Apr 25 2008

The Quality of Science Education

Yesterday I discussed the proposed Florida “Academic Freedom” law, one aspect of which is to specifically protect the inclusion of criticisms and competing theories to evolution. I pointed out that no such law is required – good science education can and should already include legitimate criticisms of any theory. It is entirely a fiction of ID/creationists that evolutionary theory is a dogma protected from such criticism.

In response to this post several commenters pointed out that their experience in high-school science class did not include much discussion of competing theories. For example, Blair T wrote:

My recollection of high school biology class was it was mostly rote learning with lots of memorization. The idea that students are discussing or debating competing theories at that level seems a bit unlikely, since they have no fundamental knowledge to ground such a debate.

Blair is unfortunately correct in that this is all too commonly the experience. My own experience was mixed. I do remember some mindless memorization in biology class regarding evolution, and certainly almost everything I have learned about evolution I learned on my own outside the classroom or in undergraduate school.

But this is not a problem of academic freedom – it is a problem of the quality of science education. Ironically, the creationism movement has consistently eroded the quality of science education with regard to the teaching of evolution. Perhaps we can use the recent controversy regarding evolution and ID/creationism in the public schools to focus attention on the real issue – the quality of science education.

Before I describe what I think is wrong with science education in the US today, let me say that there are many excellent science teachers out there. I have heard from many of them, who have a genuine passion for science and take it upon themselves (regardless of what materials are provided for them) to provide a quality education to their students. I have also lectured to science teachers and have found many of them to have a good understanding of the need for critical thinking and to teach their students how to think about science. But I have also seen science teachers who don’t have a clue. As with any career or profession – there is a spectrum of individual quality.

While I think we should demand much from our teachers, we need to provide for them a better infrastructure so as to raise the quality of education across the board. One aspect of that is the textbook industry. I previously interviewed Bill Bennetta of the Textbook League, who has a sorry tale to tell about the state of science textbooks in this country. The best thing science teachers could say in their defense is that they do not use the terrible science textbooks supplied to them. The primary problem with the textbook industry is that they cater to the large states, such as Texas and Florida – two states among the most affected by the creationist movement. This aside, there is simply a fatal problem of quality control in science textbooks.

I think the solution to this is to create an open source wiki style science textbook on the web free for anyone to access. I would love to spearhead such a project – but I would be happy if anyone can do this. The world’s best scientists and science educators could then collaborate to create a full curriculum of science education, bypassing the insanity of the textbook industry, and focus on quality and keeping up to date with the latest science. This will happen eventually, I hope sooner than later.

The other core problem with science education is simply one of approach. Again – individual teachers may get this right, but there is no consistency. Science education focuses too much of feeding students pre-digested facts they are to memorize. We should be teaching students not only the findings of science but the process of science. Most students get through high school without having a clue about what constitutes the core of scientific methodology, or how to tell real science from pseudoscience.

Over the last couple of decades the education culture has offered up as their solution to the “rote memorization” problem hands on experimentation. Unfortunately, they completely blew it. What students are made to do is follow along with experiments cook-book style. This teaches them nothing – it is little more than a distraction. Correction – it doesn’t teach them nothing, it teaches them the wrong thing. It leaves students with the notion that if you are measuring stuff and writing it down you are doing science. It therefore prepares them, if anything, to accept pseudoscience – because they are being taught that the trappings of science make science. But the pre-determined “experiments” they are made to do are not teaching them that real science involves hypothesis testing.

I think the entire science curriculum from K-12 has to be torn down and remade. Let me give an analogy from my medical experience. I teach medical students at all levels, as well as residents and fellows who are continuing their training after medical school. In the first two years of medical school students learn all the basic facts of physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, etc. In their third year they then begin their clinical rotations. When I teach third-year medical students – sometimes in their first clinical experience – I tell them that now they have to relearn everything they thought they had learned in their first two years of medical school. They have to reorganize all their medical knowledge to make it clinically relevant – relevant to what doctors actually do in practice. Their first two years did not actually teach them any medicine, it just prepared them so that they could begin to learn medicine.

The same should be true of science education in general. In the early years – grade school – children need to be taught the basics of how the world works, as well as some basic skills required for scientific thinking. For example, they should learn about categorization and naming. They should also be taught that it is good to question, that nothing is certain, and they should be exposed to thinking about how we know what we know. As science education progresses they should learn more logic and critical thinking, more about scientific methodologies, and even epistemology and the philosophy of science. High school level science classes should organize knowledge to maximize scientific and critical thinking. One good way to do this is to teach science in the context of the history of science – how were concepts discovered over historical time. Ideally students can be challenged to actually reproduce the pathway of discovery taken historically by scientists.

Hands- on experimentation should be real, meaning that students should have real unknowns and should go through the process of figuring out how to ask a scientific question – one that can be tested – then designing a test and carrying it out. When students ask questions, teachers should constantly reflect back on them – “how do we know?” and “how can we test that?”

Imagine if we had a society of critically thinking scientifically literate citizens. Let’s make it happen. Increasingly, we cannot afford not to.

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