Sunday, October 18, 2009

I'd settle for less

It's all well and good for the scientific sort among us to rant and rail against the infringement of superstition into science class.

There are few scientific theories more firmly supported by observations than these: Biological evolution has occurred and new species have arisen over time, life on Earth originated more than a billion years ago, and most stars are at least several billion years old. ...To deny children exposure to the evidence in support of biological and cosmological evolution is akin to allowing them to believe that atoms do not exist or that the Sun goes around the Earth.

Alas, "exposure" hardly makes a dent in anyone's mind, never mind a child forced to endure whatever comes her way in a curriculum designed by committees of adults living in far away cities, many of whom could not pass a sophomore's biology test given this past Friday.

If I were the Education Czar, I'd focus on helping kids get a grasp on what a "billion" means before exposing them to anything more daunting than making observations at the edge of a pond.

I'm make sure that they even realize that hundreds of critters can be found in a few drops of water from that same pond.

Instead, I am pounding macromolecules into the skulls of 15 year old children a year before they take high school chemistry.

(A science teacher bleating "just be able to recognize the structure..." is just plain pitiful.)

(By the way, gentle reader--just how long does it take for a billion seconds to pass?)


Kate said...

Okay, my friend.

I could not take and pass your test. Monomers link up and make polymers, but I have no idea what creates that connection. I don't think it is part of reduction and oxidation (that seems more like they would be rusting - we could tie-dye the teflon), and if I imagine them as holding their little monomer "hands" I'd say ionic.

Phospholipids? Fats that make up cells? aren't amino acids parts of protein? I'm reaching back.

So, I'd fail your test. I guess I could have studied more. The score is: Test 1, Tabor 0. I am humbled at what you must teach every day.

I am also in awe of the information that my daughter (a sophomore) not only knows but actually understands. I never did figure out hybrid orbitals, even in college inorganic chemistry, and she seems to have it well under control. Now I remember why I am an English teacher...

(I'm thinking it's something like over 31 years for a billion seconds to pass, but I haven't had my tea yet.)

[frost last night. must clean out the vegetable beds - except the broccoli which still seems deliriously happy]

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

I'd fail it, too, if I were not teaching it, and I guess that's the point. We can pretend we are teaching science, but most of the time we are not.

The problem is that that test passes for science. It's like memorizing how many tons of wheat the US sent to Russia in 1978.

Without having a clue what a ton of wheat looks like. Without a clue what a wheat berry looks like. Without a clue that ground up wheat berries make a wonderful flour, one that most students will never taste.

I am waiting for the kale before tackling the garden.

(I offer A's to any student who can count to 1 billion aloud--a few have taken me up on it.))

Kate said...

Did I already send you this poem? "Soybeans" by Thomas Alan Orr?

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Yes, but it's good to have the link here. Thank you.

doyle said...

Dear Karen,

I hope you're not a shill for wolframalpha--

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Michael.

It is little understood that concepts to do with space and huge numbers greater than a few thousand are developmental things. Some adults never really grasp the ideas. So why would be expect children to follow them?

George Gamow's book, "1, 2, 3, Infinity" has its title based on this same premise.

All of Science is based on concepts of one order or another, but as Newton recalled, "We stand on the shoulders of giants."

Anyhow, I make it just under 32 years.

Catchya later

doyle said...

Dear Ken.

You are quite right, and a billion is too big a concept for many, maybe most, people. It's just about impossible to grasp why natural selection works as it does it you cannot grasp the enormity of time.

One of the huge problems in science education is the insistence at the state level of putting the cart before the horse.

Not only are children expected to grasp (some) things beyond their reach, I am the agent that's been chosen to bless them with supernatural powers.

I will show them a few million dots this week....

As always, thank you for your insight.

doyle said...

Dear Karen,

Well, sorry, I had to let you go--as my mom used to say, quoting the Mother Superior at her school--"My, but you're bold...."

Kathryn J said...

Oh why won't they let us make an interdisciplinary curriculum so that they can learn the Chemistry with the Macromolecules and make some sense of it. I blogged about this today even before I came here. The way the curriculum is separated makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

The order that science is taught in makes no sense. Students need physics, chemistry and then biology. It makes sense and even flows poetically.

nashworld said...

While trying to blast through your sophomore biology curriculum (it is a freshman class here... even better, huh?) know that you're not the only one who thinks "coverage" of lofty facts is silly.

Erin teaches zoology (an elective bio course for 10 through 12) as well as freshman biology. I can certainly tell you that... although her freshman students will go to bat for her like crazy, the creativity and innovation of instruction in zoology is just... different.

I think learning about biomolecules for a really driven kid of 15 is do-able. I say that provided a rich, in-depth unit meant to drive home the concept of form meets function... the shape of life. I say that provided the fact that many hands-on experiences and lab investigations are incorporated. Once a kid is turned on by the excitement of learning in this way, it isn't such a huge stretch to find real beauty in the food we consume on, yes... even a molecular level.

~the big "however"~

You're right about thinking the current system does little to deliver a "science" experience. It does barely a bit beyond providing a litany of facts discovered by folks far away... folks who "cared about this stuff."

Our current scope and sequence allows little of any time to properly allow a real learning cycle to take place in the mind of a student.

If a kid is led into a situation where they just might (or rather is almost guaranteed to) "discover" something new to them, then there is a far better chance of the concepts becoming palatable.

I'm lucky, other than staff development functions (coaching) the one course I teach is Dual-Credit Biology. No, not AP Biology, which is really largely just a spooled-up version of the same march through facts. No, my students earn 5 hours credit for Bio 101 at our local state university. The professor I work with was my major professor and research buddy of six years. Dr. Rushin taught me about learning cycles and inquiry years ago. So yeah- I get a year to teach a one-semester college course. I can almost guarantee deep learning in that much time.

I just dropped a post last night on the importance of allowing students to connect their prior understandings, build upon their general exposure in that area, and then much around a bit in that area before trying to "explain" anything new. Attempts to dump info into a child's head are just silly. Even if it was a reasonable goal, it just doesn't work with a high level of success. And this... this is what we're pinning our hopes on. I thought the last administration was crazy with regard to education policy. For all my happiness with the "change" in office, I'm feeling more and more dissatisfied with the direction we're headed now in terms of ed. policy.

Oh, after that paragraph I'm a bit too depressed to drone on here.

But really- I think perhaps this bloated curriculum even highlights the importance of mining and then enriching a kid's prior knowledge. Time-wise, it isn't ideal. We're pressed for time as it is. If we have to honor a student's understanding where it currently is before moving on to "the cell" as it likely is in your case... then we're out of time already. Thus the ultra-importance of doing at least something along these lines. But really, people need time to process. Experience changes understanding... and experience takes time.

I don't care. I'm making sure my students understand something. Did I just say that? ;)


Ben Wildeboer said...

From the CT State DOE 9th grade science standards:

"Explain the general formation and structure of carbon-based polymers, including synthetic polymers, such as polyethylene, and biopolymers, such as carbohydrate."


"Explain how the chemical structure of polymers affects their physical properties."

Even less explicable is the fact these two standards get harped on by those who do such things as being a couple of the most important standards in the whole bunch. What fun.

doyle said...

Dear Kathryn,

I probably could make it interdisciplinary if I ever had enough free moments to create the junction, but I am blessed with an amazing supervisor.

I agree that chopping up the curriculum the way we do is nonsensical--the Nobel Prize was recently given to chemists for work on ribosomes, but we still dutifully cut up the two disciplines in high school.

Dear anonymous,

It made sense in the 1890's when the order was set up. Might be time to change.

Dear Sean,

I am jealous.

AP Biology is essentially a content course--there is too much to cover for it to be otherwise. Still, there are some wonderful concepts to be gleaned in all the muck, and I do my best to connect the dots.

Seems the College Board has recognized the problem--they are revamping the course and the exam.

(I am having a lot of fun, even if some of the students are not--)

doyle said...

Dear Ben,

Well, if you want to create more pharmaceutical giants in Connecticut, you got to start them young!

(It really is amazing what is happening, and so few people see it. I am glad I am not a high school student today.)