Apr 23 2010

More on Science Education

Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief of Science, the magazine of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has written an interesting editorial on prioritizing science education. The gist of his article is that we should combine literacy education with science education, as these two knowledge bases are intimately connected. I agree with both his specific example and the general principle, which should be more broadly applied.

The idea is that, whenever possible, learning tasks should involve real world applications. In this case, he points out that much of the literacy education in schools uses fiction for reading material. Why not also use science and factual texts? Factual texts are different than fiction, and being able to comprehend and write non-fiction is as important (if not more) than understanding fictional literature.

By the same token, there should be more teaching in science class about how to read and write science texts. Students would benefit by having greater literacy and a greater understanding of science, and ability to communicate science. That sounds like a win-win to me.

The broader concept is that lessons should involve real-world tasks whenever possible. This comes up often in math, for example. Why give students mindless tasks that do not reflect real applications? It would be far better to give examples that apply to either everyday use or applications in certain jobs, including science. For example, my daughter’s school recently celebrated Earth Day. As part of that her math teacher gave them a task – assign a number to each letter of the alphabet (a=1, b=2, etc) and then calculate the value of the word “earth”. OK – this is math, and there is value in that, but when would anyone ever do this task in the real world? Never (outside of doing some puzzle for fun).

Why not calculate the value of recycling (cost to produce new items vs the cost to recycle them), or even simpler, the refund for returning X number of bottles at a deposit of 5 cents each. I do notice with my own children, and even remember from my own grade school experience, that much was what is taught is taught in relative isolation. Students do not always fully absorb the lesson, and realize its utility.

By integrating lessons – showing the value of language to science, and math to science, and science to history, etc. – the knowledge will seem more real and useful, and students may be more likely to fully absorb the meaning of the lesson, not just the mechanics.

I also have experience at the other end of the spectrum – medical education. As students progress through to their clinical training, all knowledge is practical, and students fully recognize the utility of each bit of information. I find myself saying all the time, “This is important because…” – and then giving as full an appreciation as I can for how the information is used in medical practice, to think about patients, diagnose and treat them. And students ask insightful questions that show that they get it.

Sure – part of this difference is knowledge and maturity. You can only expect so much from 10 year-olds. But I do think that combining lessons and stopping to ask about every lesson – how does this apply in the world – would be a significant improvement.

I know there are many excellent teachers out there who already do this. Also, the better textbooks do this to some degree as well, while the bad ones use mindless and worthless pseudo-examples. But I would like to see cross-discipline integration become more the rule. Hopefully Albert’s editorial will spark some discussion of the issue.

28 responses so far

28 Responses to “More on Science Education”

  1. Liminalon 23 Apr 2010 at 9:46 am

    I absolutely agree . . . although there is no reason that literature cannot play a part in a healthy interdisciplinary approach. There’s also plenty of math in music, science in art, and critical thinking in some of the most interesting plays. As the arts are cut in school after school, we are depriving our children of just as much value as when sciences are cut or taught poorly.

    I think the more educators can help students understand the ways in which science, history, math, and the arts intersect, the more students will get excited by knowledge.

  2. Timmysonon 23 Apr 2010 at 10:02 am

    They use fiction because it’s most fun, and motivates the kids to do the work. I don’t think scientific literature (especially with the phenomenally larger vocabulary) would motivate kids to read casually the way fiction does.

    Real-world problems are more fun than rote math, but I think a better analogy to literacty would be that reading non-fiction is more fun than reading the dictionary.

    As a kid I loved science (the understanding of how the world works, and the puzzle of sorting out causality from data), but reading non-fiction about complicated subjects remains very difficult for me. I can process the same material in other ways (orally is my preference) and I can get specific information I need very easily, but reading passages takes a huge amount of concentration for me, even when written for laypeople (which is a format I find very irritating, because by the end, I still don’t feel like I fundamentally understand it, I just know some trivia about it).

    It’s hard to second-guess what-ifs, since it is not impossible to imagine that I would do better in your model, but I believe my literacy would have suffered, rather than benefitted from a non-fiction emphasis.

  3. skrileon 23 Apr 2010 at 11:10 am

    The approach advocated in Bruce Alberts’ article is a well known (and often hotly debated topic). As catch-up reading you can check out Wikipedia – this is pretty accurate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_language

    Among other elements of this theory, reading and literacy should be included in all aspects of learning, not just as stand-alone discipline – i.e. reading class.

  4. SpicyCupcakeon 23 Apr 2010 at 11:27 am

    I agree that you should have cross-learning in subjects. I know I would have loved this strategy. Reading non-fiction was never presented as an Idea in K-12. No one ever asked “why don’t you read on your own?” and then presented me with options outside of fiction or baseball. I do not enjoy reading fiction (however I have recently discovered fiction audio books can be enjoyable). I found nearly every book I was forced to read painfully boring and tedious. The only solutions were to recommend other kinds of fiction or a book about baseball (in my opinion little is more boring than baseball). One thing some schools do now is attempt to let students pick their own reading material with accelerated reader. The choices are biased by how many points are assigned to each book vs how fast you can get it done. Harry Potter was incredibly popular since it was a relatively quick read and worth huge points.

    What would have gotten me to read is if they gave me credit for reading magazines. I started reading gaming magazines because I learned to read from video games. Now I read science based magazines and articles online with amazing frequency. My position is that more science in the reading is good for optimizing time spent for education gained, it may not be the best for motivating children to read just do reading. The children who love fiction now would likely be the ones who hate it when school is shoving items they do not enjoy reading down their throat. Where I agree with you is that once children know how to read, you should not have them at gun point making them read for reading’s sake. What they read should have a point and not be chalked up to busy work. Instead of an hour of reading for English (just because they want you to read and be able to comprehend) and an hour of reading for science (so that you comprehend the material) make the reading comprehension count for both.

    I just don’t agree that it would need to all be science. Bring in all other subjects, and make sure to add fiction to keep it well rounded until they are old enough to know what they like and choose it. I think the biggest mistake we make with education is we treat it more like rehabilitating people. It needs to be more of a facilitating kid’s interest. However, that is an entire other issue and far from easy to resolve with the system in place.

  5. Esattezzaon 23 Apr 2010 at 11:35 am

    I agree with Timmyson on this one. Even now, in grad school, I have trouble making myself to sit down to read a stack of papers… and back when I had the time to read for fun, I would sometimes devour 2 or 3 fiction books in a weekend. In grade school, I think it’s more important that kid learn to read and then use it to stretch the bounds of their own creativity (also very important for science) than for them to begin to become scientifically literate. The place for that may be in high school science labs, where the emphasis should be as much on properly writing the report as it is on doing the experiment. This is the time to begin to learn to read and write as a scientist, as it’s the first time kids really have any hope of understanding the jargon.

  6. w_nightshadeon 23 Apr 2010 at 11:36 am

    My son is 6 and goes to primary school in Scotland (thankfully, we live in Scotland, so the travel is straightforward).

    Anyway, his school uses this more integrative approach (certainly in the early grades) – they have a topic that will span a few months, and they integrate maths and reading and other subjects with that topic. The current topic is recycling (past ones included times past, electricity and growing things), so they do art projects with recycled materials, identify different recyclable and non-recyclable materials, write pieces about it, even design a poll for friends and neighbours to gather data and plot the results.

    Anecdotally, I think it works as a teaching method – at least at that level – as it brings some cohesiveness to disparate lessons, but retains enough structure to facilitate actual learning.

  7. Ashon 23 Apr 2010 at 1:09 pm

    When I was in elementary school I only wanted to read books on astronomy and paleontology (I guess I was a budding scientist even back then) – the librarian started making me sign out at least one fiction book every week.

    In early grades I think the important thing is just to get kids reading and working on general comprehension skills, but certainly as kids get older having them learn to read and comprehend non-fiction, including scientific papers, would be valuable. Maybe it would cut down on the number of anti-vaccination and pro-quackery people if they could actually understand what they’re reading.

  8. Big Ugly Jimon 23 Apr 2010 at 1:11 pm

    I very much agree with this post. When I went through college, I was stunned at the number of very intelligent computer nerds like me who could explain at great length their thoughts, but the minute you asked them to write it down they became idiots. Kids who gravitate to science more than language seem to have a strike against them in terms of learning how to properly construct papers and the like.

    And as far as the relevent example goes, again I agree. The number of times as a college professor I was asked about other courses, “Why do I need to know this?” was staggering, and it took a matter of moments for me to give a practical example. I was teaching Systems Analysis, and my students came in confused as all hell over the programming concept of doubly linked lists. Their teacher had taught them all the theory but none of the practical use. When I told them that they had just built from the ground up a rudimentary database, and now the concept of a database would be much more directly understandable, they immediately understood and it cemented all the confusing topics of the time, things like memory pointers and structures. With a practical example it all came together nicely for them.

  9. zoe237on 23 Apr 2010 at 1:21 pm

    In education, there has been a lot of lip service paid to both interdisciplinary learning and concentrating on non-fiction literacy. However, in reality, both history and science take a back seat to reading and math. It’s really silly, because in the real world, the entire reason for reading and math is to be able to understand social studies (geography, history, politics, government- knowing how to get information in order to cast an educated vote) and science (particularly medicine and health, since it effects everybody at some point).

    I don’t agree with the first commenter at all that fiction is more fun and motivates students more to read. If it is true, it’s because the science and history teachers in schools are terrible and don’t really appreciate their own profession. Not all of them obviously.

    What we need is more actual scientists teaching in grade school!!!

  10. zoe237on 23 Apr 2010 at 2:16 pm


    “In grade school, I think it’s more important that kid learn to read and then use it to stretch the bounds of their own creativity (also very important for science) than for them to begin to become scientifically literate. The place for that may be in high school science labs, where the emphasis should be as much on properly writing the report as it is on doing the experiment. This is the time to begin to learn to read and write as a scientist, as it’s the first time kids really have any hope of understanding the jargon.”

    I just can’t disagree more that elementary age kids shouldn’t be reading non fiction or becoming scientifically literate. Even kindergarten is a prime age for capitalizing on scientific learning- never more than in the early years are childrem more interested in the hows and whys of the world. How the body works, ecology in the spring, how far away the stars are, dinosaurs… all 3 of my kids have devoured books on science in the early years that were tailored for their level, and they never stopped asking questions. If you wait ’til high school, it’s too late.

    For example, in a second grade classroom students might do an experiment with ice cubes, how long they take to melt, if they float in water, etc etc. The writing it down what they think will happen (hypothesis), their results (in words or pictures), and a conclusion about what all ice cubes do. They are also perfectly capable of doing research, i.e. reading books about the water cycle, doing venn diagrams, discussing their ideas about butterflies after reading about their life cycle… whatever. The process of thinking and experimenting and reading and discussing is more important than the facts (about the larvae or buoyancy).

  11. Big Ugly Jimon 23 Apr 2010 at 6:20 pm

    I have a daughter who has some real issues. My ex called me to tell me today that she’s taking her to the doctor because we’re worried that her new medicine (ADHD and ODD) might be causing a reaction, based on the phone call from the school telling us she ripped up her spelling test and ate parts of it. This girl is NOT a fan of school or reading or anything accademic, which obviously pains me.

    A couple of years ago I bought her this book that totally engrossed her and made her actually want to read. It was the journals of a girl approximately her age who lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada during the Great Depression. She just ate it up, and I’ve bought her several others from the same series. The one I recall most vividly capturing her attention was the journals of a girl who lived through the explosion in Halifax Harbour.

    These books are pure history (I *believe* they’re not actual journals but after-the-fact historical fictionalizations) and written in a way that children in that age bracket would totally enjoy and relate to. No topic has to be boring to kids, if the story is told well.

  12. Michael Meadonon 24 Apr 2010 at 4:46 am

    Nice summary Steve.

    A pretty large change in the math curriculum will go a very long way to advancing this goal: dropping calculus for statistics. A bunch of people have advocated this change – Pinker, John Allen Paulos, etc. – and I think it makes perfect sense. Calculus is important, of course, but not to the lives and jobs of very many people. Statistics, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite: firstly, people are really bad at it (c.f. Kahneman & Tversky) and, secondly, understanding a whole range of subjects – politics, economics, etc. – depend crucially on statistical knowledge. I can think of no better way in which we could make education more relevant to sutdents’ lives.

  13. hugoon 24 Apr 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I agree with most of the examples you highlight, although one shouldn’t underestimate the power of fiction in enriching one’s writing ability of both fiction and non-fiction pieces. And, of course, the comments on the social sciences are very true as well – education in areas other than science is obviously very important. Of course, no one is suggesting shifting from the current state to the opposite extreme!

    Being in the medical field, just as you are, I can mostly comment on what I’ve seen there. Whilst it’s certainly MORE focused on real-world applicability, there are some aspects of medical theory which is too ‘eminence based’ as opposed to evidence based, and some ‘facts’ seem entirely derived from medical mythology as opposed to any reasonable process! Nevertheless, as a field it serves as a good example of a ‘better’ system of education.

    What do you think of articles like these*, which argue that incorporating literature, especially non-fiction, can greatly aid one’s understanding of a patient’s ‘story’, and make one a better physician?


  14. BillyJoe7on 24 Apr 2010 at 7:47 pm

    “dropping calculus for statistics”

    Goddamn, I loved that subject!

    It was my favourite part of the maths course, and maths was my favourite subject. It was amazing how problems for which solutions seemed impossible whatever way you looked at them could actually be solved using calculus! That was absolutely amazing to me, and I got a real kick out of solving them. And, although I never got to use calculus in real life, my education would have been so much the poorer without it.

    Of course statistics are also interesting but I found that out only recently. It was never part of my education and that was certainly a failing.

  15. BillyJoe7on 24 Apr 2010 at 7:50 pm

    …also I’ve never read pure fiction. There’s just so much interesting factual material to read that it just seems a waste of time.

  16. b_calderon 25 Apr 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Big Ugly Jim is on point finding books his child enjoys. But making children read science is OK as long at is it interesting to them.

    The issue is that reading brings context to our understanding of culture. All culture. It allows us to communicate effectively after we have absorbed syntax, vocabulary, and style and to help us exercise constructing ideas.

    People don’t have problems reading and writing if they have experienced art in the form of literature. That’s the reason we read great books. Not adequate books or even fair books, but great books because they are like the big ideas of science.

    On the other hand, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to hear about why Lavoisier lost his head to put his science into context.

  17. lurchwurmon 25 Apr 2010 at 10:56 pm

    “Factual texts are different than fiction, and being able to comprehend and write non-fiction is as important (if not more) than understanding fictional literature.”

    Steve keeps breaking my heart with these science-biased statements 🙁

    We all know that technical scientific literature requires intense concentration… something that most people can only take in small doses (if they are serious about understanding). Both fiction and non-fiction have special places in the whole of the human experience… we should stick to teaching critical thinking when dealing with literacy education, not focus on whether the subject matter resides within empirical knowledge.

    The key element in improving critical thinking amongst the young is to first capture their attention. If they are not inspired to become engaged with the literature, can we expect them to use the experience as a step forward in their general critical thinking habits?

  18. zoe237on 25 Apr 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Statistics is a must in high school. Don’t know why it isn’t pushed more. Many high schools only require 2-3 years of math and science, and 4 of english. Very annoying. Even if you never use the quadratic equation or whatever, the process of reasoning through it and understanding logic is valuable forever.

    I also prefer non-fiction to fiction. My dad, an english professor, being very disturbed by this, commented that it is very easy to “tell” an idea through non-fiction, rather more difficult to “show” ideas and culture and human experience through stories. I tend to agree as a teacher, but still can’t get into personally too much. I regret this. The bottom line is that people learn differently, but knowing how to read and think about informational text is an essential life-long skill, even if it’s “boring” for a second or 12th grader.

  19. zoe237on 25 Apr 2010 at 11:43 pm

    Oh, and when you have grade school teachers who hate science or math or informational reading, is it any wonder kids find it boring? They take their cues from the adults in their lives and a teacher excited about statistics or recyling or anatomy can make all thd difference. I had one colleague (educator) who posted on her facebook under the reading category: “I don’t like reading.” Why the hell are you teaching then? lol. This is far more common than people realize.

  20. tmac57on 26 Apr 2010 at 12:36 am

    It is what we are exposed to, that sets us off on a path to who knows where? If you assume that children at an early age will not understand or like reading about science, then you may have made that choice for them.
    Children can read, understand and utilize basic science that is presented in an accessible and appropriate manner.This will gradually help build their foundation for later, more complex ideas.

  21. BillyJoe7on 26 Apr 2010 at 5:48 am


    You have just used one of my pet hate words.
    One of the most overused and useless words in the dictionary
    Use utilise only when you can’t use use.
    Which is almost never.

    (Of course, that is only my opinion)

  22. SteveAon 26 Apr 2010 at 7:37 am

    A good tip for reading scientific papers – look through and you’ll almost always find one chart that encapsulates the key data revealed by the study. Take a good look at that before you do anything else.

    This was passed on to me by one of my university lecturers. It’s proved very useful and is handy way of quickly evaluating a paper for relevance, especially if you have a lot to plough through.

  23. meleeon 26 Apr 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Ok- real world- how many kids see their parents reading fiction for enjoyment? Most parents don’t have the time. So,
    I read nonfictional science passages (everything from Darwin to Dawkins to Sagan to Plait) out loud to my 8th grade science classes as often as I can. Each year, several kids borrow my books.

    Language Arts and Math for the sake of LA and Math doesn’t motivate many of my students. When I give them a story about a discovery that really happened, or give them real data and have them analyze it, many are enthralled. They read about how science really works, and see how real people use LA and Math. Their reading, writing, and math skills improve, and they learn science while they’re at it.

    I think offering science as a motivator in Math and as an option in LA would be a win-win situation.

    All teachers teach reading and writing, no matter what their official “content area”- Lets enlist the LA and Math programs to support the Sciences!

  24. lurchwurmon 26 Apr 2010 at 11:44 pm

    “All teachers teach reading and writing, no matter what their official “content area”- Lets enlist the LA and Math programs to support the Sciences!”

    At what point are we doing overkill? When can we finally admit that everything in the human experience shouldn’t be strictly for science? Give the mind a break! It’s possible to value science ANDDDDDD other things 🙂

  25. meleeon 27 Apr 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I could have sworn that I saw the words “Science Education” in the title somewhere ; ) Anyway- Many school districts in my area consider science an elective until their kids come to my school in 7th grade. The kids do a token experiment once a month, and that’s about all. Including science readings (as well as readings from other areas being cut) might help. Just saying.

    Right now in many states schools are cutting programs to spend more time on LA and Math, due to low test scores in these areas. The kids DO need to improve in these areas, but perhaps in an interdisciplinary curriculum we could do much more than we do in traditional LA and Math programs.

  26. tmac57on 28 Apr 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Sorry that I stepped on your grammar’s toe. I will vow to not utilize utilize anymore;). I do have an excuse though. I was kicked out of high school senior English for talking too much in class, and I never quite recovered (true story). That, and the fact that I have an 87 I.Q.
    By the way, if you are setting out down the road toward being an internet blog pedant, you might want to allocate a few more hours in your busy day to the task.
    Well, I guess that I have utilized too much of your time, so cheers!

  27. bindleon 28 Apr 2010 at 10:22 pm

    As I read it, the fellow was against use of utilise, thus allowing the usage of utilize to be continued when utilitarianism required it.

  28. topstepon 10 Jun 2010 at 7:30 am

    My love of science only really kicked in once I had left school, and I started to learn about the cool real-world applications of the scientific method. Most of what I was doing in the school lab or the classroom felt bizarre and confusing to me.

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