Class and Science Education
    By Robert H Olley | March 1st 2010 01:05 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Until recently, I worked in the Polymer Physics Group of the Physics Department at the University of Reading.

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    There has been much discussion lately about the ignorance of matters scientific among the public.  With this is mind, here are some thoughts from Blighty.
    I have just been speaking to my friend O, who is quite a senior figure in science education.  He has been fighting a battle for years against the prevailing mindset.  I will put forth a few of his complayntes:
    The exam boards see it as their job, rather than the teachers’, to stretch children’s knowledge.
    Science teaching is becoming increasingly mathematized.
    It is aimed at producing academic scientists, rather than teaching folk at large who want to use their science in their jobs, e.g. plumbers and beauticians.
    They consider only the science of the middle class professionals, such as medics and dentists, rather than science for the workers.
    As you may guess from the previous sentence, he is a Socialist.  I have been described as a “right-wing Bolshevik”  But I do think there is much in what he says.  What do you think?


    Gerhard Adam
    I think there is quite a bit of merit in this complaints.  Science education has always been considered sort of secondary unless someone was pursuing an academic career.  Therefore most of the schools don't really see any value in science beyond that scope. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    The role of the exam boards is to make money. They do so by gaining greater market share. They have done so by making the exams easier so that more students get better grades, making the schools look better, who thereby opt into doing the easiest exam board. This is achieved by changing how exams results are calculated. In the past the raw results were analysed and grades given according to fixed percentiles, eg the top 10% would get an A grade. Now, every year we see headlines of how exam results are getting better. Are students getting brighter? No, such perceived improvements are achieved by the simple trick of moving the percentiles at which the grades are set. Pathetic really! The problem now is that moving the bell curve of results upwards has resulted in a double hump as the brightest kids get bunched up at the top (even in New Britain it is impossible to score more than 100%). Leading universities can no longer tell the difference between a genuine A-grade student and someone who in the past would have got a B. Introducing A* grades merely confirms the problem. The Education Ministry (which is now part of BIAS) could, of course, do something about this, but who cares when everyone's making money.

    I could go on... about how I've described the changing UK curricula as granular rather than modular: don't bother thinking about connections just rote learn the answers... but I shan't. Good luck to your friend - that brick wall is painful on the forehead though.
    At the early levels (say, K-12 in the US school system), I think good science teaching is effective no matter what the students' future career plans are. In other words, I don't think that 10th grade physics should be taught one way for kids planning to become scientists or health care providers, and another for kids who will become retail managers, mechanics, contractors, teachers, etc.

    At some point those intending to be professional scientists or engineers obviously need more specialized training. When first learning about science however, everyone needs to learn how to think about problems scientifically (how to frame a question, formulate a hypothesis, devise experiments to test the hypothesis, interpret the results). These are generally valuable skills, and the exact scientific subject matter used to teach those skills isn't very important.

    Second, I think science isn't taught mathematically enough. I first learned calculus the standard way - with theories about limits and plenty of drills, etc. Meanwhile, in physics class, teachers did everything they could to avoid describing velocity and acceleration in terms of derivatives. We should skip a lot of the formal mathematics for most kids, and use a more intuitive approach, with the goal of having students not be afraid to think mathematically.  The basic idea of a linear differential equation isn't that hard when you think about it in the context of a pendulum, or a predator-prey cycle.

    Instead of introducing math formally, with students then applying this formal knowledge to problem sets, we need to introduce children informally to mathematical concepts. Solving differential equations is hard and takes a lot of practice. Understanding the concept of a differential equation is easy, and can be taught to all children. 

    I guess what I'm saying is that we can teach mathematical thinking and understanding, without expecting proficiency in problem solving beyond the very basics of geometry, arithmetic, and algebra. Problem solving proficiency can be saved for those who need more specialized knowledge.
    Gerhard Adam
    I guess what I'm saying is that we can teach mathematical thinking and understanding, without expecting proficiency in problem solving beyond the very basics of geometry, arithmetic, and algebra.
    While I agree with your sentiment, I have to disagree with the assessment.  Schools hardly do an adequate job of teaching mathematics to begin with, let alone the nuances of applying such mathematical thinking to other disciplines.  The problem here isn't the sciences, but rather how poorly the mathematics curriculum even begins to address the usage of mathematics in the real world.  It's no coincidence that someone that hasn't gone to college typically operates at the 4th grade arithmetic level (i.e. fractions).

    Even many college graduates do so poorly at math, that one can only marvel at how badly one has to be able to teach a subject to create such poor results after years and years of study.

    If the mathematical principles were better taught, then it would be easier to bridge that gap into the sciences to see how it could be applied.  However when the average individual barely remembers how to divide fractions, I wouldn't hold much hope out for understanding the basis or basics of differentials.
    Mundus vult decipi