The problem with our system of science education is ...

Teachers teach facts instead of concepts. Teachers teach from the textbooks and barely understand what is in the book anyway. There is not enough hands-on learning. All teachers really do anyway is to show videos most of the time. What should really happen is that a teacher should learn how to do science, intensively, with one project and that way, really understand how to teach it.

And so on and so forth.

If you find yourself agreeing with everything I just said, then I have one more thing to add: Get a brain, moran!


OK, maybe I'm being a little hard on you, but you were asking for it.

You were asking for it because you are agreeing with a litany of complaints that are usually regurgitated when people have the opportunity to complain about our system of education, but where the people doing the complaining don't know much about what actually happens in schools.

A while back I was at a public discussion on education and when the panel opened up to Q&A things like those listed above came spilling out of the mouths of various curmudgeons in the audience. There was a lot of blaming the system, and there was more than a hint of blaming the teachers themselves.

At that panel, I went a little berserk and let into these private citizens, explaining to them that they were repeating themes that people in education had started to address at least a decade or two ago, and that in any reasonably good school, such as an average (or above) public school in a state that is not Texas or Louisiana, science teachers teach concepts more than facts, know a lot more than the texbooks, that there are lots of hands on experiences in the classrooms both because teachers want that and because in many cases it is required by the standards, that teachers in fact use videos judiciously, and that there are many (though not enough) programs to help teachers engage in what is called "content" on their own so they can become experts in something they are teaching.

There are also incentives to do that, or at least, ways in which a teacher can partly get reimbursed for the educational costs involved. For instance, Amanda got her MA a while back, and that has made her a much better teacher and also got her a raise. We figure she'll make back almost as much as she spent to get the MA as long as she waits until she's 80 or so to retire.

Her MA is not in "teaching" (educmacation) but rather, in Biology, and she worked on a very intense and very real research project as part of that. Now, for two or three years she's gone back to that research lab and worked during the summers, on related projects, in order to keep her hands in the process. When she teaches the science of biology to her AP students she is sometimes teaching about stuff she helped figure out in a major research lab.

Anyway, that's not what I really wanted to talk about. The other day, I was in a phone conference with my friend Desiree Schell and her friend and my colleague, fellow Science Blogger and Science Education researcher Marie-Claire Shanahan, and for some reason I started ranting about that education panel I mentioned above. And something very interesting happened: It turns out that Marie-Claire has been actually studying this phenomenon ... of what people say about science education ... for some time, and has written about it.

In a recent blog post, Marie-Claire talks about what people say about what is wrong, or what needs to be done, about education, and she gives an example (which I won't repeat here) and remarks:

Educators, critics, and scientists often argue for improving science education by teaching the processes of science, emphasizing critical thinking, and actively engaging students in doing science. Almost always, this is argued to be a great improvement over "traditional" approaches to science teaching that prioritize the rote learning of facts-an approach that is said to have dominated in the past. The problem is, it's always a different past that we're talking about - for us, it's maybe the 80s, for those involved in writing the book, maybe the 40s.

Holy crap! I love this. This resonates with so many different things I'm interested in. I am very interested in the pattern of human thinking in which the past is simplified, compressed, made unidirectional, and often just plain gotten wrong, as a foil for argument or as a convenient point of comparison. And when you challenge people on this sort of thing they can get really mad. Try telling someone that it is not true that "people were shorter back then" or that it isn't true that everyone died when they were 14 "back then" or that people didn't really live like "peasants" prior to the comparatively recent invention of "peasantness" and they'll often get mad at you. And here, Marie-Claire is telling us that our favorite complaint about what is wrong with education and our favorite suggestions as to what to do about education are falsehoods and old, traditional ideas, respectively.

Anyway, you should go read Marie-Claire's post. And then, on Sunday Night listen to her (and me and a bunch of other people) talk about this and related topics.

#139 Culture and Tradition

NOVEMBER 20, 2011

This week, we're featuring a panel discussion on the origins and influence of tradition, with biological anthropologist Greg Laden, science education researcher Marie-Claire Shanahan, ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt-Palmer, and primatologist Eric Michael Johnson. We'll discuss where traditions come from, why some endure and some fade, and whether they appear in non-human populations.

We record live with our panel on Sunday, November 2o at 6 pm MT. The podcast will be available to download at 9 pm MT on Friday,November 25.


More like this

Very interesting. I only have the following to add:

Rather than focusing on what observers of science education have said, or say, try focusing on the curricula that actually exist, or existed.

A number of excellent science curricula hit the scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s that combined science process and content. A few enjoyed some success, and at least one still exists in nearly its original form.

There have been recent attempts, some funded by NSF for example, that have attempted to reinvent the wheel, but none to my knowledge have both the sound methodology and originality of their mid-twentieth century counterparts.

So, yes, we know what seems to work pretty well and why the system works against it. But the wheel has in many cases already been invented.

It's 90% the teacher, 9% the facilities, and 1% the approach.


I think science has for the most part become another religion. May of the discoveries in current medical "research", is done by trying to discover linear cause and effect relationships, by controlling the environment or reducing the period of observation. This is then marketed as the best that science can offer. It may be easy to do things this way, but the results can turn out to be flat wrong. Such narrow-minded belief also leads to things like the pursuit of a miracle molecule, that heals all illness. A holistic big picture view, would make it clear that such a pursuit is absurd.
Have to agree with Marie-Claire that nature offers great learning opportunities, and should be given greater importance. If science is inspired by nature, then technology will also use more of biological systems, leading to resilience, adaptability, and less waste and destruction of the environment.

Even if it were true and merely facts were taught, what, in essence, is wrong with that?

"A is for Apple" is a fact. It is not teaching any sort of concept. Is it therefore wrong?


What old timer doesn't decry the kids today who don't know their times table?

But that is just a litany of facts, not concepts.

When you teach your children to ride a bike, do you tell them what to do or explain the concept of centripetal acceleration, rotational momentum and the physiognomy of autonomic reactions?

If you first told them WHY faster is easier to ride on a bike, would they be better riders?


As you progress through education, that bedrock of fact is used to base the description of concepts, but only piecemeal because while you're learning about how electrons move through a conductor (to get Ohm's law), you DO NOT teach the concept of Quantum Mechanics that lead to the metallic conduction bands in a solid lattice.

Even late in schooling, you teach the spin of an electron. You don't explain the concept of how spin can exist in a thing that is so tiny that to have that spin momentum it would have to be rotating faster than light.

Heck, that is only mentioned, not explained, in graduate physics.

Try telling someone that it is not true that "people were shorter back then"

I thought it was well documented the average height for Europeans and North Americans had been increasing since the turn of the 20th century? Going further back I've seen the suits of armour placed in various museums, exhibits, walk-through castles that only come up to my chest or chin (I'm 6 foot), and the consistent explanation is people were shorter then.

So I did some google searching, it seems it isn't as easy as saying "people were shorter" vs "no they weren't"? (Not to worry...I'm not making the classic mistake of thinking a few minutes of googling enables me to contradict what experts have done).

Anyway, work by Richard Steckel, for e.g., on correlating height to nutrional/health status over the millenia (links below). In the 900-1200 people were several cm taller than those at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and nearly as tall as today. That height we've been regaining over the past 200 years (interestingly, Americans are still shorter than their European counterparts).

So it is correct to say that people were "shorter back then", but it depends on the time and place (1200-1900).

But it is also correct to say that people weren't shorter back then (900-1200).

It is also correct to say "people were nearly as tall as today" in the 'tall' time of 900-1200. But isn't "nearly" as tall as today = "shorter", hence "tall people were still shorter back then than now"). But is it a statistical significant difference?

Hmm, another thought is, what was the social class of the graves he was examining? Was he sampling the 1% or the 99%? --reminds me of the recent article on looking at the genome of the 99% of ancient Rome. See Ed Yong's link here for his teaser:

Anyway, interesting/cool. Learned a few new things just from a throwaway example that caught my interest.

Here's one pdf (lots of caveats, explanations behind Dr. Steckel's conclusions).

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 18 Nov 2011 #permalink

Daniel, excellent.

When people say "people were shorter back then" they almost always mean that there are two frames: a single "now" and a single "then" and they are comparing the heights across them. There are many places in the world today where the current populations are shorter than some readily available "then" and as you say the rest is very complicated.

BTW I've heard the theory that the suits of armor we see in exhibits are teenager/children's armor in many cases. There is a lot of that preserved. The adult armor was more likely to get used up or left on some dusty plain somewhere with a corpse in it.

bks, that can easily be argued against. I recently did a very informal "study" comparing some programs and I can report this: In litarature and science two schools have roughly equally awesome teachers and very different student performances. The lower ranked school is one of the worst funded in the area, the higher ranked one, in the top three with funding.

Meanwhile, in math, the lower ranked school has crappy teachers and the higher ranked school has excellent tecahers. Student performance, again matches school funding level, not teacher awesomeness.

All are using the same approaches, pretty much.

Meaning, maybe, excellent teachers can be thwarted.

I'm in school rooms rather often thanks to my current job, but I am not a teacher myself. The radical changes from when even I was in school are pretty surprising. In fact, seeing modern TV shows with chalk boards in classroom settings seems downright out of touch considering modern schools now use touch screen projector systems instead.

The amount of technology that has spread into the classroom is such a stark contrast to what I remember from as little as ten years ago that it's amazing, considering how glacial the pace was when I was actually in school.

All that said, I regret to inform you that having sat IN modern classrooms here (Oklahoma, maybe you have to add that to your list), no, they don't do what you've said they do. I know you qualified your statement with "decent" but I am not aware how wide spread "decent" schools are. These schools are certainly well funded, but almost none of the teachers have advanced degrees in anything. No joke, I overheard a teacher who wasn't sure how to answer the question "does air have gravity?".

Now I should add some qualifiers. These are not lazy uncaring teachers. They do a lot of work and they really do care about teaching the kids. There is also a lot of side-work in making sure the slower kids are able to read and so on. Some of them do engage the kids in question and answer sessions to get them to think. However, even there their lack of a real understanding of the subject matter shines through. Their Socratic method leads the kids to the same poor understanding of, say, what science is.

These are not unmotivated teachers. Given a proper education and some freedom to teach using their methods, they could really reach the kids. However, they do lack an advanced education and it does limit them in a number of situations to simply saying to trust the resource material. I also think teaching kids how to post on a blog is probably a waste of time, but that's probably me being stodgy.

Textbooks. What the hell happened to textbooks? Why are there so many extremely bad textbooks out there and being used? The Algebra and Trigonometry books I used were written by people who had been dead for many decades and yet they were so much better than most newer books available. My favorite series of Calculus books were written by a pair who have been long dead as well (though they were both alive and teaching way back then).

By MadScientist (not verified) on 18 Nov 2011 #permalink

"Does air have gravity?" -- to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "it depends on what your definition of "have" is."

I have an advanced degree in Physics, and currently teach at the college level -- I'm not surprised the teacher didn't know how to answer that question. It's potentially a multi-faceted question, and depending on the age/grade level of the student could be quite difficult to answer in a satisfactory way.

Though, the quick, "lets convey no extra information or understanding to the student" answer would be "no".

I would have thought the answer would be "yes" since "air" is made of stuff and all stuff has gravity.

Also, "air" is atmosphere (as we usually think of it). How much less gravity would Jupiter or Saturn have if you totally removed the atmospheres from the planets?

Greg: Hence my point about this being not a simple question.

Gravity is a force. A force is an *interaction* between objects, not something that objects "have". Think of it like a handshake-an interaction between people: you can interact with someone by shaking hands - you don't, however, "have" handshakes stored up just waiting to be used on someone.

Is air affected by gravity? Yes. As you said, it's made up of stuff and stuff has mass, and mass interacts with other mass through the gravitational force. Earth has enough mass to exert a large-enough force on molecules of air (N2, O2, etc) to keep them hanging around: our atmosphere. The moon does not, and so has no atmosphere. Though it also depends on the mass of the molecule: even on Earth, helium just floats off into space, pushed upward by the buoyant forces from the larger atmospheric molecules.

Jupiter and Saturn would exert less gravitational force on their moons if their atmospheres were stripped away; it is possible the moons would no longer be held in orbit.

Asserting that things "have" or "carry" force is fairly common. I believe Rhett Alain has written about ESPN Sport Science and others doing just that (sorry, I don't know how to link to his blog); probably more eloquently than I can.

The problem with armour is not that they were made for children or teenagers, rather they are not necessarily displayed properly. On a human the pieces of plate would be distributed more widely, ie there would be gaps, whereas armour is often displayed stuck together on a wooden tree without so many gaps. Thus it looks smaller overall than it would have been originally. Places like the Royal Armouries at Leeds and some in germany have full suits of plate on actual proper sized dummies and that way you can see how it all spreads out and moves.

I understand your meaning, and that would be the best way to explain it, but let me provide some context here. This was a question being asked during an attempt at interactive learning where the teacher was telling kids that the earth "has" gravity. So, her inability to respond was not due to some nuanced understanding of gravity she was attempting to explain to the youngsters.

The problem with armour is not that they were made for children or teenagers, rather they are not necessarily displayed properly. On a human the pieces of plate would be distributed more widely, ie there would be gaps, whereas armour is often displayed stuck together on a wooden tree without so many gaps.

Interesting, and that may well be. The idea that some of this was children's armor (for the growing noble) was told to be my the curator of an armor museum so I'm not going to throw that idea out yet, but the plate-placement issue seems to be a good idea as well.

Burg: that the earth "has" gravity

But wait ... the Earth still has gravity, right? Or did they change that!

OK, JenW, just read your comment:

Gravity is a force. A force is an *interaction* between objects, not something that objects "have". Think of it like a handshake-an interaction between people: you can interact with someone by shaking hands - you don't, however, "have" handshakes stored up just waiting to be used on someone.

Sometimes I feel like I have handshakes stored up but yes, good point, I get that. Good point.

Jupiter and Saturn would exert less gravitational force on their moons if their atmospheres were stripped away; it is possible the moons would no longer be held in orbit.

That's what I was thinking.

I have to agree with the above comment that "decent" schools can often be very hard to come by, especially with regards to science and math education.

The high school that I attended, less than a decade ago, was relatively highly regarded. Within the district, it was considered one of the two "best" schools ... although I will add that this was a rural district, somewhat underfunded, and a place where "bad" teachers sometimes went to disappear after being shuffled out of city schools.

There were a few teachers who stood out as particularly bad at their jobs, but there's one who illustrates my point excellently, so I'll focus on him: the biology teacher.

This biology teacher was considered incredibly smart. He did research work in the summers, had an MA, published papers. But his particular field was plants: specifically, the reproductive systems of moss plants. And we spent the better part of two years worth of biology classes studying this subject, and this subject alone. The curriculum was given the barest glance -- we spent only three classes on human biology -- while his particular obsession was pursued. We were infuriated. My passion for zoology was completely skimmed over (we never got to do so much as dissect a frog), while my best friend (an aspiring doctor, who did go on to work in the medical field) raged at the lack of relevant material. But the teacher was lauded for providing us with long-term projects that included so much hands-on material. He was acclaimed. The board loved him and held him up as an example of "non-traditional" teaching methods being used to great success. He certainly had a deep understanding of his subject matter. But his obsession turned people away from science in droves. After one year of looking at moss under microscopes and cultivating it in jars and drawing pictures of spores and rhyzoids and archegonia and discussing haploid cells, most people never went back to take the advanced bio class. And without the advanced credit, no university course in a biology-related subject was possible.

It's all well and good to say that science education has changed, that it's moving forwards, that we're not where we were 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. But we're not there yet. Students still aren't getting "turned on" to science. So the problem remains a real one, and in many cases it DOES come down to teachers who simply don't know how to teach their subject.

I am going to join a middle school as a science teacher. This blog post and the related comments helped me a lot. I believe that now I have some idea how to improve my teaching philosophy as a science teacher.