Toward a Scientific Education

I have had the rare joy to interact with my friend’s young daughter as an avuncular “science guy”. Whenever I come over, the first question is “are we going to do science today?” Her vision of science, so far, is a modest one, limited to chemical tricks – she could spend hours with a package of pH test strips – but she is engaged, and that is what counts. I am left wondering, however, about at what point this fascination with the world of science will be challenged by other things, and how school and society will equip her with the tools to properly evaluate claims and come to rational decisions.

Background

The public has been challenged a great deal lately to decide among competing claims of fact and fiction. The H1N1 crisis, Ray Comfort and his creationist banana, even the end of the world myth of 2012 have stirred a great many people to question science and established facts. Few of us non-scientists have the tools necessary to weigh the arguments, we just want to protect ourselves and our family and live a healthy and prosperous life. Most of the time, we “go with our gut” and let fear of the unknown be our guide. How far will that get us in the future? How far is that getting us now?

Facts vs. Process

We know more now than we ever have about how the world works and these facts have to be imparted upon and absorbed by students before they are to enter any type of specialisation in post-secondary school. The current high school curriculum in Ontario, shortened several years ago to 4 years, has much more information packed into it and is very fact-dense. Quantum mechanical models of chemistry are introduced in grade 11, genetics and gene regulation are discussed in depth in grade 12 biology (nowhere is evolution itself mandated; the biology curriculum seems to dance around it over 3 years.) With all of this raw information to impart, where does the actual job of “doing” science fit in?

It must take a great effort to distill the current consensus knowledge into appropriate chunks that can be understood by the average high-schooler. Anderson and Sharma point out that “scientists ‘do’ science and students ‘learn’ science” and this distinction is an important one (2007). The laboratory work mandated in high school and even in first year university biology, chemistry and physics is geared toward understanding the concepts and applying the knowledge, not discovering new things. There is an expected output from an experiment. What if you get it wrong? In high school I was frustrated when it did not work out the way it was supposed to. Sorting through the data was not clean and if you had any confounding factors like measurement errors, or broken equipment, the concept got lost among the data and science became just a bit more incomprehensible.

The science of discovery does not work like it does in the text books. The path to new ideas is not a well-ordered and sequential one: it is messy. It meanders from bad idea to bad idea until some anomaly pops up and takes you in a new and productive direction. When tasked to apply the scientific method to a study of worms, one grade 9 class studied by Xiaowei et al (2008) found a conflict between the ordered list given them, and the task at hand. Only when they were allowed to brainstorm and take an “anything goes” approach to the process, did new ideas come up and the exercise made a bit more sense.

I propose that science class, the place where you would think that critical thinking and rational logical thought would be taught, is the last place it is being taught, and indeed, the last place it can or should be taught.

We need a new paradigm.

Critical Thinking and Scientific Reasoning: Required To Graduate

I recently was going over Greg Craven‘s The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See and his approach to decision making and it struck me that since high school is meant to prepare students for life after high school, perhaps there something missing from the current curriculum. In Ontario we have three streams: university prep, college prep, and workforce prep. All three areas require you to think critically; heck, choosing the right doctor, choosing the right food and even choosing whether to try that stupid stunt all require critical thinking. A good citizen needs to be able to evaluate the claims of their leaders, from the local health authority to the prime minister. De La Beche, the English geologist who started the first school of mines decided to bring scholarly learning to the people with the intent that they “should have the power to discriminate between sound and unsound views” using the existing knowledge (Clary, Wandersee, 2008.) Is this such a lofty goal that it is unattainable by our youth?

The high school curriculum is packed to the gills these days, but we do have to prioritise. I propose a senior level course in critical thinking and rational thought that is a requirement to graduate. It would have several strands including logical reasoning, basic statistics, and research and source evaluation. I would also suggest that it also include a research component in which the student had to design and implement their own mini-study. The messiness of scientific inquiry should be the focus here, with an emphasis on identifying all of the variables if not trying to control for most of them.

Something, anything, would be good.

Conclusion

I had the comical pleasure of seeing 2012 yesterday evening and I was struck by the similarity of the main story line to the story told by Young-Earth Creationists when addressing the biblical flood. The reasoning is strikingly similar: an expansion of the mantle bursts through the crust expanding the sea floor, causing sea levels to rise and flood the continents (Heaton, 2008). The difference, of course, is the movie is a work of obvious fiction, but the YEC’s tart up their confabulations and conjecture in a language that is unique to scientific publishing. Not a post-modern approach per se, but a scientific parlance that has developed as a short hand to communicate with other scientists (Sharma, Anderson, 2007). Take out the references to the bible and the discourse by the YEC’s would be nearly indistinguishable from mainstream science, if you had nothing but grade 10 science education to judge it by. To guard against this we need to teach facts, yes, but one person cannot know all of the facts. We need a way of evaluating ideas without relying on our own knowledge of facts, lest we fall prey to more insidious ruminations and conjecture.

I am not sure where to go with this; I am not a science teacher, nor do I know any trustees. I had the displeasure of noticing in the Toronto School Board’s Learn4Life booklet this fall that I have many options if I want to learn alt health practises like “manifesting” or reiki. Perhaps I will start to lobby for some courses on critical thinking. We have to start somewhere: before the mantle of pseudo-science rises and threatens to overwhelm us all with a flood of bad ideas.


REFERENCES

Bolte, C. 2008. A Conceptual Framework for the Enhancement of Popularity and Relevance of Science Education for Scientific Literacy, based on Stakeholders’ Views by Means of a Curricular Delph Study in Chemistry. Science Education International. Vol 19, No. 3, September 2009, pp331-350.

Clary, R. M., Wandersee, J. H. 2008. All are Worthy to Know the Earth: Henry De la Beche and the Origin of geological Literacy. Springer Science+Business Media B.V.
[Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Sci & Educ (2009) 18:1359-1375.

Heaton, T. 2008. Recent Developments in Young-Earth Creationist Geology. Springer Science+Business Media B.V. [Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Sci & Educ (2009) 18:1341-1348.

Sharma, A., Anderson, C. 2007. Recontextualization of Science from Lab to School: Implications for Science Literacy.
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. [Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Sci & Educ (2009) 18:1359-1375.

Xiaowei, T et al. 2008. The Scientific Method and Scientific Inquiry: Tensions in Teaching and Learning. Wiley Periodicals, Inc [Internet]. [cited 2009 Nov 18]. Learning 10.1002/sce.20366.

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  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.