Re: [asa] science education

From: Merv Bitikofer <>
Date: Sun May 31 2009 - 07:30:30 EDT

Bill is right regarding the difficulties of "teaching" critical
thinking. (modeling, encouraging, --or even just: *not discouraging*
critical thought is about all a high school teacher can try to do.) In
a society that has increasing paranoia about teacher quality and a
love/hate relationship with standardized tests and merit criteria, most
teachers feel a lot of pressure just to move kids to the "testing well"
stage which is solidly in the grammar / logic portion that Bill
discussed. We would love to be able to tread the paths, ask similar
questions, repeat the experiments that great innovators of the past had
to get through to achieve their revolutionary progress. But to do this
more than just in a passing token sense and still cover the expected
material, we would need your students in our science rooms for about
three years instead of one ---and without so much lost class time to
sports, fund raisers, and other competing ---sometimes noble and worthy
activities. Another related challenge is that, without some of the
basic building blocks, students haven't even arrived at the point where
they can begin to ask the penetrating questions. Until they have basic
apprehension of Newton's work, they won't be able to properly appreciate
how counter-intuitive relativity or QM can be, for example.

I aspire towards much of this; and in fact my physics and chemistry
students do get treatment of the history of scientific thought including
discussion about Galileo and even MN which I pull in as a result of my
years' participation on this list. But this past year after allowing my
students extra time for experimentation in other major areas we ended up
shortchanging the study of optics and had to do a cursory (literally
post-course) fly-through of relativity and QM topics in modern physics.
(And other major areas like thermodynamics also ended up being a bit
rushed.) So there are definitely trade-offs and public pressure for
good standardized test results definitely do NOT favor your side in that
balance. Until the public can let go of its cherished mistrust of
teachers (even despite that mistrust being justifiably earned in too
many cases --but probably not as many as popularly imagined) I fear no
progress will be made. It's time for Johnny to know he will own his
own failures (and successes) again.

--Merv (a high school science teacher whose four-year degree is in
electrical engineering --guess I didn't quite make your cut!)
p.s. your points, Cameron, are well-taken though; and I've been slowly
moving in these directions for several years now and still have many
improvements to make.

Cameron Wybrow wrote:
> Bill:
> I agree with you that science education is generally lousy. I have a
> few suggestions:
> 1. In elementary grades, science is often taught by teachers with no
> knowledge of science. Most elementary teachers (at least where I
> live) have
> their degrees in sociology, psychology, early childhood education, phys.
> ed., etc. I think that at least from seventh grade on, and probably from
> fifth grade on, every science class should be taught by teachers with a
> four-year degree in a "core" science -- physics, chemistry, biology, or
> geology.
> 2. In high school, while it is true that students are not going to be
> able to offer brand-new scientific theories (because, as
> you say, they have to learn a certain amount of basic contents before
> they can do that), it does not follow that they cannot learn
> established science *critically*, rather than passively. They can be
> taught to see science as a process, rather than as a mere body of
> facts and formulas to be memorized in order to do well on in tests so
> that you can make it into medical school. For example, in high school
> physics, we tested notions of acceleration ourselves, using
> ticker-tape machines which ran up and down the corridors outside of
> the science room. And in ninth or tenth grade our teacher explained
> to us the Michelson-Morley experiment, so that we learned how a major
> question about "nature" was settled, and thus learned something of the
> thinking process of science and the role of experiment in evoking
> answers from nature and so on.
> And there are all kinds of ways to get students involved in the
> process of doing science. There is no reason, for example, why a high
> school teacher couldn't take his students up on the roof and have them
> drop two balls of unequal mass, and have other students on the ground
> measuring to see if they hit the ground at the same time or not. (Not
> that Galileo actually ever did that mythical experiment, but the
> experiment is worth doing in itself. At St. John's College, they
> repeat many of the classic experiments, balls rolling down inclined
> planes, etc. and some of these could be done at the high school level.)
> 3. Most important: here is a proposal which I would like to fly by
> everyone here. Right
> now, there is no science program at any university known to me which
> requires undergrads to study either the history or philosophy of science
> generally, or the history or philosophy of their particular discipline.
> Suppose that universities made it compulsory for *all science majors*
> to take
> a least *one semester* of history and/or philosophy of science, or of the
> history and/or philosophy of their particular scientific discipline.
> Suppose the students could take the course in any year they wished --
> this would fit it flexibly into their programs, no matter what their
> major, or when
> their labs were, etc. It could be taken from within the Science
> faculty, or
> from the History department, or from the Philosophy department, or
> from any
> other department where it was taught competently. Being only a single
> course occupying only one semester, it would not require the dropping
> of any
> core science courses -- it would take the place of a current elective
> in, say,
> American History, or Sociology of Gender, or Film Studies.
> I think that such a requirement would go a long way toward broadening
> the education of future scientists,
> and would be especially important for future high school science
> teachers.
> It would better equip scientists to interact with colleagues in
> non-science
> departments, and with the general public, by making them more articulate
> about exactly what they are doing when they do science. And it would
> help
> science teachers to help the students fit science into a broader human
> context, which is especially important in pre-university schooling.
> If this proposed requirement make some scientists here grumble, bear
> in mind
> that in most university disciplines courses of this nature are required.
> Literature students generally have to take a course on literary theory;
> history students generally have to take a course on "the history of the
> study of history"; sociology students generally have to take a course
> on the
> theoretical foundations of sociology as "social science"; religious
> studies
> students generally take a course on "approaches to the study of
> religion";
> etc. It is taken for granted in other subjects that university
> education is
> not just learning "stuff", not just learning formulas or facts, but
> learning
> to be self-conscious about the foundations, goals, and intellectual
> limitations of one's own discipline. Such a course would hardly be an
> extraneous course distracting from "real" science; it would be an
> essential
> part of a broad scientific education.
> What do people think?
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Bill Powers" <>
> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
> Cc: "asa" <>
> Sent: Thursday, May 28, 2009 9:07 AM
> Subject: Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)
> Carmeron:
> It is not only evolutionary theory, but all science that is presented
> as if it is a final, glorious piece of work, engraved in granite from
> the very depths of some Platonic heaven. The messy part of science,
> where humans fear to tread, is unheard of at all levels of science
> education.
> But perhaps we ought to be fair to science. At what stage in our
> education was content material presented as fallible, and open to
> criticism. I'd say that such an attitude is nonexistent in high school
> for any course. After all, the students are still considered children.
> In college this is rarely found. It is only in graduate school that
> material begins to be examined critically. In the sciences this doesn't
> appear to happen until the PhD level.
> It may be that a critical attitude is dependent in part upon when it is
> possible for students to progress beyond what is called the grammar
> stage, wherein the primary activity is memorization. Because the amount
> of content in the sciences is massive, most students never advance
> beyond the grammar stage. In the humanities and arts it seems that the
> content level is sufficiently low that students can advance beyond the
> grammar level relatively quickly. This would be true it seems in
> English, political science, and philosophy.
> There are three stages, as I remember it, in classical education:
> grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In grammar we learn the building
> blocks; in
> the logic how they go together; and in the rhetoric there is the
> integrative and critical stage. Formal education in America hardly ever
> gets to the last stage. It is primarily in informal education and the
> maturing of our lives that the last stage is addressed. Although our
> education system makes a lot of noise about developing critical thinking,
> I see hardly any being done. At best we lay the groundwork for it. I
> don't think it fits well into our structured educational system.
> Teachers, for the most part, don't know what to do in the critical stage,
> and what to teach. It doesn't fit our industrial model. It is not
> easily
> tested or graded. We can't tell when were progressing. It takes too
> much
> time. It isn't linear and progressive.
> bill

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Received on Sun May 31 07:31:08 2009

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