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.

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