Adventures in Ethics and Science

You might think, from the title of this post, that I have a completely worked out answer to the question of how to improve science education in the U.S.

I don’t.

But, I have some observations that bear on the question, and I think looking at them might help us move in the right direction.

This is a follow-up to my earlier post about a study looking at how U.S. science instruction (in 8th grade) differs from science instruction in Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. You’ll remember that the U.S. Department of Education press release noted:

In the United States, lessons kept students busy on a variety of activities such as hands-on work, small group discussions, and other “motivational” activities such as games, role-playing, physical movement, and puzzles. The various activities, however, were not typically connected to the development of science content ideas. More than a quarter of the U.S. lessons were focused almost completely on carrying out the activity as opposed to learning a specific idea.

My quick response to the findings was that the activities were likely a good feature of the science classroom, but that more probably needs to be done to help students make connections between activities and course content (including not only the details of scientific theories or empirical data, but also methodologies characteristic of science). Indeed, it sounds like two of the other countries in the study made a point of using classroom activities as a way to to get kids to engage with content:

[I]n Japan, the lessons emphasized identifying patterns in data and making connections among ideas and evidence. Australian lessons developed basic science content ideas through inquiry.

And, as Rob Knop notes, cramming science instruction with “content” at the expense of a chance to really mess around and explore connections might turn science class back into the boring rote parade of facts suitable only for regurgitation on exams. He writes:

I’d rather have the students in my astronomy class really understand a smaller number of concepts than know a large number of terms, facts, and ideas. I’d rather they come away with some idea of how science really works, than with the idea that it’s simply a body of revealed knowledge, however much of that “revealed knowledge” they may be able to repeat when asked factual questions.

Cutting back on the content a bit to make sure the understanding is strong seems like a good idea to me. In fact, it seems like the kind of thing that might help students retain more of what they’ve learned after the class is over. And getting the students involved in using the content — to interpret data, to design an experiment, etc. — makes the connection between what scientists know and what scientists do less mysterious.

Building the connections between “content” and activities is part of the value a good teacher adds to a science education. But, as some of my commenters noted, part of the problem may be that we don’t have a huge supply of good science teachers.

To deliver the kind of science education that might really leave kids with a good working understanding of what science is up to, ideally we’d want teachers who understand science themselves, and who can teach kids effectively (preferably in a way that makes science interesting rather than boring). Also, as a practical matter, these teachers would have to be folks that local school districts could hire and retain.

And this is where things get dicey. There are a good number of people with science degrees, and a good number of people with education degrees, but the people certified to teach science aren’t necessarily all that comfortable with science themselves, and the people with science degrees would often rather eat broken Pyrex glassware than sit through your typical education course.

Perhaps there’s a fundamental difference in temperament between the folks drawn to ed. school and the folks drawn to science. People who are attracted to the idea of building new knowledge in the lab or in the field might not be thrilled by coursework in instructional methods or cognitive and sociocultural theories of adolescent psychology. On the other hand, people who are interested in digging deeper into pedagogies and the question of how to get them to reach hormone-addled teenagers may feel daunted by science questions that go beyond what’s covered by the instructor’s manual.

The current state of affairs in most U.S. (public) school districts is that you need the education coursework to be certified as a teacher. To be certified as a science teacher, you need science coursework, but typically not a full science degree. (Also, the required science coursework doesn’t typically include independent scientific research of the sort that many science majors do in the course of their undergraduate education.) Besides, since you have to fit in all those ed courses, there just isn’t a lot of time to take extra science courses.

It’s not uncommon for teachers who are a little bit scared of the subject they’re teaching (because they know that their own mastery of that subject is not very solid or not very deep) to leave their students a little bit scared of that subject. Maybe emphasizing the classroom activities (which could resemble pedagogocal approaches used in other subjects) is a way to spend a bit less time with formal content that gives you the willies.

This is not to say that a science education is sufficient to make a person into a good science teacher. Certainly, some of the science professors out there in colleges and universities who have made their subjects more incomprehensible should alert us to the fact that pedagogy takes some work. Beyond knowing the science, a science teacher needs a good idea how to explain the science to people who don’t yet know it (actually, more like several ideas how to explain it, since no one explanation works for everyone). He or she needs to reflect on how students can get a feel for new experimental techniques and new patterns of reasoning. And, he or she needs to be able to convey not only what makes science valuable and powerful, but what makes science fun.

I’ve seen enough excellent science teachers without formal teaching credentials that I think a teaching credential isn’t a necessary component of a good science teacher. I’ve seen enough shaky but credentialed science teachers that I think a teaching credential isn’t a sufficient component of a good science teacher. And, I know there are a great many trained scientists who are gifted teachers and would love to teach science in public schools but who cannot bring themselves to go through ed school to get the credential.

Maybe it’s time to re-examine what we require of people looking to be science teachers.

Maybe we need to find an alternative route to credential those with serious scientific training who want to be science teachers. Keep the student teaching under supervision, but replace the standard complement of ed courses with pedagogical training that focuses on the particular teaching issues science teachers will face in their teaching assignments (e.g., engaging students with weak math skills, or setting up meaningful lab experiments of lecture demonstrations on a limited budget). Give the prospective teachers opportunities to be reflective about their pedagogy and to share strategies with other science teachers. But cut out the “bunny courses” and stick to the stuff that helps scientists to be effective teachers of science.

Given how much we need exciting, dynamic science teachers, we ought to figure out how to make getting certification a lot less like hazing. Otherwise, we’re chasing good talent away.

Indeed, to the extent that ed school may be teaching new teachers how to implement pedagogical strategies that aren’t actually working for our science students, rethinking what we teach the teachers may be an idea whose time has come.


  1. #1 wheatdogg
    April 5, 2006

    One of the problems is the fragmented way we teach science, especially in high school. We somehow expect a year of each of bio, chem (and if they’re lucky!) physics will give students an understanding of what science is and how it works. The reordering of the sequence to put physics first may ameliorate matters, but it does not address the fractured, shallow approach of the middle schools. The 9th graders at our school seem to have only the vaguest notion of energy, atoms, forces and other basic scientific concepts that bio texts assume kids already know.

    We’re trying the Physics First strategy to see if it will help matters, but we have the flexibility of a small independent school. I’m not sure how PF could work in the public schools, although I know some districts are trying it.

    Your comments about scientists and science teachers are well taken. With rare exceptions, most scientists would have a hard time condensing their expertise and knowledge to a level suitable for squirrely adoloscents (or college students). Meanwhile, science teachers, again with rare exception, seldom have the kind of research experience that practicing scientists acquire. Teachers, sometimes by necessity, have to be generalists, as well, rather than specialists.

    Finding more science teachers will help matters, but we also have to make science less “scary” to non-science teachers, especially those in the lower grades, so that they don’t unwittingly poison their students against the subject. I don’t have a magic bullet solution here, but bringing willing scientists to the elementary and middle schools might help. Tara at Aetiology I think was toying with the idea of sponsoring a summer camp for students to work at the UI labs. That’s a good idea, too, but only addresses a handful of kids at a time.

    The professional organizations offer many programs and materials to their members, but the majority of science teachers do not belong to them, surprisingly. The cost is not prohibitive, so I can’t explain the situation.

  2. #2 coturnix
    April 5, 2006

    If they’d let me, I’d jump into a high-school classroom tomorrow. And I think I am a pretty good teacher. I would not mind simultaneously taking a couple of classes or seminars about teaching methodology, but will not spend two more years (and money I don’t have) getting an Ed degree (where I’d be screaming at the instructors all the time anyway).

  3. #3 coturnix
    April 5, 2006

    I went to school in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in the 1970/80s. Darwin was hammered into our heads all the time in school. He belonged to the holly trinity of idols we had to know every little biographical detail about, the other two being Tito and Marx.

    Church was weak at the time. I remember seeing little blue books, translations of Duane Gish stuff, sold in church stores, as well as in houses of elderly farmers out in the country. It is an Orthodox church, after all, never-changing by definition, so it is to be expected that it would not give Darwin a second look.

    I am so proud of rigorous scientific education I got there in my time – something the US educational system cannot begin to match. After finishing high school I had more biology under my belt than kids who graduate in biology from ANY U.S. College. In grades 1-2 of elementary school, we had “Understanding Science and Society”, in grades 3-4 that was split into separate subjects: “Understanding Nature” and “Understanding Society”.

    By the time I graduated from high school I had behind me 8 years of physics, 7 years of chemistry, 6 years of geography (including basics of cosmology, geology, oceanography and meteorology), 8 years of history, 6 years of technical education, 12 years of math, and 8 years of biology (plus also stuff like 12 years of PE, 10 years of music and art, 12 years of Serbo-Croatian language and world literature, 12 years of English, 4 years of French, the inevitable 2 years of “Defense” and 2 years of “Marxism”, etc.).

    Being a biology major in high school, I also had a year of botany, a year of zoology, a year of microbiology, a year of ecology, a year of biochemistry, a year of molecular biology, a year of general biology lab, and a year of biochemistry/molecular biology lab. Many college graduates here do not have that much science.

    I guess the good old days of Eastern European superior education are gone now, but it was pretty good. The negatives were that there was very little hands-on work. I wish I had more labs and field-trips in high school science classes.

  4. #4 Todd
    April 6, 2006

    Some states, including my homestate of NJ, have developed certification programs for folks looking to transition into teaching. I am the product of one such program and can tell you it’s not THAT terrible. I went from Ph.D. in chemistry to postdoc to high school teaching through NJ’s alternative route to certification. Basically, you pay about $1500 to take a year-long course that meets twice a week. About 40% of the course is useful, about 20% is tedious but necessary and about 20% is an absolute waste of time. Most importantly, my certification is identical to anyone who took years of mind-numbing education courses.

    Getting more scientists interested in teaching and easing the transition are only parts of a larger issues. School administrators, most of whom get the corner office by way of the humanities, must be convinced that hiring scientists is the way to go. In this regard, I work in a rather progressive school, but it’s still an uphill battle. Scientists tend to have advanced degrees which stipulate greater pay according to most district contracts. Many, if not most districts are hesitant to spend %50K or more on a first year, unproven, teacher.

  5. #5 Thomas Winwood
    April 6, 2006

    Random braindump: your reference to broken Pyrex glassware reminded me of a (probably apocryphal) story about a girl who accidentally broke one of those ten-cubic-centimetre pipettes with a wheel you roll to fill it up and managed to puncture her hand, making a nice cylinder of flesh when they got the pipette out. (And I’ve probably made you wince and go “ew”, so I’ll shut up.)


  6. #6 chezjake
    April 6, 2006

    To supplement Todd’s info on NJ schools. That “back door” certification program has been in existence since at least the early 1950s. I went to a small suburban HS that had a written policy that they would not hire any secondary school teacher with an education degree. All teachers had to have academic degrees, and the school sponsored new ones to get that supplementary certificate. I got a great education, by US standards, and 95% of my graduating class in 1958 went on to college.

    There’s no reason why any school system can’t provide excellent, well-trained teachers if they are willing to pay for them.

  7. #7 Dan
    April 6, 2006

    I have always taken an interest in education, simply because people like to ask me for help and I like to “teach.” I am still in college, majoring in biophysics, but I often visit my high school in hopes of providing advice to former teachers-the administration generally does not approve. My firm belief is that the education problem in this country results from a lack of strictness. It is simply too easy to pass, to get by. In Europe, very simply, if a student is lazy or unmotivated no one will look after him, or feel sorry. He will fail-simple. Of course, if we were to suddenly introduce this system here, schools would overflow with left-behind students. If we want to keep up (with the rest of the world) I would suggest phasing in this new attitude slowly.

  8. #8 David Harmon
    April 6, 2006

    There’s also the point that the public school system is continuing to degenerate. Teaching has always been fairly difficult work, but if the system supports the teachers that’s OK. Currently, however, the PSS has been becoming progressively more exploitative, even abusive. The teachers themselves are being aggressively subordinated to administrators and politicos, and real education is pushed aside by arbitrary testing standards and political manipulations. E.g., no money for school repair and construction, or textbooks, but plenty for new computers. Plenty for “gifted” programs, but not for remedial education…. But of course, when the students don’t learn, it’s all “the teachers’ fault”, not the administrators who doubled their class size and cut funds for the school library.

  9. #9 crmj
    April 6, 2006

    Would it be useful to consider separately (a) teaching science content and (b) teaching scientific methodology? People who are going to go on and work as scientists need both. But for the vast majority who aren’t, it seems to me that (b) is MUCH more important than (a). However, in the UK at least, it is not taken anything like seriously enough.

    I had a very poor formal scientific education, and I still don’t know much content. I was not really taught scientific method at school, except as a sort of irritating process that went “do an experiment, carefully write down your results, see whether they seem to have any direction, discover that they don’t, receive lecture from teacher about how this is because of the limitations of the physical equipment we are using, be told what results should have been, write conclusion based on this, underline in red a lot”. However, I learned about what scientific method is at university, partly through my course and partly self-taught, and now approach new issues in a scientific, sceptical, evidence-based way.

    Would it be a good target that everyone should leave school with at least a basic grasp of the scientific way of knowing things, even if they only have the sketchiest idea of molecular weights or optics or photosynthesis?

  10. #10 angiebean
    April 6, 2006

    I was a double major in college, Biology and secondary education. The education courses were boring and geared toward language arts and younger students. I was not challenged and easily got As in the classes. Education classes are read and regurgitate rather than read, analyze and apply (science classes).

    I ended up dropping the ed major for two reasons:
    1. A teacher wouldn’t let me take her required ed course because my lab class overan by 20 minutes into the next course (when do 3 hour labs ever last the full time?). This would have put me back a year in my ed. requirements (thus a 5th year).
    2. The ed. courses required a lot of fieldwork to get your feet wet. I saw first hand how bored and disallusioned these high school students were. They wouldn’t pay attention and then blame the teacher for their poor grades. The teachers couldn’t make the classes interesting because they had a required curriculum (the same stuff every year). It totally turned me off to high school teaching.

    As a graduate student, I helped start a program where high school students did research in labs for 2-4 weeks (this allowed them to have a second job to make money). These kids really loved science and most went onto major in science in college. It really gave me hope and made me interested in teaching again. The only thing that holds me back are those boring ed classes!

  11. #11 Blair
    April 7, 2006

    As a scientist married to an elementary teacher I agree with many of your ideas for enhancing the high school science experience but think we have to start even earlier.

    By the time a student reaches high-school they have already spent years under the tutelage of elementary level educators, most of whom didn’t like science in high school and didn’t take a science class in university. The discomfort these teachers have with science is reflected in their teaching approach and is picked up upon by their students. It has been said that puppies can smell fear, well I can assure you that children have a similar ability and it is simply impossible for someone who has always feared a subject to teach it in a way that makes his/her students not sense that fear. I watched as my three nieces got turned off from science long before I had the opportunity to show them how interesting it can be. In talking to my wife’s colleagues I discover teachers whose understanding of science is only a lesson or two ahead of their students. They don’t have the knowledge to answer questions and this is reflected in their lessons.

    Consider this anecdote (because what is the use of talking about teaching children science without an anectdote)

    I am a regular judge at the local science fair and this year I was assigned a young girl who had carried out a set of experiments that in her words “had got the wrong answer”. I tried to explain to her that her experiments had done exactly what they were supposed to do and that any experiment that helps confirm, refute or refine a hypothesis is actually a good thing in science. Later while talking to her teacher (who was hovering in the background) it became clear that while the little girl understood my comments her teacher had little sense of what this meant. Her lack of a basic understanding of the subject was going to colour the experience of all her students.

    So all I can say is that until we can develop some way to get our elementary school teachers on board, we are going to lose potential young scientists early and of this group a percentage will end up teaching and they will be afraid of science..and so on..

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