Re: [asa] science education

From: wjp <>
Date: Mon Jun 01 2009 - 11:06:38 EDT


Just to make my point clear, I'm not certain I exactly intended to say
that "students not cover the "same
> old" questions that great thinkers in the past have already asked and
> resolved."

Perhaps my objective is different from yours, but what I'm interested in
is a kind of discovery. Perhaps my rationale is somewhat constructivist,
but I don't think it has to be.

When a student repeats or copies an experiment that others have performed
something is surely learned. Perhaps something about how difficult it
might be to carry out the experiment.

The student is going over well trod ground. The clearing (to use Heidegger's
term) already constructed, meanings well clipped and in order. It is, again
using Heidegger's term, ready-to-hand.

There are different things to be learned here. One is the content of science,
which is a already constructed way and clearing. And there is the doing
of science. Most scientists when they hear of programs intending to
introduce history and philosophy of science fear that by doing so the student
will become confused and miss the neat clearing they have worked so hard to
make neat and well groomed. In saying so, however, they are not concerned
with the practice of science.

To know the practice of science is to find the clearing only partly groomed.
We require a clearing, but much will appear messy and confusing.
Heidegger would say that it is not-ready-to-hand. It is broken in some
sense, not merely a human tool that is broken, but nature's order that
is broken. We are familiar with this world. So it already comes to
us with meanings and place. Our task is to order it, and even in the
case of objective science to take the ready-to-hand and make it
present-at-hand, stripped of its meaning and familiarity.

In the task of doing science the student must do more than mimic.
I have thought, in my own class development, that you simply take
a phenomenon with which they are familiar and have them "explain" it,
and make sense of it. What does it mean to explain? What kind of
sense must be made? Being moderns they will already have a modern
bias as to what they are being asked to do and what kinds of ways
of thinking are appropriate.

Studying the earliest scientists regarding that phenomenon will appear
to the student both strange and familiar. It will be strange because
they will find the analogies alien, and perhaps even the language.
But it will be familiar because it will not be far from their own
"unsophisticated" thinking. By tracking a history of such thoughts
they will be able to see where certain ways of thinking my be wrong
or simply otiose. Their own stumbling along with that of others is the
exact experience of doing science: the universalizing of language,
the comparison of context, the coherence with other experience.

Clearly, this is different from repeating the thoughts, words, deeds,
and interpretations of another.

Anyway, this is what I intended, or something like it. Yes, it is
time consuming, but so is doing science.


On Mon, 01 Jun 2009 06:41:15 -0500, Merv Bitikofer <> wrote:
> I'm off to a busy summer writing curricula plans for some of the very
> courses we're talking about here (sort of like being a young boy turned
> loose in a toy store), so I don't have the time to give as much in depth
> response to many of these posts as they deserve. Nevertheless I think I
> can respond to most major points in yours here, Cameron.
> Cameron Wybrow wrote:
>> 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.
> Sorry --that wasn't a calculated "three years", but a bit of flippant
> hyperbole to make a point; although in fact, it probably wouldn't be
> all that far off! By this "explosion" of a standard one-year course
> like physics into three years, I meant to convey how "time expensive"
> exploratory style science teaching can be. In other words I take issue
> (in part) with Bill Powers' suggestion that students not cover the "same
> old" questions that great thinkers in the past have already asked and
> resolved. I agree with him that when a students ask their own
> questions, design their own experiments to address those questions,
> write their own lab reports (not canned ones that are fill in the blank
> out of a disposable book) --- I agree that this is an excellent way to
> practice and learn the scientific process. This is an investment of
> many classroom days. You may respond that the students should be doing
> most of this outside of class. Agreed again. But that time comes at a
> premium too, competing with other classes, extra-curricular activities,
> in some cases unfortunately: jobs. I already make big demands on
> their out-of-class work just learning classical physics. Labs have a
> habit of not going in anticipated directions (even the pre-planned ones
> in which we are re-treading old ground). Remember, these students are
> in a learning phase, not in a mastery phase doing graduate-student level
> work. I'm moving away from canned lab activities to ones in which the
> students construct and write their own reports because that is much more
> valuable, but I still provide the guideline parameters such as the
> objective for the activity in the first place. Again: free-range
> students asking their own questions and making their own objectives can
> be (is) a valuable learning experience, but it has the narrowing
> disadvantage of teaching *only* the scientific method and constructing
> /writing effective lab reports; which is a big accomplishment, yes
> --and that's what science fairs are for. But when it comes to
> standardized testing; knowing which color bird feeder attracted the most
> birds is useless information. Having a solid grasp of the "cute"
> experiment of whether heavier balls drop faster than lighter ones: that
> is much more necessary to a basic understanding of physics. So why not
> concentrate on the labs that accomplish all of the former things and
> have the added advantage of reinforcing concepts the students are
> actually expected to know.
> (This last paragraph was addressed more to Bill --but I trust you follow
> my vein of thought, Cameron. I think we agree about much of this.)
>> 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.
> Here students also get a physical science (usually a smorgasbord of
> earth science, meteorology, chemistry, physics) in their early
> highschool years, followed by a year of biology, a year of chemistry,
> and a year of physics. In my particular school they can graduate with
> only three years of science although four is recommended for college
> preparatory purposes. And that is fine with me as I don't want my
> physics course to become required for everybody. (having weaker or
> less scientifically enthusiastic students in a course will also have the
> effect of slowing it down, unless the teacher mercilessly plows on
> leaving part of the class behind and burned out.)
>> 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.
> THAT is quite a thought! Since I teach in a private school (Christian,
> no less), state standards don't have the same mandatory impact on us.
> There is some flurry of polarized thought here in Kansas that if
> students aren't saturated with evolution early on, that suddenly (for
> reasons I have yet to hear lucidly explained) they won't be able to
> become competent doctors, etc. (As if even the most staunch of YECs
> can't learn and accept what they need to know about the evolution of
> viruses, etc. to do their job well.) Anyway, I suspect the REAL reason
> it is such a political hot button here is that we are over-sensitive
> about our national reputation as "backward Kansas" and so we feel a need
> to frantically prove ourselves, that we too are academically respectible
> and can get our junior-high tots to regurgitate all the intellectually
> respectible answers to evolutionary questions. And all this despite
> the fact that our ACT scores are higher than the national average and
> have been for quite some time. (Sorry, Keith --- I suspect Keith feels
> differently than I do on this; and he would probably call this "running
> away from the issue".)
> Anyway, I think your situation in Canada provides the good counter-point
> that we don't need to fearfully inculcate all our young. BUT I do think
> that it may be uniquely valuable in our own polarized climate to address
> the issue of how we do and do not do science on a wider scale than just
> for the advanced science students. Here we do have errors of YEC-ism
> style of thought with its attendant "love-hate" relationship to science
> and pseudo-science, that need to be, if possible, rectified. And that
> is a big job for science teachers here that perhaps you don't have. I
> guess this probably addresses your paragraph below here as well. So
> I'll just wrap it up and respond right here to your last paragraph at
> the bottom: I agree that relativity and QM are more expendable at the
> high school level than classical physics. But I'll also add that those
> topics are also most exciting to some students and also present a great
> opportunity to show how science works in terms of newer theories needing
> to explain a wider range of phenomena while still retaining the
> effectiveness of explaining the old. And even though we high school
> teachers are not competent to delve into the intacracies of QM, particle
> physics, etc., we can still host introductory discussions to whet the
> appetite, and students, if they haven't already figured it out, can see
> how we've just begun to scratch the surface of science at the high
> school level. All of this can add to valuable experience. So I still
> leave these hopefully in at the end of my years curriculum.
> --Merv
>> 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.
>> Cameron.
>> ----- 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 Mon Jun 1 11:07:21 2009

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