Most U.S. Schools Are Not Really Teaching “Science”
And it’s hurting us
We dance round in a ring and suppose … but the Secret sits in the middle and knows. — Robert Frost
I bet you’ve heard the following comments:
- We cured polio/smallpox
- We put a man on the moon
- We cracked the atom
- We decoded the genome
- We … We … We …
What do they mean “WE”? No, those great accomplishments are the product of a small number of very talented diligent scientists and engineers, and the rest of us just use and benefit from their discoveries. Let’s give credit where credit is due! And let’s admit that our species has a powerful reason to invest in the education and support of these special people who create so much value and quality of life and enjoyment for us.
Science advances one funeral at a time. — Max Planck
We need to create a pipeline of new scientists in every generation. Not only do we need to replace the scientists from the previous generation as they age out of their careers; we also need a large number of scientists in the 25–50 year old range, which is the sweet spot for making big breakthrough discoveries. Most Nobel prize winners are honored for work they did during that incredibly fertile period when the scientist is still open and creative enough to see things anew and differently than the conventional wisdom dictates. So the EDUCATION of young scientists is incredibly important for the survival and well-being of our species and the world as a whole.
The Business of Teaching
For most of human history, people learned by observing and emulating master (expert) practitioners. This is the apprenticeship model in which a novice works for and with the expert, often for little wages, in exchange for the learning and development that can propel them to the next rung of the career ladder: “journeyman”, or independent practitioner.
In the apprenticeship teaching system, the “classroom” is the workshop of the expert, and life revolves around DOING THE WORK. Learning is subordinate to and built upon the work itself. In the apprenticeship model, the expert is an artisan. They make one or a few things (pot, painting, tool, basket, engine) at a time. They teach one apprentice (or a small group) at a time. It is very intimate hands-on work, both the doing and the teaching.
Since the 1800s, the artisanal workshop model (of both making and teaching) has been largely supplanted by the factory/ industrial model. Henry Ford demonstrated that if you “atomize” work into its component parts, train people to do one part of the whole thing, and arrange them into an assembly line, you can turn out more widgets faster at a lower per-unit cost. The artisan cannot compete with the assembly line, and so they largely disappeared from the scene.
When it was decided that (almost) every “American” should get a basic primary education (readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic), system administrators faced the design challenge of educating large numbers of children at an affordable cost. It was logical to adopt the dominant industrial/factory model with its efficiencies and standardized operations and economies of scale. In the case of the U.S. K-12 public school system, the inputs on the assembly line are children (age ~5] and the outputs are “educated” young adults (age ~18). What happens on the line is largely dictated by the managers (school boards, superintendents and principals). The teachers (now line workers rather than master practitioners) carry out their assigned tasks. The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round.
The Educational/Industrial Complex
There are thousands of businesses that supply the assembly lines at Ford and General Motors and all the factories around the world making clothes and toys and cell phones etc. Schools also require many inputs to run smoothly and efficiently, and a whole industry exists for producing the text books and study/teaching guides and test/grading templates that enable an efficient public school system to operate from K-12. In subtle ways, the “suppliers” come to influence the factory operations as much as the managers (“teaching to the test”, testing as the end rather than means etc.).
Building and equipping functioning workshops for thousands of students would require a massive investment of resources, so classrooms were built instead around an amphitheater lecture-hall design (mimicking the British “public school” model that Americans admired*) with all the desks bolted down and facing the raised podium of the teacher. This created a spoke-and-wheel communication network where students looked at and interacted with the teacher, but not with each other. As classrooms were to serve as multi-use/subject spaces, they were stripped of any of the paraphernalia of any specific subject or practice. This reinforced the generic lecture/listen information delivery model of modern teaching, rather than the observing/doing model of the workshop of earlier centuries.
*A strong influence on the early design of the U.S. public school system in the 1800's was a sense of American inferiority compared to the British empire/culture. American education planners adopted the class-based view that the “trades” were inferior to the “educated gentleman” prototype of the oligarchs. So American public schools taught everyone Shakespeare and Euclidean geometry and cursive writing, and consigned the “slow learners” to trade schools to learn a practical skill by “working with their hands” (vs. their brains). Eventually the “shop” classes (the highlight of many a student’s day) were fully removed from the general curriculum. This not so subtle devaluation and shaming of any active doing or making as a means of teaching/learning was a controlling pedagogical bias for generations.
The resulting process looks like this from the teacher (and student) perspective:
- I teach/talk/assign (daily) …
- you listen/read (sometimes) …
- I test (periodically) …
- you repeat what I said (fitfully) …
- I grade (late at night) …
- you pass/graduate (hopefully)
Within this setting, the teaching of science is largely constrained to the parameters of the lecture and the textbook (perhaps with a perfunctory “lab” thrown in). Science is defined as facts/information (all the better to lecture/test you with, my dear!).
Science is taught as, and largely understood to be, the RESULTS produced by scientists rather than the METHODOLOGY by which they produce them
This is similar to helping someone to play an instrument by having them listen to the recordings of famous performers, or coaching a sport by watching videos of games and matches, or teaching painting by looking at paintings. All looking/listening, little doing. This is the FATAL FLAW of modern science education in the United States.
Let’s Do An Experiment!
Ask 5–10 people you know of various ages (K-12, college and working) what “science” is. Count how many say it is (A) the INFORMATION they learned in their biology, chemistry or physics textbook versus (B) a METHOD (observation, hypothesis testing by controlled experimentation) for discovering the truth about the world.
ACTION LEARNING for Science Education
Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results. — John Dewey
Many education thought leaders concerned with the process and best practices of student learning and teaching emphasize that people learn best by DOING things and then reflecting on what they did and the results they got. This action-learning model is offered by Geoff Mulgan in his formulation of the “studio school” as an antidote to the passive learning model that fails to engage the majority of young learners. His distilled wisdom:
People learn best by working with other people on projects that really matter
Mulgan combines three critical elements in his pedagogical philosophy:
- Active learning (WORKING ON PROJECTS)
- Motivation by relevance (THAT REALLY MATTER)
- Learning together in a group (WITH OTHER POEPLE)
In addition to transforming the solitary rote learning model into an active group performance setup, Mulgan recommends blowing up the whole assessment regime that is driven by the textbook/testing industry. Rather than teaching to a multiple-choice test, Mulgan builds an assessment process that requires students to demonstrate their ability to work cooperatively with complex materials/information to create a portfolio of meaningful original results.
So instead of starting by assembling the teaching/course materials (books, articles, powerpoint slides, web resources etc.) as is often the case, Mulgan takes a more “strategic” approach to teaching by beginning with the end in mind. This reverse engineering approach is recommended by Wiggins & McTighe in their Understanding by Design (UBD) teaching model. In the UBD process:
- The first thing to do is define what you want the end RESULT/PRODUCT of your teaching to be in terms of what your audience will know, understand and be able to do. Learning outcomes should extend beyond parroting of information that can be assessed via multiple-choice tests. Learners should be able to grapple with complex ideas, create a portfolio of original work, and maintain a critical attitude toward their own ideas and those of others.
- The second step is to determine how you will MEASURE/ASSESS whether you have achieved those results.
- And only then do you finally focus on the DESIGN of the learning materials and process to generate the results you want.
A truly strategic approach to teaching science demands an interrogation of the following critical questions:
- WHAT is science?
- WHY should we teach science?
- HOW should we teach science?
WHAT Is Science?
Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. — Atul Gawande
For most of human history, it was believed that one could discover the truth through divine revelation or philosophical reasoning. It wasn’t until the second century CE that seekers of the truth (referred to as “natural philosophers”) such as Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–1039) and Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) began to promote and engage in the ”scientific method” of disciplined observation and ultimately controlled experimentation. This new paradigm triggered an explosion of the diligent precise gathering/cataloguing of facts and data about the world (for a remarkable example, explore the “tree of life” connecting all biological forms).
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts. — Daniel Patrick Moynihan
After gathering enough data, the creative work of science iterates through the following critical steps and stages:
- organizing and considering how the data might inter- and co-relate
- imagining the underlying mechanisms that might account for those relationships
- developing hypotheses about those mechanisms that can be tested by experimentation
- conducting those experiments within a highly structured controlled design to reduce sources of error
- analyzing the experiment’s results using appropriate statistical models to determine whether the hypotheses are confirmed or not
- Refining the hypotheses based on those results
- designing and conducting further experiments to test the continuously modified hypotheses
- building theories that “make sense” of the array of results from multiple converging experiments
- testing the theories by further hypothesis building and experimentation
I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, rather than theories to suit facts.” — Sherlock Holmes (in A Scandal in Bohemia by A.C. Doyle)
But if you ask middle- and high school students what SCIENCE is, they will tell you about the RESULTS of the work by scientists they read about in their text books. In most pre-university settings (and even in many undergraduate colleges), science is not taught as a process/method for discovering the “truth”, but rather as a collection of “established” facts. So what students are taught is a bible of revealed truths (scripture created by a scientific priesthood) that is to be taken on faith and not questioned because, after all, it’s “science”.
Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated.” — Steven Pinker
Due to this “facts” rather than “process” model of science education, K-12 students don’t learn the fundamental attitude of science: SKEPTICISM. Rather than taking something on faith or just because someone famous or in authority or in your tribe says it’s true, science prescribes a skeptical “Prove It!” attitude. And proof takes the form of data produced within the context of the “experimental method” (gathering and organizing data, testing hypotheses under controlled conditions, building theories etc.) that is designed to reduce the number of FALSE explanations for the phenomenon under consideration.
I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only … remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar. — Richard Feynman
Skepticism requires the ability to live with uncertainty and not knowing for a while. It requires that a lot of work be done before coming to a conclusion. It requires delay of gratification, eating your vegetables (observing, doing the research) before having dessert (Eureka!). It takes more energy to be skeptical than to be either a believer or a cynic. Most people are not skeptics, and most science teachers are not scientists, and so science is taught as if it was a collection of revealed final “truths”. End of story, end of questioning, end of science.
WHY Should We Teach Science?
Nature, red in tooth and claw — Tennyson
The world is a scary and dangerous place, and humans and other beings have evolved to cope with that reality. The good news is that there is evidence that over the past few centuries, the lot of the “average” human has gotten “better” (for other organisms, not so much) on a variety of economic and health indicators. And the reason for most of that improvement is … (wait for it) … Science!
If you’re a “scientist”, you should be saying to yourself “I’m not sure I believe things are really getting better. PROVE IT!” For data supporting the “getting better” hypothesis, see
“The Enlightenment”, a period roughly from 1650–1800, refers to a time frame when a new paradigm (“natural philosophy/science”) began to challenge the supremacy of power/wealth and religion in defining the “truth”. That new paradigm was built upon three core values and aligned activities:
- Reason (elevation of logic over belief/superstition)
- Science (elevation of skepticism over faith)
- Humanism (elevation of the well-being of all people over the interests of religion and commerce)
Much of our current health, wealth, wisdom and happiness (unequal and inadequate as it surely is) is built upon these Enlightenment values and the diligent work of their advocates and disciples:
- the scientists who create new knowledge
- the public-, medical- and social/behavioral health professionals who translate (albeit imperfectly) that knowledge into practice and service
- the members of the public sector (executive, legislative and judicial branches of government) and non-profit organizations whose work is illuminated by reason, science and humanity
We all benefit every day from their diligent intelligent effort. So we need MORE scientists. So we should teach science as a means of discovering the truth for the benefit of every person and the entire planet.
HOW Should We Teach Science?
A frog that sits at the bottom of a well thinks that the whole sky is only as big as the lid of a pot. — Vietnamese proverb
There are several pathways to discovering the “truth”:
- “Common sense”
- Conventional “wisdom” (people are saying …)
- Authority (might makes right)
The first 3 paths rely completely on the default functioning of the human brain, which we have learned of late is riddled with error and inaccuracy of thought and perception. A better way was laid out by W. Edward Deming as he prescribed a methodology for getting better results in any field of endeavor. He recommended that in everything we do, we should
- PLAN: decide what we are going to do
- DO: execute the plan for a while
- CHECK: analyze the results of that experiment, and
- ADJUST: make changes to the plan based on the data
In other words … SCIENCE!
4 Simple (But Hard) Steps to Success at Work
Successful people and organizations operate like scientists
As mentioned above, science progresses through several steps and stages and produces great results and discoveries. These include:
- Observing (“facts” collection)
- Organizing (arranging facts in search of meaningful patterns and relationships)
- Hypothesizing (speculating about the mechanisms driving those patterns)
- Testing (subjecting hypotheses to rigorous experimentation)
- Learning from experience (revising our ideas based on experimental results)
- Rinse and repeat …
A learner-based approach to teaching science would align each stage above with the appropriate grades/stages of cognitive development in the K-12 system. For instance, young children are masters of the observation and collecting of “things”. They love to immerse themselves in the world around them through their acute senses, undistracted by the thinking/verbal skills that come on-line a bit later in life. They are natural hoarders of things like insects (farewell E.O. Wilson!), seeds, rocks, beanie babies, books, action figures etc. They want to complete the WHOLE collection and will find/buy all 50 things to do so (the marketers capitalize on that instinct to sell more product). They like to arrange their collections into groups/classes by color, size, value and other variables. So they are natural scientists for the first stage: observation. In Finland, science in the early grades largely involves field trips in and outside the school building in search of all manner of phenomena.
If you have no data, you’re just another person with an opinion. — W. Edward Deming
Is this “simple” observing and collecting and organizing of things really “science”? Consider the following:
- Charles Darwin spent 5 years as a naturalist on the ship HMS Beagle gathering plant and animal samples from many parts of the world, and the next 23 years cataloguing and pondering his finds before advancing his theory of “descent by natural selection” to account for the origin of species.
- Alexander von Humboldt, often referred to as the father of ecology, traveled around the world for 5 years taking numerous climate measurements and gathering thousands of samples, and then spent the next 21 years publishing multiple volumes based on that data trove.
- Gregor Mendel patiently cross-bred thousands of generations of peas for more than 7 years to create the data base from which he advanced the first valid theory of inheritance and genetics.
So yes, great science begins with painstaking observation with minimal hypothesizing or theory building. Those important activities come later (in both science and in human development), and they require a different kind of brain/cognitive functioning. Jean Piaget distinguishes between what he calls “sensory-motor and pre-operational” mental functions (like observing, manipulating and comparing things) and “concrete and formal” mental operations that involve language and symbols and logic/reasoning. Young children (ages 2–7) are very good at working with “things”, and when they advance to concrete and formal operations thinking, they actually lose some of their “thing-ness” competence. [This is why we adults have to be taught “mindfulness” (observing the world through our senses without thinking or judging) because we have become “addicted” to our verbal/logical abilities, for better and worse.]
(People) who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations. Of necessity, they observe with a preconceived idea, and when they devise an experiment, they can see, in its results, only a confirmation of their theory. In this way they distort observation and often neglect very important facts because they do not further their aim. — Claude Bernard
Each stage of cognitive development builds upon and creates synergy with the others. One is not more important or valuable than another. We make a huge mistake in believing that the verbal/logical operations are “better” than the ones involving our sensing of objects. When we fail to gather enough reliable data (i.e. X people all see the same thing) through direct observation of phenomena early on, our hypotheses and theories and experiments will fail to produce beneficial results because we have become disconnected from the real world we are trying to understand.
As children and their mental capacity grow across the K-12 years, age-appropriate aspects of science can be brought into the curriculum. Every student can be a detective, a crime scene investigator or forensic specialist as they engage in a fun and exciting “Search for the TRUTH!” Once they count the number of “X” (crayons, calculators, bacteria) in 10 classrooms, they can speculate (hypothesize) about the “causes” of any differences (number of students, age of students, location of classrooms, location of the school itself etc etc) and then conduct experiments to discover the truth. The science fair/competition happens every day for everyone.
In the middle-school years when their reading and math skills are solidifying, students can be brought in on a big “secret” about science. One way that science progresses is by scientists publishing a record of the experiments they conduct so other investigators can learn from their experience (and not believe disproved claims or mindlessly re-invent the wheel again and again and …). This is a good time to teach courses in the history of science, and well-crafted textbooks and other teaching materials can expand the student’s understanding beyond their own direct observation and experimentation. But learning about the discoveries of other scientists must always remain secondary to learning and appreciating the special METHOD (“Science”) by which they made those discoveries.
As their math skills grow in the high-school years, budding scientists can be introduced to experimental design (and issues of reliability and validity) and probability statistics and “confidence levels” for determining whether something is “true”. Mastering all these data gathering and analysis skills from K-12 will not only teach students about the real work of science (and inspire some of them to become scientists!), but also equip them to critically evaluate information as adults in order to make wiser decisions for their own and others’ benefit (e.g. to decide whether a drug or other treatment “really works” so they can decide whether to take it).
In the USA (and many other countries), we teach “science” as the RESULTS of the scientific method, rather than the METHOD itself. This pedagogical error results in bored disengaged students, the majority of whom will never experience the natural thrill of discovery that might impel them into a STEM career. We suffer a serious deficit of science talent and competitiveness as a result of that approach.
Teaching science as a pathway to discovering what is TRUE vs FALSE will equip every student with a valuable skill set they can apply to every important part of their lives (health, money, work, politics, marketing, relationships, internet memes and “theories” etc.). The return on investment of teaching science this way is beyond reckoning, though by now you should be saying
“Let’s do an experiment and see if we can calculate the ROI of teaching science this way!”
Congratulations you SCIENTIST you! 👏
This article is dedicated to my son who is completing his PhD in biomedical science. His commitment, diligence and intelligence over many years to master the complexities of his field has inspired me and re-affirmed my faith in science (and scientists) as the human activity most likely to enable us to create a sane and healthy world for ourselves and all living beings.