposition. Having contributed to a program that got skepticism as a mandatory part of a high school curriculum myself, I can tell you it does take time and more effort than one realises…

    One of the flyers that was available at Dragon*Con was for the newly-formed group that began for teachers. It is due to the efforts of former Science teacher turned Science Communicator (his TAM6 interviews will turn up on Radio National in Australia this month and he currently works for the government dept CSIRO), Michael McRae:

    http://groups.google.com/group/critical-teaching

    All teachers (and supporters of teachers) welcome to join and get more panels, discussion and projects for science teaching and skepticism profiled!

  15. Steve Pageon 05 Sep 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Steve Novella wrote: This is why I have proposed to some of my skeptical colleagues that we focus our efforts on just such a project. The obvious way to do this would be by creating a free online Wiki-style series of science textbooks. This way the efforts of many authors can easily be coordinated. Supervision and editing would still be required for quality control and cohesiveness – but content would flow from many scientists and writers.

    That’s a great idea. I was thinking of something similar today (due to the necessity of having to buy new books for the 3rd year of my degree – Lishman’s “Organic Psychiatry” is £85 on Amazon, or £95 if I wait for the new edition in Feb ’09), and that is that online science texts/journals should use the same system as museums; donations on a voluntary basis so nobody with internet access is excluded from access to the literature. I’d gladly pay, just as I do whenever I go to a museum.

    I know that it probably wouldn’t work in practice, due to the amount of money to be made from the sale of books that many have to buy, but I’d like to think that there are some in the scientific community that would see the value of such an idea to the public as a whole. On richarddawkins.net, any new DVDs are made available via Youtube for those who can’t afford to buy them, which is amusing in some respects; one of the common criticisms I hear of Dawkins when talking to believers is that he’s only in it for the money.

  16. Steve Pageon 05 Sep 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Oh, I should’ve mentioned this in my last post, but it slipped my mind: One of the key phrases that I picked up from Dawkins stuff is that children should be taught how to think, not what to think. It reminds me of your comment on the SGU podcast a while back, Steve (paraphrased): Skeptics are concerned with the process, not the outcome.

  17. podblackon 05 Sep 2008 at 3:37 pm

    “The obvious way to do this would be by creating a free online Wiki-style series of science textbooks.”

    First, very, VERY few skeptics contribute to the online SkepticWiki already:

    http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Main_Page

    I would strongly suggest that people get in touch with the regular contributor, Dr Adequate, if they are interested in helping out in such a fashion.

    Secondly, have you heard of Sir Harold Kroto’s Vega Science Trust? It’s doing pretty much what you’ve said in visual mode… http://www.vega.org.uk/
    Covered in Point of Inquiry: http://www.pointofinquiry.org/sir_harold_kroto_science_education_and_freethinking/

    http://www.podblack.com for my own posts on skepticism and education, of course!

  18. podblackon 05 Sep 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Nearly forgot to mention – providing a Wiki? Doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be used by teachers nor that it’s going to be seen as an authoritative source by them… the usual issues. :/

    Besides, as the SkepticWiki (as I already mentioned on http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Main_Page) demonstrates – few contributors, easy to edit and change with few contributors checking on it and even the vaunted JREF who links to it doesn’t have much to say about it / contribute to it.

    See, it’s already _been done_ in a fashion. But saying ‘it’s a good idea’ is different to actually _doing_.

  19. Steven Novellaon 05 Sep 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Yes – this is a huge daunting task. That’s why right now it is just an idea. This is not a project just for skeptics – the goal is to involve the scientific and education communities.

    For cohesiveness there will need to be a steering committee to standardize the format and style. That will be a lot of work in and of itself. This project will likely need funding.

    Phil brought up a good point – that there are many science teachers who already have great content they created for their own classes. So there is probably already a lot of content out there that just needs to be organized.

  20. podblackon 05 Sep 2008 at 7:21 pm

    “Phil brought up a good point – that there are many science teachers who already have great content they created for their own classes. So there is probably already a lot of content out there that just needs to be organized.”

    There are already groups, of course. The Google Group of Critical Teaching is one that seeks to do so. The question is whether there’s enough interest to support us, let alone funding. Even at the final panel of Dragon*Con, education was totally overlooked by even Plait in his final summation. It’s been an ongoing struggle for a handful of us, such as Michael McRae, to even get skeptics to realise that ‘education doesn’t mean do a magic show or lecture to kids and that’s all you need’.

    Perhaps I should poing out the organisation of content done by the Curriculum Council, the governing body for education in Western Australia, done in order to get CT into schools? Took years to get this going, on the wave of massive educational reform that started since 1997:

    http://www.curriculum.wa.edu.au/internet/Senior_Secondary/Courses/Philosophy_and_Ethics

    See, there is indeed a lot of content out there. A LOT, most of which I’ve listed on my podblack site in the form of posts and pages.

    But it is no guarantee that such content will get into schools unless it matches state outcomes or will (in some cases) go under the radar of opposition, have school or system support or even have teachers confident enough to teach it.

    Whilst I was at Dragon*Con, I agreed with one visiting award-winning science teacher who pointed out that there was a desperate need to have better qualified (certainly more relevant quals than _my own_, we eagerly agreed!) teachers on panels in skepticism and beyond – pointing out the pitfalls and the need to have parent support, including the willingness to be informed about the outcomes and complain and even sue if their children are not being presented with the lessons they deserve. It was something that wasn’t even raised much at the World Science and Technology Education Conference of 2007… so I wonder how much power a minority of skeptics really have…

    That program (the unit 2A in particular) is an example of what I have contributed to in my state. Philosophy and Ethics, with a compulsory unit that incorporates skepticism – along with CT throughout the two years it is done. But it is indeed needed for the younger years more, as the studies into Philosophy for Children show. Thankfully, members of WA APIS are seeking to research P4C further and whether elements like teacher confidence, training, school and system (and community!) support can be sought and gained, without threatening people with the notion of ‘kids who question too much’.

    I would suggest that cross-curricular, rather than just science education, be the goal. You might also like to check out PACTISS.org.

    Another post on this issue, written a while back: http://podblack.com/?p=632

  21. Nitpickingon 05 Sep 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Um, is no one aware of Wikibooks?

    I’m an ex-science teacher myself. I think better science education is a great idea, but doing it requires more than just good teachers. It requires good school boards, which requires parents to care … which most American parents don’t seem to.

  22. nwtk2007on 05 Sep 2008 at 9:11 pm

    You guys are so wo-fully ignorant of what is happening is American education.

    First and foremost, there are very few good teachers because most of the quality teachers have left for more money out of education.

    Second, text books are, right now, irrelevant, they are not used or only scantly used and read by a fraction of both students and teachers. Get real folks.

    Third, the overall culture of America is degenerating and is now degenerate. The culture does not foster learning, it fosters the appearance of success and is propagandized to appear so. Even that lie is now failing.

    Four, due to the degeneration of the public culture, the system is put under more and more pressure to capitulate to an ever present crowd of parents demanding that their kids be taken care of despite the fact that they, the parents, are utter idiots and do not have the first clue how to parent.

    Five, the pressure placed upon the education community to capitulate to the public is promoted by the “elected” school board who will not be re-elected if the don’t capitulate to their demands that their kids be entertained rather than taught, placated rather than disciplined.

    Ultimately, every year there are fewer kids who learn more and many more who learn less. This had been the trend since the 60′s. Just like good health care. Every year fewer get good health care and more and more go without it; for what ever reason.

    The parallel can even be taken to the economic issues of today. Every year more and more have less buying power and fewer and fewer have control of that and the wealth that it is generated by.

    If education is our hope, then we are on a doomed ship.

  23. Roy Nileson 05 Sep 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Apparently chiropractic exposure stunts childhood curiosity.

  24. rc_mooreon 05 Sep 2008 at 9:49 pm

    Thank you nwtk2007!!

    This thread reminds of the story of the blind wise men examining the elephant, postulating their various theories about what it could be…

    Wiki textbooks??? For illiterate children with a computer or access to the internet? Why not just propose a magic pill that would instantly make everyone science literate.

    My school district is rife with EdD’s, PhD’s etc. with their pet theory/plan of the month. If something does not work, the solution seems to always be a new paradigm, requiring the hiring of more people with doctorates. But a qualified science teacher and lab materials. Never in the budget.

    What was the last great idea of my school districts science administration? To remove all chemicals from the schools sites. All of them — NACL and distilled water included. Killed every science lab for the rest of the year, including some long term experiments being conducted by the advanced science students. Their reason — to remove all toxic substances from the schools.

    No one will address the basic issues. Probably because those in charge all have their children in segregated/private/charter schools, far from the problems. And plenty of money for good colleges.

    Dr. Novella, this is probably the most elitist blog I have ever seen you post. I never thought I would see you ditch your skepticism to promote a personal ideology.

  25. DevilsAdvocateon 05 Sep 2008 at 11:10 pm

    My first real introduction to science came not in science classes so much, but in middle school shop classes. Seeing an arc welder demonstrated made me inquisitive about the science involved, as did details like the grain found in wood boards we used for our little projects, and knotholes. Electrical circuitry was simpler than expected, but electricity itself is a curious thing and I became curious about it.

    I’d love to see the return of ‘shop class’ to public schools, updated from my childhood years to a modern vocational training program. Not every kid needs or wants to go to college – or can. I’d love to see an applied science and technology program, but not just ranks of PCs in a room. A teaching lab for modern basic technology of commonly used types: business machines, manufacturing devices, electronic control boards, communications equipment, etc. The list of potential field trips is endless.

    I mention this wish because a modern day ‘shop class’ or vocational training program would be a great venue to provide hands-on applied science education. Here’s how it works.. and why it works.

  26. alexon 06 Sep 2008 at 2:15 am

    Whoa – some doom-laden posts here.

    I hardly think proposing a possible solution to the low quality of text books is unskeptical. And if wanting good quality science education is ideology then it’s a good one.

    rc_moore wrote: “No one will address the basic issues.”

    Well what are those basic issues, rc?

    Of course pipe-dreams can look a little embarrassing with hindsight, and maybe you don’t realise that’s all it was until somewhere down the line. But every successful operation began life as just an idea.

  27. alexon 06 Sep 2008 at 3:12 am

    I’ve thought over this sort of idea in the past when I heard the podcast about the textbook board. A series of online textbooks – I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.

    If the production was done properly, it should be possible to replace the culture of text-books completely.

    The obvious hurdle is the money. Not just the production and maintenance costs, but the money that the text-book industry currently makes. They would certainly have a vested interest in opposing this.

    But if a proposal could be formulated that showed how quality of education could be increased and at a much lower cost, and with a beneficial effect for the environment too then it could be accepted. I agree with what some of these comments have implied, that it needs to be adopted by whoever is at the top and implemented, rather than trying to have one school take it on board and then spread the word.

    Ideally this would be a series, not just of science education but all school subjects.

    I know teachers who prepare lessons that are enthusiastic and imaginative, but they base their classes around imparting the relevant chapter of the text book they have been issued.

    One such chapter taught about the Children’s Crusade. It sounded interesting so I looked it up online and found out that my friend was teaching what is not the accepted hypothesis. I told my friend about this and he said he had to stick to the text book.

    How much simpler it would have been, if the content of the online resource could just be updated and all teacher’s nationwide would know.

    It could even be a system where all teacher’s nationwide are registered with the resource – and could receive emails about updates etc.

    As far as the production of the resource – i think the skepticism about contributions are misplaced. i don’t see this as a voluntary wiki, but as a strictly controlled resource created by relevant professionals. Contributors, I imagine most being professors or researchers working at universities, could be voluntary, or contribution could be a required duty of their tenure. Or they could be compensated. Paying, for example, Phil Plait for designing a curriculum for astronomy would be much cheaper than commissioning or buying whole batches of books for the entire country.

    So I’d guess that cost effectiveness would be a major positive selling point for this infrastructure.

    Another major selling point is the relative ease of implementation.

    Currently new text books take so long to roll out that they are already out of date. But a system such as this offers a simple launch date, at which point everything goes online and teachers start to draw pre-designed content – or even lesson plans – from the internet.

    In classrooms where all children are seated at computer terminals there could be online interactive content – including video demonstrations as mentioned above.

    Ready prepared handouts could be available for teachers to print off – many lecturers where I studied already photocopy relevant articles and text book chapters and hand them out.

    I think that the way to go with this project would be through universities. Not through an organisation such as the JREF. As much respect as I have for the JREF it has baggage which might give rise to undue opposition. Universities such as Yale (or a coalition), on the other hand certainly would have the personnel to put together this kind of resource.

    What needs to happen is for this idea to be proposed so that Universities are given government grants to collectively produce the resource with a specific target for launch.

    Also, many universities do similar things already on a micro scale. Including online classes. And this is where one major problem lies: how would you gather together all the parties who are already doing various takes on this idea into one concerted effort? It has to be a government initiative.

    I must agree that this is a life’s work though. Anyone who devoted them self to this would have a major task on their hands.

  28. [...] How To Improve Science Education [...]

  29. petrucioon 06 Sep 2008 at 8:00 am

    “Dr. Novella, this is probably the most elitist blog I have ever seen you post. I never thought I would see you ditch your skepticism to promote a personal ideology.”

    Stop talking crazy.

  30. theoon 06 Sep 2008 at 8:35 am

    As a current science teacher it’s always interesting to hear the views of those outside education on teaching. I can’t speak for the state of science education in the US but I can say that nearly all the points you address in your post have already been dealt with in all the research into science education that I know of. More importantly, this has filtered down into the design of science syllabi. For example, have a look at the Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 science “Essential Learnings” in my state of Queensland (Australia):

    The first is the “knowledge and understanding” “Essential Learnings”.

    The second is the “ways of working” “Essential Learnings”.

    The senior science syllabi all require students to conduct “Extended Experimental Investigations”. This is from the physics syllabus:

    _____________________

    What is an extended experimental investigation?
    Within this category, instruments are developed to investigate a hypothesis or to answer a practical research question. The focus is on planning the extended experimental investigation, problem solving and analysis of primary data generated through experimentation by the student. Experiments may be laboratory or field based. An extended experimental investigation may last from four weeks to the entirety of the unit of work.
    The outcome of an extended experimental investigation is a written scientific report. Aspects of each of the three criteria should be evident in the investigation.

    What must a student do to complete an extended experimental investigation?

    • develop a planned course of action
    • clearly articulate the hypothesis or research question, providing a statement of purpose for the investigation
    • provide descriptions of the experiment
    • show evidence of modification or student design
    • provide evidence of primary and secondary data collection and selection
    • execute the experiment(s)
    • analyse data
    • discuss the outcomes of the experiment
    • evaluate and justify conclusion(s)
    • present relevant information in a scientific report.

    _________________________

    The three assessable criteria in physics (and there are obvious similarities with the other sciences) are:
    _________________________

    Knowledge and conceptual understanding
    Students should acquire knowledge and construct understanding of facts, theories, concepts and principles of physics. To work scientifically, students need to have an understanding of underlying scientific knowledges, including the associated mathematical skills. They need to engage with the processes and phenomena observed in Physics through characteristics of data analysed. Students need to make informed judgments based on sound reasoning in order to direct them in their scientific endeavours and to engage with problem solving.

    Investigative processes
    Students need to recognise the methodologies available to them to investigate scientifically. They need to be able to judge the worth of quantitative and qualitative data and interpret and apply the outcomes of such data. Students require the skills to manipulate and review data and scientific techniques so that they may improve their scientific knowledge. They need to synthesise the research that they have generated and be able to discuss the outcomes in relation to their initial purpose.

    Evaluating and concluding
    Students who are working scientifically need to be able to make decisions about the knowledge they have gained and generated. They need to distinguish between a plausible conclusion and one based on pure supposition. Students need to be able to synthesise their thoughts and the thinking of others into a coherent whole, from which they can make judgments and propose future possibilities. They need to reach conclusions and explain the world in which they live, using science. They need to be able to adhere to communication and scientific conventions in communicating their decisions to selected audiences.

    ____________________

    I think the syllabus documents speak for themselves. The main issue is having quality teachers, with ample time and resources, to implement them. The Extended Experimental Investigations are fantastic learning experiences for the students (and the teacher…), but they do take a lot of work.

    The text book thing is pretty much irrelevant by the way. There are already plenty of excellent online resources for science teaching out there already. One quick example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/ks3bitesize/science/

    You don’t “learn” science from reading a text. Overuse of a text book is the bastion of the incompetent teacher. A good text is of use, but it’s useless without a good teacher…

  31. theoon 06 Sep 2008 at 8:46 am

    Here’s the links to the Essential Learnings of which I spoke:

    http://www.qsa.qld.edu.au/downloads/assessment/qcar_el_science_wow.pdf

    and:

    http://www.qsa.qld.edu.au/downloads/assessment/qcar_el_science_kau.pdf

  32. theoon 06 Sep 2008 at 9:21 am

    One final comment apropos of scientists writing science texts. That’s a recipe for disaster. Scientists are no more science educators than science educators are scientists… When students say to me, “you’re a great scientist”, I say, “no I’m not, I’m a (great) science educator”.

    One problem with the input into science education from scientists is that they tend to specialise and as such, their area of expertise (according to them) is the one we need to focus on in science education. Also their level of expertise is more advanced than necessary. Does a theoretical physicist know how to write a unit of work for grade 4 science? Probably not, would be my guess.

    The input of scientists is essential by the way – but more in terms of developing partnerships with schools and running professional development for teachers. As far as textbooks and curricula, their input and feedback is essential, but I wouldn’t want scientists writing them from scratch – it’s not their primary function after all anyway – if it was they’d be science teachers…

  33. rc_mooreon 07 Sep 2008 at 12:54 am

    alex wrote:

    ….Well what are those basic issues, rc?

    Well, ntwk2007 and I addressed them in earlier posts in this thread. You wrote quite along analysis of the online textbook — unfortunately this was wasted effort as you evidently did not read them, and therefore did not address two of the basic issues:

    Students are illiterate.
    Students have no computers or online access.
    There is very little class room time available.

    Petrucio wrote:

    …Stop talking crazy.

    Crazy is using as an authority a television actor when discussing one of the most serious and hard tackle issues the US faces. I like Adam Savage, and really enjoy his show, but he recent opines on science education show he knows nothing about it.

    I can see a skeptic’s cult of personality is growing. This does no justice to the good name of skepticism.

    If Dr. Novella (or Adam Savage) have quality evidence to back up their thoughts on science education, I would be glad to see it.

  34. rc_mooreon 07 Sep 2008 at 12:55 am

    No, 3 issues!

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

  35. weingon 07 Sep 2008 at 1:37 am

    I agree with theo here. We need to let the teachers know of our concerns and let them do the teaching. They have the know-how and, hopefully, the technology to do the job so that learning efficiency may be optimized. Critical thinking needs to be taught from day one. It will give them confidence and serve them well in their life outside of school. Now, if we could only get the mass media on board to raise the awareness of the general public about the scientific method, need for critical thinking, awareness of logical fallacies, and how to spot them.

  36. Nitpickingon 07 Sep 2008 at 2:15 am

    It’s worth mentioning that Dr. Novella teaches science five days a week. Admittedly, teaching medical students is different.

    Fixing science textbooks will not solve the problem. Neither is it worthless. As the doc might say on his podcast, that’s an example of a false dilemma.

  37. alexon 07 Sep 2008 at 4:12 am

    I apologise for missing your examples, rc; I didn’t connect your first post to your last one. I’ve reviewed them but I still have some issues with your pessimism.

    The three major problems as you see them:

    “Students are illiterate.
    Students have no computers or online access.
    There is very little class room time available”

    I think these are generalisations. Some students are (relatively) illiterate, but that’s a non sequitur, irrelevant to an attempt to improve science text-book culture.

    Students do have internet access, maybe not all science classrooms are fitted with enough terminals for all the students, but there are computer suites in most if not all schools. And teachers definitely have access. Also many schools do have projectors, etc that can be used with the teacher’s laptop in any classroom. Upgrading to more modern technology will be a long process and one that would need to start over as soon as it finished due to the rate of advancing technology, but that doesn’t prevent an idea like this being implemented. It could start out, not as an interactive online lesson, but as an evolving source of content for teachers. Only transitioning into a more interactive resource when school IT catches up.

    “There is a small percentage of students who are excelling in science (far beyond my generation) They succeed in spite of bad textbooks, untrained teachers, and inadequate funding.”

    Just because a minority succeed in spite of bad textbooks doesn’t mean an effort to improve that system is a waste of time. Id argue the contrary.

    “Crazy is using as an authority a television actor when discussing one of the most serious and hard tackle issues the US faces.”

    Steve wrote: “Getting students to actually perform experiments is therefore an obvious idea. Recently Adam Savage from the Mythbusters made this point”

    That’s hardly an argument from authority, rather giving credit to someone who suggested the idea. I think Steve used Savage as a source because he is a student of the scientific process, not because he is a trained educator, but because he has first hand experience of the success of learning on the job – and it’s hardly a groundbreaking claim which is why Steve pointed out that it’s an “obvious idea”.

    Back to ‘very little classroom time available’.

    I think there is a problem with scheduling in (at least CA) schools.

    A student might do 6 classes a day for an hour each and repeat this schedule monday through friday. In England timetabling is done very differently. You might do 2 hours of science on a monday and 2 hours on a thursday. I had 4 hours of art in a row (with lunch half way through) while I was studying.

    So rather than a daily schedule which was repeated, I had a weekly schedule. This allowed time to change for PE and shower afterward – with ample time for playing sports. etc

    Perhaps that would be a solution to the lack of teaching time.

    Theo makes some interesting points, but I think is getting a little too defensive. I respect good teachers and the theory that people need training in education techniques – knowledge of a subject is not enough. But teaching ability with lack of scientific knowledge is not enough either – children are still taught bad science, and presented ‘facts’ that are wrong or out-dated. If in Australia all science ed is focused on the methodology then great, that’s what needs to be imported to the US, and Theo offers some excellent points. But rather than these points defeating Steve’s proposal, they need to taken on board.

    The fact remains that (some) teachers teach from text books and replacing those books with a much more efficient, up to date, well-regulated, cheaper, easily distributed, open access resource would eradicate many of the problems that arise from the textbook culture.

    “One final comment apropos of scientists writing science texts. That’s a recipe for disaster. Scientists are no more science educators than science educators are scientists”

    No-one is proposing that the syllabus be written solely by research scientists, but by a combination of education specialists and science specialists. (Or maybe they are, but I’m not). I’m neither of those anyway – so what do I know? – but I do like the look of the criteria Theo referenced, and that was part of my point earlier. Current successful resources and efforts (such as the BBCs Bitesize, Australia’s curriculum, etc) should be pooled for this project. There are good resources out there but it’s doing no good when teachers are still expected to teach from poor quality text books, if such all these projects were pooled under one government funded initiative which was made the official teaching curriculum then it would have great potential.

  38. podblackon 07 Sep 2008 at 8:07 am

    @nwtk2007:

    I’m involved in teacher training in this country. Specifically, helping with a P4C extra curricular unit and part of educational research on engagement and retainment, as well as an M.Ed on curriculum issues that drew on international sources. So, I’ve got some idea of what’s being faced, both in USA and world-wide.

    Sure, Steven Novella isn’t a high school teacher, nor is Adam Savage and as voiced here by those who are actually at the coal-face – there’s more to the picture. I’d certainly like to have more of the ‘Penn Jillette’ people in the world try teaching a class in Geraldton or Kwinana, to see what it’s like out there regarding some solutions posed…

    Yet, I must admit that I don’t see it as that doom-and-gloom. Because, despite it all, good people are still entering the education system even though there is indeed a brain-drain (older generation leaving too), union battles, lack of funding and political support – and certainly better deals elsewhere. Question is, do we sit back and fail to help out, even in a small way? Or are there ideas for the ‘sinking ship’?

    @rc_moore – As for “Probably because those in charge all have their children in segregated/private/charter schools, far from the problems. And plenty of money for good colleges.”

    I did face the situation where I raised the issue that teachers are sometimes demonised by the system, are not well supported across the board – and did get some people say that they didn’t find it the case / enjoyed their classes… but that certainly isn’t going to be the situation for everyone. I had some be REALLY defensive about ‘but I LOVED my schooling / am seen as a GREAT teacher!’ in return – but it doesn’t make it happen for everyone! Nor is it particularly helpful unless they break it down as to ‘why is it so’.

    We do have to see what it’s like in remote, rural and less financially able scenarios. I’m not entirely convinced that a book/s or even a website ‘is the answer’ either. But what has been said by Alex is a good example of combining notions of ‘what works’.

    I will point out that a lack of teacher confidence / training in using computers in the classroom is an issue some haven’t addressed. A recent Coturnix (‘Blog Around The Clock’) posts that is probably relevant here:
    http://tinyurl.com/teachingfuture

    “So, what will the role of teacher be in the future?
    Not reciting facts. Not teaching technology. But managing the learning process: teaching critical skills – how to find, evaluate, connect and build upon the information that exists out there, how to determine what is important and what not, how to figure out what source is trusted and which one is suspicious.
    The teacher of the future will be someone who coaches kids in the skills of media use and criticism. Instead of teaching facts, teaching how to evaluate facts. Instead of teaching this generation’s ideas and biases, enabling them to form their own. Schooling as a ‘subversive activity’ at its best.
    Which is good.”

    @Theo – hello! We’ve met, haven’t we, at the 2006 Skeptics Melbourne conference? Will you be at the Adelaide one this year?

  39. amaon 07 Sep 2008 at 9:03 am

    YES, it is a group talking TO EACH OTHER.

    Scientific information CAN be read. It is available in public libraries. So, the problem is NOT that there is NO information available. The problem is that people DO NOT WANT IT.

    First, too many people make too many words. Shorten the texts.

    Second, do not use philosophic babble. Do use plain scientific facts.

    Third, do not respect idiots and criminals. Do not follow the un-written rules of “respect for culture” or religion or “political correctness”. Those are the tools of the Nazidom to suppress personal freedom and science.

    Fourth, do uncover the methods of the idiots and criminals. You cannot win against an army with just a soft feather in your hands. You do need a sharp sword AND YOU MUST USE IT!

    Fifth, do not use the language of the idiots and criminals. Language is warfare. Demonstrate this. Show how it works, how it is used.

    Sixth, you cannot convince idiots and criminals. But you have to show in public how idiotic and criminal they are. As soon as the public realizes this, people will ON THEIR OWN stop believing the idiots and criminals.

    Seventh, the use of the words “idiots” and “criminals” for sure stirs up people. But this is a must to do. Softly speaking does not reach their brains as their ears are filled with the thundering lies of the idiots and criminals.

    Not all doers are idiots. Most of the doers are criminals who use and abuse the idiots to gain power and money. Making their followers fall apart will drain the financial feed.

    We stand against an army which has billions of dollars, euros, … But we can defeat them. We do it in a field where they have no countermeasure against our weapons.

    Language is warfare. You onl yhave to use it THE RIGHT WAY.

    One of the things to do now is to build up a news agency. This agency must provide the media with scientific information. Journalists are too stupid, and too lazy to do their own investigations. So, circument the whol emedia system by an own news agency. The web-sites, forums and blogs etc. already are your publishing media. PLOS is one I favor very much.

    Now make the next step.

    ama
    http://www.ariplex.com/ama/ama_rhet.htm
    (rhetoric in the war against ill)

  40. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 11:42 am

    ama – “Language is warfare. You only have to use it THE RIGHT WAY.”

    Would you agree that “science is warfare. You only have to use it THE RIGHT WAY.”? I suspect not – science is science and sometimes it’s applied and used for war, does this make science into warfare for you? We could just as easily say “water is warfare” or “fire is warfare” or “__________ is warfare. You only have to use it THE RIGHT WAY.”

    Language isn’t warfare, it’s language. It’s one aspect of communication (verbal and written) and without it we wouldn’t even be able to have the kinds of highly abstract thought processes that fuel human activities, say like science. :-) Certainly language can be used in many ways and it’s one element of propaganda (there are many other considerations when making effective propaganda, design actually often being more important and words merely being an element). However, how people use language or science is about human intention and tool use, both science and language can be used to deceive or promote agendas and for propaganda purposes. They can both also be used to clarify or reveal, I’d suggest this use of language is ultimately much more effective and in the service of both science and communication than just trying to create one’s own propaganda so that it’s just battling ideologies with no intent to educate people or get them to think, and with no intent to promote understanding. Doing exactly what your enemy does makes you your own worst enemy – particularly when it so greatly devalues what it claims to protect. Becoming a liar only fills the world with more liars.

    That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t understand how communication functions or use skillful means (as the Buddhists say) – however one can be a highly skilled communicator without having to be dishonest, and it seems to me that integrity may even be MORE important in the context of getting people interested in understanding science.

    Why take on an attitude towards journalists that is as hostile and superficial as many people’s hostility towards doctors and scientists (and science and medicine) – and as unreal and propagandistic. And, yeah, those may be fighting words…. ;-) Actually, they’re not, I’m genuinely curious as to why you have such a generalized hostility and resentment against journalists? You are aware that the vast majority of journalists don’t control what gets published aren’t you? Do you understand how the media works (which is differently in different places according to national and local cultures)? Do you, as a reader or viewer, know how to view stories with a critical eye (not a cynical one, a critical one)? Do you think you’re devoid of responsibility for what you read or view? Are you a passive consumer? Do you help support publications that put the time, effort and expense into reporting complex stories and doing in depth reporting?

  41. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 1:05 pm

    I’d second Dr Novella’s proposal that it’s about I’d suggest that it’s really about teaching people critical thinking skills, preferably at an at an early age. Being able to think critically is useful across disciplines – it’s just as essential to the practice of art as it is to science. It’s also a cornerstone of being able to self educate, and it’s essential to dynamic learning and thinking. What I’ve observed and experienced is that many people don’t understand how to critique or deconstruct ideas or text (or images for that matter since a lot of people are what I’d call visually illiterate). To them “criticism” always means negative commentary (generally of a personal nature) and they don’t quite grasp that a critique can be positive too – so I suspect there’s a rather emotional resistance for some people around the idea of “critical thinking” that has little to do what critical thinking actually entails and more to do with negative emotional associations to do with the word “critical” or “criticism”. Add in the American penchant for wanting everything to be “positive” and a general hysteria around “saving the children” that reaches quite unrealistic and strange levels in the US.

  42. Steve Pageon 07 Sep 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Fifi, with regards to your point about critical thinking: My son and daughter are at school (aged 15 and 10 respectively), therefore I get to talk to their teachers regularly, and some – certainly not all, but a significant amount – don’t want children to become independent, critical thinkers. They want children who turn up on time, don’t talk in lessons, complete their work in silence and leave.

    A few months ago, my son had a problem with his Religious Studies teacher (I kept him in the class to improve his critical thinking skills, ironically) when his teacher told him that he should respect the beliefs of other people, no matter how unusual they sounded. My son asked him if that applied if someone claimed to have three invisible, magical elves that advised him on day-to-day matters, and his teacher replied, “Yes, I’d say “Good on you for having a belief”, to which my son informed him that he would not respect the belief, but would instead contact the local mental health team. The RS teacher had obviously never heard of the case of Judge Florentino Floro, because he reported my son to the deputy head and insisted that he be given an internal exclusion order for insubordination. I appealed, explained that my son was citing an example of delusional thinking, and the exclusion order was retracted. However, my point is that not only were critical thinking skills not being taught, they were being actively discouraged by a teacher who was not used to being challenged. I was able to fight my son’s corner, but I couldn’t help but wonder how many other children had learned to just keep their heads down and not challenge authority, for fear of being punished.

  43. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Steve – I agree, there are teachers out there (and who institutions/systems) that believe that teaching kids critical thinking skills will erode their authority. Of course, the only kind of authority that critical thinking can erode is authority that’s based upon “because I say so and will punish/hurt you if you don’t conform”. Authority based upon reason – reasonable authority based upon actually knowing what you’re doing and being respected for it, as opposed to fear-based authority that is based upon repression and unquestioning conformity – is strengthened by critical thinking not weakened. (I’m probably pointing out the obvious here but it’s why fascist regimes round up the intellectuals and artists early on and one of the reasons fundamentalist religious groups like the Taliban make sure girls can’t get educations and extreme Christians work so hard to keep science out of schools and choose home schooling.) I’m even hesitant to call the second fear-based type “authority” because even though it is authoritarian it is rarely actually based in any true authority (authority in the sense that the person wielding the authority has superior knowledge, skills and understanding which has resulted in them becoming an expert or authority).

    I can, of course, understand and appreciate how some teachers don’t like being challenged (and I’d suspect some just don’t have the necessary skills themselves to cope, particularly in the case of your son’s religion teacher!). I was in a pretty privileged situation as a child – my grandmother was a teacher and my parents are doctors so I got taught how to learn for myself and to think critically from the start. I loved learning but I came to dislike school because it was often less about real learning and more about social control (university was equally as disappointing since it became clear very fast that parroting back what a professor believed usually got you better grades than original critical thinking). Of course, part of my disappointment was just having overly idealized ideas about learning/culture/discourse and school. As you can imagine, I had teachers that quite viscerally loathed me because of it (and others that totally loved me).

    The saddest part is that this suppression of creative and critical thinking turns off many really bright students – the bad kids in most schools are usually a mix of the brightest, the ones with learning difficulties and the ones with issues at home that are overwhelming – or some combo of all of the above). Some smart kids keep their head down and just go along to get along, most kids who are critical thinkers aren’t so good at this though and end up in trouble (and being labeled as various negative things when they’re not actually being the ones being unreasonable). Your son’s lucky to have a father who’ll stick up for his rights and defend him. I was lucky to have a mom that did the same for me but lots of kids just got punished for not conforming.

  44. amaon 07 Sep 2008 at 4:08 pm

    @Steve Page

    how about being consequent and reporting the RS teacher to the mental health team?

    It is THIS kind of terrorism, which is EVERYWHERE, not only in schools, where the Nazidom hits you. You were able to fight for your son. But what in case a parent is not able, or is even so stupid to believe what the teachers and other blokes say?

    You saw a pseudo-religious incident. But there is much, much more. There even is medicine. And in the end. people end in the mortuary…

  45. amaon 07 Sep 2008 at 4:11 pm

    @Fifi
    >Language isn’t warfare, it’s language.

    Wrong.

    Language to a great extent is THE programming of a brain. Things you have nop words for, how can you talk about them? Political correctness is destroying language, it is eliminating word, it is eliminating thoughts. It eliminates thinking.

    If you do not understand that, it is of no use to try to explain to you.

  46. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 4:59 pm

    ama – It appears to me that you have a right/wrong kind of mentality and see language as a form of warfare but actually have little understanding of how propaganda works. And seem to think that if I don’t automatically agree with you that “it is of no use to try to explain” (which is a very weak way out of having to present a reasoned defense of your assertions – which quite honestly strike me as hyperbolic to the point where you’re crossing over into personal propaganda).

    Can you please define what you mean by “political correctness” so I can properly speak to your assertion about it “destroying language”? (So far language seems to be going pretty strong to me, it’s certainly still alive and evolving). What has totally destroyed certain languages (and the cultural mindsets they express) is actually the destruction of aboriginal societies.

    (Also, I’m finding it a bit ironic that you’re talking about the destruction of language when your posts aren’t that well written – is it because English isn’t your first language?)

  47. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 5:27 pm

    ama – Things we have no words for we speak about metaphorically. Sometimes we do this even if we have words for something because it’s easier for people to understand when they can relate a concept to something familiar.

    Secondly, “political correctness” isn’t “eliminating word” or thoughts – what it did is eliminate the use of language and words that were abusive in a specific context (there was another form of political correctness in place before that required people conform to certain social rules too, you just had to correctly comply with different social rules). You don’t seem to understand that language is fluid and a living thing. (Latin is defined as a dead language because it’s static and no longer one that grows and changes through usage.) Words routinely go in and out of favor, change meaning and disappear all together.

    And if “language is warfare” and you propose “language is THE programming of the brain” then you’re saying “warfare is THE programming of the brain” (since language IS warfare according to you).

  48. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 5:32 pm

    The other thing we do when we don’t have a word for something is we create a new word or use a selection of words to describe something. We do this all the time.

  49. amaon 07 Sep 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Fifi, give it up. I told you that I will not discuss it with you.

  50. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Interestingly enough, when you propose the concept that eliminating the use of certain words eliminates the associated thoughts, you’re actually expressing exactly the same beliefs about language as totally overboard PC types who want to use language to control. The way you speak about language as violence is very much a reflection of your own beliefs about language and how you use words, not language itself.

  51. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 5:50 pm

    ama – Are you trying to say that I should shut up because I don’t agree with you? Feel free not to enter into dialogue or discussion, or to actually present any basis for your assertions. That is, of course, your prerogative. I consider your assertions worth dissecting and critiquing since I think they show a rather profound lack of understanding of language, media and communication in general. Particularly since you offered no constructive contribution to the blog topic, which is “how to improve science education”.

  52. Fifion 07 Sep 2008 at 5:55 pm

    Btw, I have thoughts that are entirely visual and concepts often come to my in forms that aren’t what I’d call verbal (if only they were my life would be easier!) and then take some time to tease into language that clearly expresses what’s in my head. (We should be careful about assuming that everyone’s mind works the same way as our own!) I love words and language but some things are better and more fully expressed in other ways.

  53. nwtk2007on 07 Sep 2008 at 8:53 pm

    Good lord, I am so glad that the future of education is not in your hands Fifi.

    What are you drinking anyway?

    I am amazed by how out of touch the public is as regards to education.

    You don’t have a clue about what is going on in classrooms around the country, at least in the US.

    You can improve curriculum, books, etc, funnel more and more money into classrooms and equipment, what ever you want. It doesn’t matter.

    Until you get the good teachers back in the classroom and stop letting parents and administration interfere with teaching and expectations, then nothing will change.

    You can go on and on about your “visual concepts” or what ever, but it will change nothing.

    You are moronic to talk about it and insulting to those who truly know how to teach.

    Education in the US is in utter dire straights and you haven’t a clue about that or how to fix it.

  54. Roy Nileson 07 Sep 2008 at 9:30 pm

    Fifi, nwtk2007 is of course a chiropractor, so pay close attention.

  55. nwtk2007on 07 Sep 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Gee Roy, I don’t know what your problem is but you need a little education.

    I have also been teaching since 1978, both HS and College level. I still teach at the college level and have received many awards for teaching excellence, based upon the performance and success of my students. I have taught in both inner city and suburban districts and have taught virtually every science course offered in the high schools of Texas and virtually every biological science course offered at the college level.

    So what’s your point Roy Boy?

    Care to exchange CV’s?

    I find it laughable, if not tragic, that the “academia” represented here cannot see the true problems in education just as I find it laughable, if not tragic, that anti-chiro’s like yourself cannot see the true dangers of medical science, or rather, their own incompetence, while babbling all the while about the “dangers” of chiropractic.

    Maybe you should pull your head out and pay close attention yourself.

  56. rc_mooreon 08 Sep 2008 at 1:01 am

    Ok, ntwk2007 is a chiropractor, and most of what goes in a chiropractic office is a bunch of crap, but as a skeptic I try to avoid dismissing people out of hand (especially since ntwk2007 seems to be agreeing with me emotionally and I love the strokes).

    ntwk2007 needs to be more specific though, or I withdraw my conditional support.

    Is anyone going to address the issues I brought up as they relate to Dr. Novella’s post?

    Alex wrote:

    Steve wrote: “Getting students to actually perform experiments is therefore an obvious idea. Recently Adam Savage from the Mythbusters made this point”

    That’s hardly an argument from authority, rather giving credit to someone who suggested the idea. I think Steve used Savage as a source because he is a student of the scientific process, not because he is a trained educator, but because he has first hand experience of the success of learning on the job – and it’s hardly a groundbreaking claim which is why Steve pointed out that it’s an “obvious idea”.

    No Steve used Savage as a source, because being human, he likes name dropping. Skepticism has celebrity status at the moment, not necessarily a bad thing.

  57. alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 1:39 am

    Fifi and Ama’s debate aside as it’s off-topic anyway; what are you talking about nwtk2007? I won’t even go into how it worries me that a chiropractor is teaching science classes – maybe you put aside your acceptance of pseudo-science when it comes to the classroom. I don’t know, but anyway, good for you that you’ve done so well in life, and that you’ve acquired all knowledge about everything.

    However you, like all the naysayers in this thread have not actually offered any insight. If you are such the well qualified and experienced insider, where’s your insight?

    Here are the points you did make (I’ll paraphrase):

    1. lack of quality teachers – due to poor pay.
    2. text books are barely used.
    3. America is degenerative and getting worse.
    4. (i think) school has become free babysitting for idiot parents.
    5. parents successfully demand their children are entertained at school and deny discipline.
    6. there is a 50 year trend of children learning less.

    1. may be a fair point, but what do you suggest is done about it? What do you think of performance based pay as a system?

    2. maybe not in Texas, but in all US (CA) schools I have experience of (as well as the University I recently studied at) and all the schools I studied at in England (which isn’t the point, I know) textbooks were and are used. And ‘religiously’ used.

    3. Well that’s just like, your opinion, man.

    4. & 5. It might be harder to get away with ‘disciplining’ students than it was, say, 50 years ago. But again where’s your solution? Or are you just another nostalgic calling for ‘the good old dys’? And I’m not denying there are more parents who lack the skills for parenting – but there are simply more parents. If you’re claiming there is a greater percentage, you need to back that kind of claim up.

    6. Another claim that needs backing up. But let’s assume that you can, because it sounds reasonable that kids are learning less nowadays. What’s the solution?!

    Why is it such an ignorant idea to suggest that replacing the culture of textbooks with an online resource would be beneficial?

    I suppose you are arguing it’s a waste of time because textbooks are rarely used, but in the first place it’s not your time, except for the few minutes you find to worry all over a blog. I’d argue that chiropractic is a waste of time, and valuable time, which makes it even worse. But it’s not my time, so I’m not getting into it. And secondly, improving the syllabus could ONLY have benefits. And an online resource put together by appropriate specialists, in education as well as scientific disciplines has the potential to be an improvement over out of date, hard copy, texts that enter into schools unchecked.

    Say which bit of that you have a problem with and perhaps it will be constructive. This is a proposal, and if someone could show that it truly lacks the potential then I, and I’m sure Steve, would discard it and try to find other solutions.

  58. Roy Nileson 08 Sep 2008 at 1:47 am

    nwtk2007:
    “So what’s your point Roy Boy?
    Care to exchange CV’s?”

    My point was that you’re a chiropractor.

    You have an odd way of confirming it.

  59. rc_mooreon 08 Sep 2008 at 1:57 am

    nwtk2007 –

    I re-read your first post, and even after learning you are a chiropractor, I find I agree with it. But you later posts show enormous bias, and a lot of nonsense about the dangers of modern medicine, which is more in line with what I expect from a chiropractor.

    I think this is a very important topic. Could you contribute more clearly on science education, and drop the other stuff for now?

    And stop with the CV posturing — chiropractic school is a joke, I have seen the curriculum and had it explained to me by chiropractors. It teaches just enough real science to be able to convincingly scam the masses.

  60. alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 2:13 am

    Perhaps you’re right, rc. Maybe it is just namedropping. That doesn’t alter the fact that the explanation I perceived is a valid reason for mentioning Savage.

    I guess I didn’t read it as an argument from authority, (or is there an argument from celebrity fallacy?) because I think Steve is very careful about slipping into such tactics.

    Is anyone going to address the issues you raised?

    If you are referring to your negativism about the proposed online resource, then I’ve addressed the three points you offered.

    Illiteracy is a non-sequitur
    No computer access is untrue, there is at least some, and not necessarily relevant when it is true anyway
    Lack of teaching time is a valid point for which I offered what I think is an implementable solution

    If you are referring to this issue:

    “Dr. Novella, this is probably the most elitist blog I have ever seen you post. I never thought I would see you ditch your skepticism to promote a personal ideology.”

    I’ve already addressed that too in so far as I understand it. (If this is the issue you need addressing, could you explain what is so elitist, why it is unskeptical and what personal ideology is being promoted?

  61. rc_mooreon 08 Sep 2008 at 2:32 am

    Ok Alex, good constructive post. And anyone who quotes from the Big Lebowski is ok in my book.

    …maybe not in Texas, but in all US (CA) schools I have experience of (as well as the University I recently studied at) and all the schools I studied at in England…textbooks were and are used

    We need to define what we mean by “used” here — studied and learned from. Or handed out and rote copied from (my personal experience). (The studied in England comment really gives you away…I would guess you did not attend an inner city school with high poverty and mostly minority students for whom English is a second language)

    Teacher salaries — leave then where there are. Instead add one teaching assistant with credential for every 10 students in a classroom. And hire one Master’s Degree person with a science background from outside the school system (private enterprise maybe) , and without a credential to oversee the credentialed, unionized teachers. Pay them a lot. And fire them if their science department under performs. They set the curriculum and standards, and help the credentialed teachers to meet goals.

    The degeneration is pure opinion, and ruins the argument of course. But it may be an overstated code word for something we are all feeling. I think Bill Moyers called it a “crudity and coarseness”. I for one am tired of “fuck” being fucking used four fucking times in every fucking sentence.

    Bad parenting and discipline are beyond me. I think it will be addressed when (if) we restore the middle class in America. Poverty is killing us in terms of education. We could also stop glamorizing crimes and thugs I guess, but I hate the idea passing laws to legislate the media. You got me on that one.

    I don’t buy the 50 yr trend of learning less. What I do suggest is that 50 yrs ago we decided to start educating everyone — including African-Americans and Mexican immigrants — and this had a real and immediate effect on the public school performance averages. But this was the right thing to do, and I am not interested in comparing the success of completely different populations. But we have failed in educating these “new” students. The drop out rates (>50%) and poor standardized test scores clearly show this. I can’t post it of course, but the API results in my community clearly show that only schools in upper middle class areas are succeeding.

    Now a little proof is required from you. Show the evidence that the massive influx of internet and computers has budged standardized test scores in any meaningful way. Are they just awaiting a “killer app”, or do they really have no measurable effect on education at all? I put the burden of proof on you, because you are making the assertion. I make none either way, at this point.

  62. rc_mooreon 08 Sep 2008 at 2:46 am

    …could you explain what is so elitist, why it is unskeptical and what personal ideology is being promoted?

    It is elitist, because it is of the Marie Antoinette “Let them eat cake” variety of solution. It presupposes literacy and working computers with network access (go to most underfunded school districts and try to get on the internet productively — then imaging a 3000+ student body simultaneously banging one server connected to a DSL line).

    The reality in California is a 16 billion dollar budget deficit — structural, meaning it will not go away without an overhaul of the state finances. In this climate, it is elitist to suggest that a solution is simply a few wiki pages. California will be lucky to pay the power bill over the next few years. I think a lot of states will be in a similar situation soon if not already.

    It is also elitist in that it implies that a bunch of highly educated, upper middle class, (mostly) white guys, can help solve the serious problem of trying to teach a science class in a chaotic, poverty and crime ridden school by leaning back in a comfy chair and imparting a few words of wisdom into a computer database. Dr. Novella is suggesting no more that that. No visits to the schools, through the gun detectors and and the half lit hallways reeking of backed up toilets. To stand in front of a class of gum chewing students wearing electronic bracelets, sitting in broken desks, and reading from textbooks with half the pages vandalized.

    I am sure they will be very impressed when he whips out his Mac Air and proclaims “Look, I have brought you a wiki page!”

  63. alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 3:19 am

    “It presupposes literacy and working computers with network access”

    No, it doesn’t presuppose, it requires these things, with a perfect understanding that not all schools have sufficient access. But we aren’t talking about some futuristic virtual classroom where teachers are replaced by virtual teachers who teach all children the same classes across the country. What is being proposed is a new system where teachers can retrieve the relevant facts and subject matter and maybe lesson plans which they can teach using their expertise in teaching methods.

    As I have already said, the illiteracy issue is irrelevant to this proposal, as it requires no more literacy than current practices. So you need to stop bringing it up unless you are going to offer an alternative hypothesis. Otherwise you just become a denier who repeats debunked claims over and over. Literacy needs solving, but that’s not for the science blog.

    You make some interesting points about the budget deficit but I don’t see why a unified syllabus that is delivered through an online medium would increase that cost. It would probably reduce the cost.

    Okay, it might need a reapportioning of the budget to allow for less text books and more bandwidth but schools need that technology anyway.

    In time almost all jobs will require computer literacy, so this technology will have to be integrated anyway – indeed that revolution has already begun. So why not take advantage of that infrastructure.

    The scientific community might happen to be mostly white middle class males, but therein lies a paradox. You are unwilling to accept help intended to open up the field of science to a wider demographic because it comes from a privileged section of society. BUT THEY ARE THE ONES WHO KNOW SCIENCE. Who else do you suggest imparts the wisdom of science if not the scientists?

    Again, nobody is suggesting that the resource be produced exclusively by practicing scientists, but by a combination of education specialists and science specialists.

    There is no claim that scientists know how to educate, only that they know the science which should be taught.

  64. alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 3:39 am

    I just wanted to add. I think most kids would be impressed if a teacher whipped out a mac air.

    And kids love wikipedia, a little too much, so that it has become (and rightly so) a favourite skeptical sport to point out that anyone’s wikipedia reference shouldn’t be relied on too much. If students had an official large scale resource strictly edited so that it was reliable – I think they’d be glad for that kind of one stop shop.

    Which brings me to what I think is a relevant criticism of this system. If all the curriculum, research and references were pooled into one wiki.ed.gov or whatever, it wouldn’t exactly foster good research practices. Students could get away with referencing a wiki in their work.

  65. deciuson 08 Sep 2008 at 8:39 am

    I agree with the despicable chiropractor on one count, this blog is elitist.
    In fact, while Novella represents the intellectual elite – to which we all should be grateful for driving forward scientific progress and promoting critical thinking – a chiropractor symbolises the lowest common denominator of pseudo-science applied to fraud, not ranking higher than tarot readers, soothsayers and bigfoot experts in the cognitive scale.

    Long live the intellectual elite, I say.

  66. Fifion 08 Sep 2008 at 8:59 am

    Roy Niles – Thanks for the warning about nwtk. Though it’s not being a chiropractor per se that’s the issue with nwtk, it’s the trollish behavior (all insult no content, in this case starting off insulting the blog author as usual and then trotting out his nostalgic opinions about education in America). Kinda ironic since he’s previously claimed to teach “science” himself at a chiropractic college which promotes subluxations and other woo so he seems more like a symptom or even cause of the problem than a solution.

    However that’s off topic, as was ama’s post that I probably shouldn’t have responded to since it was also off topic and hyperbolic. I just found it hard to pass by the hyperbolic statement that “language is warfare”, assertions about language and call to create hateful propaganda, particularly in a thread about education!

  67. Fifion 08 Sep 2008 at 10:22 am

    Alex – you make a good point about the wiki and research. Particularly since it’s being able to learn for oneself and do one’s own research, knowing how to learn, that is one of the cornerstones of critical thinking. (By research I mean not only being able to find info but also be able to turn that info knowledge, to be able to discern what is relevant and what isn’t, how it applies to other info and so on). Being able to assess, sort and understand information is a highly useful skill in a society that’s as info heavy as our own (though much of the “info” isn’t that informative, it’s more
    promotional or propagandistic).

    I just reread A Prayer for Owen Meany (by John Irving), it was interesting in light of this conversation since, among the many themes bursting forth from the book’s many pages (which is mainly about faith and doubt), are those of reading, writing and also education (the narrating character is a dyslexic English teacher). The beauty and wonder of language is that it allows us to transport experiences and concepts across time and space, and to share experiences. The book also deals with class politics in America.

    I find it interesting when people throw around “elitist” in terms of scientists or science since all the medical researchers I know make about the same as the teachers I know – (considering what they usually charge, I’d think most chiropractors make more money). Research science isn’t exactly something you go into for the money (unless you’re planning to go work in the pharmaceutical industry maybe).

    It occurs to me that this idea that science is elitist (or Dr Novella is because he’s discussing using technology in the classroom) is often promoted by people who have some resentment of science or scientists. (Kind of like how some people think having a large vocabulary is “elitist”, which seems pretty out of touch and elitist in and of itself because the hip hop artists I know, who admittedly tend to be of the underground persuasion, have very sophisticated vocabularies and creative word use simply because they’re wordsmiths. Apparently a lot of people are unable to see the sophistication of certain patois and dialects because of their own elitism!) But I’m digressing back to my first love, language…

    So I wonder, do people think science is elitist because it requires a university education and is often practiced in universities because of the infrastructure needed? Or is it merely because they don’t understand the basics of science so feel diminished or kinda dumb in the face of specialized language? Or have a lingering resentment left over from doing poorly in high school science? Or is it some assumption that scientists are all rich? Or is the general anti-intellectualism in the US?

    The debate about rote learning (books and memorizing) vs creative learning (play and experience) has been going on for ages – authoritarians prefer the first generally and find the second disruptive – and on some levels essentially comes down to whether one is teaching kids to conform or be curious. It seems to me that interest in science is driven by curiosity essentially – wanting to know how things work, which is why I think the hands on approach mentioned by Devil’s Advocate is a very smart approach – and learning is intrinsically linked to curiosity. When asking “why” is seen as a disciplinary problem and a child is punished for being curious or having a discerning mind, they start to channel those skills somewhere else that’s immediately useful or their curiosity gets snuffed out.

    If we’re going to talk about elitism in the US, it’s interesting to note the example presented about science education in Australia (science education in public schools is generally better than in the US too, though having David Suzuki and public TV that shows great nature and science programs is also a factor in Canada). Australian and Canadian cultures are also much more socially mobile than American society is in terms of changing classes/income levels during one’s lifetime, and this is because of public education and access to university educations for people from all classes. Certainly US schools of all kinds reflect the general classist nature of US society, and obviously a public school teacher who’s overwhelmed by lack of resources and an appropriate context to teach within is up against the wall. That’s a social and political issue, you may want to look at who profits from creating a system that shuttles kids from public school to private prisons.

  68. amaon 08 Sep 2008 at 10:32 am

    Germany has a long history of teachers preparing material for classes. The specialty is that teachers prepare this material for OTHER teachers. First they made simple paper copies. Then, with the WWW, they built web-sites for that.

    This is one of them:
    http://www.schule-bw.de/schularten/berufliche_schulen/lehrerfortbildung

    This movement has an advantage for the state: The more material is provided here, the less material must be bought from schoolbook publishers. So the state enforced that movement…

    With internet becoming available EVERYWHERE and becoming cheap in price, it is possible to GET information for really low cost.

    The point – and here I repeat myself – is: If information is NOT WANTED, you cannot feed it into the heads of children.

    In Germany we have a long tradition of worker’s towns (“Arbeiterstädte”). This got so extreme that education was spit at. People found it cool to be dumb. Anyone who wanted to learn was mobbed. Of course in such an environment LEARNING will be avoided. One of the largest piles of mess in Germany is the town of Bremerhaven. Bremerhaven for decades played a special role for the USA as their main harbour to Germany.
    Now, this town Bremerhaven has one of the lousiest PISA rankings and the highest rate of unemployment in Germany. Any guesses, why…?

    Yes, education was spit at in Bremerhaven. Because the citizens felt as workers. And workers do not need education. They are proud of being stupid. The regime they elected continously with almost 2/3 majority since WW II is the SPD. And the bosses of the SPD of course were (and are) against education. Except for one thing: their own children they sent to Gymnasium and Universität.

    Scenes of school life in Bremerhaven are portrayed here:

    “Haut den Lehrern in die Fresse!”
    http://ariplex.com/sfb/sfb_haut.htm

    (translated: “Kick the teachers in the snout!”)

    There is more than just the SPD regime, there is also the accomplicity of the justice system: teachers are prey to the violence by the students. There were incidents when violent students showed up in a class and beat up students and teachers badly. And there is no REAL law enforcement. The doers get away with it.

    This is not the climate for a teacher to be motivated to teach children.

    Being stupid is cool. We do not need educated people.

    Stopping this mess can only be done by publicly SAYING that this is a mess. We MUST tell these zerobrainers that they are damned stupid. That they are a shame to mankind.

    “Political correctness”, i.e. patting them on the heads to being so very nice, is not the way to treat these dimwits. We MUST fight them with all our power. All of them, and mostly those in the political system.

  69. alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Wow, ama! now THAT was elitist!

    Your argument is essentially an evolutionary one. Bremerhaven became a port for the US and so the demand for labourers outweighed the demand for academics. So academic achievement was shunned. When the US stopped using the port the trend continued despite a reduction in the need for labourers. This will right itself I’m sure, the trend was a response to the change in environment and now there has been another change in the environment of Bremerhaven then there will be another response to that.

    However, it is very elitist to criticise whole groups of people for their lack of academic achievement when instead they have simply learned a different skillset, a vocational one.

    Society needs both labourers and academics (to draw a false dichotomy, it is clearly a spectrum in reality). Both groups should be appreciated equally. That may be political correctness, but it is also just.

    To place academics on a pedestal above dock workers, or farmers or bricklayers is very elitist.

    I believe the trend in the future will go towards more and more automated systems where computers and machines replace many of the physical and administrative roles that people currently occupy. In that time we might lose the need for labourers who can get away without adequate literacy, and need more technicians perhaps – but this is just another change in the environment which society will evolve to survive in.

    To your point Fifi:

    “I find it interesting when people throw around “elitist” in terms of scientists or science since all the medical researchers I know make about the same as the teachers I know”

    “do people think science is elitist because it requires a university education and is often practiced in universities because of the infrastructure needed?”

    Yes. I think it’s as simple as that. It requires an expensive education which is not available to those without the necessary means for, the necessary means for a higher education. (just for you rc)

    SO in a sense elitist is appropriate, but only when it’s misused. It’s not really elitism as science as a field isn’t run by anyone, nor does it rule over anything. In a popularized sense of the word I can understand it being used, but even then it is no fault of the scientific community. The rich can’t help having well educated children. That is an issue for capitalism to comes to terms with, if you don’t want that to be the case, then you need a more socialist system with free higher education, or at least affordable higher education. But that’s for another blog again.

  70. Steven Novellaon 08 Sep 2008 at 2:00 pm

    I plan on writing a follow up post to this, but just to address some of the side points.

    I referenced Adam Savage not as an authority or as name dropping – but because his article is what inspired me to write mine. I often will link to other sources (especially recent ones) relevant to the topic at hand by simply incorporating them into my prose with an embedded link. It’s a common blog tactic. I made no claim to his authority nor did I base any premise on it – in fact I brought it up partly to disagree with him.

    I disagree that this blog post is elitist because I never presented it as the solution to all education problems – but rather as an idea (a suggestion) to deal with one defined slice of the problem – the poor quality of the science information being imparted to students, and as part of this the disconnect between the scientific community and the education community.

  71. alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 2:27 pm

    AH. you got me, I’m english and you’re right my knowledge of inner city US schools is VERY limited. What I do know is second hand info I learned from friends who I lived for a while in Brooklyn, both teachers. And what I know about the schools my 2 young brothers-in-law go to in sacramento. That’s why I’m not claiming to have THE answer, just backing a system that I believe would be cheap and easily implemented on a grand scale.

    I think we have managed to reduce the question of improving science education to 2 questions.

    1. How can the science curriculum be improved?
    2. How can students be encouraged to learn?

    Steve’s idea, which it’s clear I am behind, is an answer for Q1. If we can replace the text book culture, with an online resource that is written by specialists in education and science, we would have a system that could be delivered to all schools in the country at a fraction of the cost compared to rolling out textbooks nationwide.

    Q2 is trickier and not science ed specific. Kids are all different and there is no one answer for getting kids curious. Some never will be. The proposals you suggest –

    “add one teaching assistant with credential for every 10 students in a classroom. And hire one Master’s Degree person with a science background from outside the school system (private enterprise maybe) , and without a credential to oversee the credentialed, unionized teachers. Pay them a lot. And fire them if their science department under performs. They set the curriculum and standards, and help the credentialed teachers to meet goals.”

    -could work. It sounds like a great idea to me.

    Teacher’s assistants, from the limited experience I’ve had with them, really help. That is something that would need assessing more thoroughly, but is well worth looking into. I can’t see a reason why lots of teacher’s aids would fail. If we consider that most classes have between 20-30 students then we are talking about at least doubling maybe tripling the number of educators employed. While that is simply the basic and best answer, it seems a little idealistic. Where does the funding for that come from?

    A science adviser seems like an okay idea, (except to the current president). I think you are suggesting a sort of head of science position at each school. The problem I would have with that is inconsistency. I’m also unsure what they are needed. You suggest they would write the curriculum. Well why not have the curriculum be written and updated on a regular basis by a government office that is in charge of this?

    You are suggesting that every school hires an MSc (or maybe every district). But wouldn’t it be cheaper and more manageable if that idea was centralized, say into a sort of internet distributed resource with references and lesson plans to boot? I know! It could be a wiki style.

    “Show the evidence that the massive influx of internet and computers has budged standardized test scores in any meaningful way.”

    I can’t show that, I wouldnt know how to look it up, my information research skills werent honed very well while I was in school — if only we had a wiki.ed.gov ;) — But it is unnecessary to prove that the ongoing influx of computers has improved computer-literacy – which in tomorrow’s society will be just as important as good old fashioned literacy.

    That is the real point – this idea can take advantage of the current trends in education, without a complete overhaul or a major budget restructuring.

    Am I wrong? Am I wrong? Okay then.

  72. Fifion 08 Sep 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Alex – “Society needs both labourers and academics (to draw a false dichotomy, it is clearly a spectrum in reality). Both groups should be appreciated equally. That may be political correctness, but it is also just. To place academics on a pedestal above dock workers, or farmers or bricklayers is very elitist.”

    I agree totally. And that’s an authentic agreement based in my own understanding and on my own perspective, not a politically correct agreement where I’m hiding my actual prejudice (to me THAT’S being “politically correct” and personally I prefer to deal with open prejudice than hidden – and according to a recent study that confirms what I’ve often observed and been told, I’m not alone in this dislike of hidden hate and preference to know what/who I’m dealing with). It’s interesting how often people who rail against “political correctness” seem to really just be angry about not being able to be as publicly hateful and oppressive to others as they’d like!

    Also, most wealthy countries actually have a dearth of skilled tradespeople because so many people overlook the trades because they’re more physical labor (though many tradespeople make much better money than uni grads!).

    Ironically it often seems to be more academically educated people who fall prey to various sorts of pseudoscience not people who do very practical jobs that employ real life problem solving. (Bringing to mind that old adage about a little information being a dangerous thing…)

    Alex – “Yes. I think it’s as simple as that. It requires an expensive education which is not available to those without the necessary means for, the necessary means for a higher education.”

    This is true in the US but not true of Canada and Australia (though things are shifting away from universal access to university education in both countries to some degree). Sure kids with rich parents have it easier all over the world in some respects but many people (myself included) work their way through university and are eligible for grants and bursaries (which basically cover tuition). It’s interesting to speculate if the US attitude towards science has something to do with access to education and what that means in terms of how educated the populace actually is (obviously education IS a more elitist pursuit in the US than it is in many other countries of similar affluence, and the US has a very wide gap between rich and poor).

    One other factor about learning that hasn’t been touched on here is nutrition. Kids who don’t get the nutrition their brains need can’t learn well – poverty in the US means little access to the kinds of healthy foods that support brain development (and I’d suspect that it’s not only poor kids eating really, really bad diets). Heh, maybe the way to go would to be to first teach kids about their brains and nutrition! (I suspect you’d get kids coming home lecturing their parents, just like kids did when anti-smoking campaigns were introduced in primary schools way, way back in the day.)

  73. amaon 08 Sep 2008 at 3:29 pm

    >alex on 08 Sep 2008 at 1:53 pm
    >Wow, ama! now THAT was elitist!

    Gee, what a joke. Well, an involuntary one.

    Alex, you did not unterstand even the most simple things I wrote. BUT you called me an elitist.

    Would you realize that this is just the same what is happening in Bremerhaven?

    >Bremerhaven became a port for the US and so the
    >demand for labourers outweighed the demand for
    >academics.

    I mentioned the US connection because Bremerhaven is one of the very few towns that the USA have a strong relation with, and so many Americans know the name.

    But Bremerhaven is a slave colony of Bremen. Merchants of Bremen organized a deal in which land was bought, land which is about 60 km north of Bremen and is right at the mouth of the river Weser. The mouth of the river Weser is an interesting place in history and the region was settled more than 1000 years ago. The place is the key to deep water. The Bremen merchants in 1827 started the new harbour place and many workers came from the surrounding villages.

    So, off start Bremerhaven has a very strange history. The harbor grew to a own and the villages were incorporated. The town did not have the name “Bremerhaven”, but Geestemünde”. IIRC the name was changed after the war. Before that “Bremerhaven” alway was only the harbor area.

    The place is a key to deep water and a key to railway connections on land. This led to Bremerhaven rising to become the largest fishery harbor on the continent. Bremerhaven was all the time since it was begun a harbor town. This means simple work, workers, fishermen, and everything else which is connected with fish, ships, and with emigration. Bremerhaven was a ver important port for the emigrants, it was their last stay in Germany before they, say, reached New York.

    All this had never any connection with the US military base.

    So your assumptions about the US military having any effect on this are TOTALLY wrong.

    And, don not forget: Bremerhaven is a large town (“Großstadt”) with – now 120,000 inhabitants. In its better days it had 140,000 inhabitants.

    >However, it is very elitist to criticise whole groups of
    >people for their lack of academic achievement when
    >instead they have simply learned a different skillset, a
    >vocational one.

    Again: You did not understand anything of what I wrote. Children who wanted to learn were and are mobbed. Mobbed is a modern word, a noble word, for a swiny way to treat other people.

    The kernel of what I wrote is: There are people who do not want to learn and who fight against people who learn or who do know more.

    It is cool to be stupid. That is EXACTLY the Bremerhaven style of life.

    So is is NOT a question of how many books or computers there are to use, it is a question of how to weed out the idiocy “It is cool to be stupid”.

  74. alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 5:53 pm

    You’re right that I don’t always understand what you are saying. It’s hard enough expressing some thoughts in words, never mind in a second language, so I’m not being offensive when I say that I think some of your intended meaning may be lost in your translation. (If I was to write my posts in German – well I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have a chance.) So I think some of my misunderstanding could be down to that.

    However, I wasn’t using Bremerhaven as a specific historical example. I was using what you had written to illustrate the point that there is an evolving demand for labourers vs academics.

    My point was that it is wrong to vilify a community just because they don’t live up to your personal academic standards. Whatever the reason for industry in Bremerhaven, or anywhere else — wherever there is industry — there is the need for labourers. This balance will change in time – i predict towards less physical labourer jobs and more machine maintenance/ software programmers etc – if that occurs then demand will drive people to learn about those subjects which might be considered more academically sophisticated.

    But if people are getting along fine without academia then it is not your place – nor anyone’s – to call that idiocy or stupidity.

    If it is true that the residents of your least favourite town find it cool to be stupid, then just ignore them, when the jobs that ‘stupid’ people can do run out, the new generations won’t find it cool for long.

    But to be honest, you’re talking nonsense anyway. There’s no way those people find it cool to be ‘stupid’ maybe they find it cool to shun academia and work in manual labour professions – but if that lets them get by and enjoy life, then I’d propose that maybe they’ve got it figured out quite well.

    Finding a way to live the life you want is the complete opposite of stupidity. (Dont bother coming back with intelligence as the opposite of stupidity, I’m not interested in this debate. If people are happy leave them be and quit passing judgement)

  75. amaon 08 Sep 2008 at 6:08 pm

    >alexon 08 Sep 2008 at 5:53 pm
    >I’m not interested in this debate.

    That’s it. You are out.

  76. Steve Pageon 09 Sep 2008 at 6:14 am

    Regarding the “cool to be stupid” issue, I think it is at least in part due to the jock/nerd mentality that seems to be exaggerated by the media. As Steve said on the SGU recently, the majority of TV shows aimed at kids show them all aspiring to be, for want of a better expression, “stupid cool”, with plotlines based around which guy x should date or which “get out of school” dodge y should perform. The underlying premise appears to be “aspire to get away with what you can whilst looking fabulous and being popular”. (Incidentally, the refusal to conform to this stereotype is one of the reasons why Lisa Simpson is one of my favourite TV characters.)

    One other thing to consider is that, in the west, we live in highly individualistic societies that reward competition, and this may lead to the jock/nerd dichotomy. Given the human tendency to favour one’s in-group and prop up one’s self-esteem by making in-group/out-group downward comparisons, it’s hardly surprising that people gravitate toward one specific group. For as strange as it may sound, I actually struggled at school because I had a foot in both camps; I was too bookish for the jocks and too sporty for the nerds, and ended up never really feeling like I fitted in with either.

    I’ll put my violin away now. :)

  77. christina702on 18 Sep 2008 at 3:25 pm

    I’m wondering what other people think. I’ve been doing some research on healthy eating and low carb diets in particular and came up with this one site called OpposingViews.com where there are debates by experts on various subjects. There is one debate called: “Are Low Carb Diets Healthy?”.
    I like the idea that these people are experts in their fields, but this one guy says something that gives me pause. He says something to the effect that eating whole plant foods is associated with having good health but diets high in animal protein and fats are not. He also says that in a global sense, a sustained low carbohydrate diet which comes mainly from animal foods creates significant challenges for the planet and also other health issues for people such as antibiotic resistance.”
    What do you think he means when he says that a diet which comes primarily from animal proteins is bad for the planet? That’s the first time I ever heard that. If you have time, take a look and let me know what you think by posting your comment. Thanks! http://www.opposingviews.com/questions/are-low-carb-diets-healthy

  78. b_calderon 26 Sep 2008 at 7:46 pm

    I have been busy with the new semester. Looking at this thread I can’t believe nobody has even mentioned Project 2061.

    How can you even consider discussing the subject without doing a cursory investigation. I am very disappointed.

    When Steve mentioned this some time back I posted, mentioning the project and the fact that a goodly number of people have put in literally years of work on it and that it is co-ordinated with other science education groups. All of them normal.

    They can’t help it that the national science teacher’s organization loves ExxonMobil. They can’t help it that state boards of education appoint troglodytes and arrogant twits who think they can do a better job.

    If any of the posters are interested, they don’t have to buy the books. Anyone can access the standards at the NSDL.

  79. [...] read several interesting posts a couple weeks ago by Steven Novella about how to improve science education, science textbooks, and support for science teachers. It’s clear just from the comments there [...]

  80. Harry Kon 29 Nov 2008 at 1:12 pm

    Textbooks? It’s the wrong place to put your efforts. The concept of a textbook should be obsolete very soon.

    How do we, the public, change science instruction to meet the goals listed by Dr. Novella (some paraphrased)?

    1. Teach how we know what we know.
    2. Include examples from [regular life].
    3. Teach [scientific information access methods].
    4. “Hands-on” (active engagement)
    5. Critical thinking (broad concept needs refining)

    Lots of things might help. Examples are new curricula, higher pay for science teachers, professional development involving real science, and many others that have already been tried and found to work only slightly if at all.

    We (or somebody with some clout) must find a new way. Just grinding out the same old stuff either won’t work or will take too long or too much money or both.

    The list above can be summarized (rather glibly) as having students learn science rather than learning about science. The best way to learn science is by doing science. I suspect that you’ll find that most scientists really learned science when they began to do it, usually under the tutelage of an experienced scientist.

    Few science teachers know enough science to teach beyond the “about science” level. No textbook (even wiki-ized) can fix that problem. Professional development often doesn’t translate into results in the classroom and requires too many PD sessions to get all teachers on board. And so it goes. Just about everything is slow or expensive or (most often) both.

    Good solutions must be instantly scalable — usable in any and all science classrooms (at least in high school) right away. They must be inexpensive and require little training of teachers. They must include accountability so that we know if they’re being used.

    Good solutions should have benefits for the teachers beyond better student learning. They should engage students. They probably will involve new technologies in new ways because over 100 years of trying without new technologies has not solved the problems.

    Once students get over their aversion to the work of thinking, they love it. We must allow that step to happen.

    I believe that many paths that fit the above criteria should exist and should eventually merge into a grand highway to excellent science learning.

    I have been working on one such path that involves the science lab experience. (See http://www.smartscience.net.) The National Research Council, in America’s Lab Report, set out a definition for science lab experiences and set goals for them and for correctly integrating them into science courses. I have created an inexpensive means to meet all of these criteria with a blended online and offline set of science experiments. My colleagues and I have build 150 of these integrated instructional lab units so far.

    Conceivably, a course could consist of just the following.

    A) Introduction to a science theme
    B) Experimentation about the theme
    C) Discussion of the results
    D) Bridge to next theme

    Repeat these steps until you reach the end of the course.

    Of course, the introduction wouldn’t give out the expected results. Of course, some of the experimentation would involve student experimental design. The teacher would have to know enough to guide the discussion well.

    If you begin to think about the benefits of such an approach for teacher and students, you’ll begin to get excited.

    We have the technology today. Schools have invested millions in underutilized (in many instances) computers and Internet connections. You wouldn’t have to have any textbooks, just reference books. The hands-on labs, the virtual (not simulated!!) labs, the demonstrations, the videos, the student research, etc. would all be part of the course design and would all be available for very low cost.

    Full teacher support can be built in readily. Students can work at their own pace because much of the materials will be available outside of class.

    This is just a glimmer of an idea that I’ve had for a decade or more. It’s not yet perfected to the degree necessary but could be rather quickly were the will (and resources) available.

    Feel free to contact me at harry@paracompusa.com. See my web site at http://www.smartscience.net. Read my blog at smartscience.blogspot.com. Tell me what I’m missing.

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