Re: [asa] science education

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sun May 31 2009 - 16:50:32 EDT

Hi, Merv!

1. An electrical engineer would do just fine! In fact, engineering, with
its practical side, in many ways can make for a better teacher. What I was
trying to exclude was "soft" sciences like psychology and urban geography,
which no doubt have worthwhile intellectual content but don't prepare
someone to teach the basis chemistry-biology-physics triad which is the meat
and potatoes of elementary and high school science. Elementary schools here
run either K-6 or K-8; in the K-6 schools often there isn't a single teacher
on staff who's done science, so the principal corners some poor psychology
or geography or phys. ed. major and says: "You've done sort of sciencey
stuff. You're our science teacher!" And the students obviously get
short-changed, being taught by an incompetent draftee like that. Even in
the K-8 schools it's often the case that there is no properly trained
science teacher, or perhaps only one on the entire staff, not enough to
teach all the students in the school all the science that's on the
curriculum from Grades 5 through 8. I could see the incompetence of the
elementary teachers from the kinds of assignments that they sent my kids
home with -- the clumsy, confused explanations, the inaccurate statements on
the handouts, the incorrect instructions for how to write up an experiment,
etc. Prior to high school, science is just not treated with sufficient

2. I'm not sure what you mean by having students in a science class for
three years instead of one -- you'll have to explain the system where you
are teaching. In Ontario, where I live, two years of general science --
Grades 9 and 10 -- are compulsory for a high school diploma, as they have
been for ages. In my day, each year of science in Grade 9 and 10 was split
three ways -- chemistry, physics, biology. Now they split it four ways,
throwing some "earth and space science" into the mix. Currently the biology
section in Grade 9 is cell biology (including a tad of genetics), and the
biology in Grade 10 is exclusively ecology. Students have to take one more
science credit beyond Grade 10; it can be a chemistry, a biology, a physics,
or an earth and space science. (Actually, for science-hating students, I
think there is a way out of that, by substituting something else, but never
mind that.) Of course, any student heading on for science and/or
engineering at university will have to take both Chemistry and Physics in
Grades 11 and 12, and a ton of Math (one in Grade 11 and two or three more
in Grade 12), and, depending on interest, maybe Biology in Grades 11 and 12
as well.

3. In case anyone here is dying to know, NO evolutionary theory is taught
in Grade 9 or 10 biology in this province. In fact, the Grade 10 ecology
textbook that one of my kids used, where I expected to find lots of
references to evolution, didn't even mention evolution, natural selection,
etc. in the Index! The book was about food chains, carbon cycles, nitrogen
cycles, water cycles, etc. Why no evolution? There's no big religious deal
about teaching evolution in the schools here, so that's not the main reason.
They've just decided to teach evolution in the upper grades of biology
instead. A few years ago it was introduced only in Grade 12. I think now
they may be teaching it in Grade 11.

Just think what a practical solution Ontario has to offer for the American
situation! If you took
evolution out of Grade 9 science, i.e., ninth grade, and moved it back to a
higher grade, then the only students who would be studying evolution in high
school would be those who have voluntarily chosen to study biology beyond
the minimum science requirement. That would mean that evolution was not
being forced down any student's (or parent's) throat. So no one could
complain about having to learn it, any more than they could complain about
being made to learn Spanish or accounting or any other elective subject.
Also, parents are a little less protective of 17-year-olds than they are of
14-year-olds, so if you deferred the evolutionary stuff until twelfth grade,
you would get less resistance on that score. With such a system, the Dover
debacle would never have taken place! Think about it! Why are your state
educational authorities so fixated on the idea that evolution must be taught
*in ninth grade*? It just *isn't necessary* to teach evolution that early,
and there are so many other topics that must be learned in biology that
there is no problem filling in the missing weeks with something else that's
profitable. Further, evolution can't be understood beyond the "How and Why
Wonder Book" level until the students have some solid genetics under their
belt, so the students will get much more out of an evolution unit that's
taught later in the high school curriculum.

4. I agree that they need to learn Newton before they learn Einstein. I
see no need to teach Einstein in high school physics at all, except maybe a
bit in the final year of high school to whet the students' appetite for the
more tantalizing areas of theoretical science. There is so much basic
physics to learn -- electricity and magnetism, kinematics, dynamics,
acoustics, optics, elementary wave and particle theory, etc. -- that
Einstein, Hawking, chaos theory, etc. can wait.

5. Standardized tests can be a blessing and a curse. They are a blessing
because without them there is no control over teachers and schools, and
things rapidly degenerate. They are a curse in that they can drive teachers
to "teach to the test" rather than to educate students to love the
subject -- in this case science. A *good* state educational authority would
design the state curriculum so that any experienced teacher could prepare
his or her students to write the standard tests based on, say, 85% of the
class time in the school year. That would allow science teachers the other
15% of the time to play with, and they could work into the curriculum the
topics and activities that they personally deem important for good science
education. There have to be standards, but teachers shouldn't be turned
into robots. All excellent education has a personal dimension, and science
teachers, like English or History teachers, need the freedom to exercise
personal judgment about what works best for students in a particular school
at a particular point in time.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Merv Bitikofer" <>
To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>; "asa" <>
Sent: Sunday, May 31, 2009 7:30 AM
Subject: Re: [asa] science education

> 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.

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Received on Sun May 31 16:51:18 2009

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