Pharyngula

A better strategy for advancing science

Matthew Nisbet has a good list of things we ought to be doing. Number one on the list is what I also think is the biggest thing we have to do:

SCIENCE EDUCATION REMAINS CENTRALLY IMPORTANT.

And I have to admit that educating you, the readers of this weblog, is actually a small part of the task. The real job lies with our public school teachers—they’re the ones shaping the education of the next generation—and no matter what we do right now, the evolution-creation struggle in the public consciousness is going to be going on for at least the next 20 years. It’s very easy to wreck a school and foster ignorance; it’s very difficult to crawl out of the rubble.

Comments

  1. #1 magista
    February 20, 2006

    I’m working on it as hard as I can.

    Although I’m usually a physics specialist, this year I have a class of grade 10 general science. We spent the first week of the semester going over the application of the scientific method, the scientist’s understanding of the word ‘theory’ and the unique self-correcting nature of scientific investigation.

    I almost wish I taught the biology class, just to face some of the evolution-denying head-on. It’s bad enough that I heard the phrase ‘only a theory’ from another science teacher, though…

  2. #2 Torris
    February 20, 2006

    I enjoyed reading Nisbet’s post. I agree with PZ that we need to be working together with the science school teachers. They have a powerful influence on the minds of our children and the future of science. Does anyone have any good examples of how they have successfully reached out to the school teachers and made a difference?

    Magista and other science school teachers – do you have any suggestions on how those of us who don’t teach science in the schools can help?

  3. #3 Mark Frank
    February 20, 2006

    Interesting – but a couple of conclusions jarred.

    BUT TO ACHIEVE POLICY OUTCOMES IN THE SHORT TERM, POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STYLE EFFORTS ARE NEEDED

    Why should scientists be seeking to achieve policy outcomes at all (as scientists)?

    BUT SCIENCE ADVOCATES NEED TO BALANCE PERSUASION WITH HONESTY. CREDIBILITY IS ON THE LINE.

    This implies that more persuasion means less honesty. I really don’t believe that’s true. You can be honest and persuasive or dishonest and persuasive. They are different dimensions.

    Cheers

  4. #4 Mark Frank
    February 20, 2006

    Interesting – but a couple of conclusions jarred.

    BUT TO ACHIEVE POLICY OUTCOMES IN THE SHORT TERM, POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STYLE EFFORTS ARE NEEDED

    Why should scientists be seeking to achieve policy outcomes at all (as scientists)?

    BUT SCIENCE ADVOCATES NEED TO BALANCE PERSUASION WITH HONESTY. CREDIBILITY IS ON THE LINE.

    This implies that more persuasion means less honesty. I really don’t believe that’s true. You can be honest and persuasive or dishonest and persuasive. They are different dimensions.

    Cheers

  5. #5 Mark Frank
    February 20, 2006

    Interesting – but a couple of conclusions jarred.

    BUT TO ACHIEVE POLICY OUTCOMES IN THE SHORT TERM, POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STYLE EFFORTS ARE NEEDED

    Why should scientists be seeking to achieve policy outcomes at all (as scientists)?

    BUT SCIENCE ADVOCATES NEED TO BALANCE PERSUASION WITH HONESTY. CREDIBILITY IS ON THE LINE.

    This implies that more persuasion means less honesty. I really don’t believe that’s true. You can be honest and persuasive or dishonest and persuasive. They are different dimensions.

    Cheers

  6. #6 Mark Frank
    February 20, 2006

    Interesting – but a couple of conclusions jarred.

    BUT TO ACHIEVE POLICY OUTCOMES IN THE SHORT TERM, POLITICAL CAMPAIGN STYLE EFFORTS ARE NEEDED

    Why should scientists be seeking to achieve policy outcomes at all (as scientists)?

    BUT SCIENCE ADVOCATES NEED TO BALANCE PERSUASION WITH HONESTY. CREDIBILITY IS ON THE LINE.

    This implies that more persuasion means less honesty. I really don’t believe that’s true. You can be honest and persuasive or dishonest and persuasive. They are different dimensions.

    Cheers

  7. #7 Mark Frank
    February 20, 2006

    Sorry about the repeats – I only entered it once – honestly!

  8. #8 John M. Price
    February 20, 2006

    I think one major order of business is to demand that teachers, especially at the high school level, be majors in the field they teach. The idea that all of K-12 needs only a couple of courses and a degree from the college of education is a bad one. Would that it never started….

  9. #9 Rick @ shrimp and grits
    February 20, 2006

    Why should scientists be seeking to achieve policy outcomes at all (as scientists)?

    Funding. Both for doing science and science education. Even if you don’t care about public funding of scientific research, funding of science education’s always a policy issue.

    Then there are these pesky people who want to outlaw doing this kind of science, or teaching that kind of science.

  10. #10 SkookumPlanet
    February 20, 2006

    I’ve been busy since I first saw Carl Zimmer’s post on “Dodos” and have been only able to skim various blogs/responses to it and Olson’s suggestions. This is my first opportunity to post on the subject.

    I have a couple degrees in fiction writing, have worked as a journalist, and have been a student of mass communication in America for 30-plus years. I’ve also been a science nut since the third grade. I’ve become extremely frustrated watching the Democratic Party, the environmental movement, and now — a movement of scientists seems like a contradiction — whatever you call it, all fail to comprehend how the far-right is winning. I’ve seen only minuscule analysis that’s on target.

    As I read the following paragraph from Zimmer’s “Dodo” review, I found myself giving a reaction.

    But for all the goodwill, you could tell that Prum felt that some of Olson’s complaints were a bit unfair…. But Prum pointed out that evolutionary biologists aren’t just sitting around at the Discovery Institute getting paid to write op-ed pieces. They’ve got full-time jobs doing science and teaching students. It’s more important for them to do good research than to put out a snappy press release.

    …therefore, they will only be able to find small amounts of fragmented time to allocate to the problem, at best. The only way to be effective with such meager time resources is to find a way, somehow, to aggregate them and then use that aggregated time to begin looking for a solution. I don’t know what the solution will be, exactly, but I know where it will be found.

    This problem is one of long-term, mass-media communication of a complex transaction in a way that successfully alters basic thought structures of a wary public. This is a scientific problem. I’m going to repeat that because it appears most don’t understand. This is a scientific problem! Scientists excel at solving these. Do it as you would any other similar scientific issue. Ascertain the relevant disciplines, read their literatures, then understand the data and results and theoretical concepts. You will also thus discover scientists [and others] who are experts in the fields, who understand the problem in ways non-specialists don’t, and who will be a rich source of approaches. But to conceive of this in simplistic terms of public relations or education or public speaking skills or amenable to the efforts of individual scientists is doomed to failure.

    I can tell you one fundamental finding you’ll discover in this “persuasion science”. People do not, generally, think, decide nor act rationally, but emotionally. We are emotional beings even when our self-interest argues we should be rational, for example, in economics. And then we lie to ourselves and say it’s rational behavior. Here’s another, small example you’ll find — hyperbolic time discounting.

    It’s a problem about science education only in the very long term — many decades. Immediately it’s about a highly specialized type of communication, through certain media with strengths and weaknesses, to huge masses of extremely distracted people, and in an HIGHLY competitive environment where many decades of research and application results are being utilized by high-stakes, big-money players whose survival depends on the results!

    The first step to creatively, and scientifically, solving a problem is correctly defining it. And over the last few years I’ve seen this done very rarely outside of the far-right. This is a scientific problem.

    I’m very interested in listening to scienceblogs’ readership discuss this.

    P.S. Nisbet’s ideas are consistent with what I’m saying — I’m simply suggesting where the content and techniques are/come from. I’m trying to communicate that they’re SCIENCE-derived.

    Many of you [most?] are reliant to an important degree on public funding. Sophisticated political forces in America are using science to manipulate a constituency. If they need to defund or even wreck areas of science to get and maintain political power, they’ll do it without a second thought. We live in the most powerful, richest, most abundant and magical nation that has ever existed on the planet. Leading and directing this nation politically puts one at the pinnacle of history and power [so far]. They’ll screw science in a heartbeat.

  11. #11 Christopher O'Brien
    February 20, 2006

    Torris – I have some suggestions for helping out with education efforts in local communities in my blog entry for today at Northstate Science (northstatescience.blogspot.com); they may be of some help.

  12. #12 RadicalLibrarian
    February 20, 2006

    I agree, k-12 science teachers are responsible for planting seed of scientific literacy. However, my husband is working toward his teaching certification right now (he has a degree in biology) and quite frankly, the public school landscape is pretty terrifying right now. Standardized test scores rule the roost now, and teachers are bound by sometimes ridiculous standards. It might be beneficial to start with the standards–are they adequate? It has to be dealt with on a state-by-state basis. I promise you, there are many, many biology teachers out there ready to fight the good fight, but they need support.

  13. #13 JK
    February 20, 2006

    We have a slightly different balance of problems in the UK.

    On current problem is violent animal rights extremists trying to close down scientific research, focused on a new lab at Oxford University. See for example here:
    http://education.guardian.co.uk/businessofresearch/story/0,,1713732,00.html
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2019256,00.html

    A pro-research counter demonstration has been organised for Saturday 25th of February. See here:
    http://www.pro-test.org.uk/involved.htm

    Please spread the word to anybody you know who maybe able to get to Oxford.
    Thanks,
    Joe

  14. #14 Tim
    February 20, 2006

    While I can’t speak for the situation in the US, part of the problem in Australia is that it is impossible to get a teaching job at university without being a researcher first and foremost. Since these are the people that teach future high school teachers, usually with no teaching qualifications of their own, it seems to me that universities should consider having postgraduate options for teachers as well as researchers.
    Two other problems with having researchers do all the teaching is that they often put their research ahead of teaching and they write the curriculum (in my case, a biology major heavily slanted towards comparative morphology with virtually no emphasis on evolution).
    Right now I am in my final year of my undergrad science degree. I want to teach and there are two options for me: The first is that I could do a DipEd or a BEd and become a high school biology teacher. Given that most of my knowledge about evolution comes from popular science books, I think this would be a disservice to the students. The other option is to teach undergraduates by doing honours. Since this is not available through coursework, I can only do this through a research proposal approved by my lecturer (who covered evolution in one week).

  15. #15 Samnell
    February 20, 2006

    “I think one major order of business is to demand that teachers, especially at the high school level, be majors in the field they teach. The idea that all of K-12 needs only a couple of courses and a degree from the college of education is a bad one. Would that it never started….”

    It’s only going to get worse. I went up all the way to student teaching in a high school certification program. Content knowledge was regarded by the instructors, many of the students, and even practicing teachers in the field, as the least important thing one could possibly have. I was told point blank several times that students simply cannot handle talking about major issues. They should just be memorizing bullet points. I was told this, I might add, by a teacher who according to the education textbooks was a paragon of the craft. Her main skill seemed to be making overheads of historical photographs which she would routinely misidentify.

    I dearly hope this was a trend limited to History and English, but have my doubts.

  16. #16 wheatdogg
    February 20, 2006

    The sad truth is that there are no enough qualified science teachers to go around. Some out of necessity teach outside their majors. Bush had the right idea when he proposed hiring 100,000 more science teachers, though I doubt the plan will ever be funded.

    Degrees do not always guarantee knowledge, nor the ability to teach the subject, however. Although I essentially minored in physics as an undergrad, and took a bunch of physics classes as a candidate for a Masters of Arts in Teaching Physics, my college major was Comparative Literature. Nor am I state-certified, since private schools do not require certification. Yet, I have been teaching physics, astronomy and math for 22 years, rather successfully I might add. There are others like me, so don’t be too quick to judge a teacher by his paper credentials.

    That being said, I will repeat what I urged over at Aetiology. Tertiary education science instructors need to reach out to their primary and secondary colleagues, many of whom would welcome the help. Some teachers know only what’s in their books. Others have an inkling of what to teach or do, but need help doing it. Even a guest speaker now and then is better than nothing.

  17. #17 jrochest
    February 20, 2006

    Content knowledge was regarded by the instructors, many of the students, and even practicing teachers in the field, as the least important thing one could possibly have. [. . .] I dearly hope this was a trend limited to History and English, but have my doubts.

    It’s spreading. And it kills disciplines. This background is why the students in my second and third year Shakespeare classes can’t read, write or frame an argument. They’ve been taught throughout high school that English is a subject for stupid people, which contains no information and requires no work. Passing involves memorizing the Coles Notes, downloading a paper from eCheat, and tah-da! an A.

    As a result, they have no basic skills and so can’t learn advanced ones.

    Sadly, this is putting paid to my career. I just got hired in a TT job, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to abandon it, which breaks my heart. I can’t spend the rest of my life correcting grammatical errors in purchased papers.

    But then again, that’s doubtless a good thing. According to all the comments on the Cohen thread, since I have no math skills (no stats, no calculus) I’m not fit to teach at a University, no matter where I got my doctorate, what press published my dissertation, how many articles I’ve published, or how much I know about the subject I teach — since there IS no content to the subject I teach.

    Of course my students — and everyone who commented on the Cohen thread — know this because they learned it in high school.

    See how the rot spreads?

  18. #18 Samnell
    February 21, 2006

    “It’s spreading. And it kills disciplines.”

    I tell you, I was stunned. I got caught between generations of teachers. Most of my high school instruction came from people who came of age during the 60s and were then pushing fifty. Most began teaching about the time my parents graduated high school. These were perhaps not the glittering stage presences one has now, but they knew the stuff. They read up more on it in their spare time not to research for a class, but because they enjoyed the subject. They could speak with confidence extemporaneously.

    The teachers I was placed with for student teaching were largely born about the time my teachers started teaching and my parents graduated. Their approach was a frenetic constant changing of subject and one visual aid (generally contextless and misinterpreted, one claimed a picture of a tropical beach with palm trees on it was of the D-day landing) to the next to cater to what they must presume was an attention span measured in nanoseconds. I wanted to teach about larger contexts and trends. So much for that.

    I really do not know what happened in the faddish world of education over the past thirty years to explain this.

  19. #19 Torris
    February 21, 2006

    Christopher- Thanks for the suggestion. You’ve got a nice site over there at Northstate Science!

  20. #20 Mike
    February 21, 2006

    You do influence many science teachers in the public schools. I am one of them. I thank you and my students do, too – you generate some of their most interesting and fun homework.

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    January 2, 2010

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