[extropy-chat] FWD [forteana] The state of science education (new subj)

Terry W. Colvin fortean1 at mindspring.com
Thu Jan 19 00:15:53 UTC 2006

(old subj) Magnetic field shoves heat sideways &  Massless ghosts of the

[I think Peter's comments are valid as they come from the horse's
mouth, a current science teacher in Australia.  -Terry]

At 06:48 PM 18/01/2006, you wrote:
>Ray D wrote:
> > Nope Stewart, but _was_ once irated beyond endurance by some
> > time-serving science hack who, when a BBC R4 debate on science
> > and edu aired the complaint that school science was boring,
> > replied "Science is _supposed_ to be boring"
> >
> > So wrong! Science is only boring when under the domination of
> > boring people like him.
> >
>You won't hear any argument from me about the above.  Every university
>in the UK is struggling to fill science and engineering courses (outside
>of presently sexy subjects like biology) because not enough work is done
>in schools to make science exciting for all kids and not just the geeks.

and therein lies the rub. Scientists have been so successful in portraying 
science as sexy and exciting that kids are turned off at school when they 
find out that sciences isn't exactly like it's portrayed on the discovery 
channel. Kids don't seem to realise that for every 1 hour nature 
documentary showing the extreme lifestyle that baboons live on the African 
savannah, there's a few hundred hours of rangers and scientists sitting 
around watching said baboons scratch their nuts. For every thrilling space 
launch sending space probes out to the far flung reaches of the solar 
system there is a barn load of engineers and physicists using maths and 
solving equations. And every freaking last one of those kids still thinks 
there are a whole lot of jobs at CSI : Coonabarabran where you get to visit 
crime scenes, perform autopsies, test for suspicious substances, take casts 
and moulds, use maggots to determine time of death, test fire sidearms and 
reconstruct a person's physiognomy from a few scraps of facial bones.

We've managed to get science as a major part of popular culture, but 
because all the legwork doesn't make for good television, it tends to get 
left out.

I'm not sure about the situation in the UK or US, but science syllabi out 
this way have undergone major revision in recent years. Gone are the 
reliance on testing lists of facts (as Ray has identified before) - now 
science teaching is centred around doing "real" science, and science in the 
context of the real world. This is, on the whole, a good approach. However, 
it doesn't take into account a few real world considerations.

A point to consider - here in Queenslandland, we don't work to a single 
curriculum. Each subject has a generalised syllabus which is then tailored 
by individual schools to meet their needs. Assessment is moderated between 
schools by panels of etachers to ensure quality and rigour. However, there 
aren't single monolithic tests that all kids undertake. This is good in 
that it means that kids in Mount Isa don't have to know everything about 
mangrove environments, but it's an amazing workload on teachers. You can't 
be a lazy disinterested teacher under these conditions.

We don't tend to use textbooks much anymore - no textbook can keep up with 
the pace of scientific advance and since all science programs need to be 
geared to the needs and interests of the stuents they serve, a text book 
which would have been good for the inland mining city of Mount Isa where I 
taught for the first 6 years of my career would be useless out here. 
Economies of scale mean that publishers really can't afford to write 
relevant texts. Additionally, because the information goes out of date so 
quickly, even if we do find a textbook, schools can't afford to keep on 
updating them every couple of years (most kids hire textbooks through the 
school, rather than owning their own). Don't get me wrong - there's nothing 
more soul destroying than teaching rigidly out of a 10 year old textbook 
that is talking about the potential that the human genome project and 
cloning will have when we eventually get around to doing it. However it 
also means that I am now responsible for finding resources for everything 
the kinds do. Thank God for the internet, and let's hope I don't have to 
take too many sick days (no more "read pp234-238 and answer the 
questions"). One of the problems most quoted about science teaching is 
overworked, burnt-out science teachers. Imagine having to prepare 
innovative, interesting and relevant science lessons for all of the five or 
six class you teacher from scratch and see how fast you burn out. A 
frightening number of young teachers in Queenslandland leave the profession 
before their fifth year. I almost did it last year in my 8th.

If anything, science education has moved too far away from remembering 
facts (what is called "recall", normally grouped in the knowledge and 
understanding criteria). No-one in their right mind would say that a good 
indicator of a scientist is only the ability to remember all sorts of 
stuff. However, no-one in their right mind would say that a scientist 
shouldn't have a base of knowledge to work from. Unfortunately in the new 
syllabi, they've done some really odd things.

[Before I do discuss this, who says kids don't want to learn facts ? One 
thing that makes me reasonably popular as a teacher  is my background 
knowledge. I may have my specialisation in the ultrastructure of nematode 
eggshells, but the kids know that they can ask me about virtually anything 
and get some kind of an answer (or at the very least, and opportunity to go 
and find the answer out togther through research). Without blowing my own 
trumpet too much, the kids respect that. I don't think knowing a whole 
bunch of arcane facts makes me smart, but the kids do.]

In the past, if you got 50% of the recall type questions in an exam (which 
would also have included questions requiring you to apply recalled 
knowledge, use scientific processes and complex thinking skills) would have 
gotten you a C to be combined with your results of the other sections. That 
means if you could only remember half of the work you'd done, you could 
probably reason your way through the other types of questions and land 
yourself a C. Now, they are telling us that since recall is such a lower 
order thinking process, to qualify for a C in the recall type questions you 
need to get 90% of them right (although you're not allowed to use 
percentages - don't get me started on that).

Now, we have a few science types on this list - how do you think you would 
have enjoyed science if, to pass, you had to remember 90% of the stuff you 
learnt, plus get the majority of the higher order stuff done as well. 
Should you survive this regime, how will you feel when you get to 
university and your first piece of assessment is a 100% 200 question 
multiple choice recall exam ?

It's interesting hearing folks talk about the poor state of science 
education. The politer ones pussyfoot around and blame the terrible funding 
or the social conditions under which the kids live. However, fundamentally 
the blame is laid on the teachers and the programs that they teach. 
Overworked, disinterested teachers pushing outdated programs that the kids 
find boring. Can I go out on a limb here and say that most kids would find 
the real work of science boring and unpleasant. I'm not going to agree with 
the twat that Ray quoted, but science shouldn't have to appeal to every 
single kid. I'm not especially artistically gifted and I'm bloody glad that 
I only had to do art to grade eight. However I'm currently teaching kids up 
to year 10 who have to do a science of some description. As a result, the 
science subjects we teach are becoming less and less scientific to appeal 
to these kids and to allow them to achieve in it.

There are always going to be kids who are scientifically inclined. These 
are the kids who are curious, who ask the tough questions, who like to 
knuckle down and work their way through a particularly tough problem, who 
understand that you have to show persistance, to try things from a number 
of different approaches and to accept it when the evidence tends to lean 
away from your cherished idea. These are the folks who will be scientists.

These are the kids I teach at the moment who, on seeing the patterns of DNA 
bands, want to know why they have formed the pattern they did, rather than 
simply matching it up to the suspect's DNA to see whodunnit. These are the 
kids who, after graphing the pattern of disease spread in the epidemiology 
game (and fulfilling the requirements of the lesson) start to notice 
patterns in the way the disease has spread - how it stayed to just girls or 
spread rapidly through the popular kids but left the nerds unscathed. These 
are the kids who after throwing up the first time they opened up their 
liver baits to see what maggots they've collected, make it a competition to 
see who can get the greatest number and variety of flies hatching out, 
rather than just giving up and refusing to do the experiments. These are 
the kids who spent three hours just flipping over rocks in tidal pools to 
see what they could find.

Unfortunately, these are the kids who don't go well in the new assessment 
regime. For better or for worse they like learning facts and showing them 
off to folks around them. They don't tend to write good projects or 
assignments because they're so focused on learning things that they fail to 
satisfy the criteria. When the assessment type that does suit them (an 
exam) does roll around, they get absolutely creamed by it. I've lost four 
bright kids from my academy class between last year and this year and kept 
all the clowns.

Might I suggest another reason why kids are put off science ? Maybe they 
find that they can't learn in an environment where a teacher is forced to 
pander to the least common denominator because every kid is forced to do 
science. Maybe they're sick and tired of doing forensics for the 4th time 
because "that's what everyone wants to do". Maybe because the areas that 
appeal to the technically minded students - areas that involoved using set 
algorithms to solve problems - have all but been abandoned because of the 
insistence on global contexts for science (you should have seen the 
opposition I faced when I organised a simple optics unit for year 9 science 
last year). Maybe some of these kids have got more brains than what we 
credit them for and realise that a career in science is setting oneself up 
for a lifetime of short-term contracts, endlessly chasing research grants, 
diminishing funding and control by corporate interests. Kids now (and, lets 
face it they did when I was at school) pick subjects that'll help them get 
rich, or, failing that, financially secure. Science won't do that. Hell, a 
majority of science teachers now are former scientists like me - we're not 
exactly good role models for encouraging kids to seek careers in science. 
Maybe we should stop sugar coating science as ALWAYS EXCITING, ALWAYS 
DANGEROUS, ALWAYS EXTREME, all the way through school so that when they get 
to university and have to sit through a mound of number crunching it won't 
be so disappointing.

Understand this (and this is what I think the twat Ray was talking about 
was meaning if not aequately explaining) : Kids have a different definition 
of exciting and interesting. You and I (and probably a high proportion of 
folks on this list) find knowledge it's own reward. We learn stuff because 
we get pleasure from learning. We seek out information because that is what 
drives us. For this reason, we put up with a lot of the dull stuff that 
goes along with learning (like reading and calculations). Your average 
teenager doesn't. They like car chases, explosions and an answer to a 
vexing problem in 43 minutes max. There are exceptions - these are the kids 
we were when we were at school and who will turn into us and become the 
next group of scientists.

If we want to stop the drain away from science careers and courses then by 
all means revamp the syllabi and encourage burnt-out teachers to move on. 
But let's also do something about making science a more attractive prospect 
once kids get out there in the workforce. Unfortunately, to do that we're 
going to have to pay them more, give them a bit of job security and stop 
the reliance on corporate money to do this. Can't see that happening in the 
near future, so lets just fall back on the old familiar punching bag of 
slack teachers.

Above all, let the geeks be geeks. I'm all in favor of all students doing 
some kind of science subject throughout their schooling - teach them what 
the scientific method is and we might have a few more rational decisions 
being made (similarly, I'd like to see social sciences compulsory for all 
students at well). But let's leave the whiz bang stuff for this subject. 
Leave the academic sciences to the folks who will become scientists. Let 
them learn their facts in a relevant context alongside the other important 
elements of science.


*phew* that rant's been a long time coming

"Only a zit on the wart on the heinie of progress." Copyright 1992, Frank Rice

Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < fortean1 at mindspring.com >
     Alternate: < fortean1 at msn.com >
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