Sunday, December 5, 2010

If Randall Munroe were Secretary of Education....

In any classroom, at any moment, a few students may be trying to follow you.

"It's...complicated. And we need to move on" kills inquiry, kills science, but apparently not science education.

When you present a model in class, make it clear it's a model. Science teachers are, essentially, model makers.

I'd rather children come out of school knowing nothing than "knowing" science. A child who knows nothing may still be curious.

A child who "knows" science has been functionally lobotomized.


When I was young, I was taught that the sun was directly overhead at noon. I remember trying to test this. I pushed a stick into the ground, expecting to see the shadow disappear at noon. It never did.

I did this over and over and over again. It never occurred to me the teacher was wrong.

Many children come to school in this neck of the woods still believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Many leave 12 years later believing in astrology, the moon landing hoax story, and false ancient Mayan prophecies of world destruction.

Few can explain seasons or tides or evolution. Many adults who think they grasp these don't. Discussing descent with modification with Creationists can be frustrating, but hearing those who "believe in evolution" toss around fallacy after fallacy is infuriating. I'm not sure which group does more harm to science education.

If you do not have a good grasp of a concept, do not attempt to teach it.

To earn a license to teach biology in New Jersey, you need to score a 152 (on a 200 point scale) on the biology Praxis test. In Arkansas, a 139 gets you in. Both scores are far below the 179 needed to earn the Praxis Series Recognition of Excellence.

There are, of course, other ways to measure teacher effectiveness, and knowing something doesn't mean you can competently teach it.

Not knowing something, though, means you can't teach it.

No one, of course, knows everything. I'm not arguing that we need to raise the Praxis passing score to 190.
Just know your limitations. If you don't grasp a point, don't pretend you do.

Randall Munroe is, of course, the xkcd guy.
He should be mandatory reading for science teachers.


John T. Spencer said...

I'd love your take on how I handled Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Friday. Kids wanted to know the science of it. I couldn't tell them. I didn't really even try. I don't understand nuclear physics. (You can read about it on my blog today)

doyle said...

Dear John,

You handled it brilliantly, as you do, by keeping it within what we can imagine.

The science, well, I've talked a bit about that elsewhere, and the two bombs were different. One split, the other fused atoms. In both cases, you end up with less mass (whatever "stuff" is) and released energy (whatever energy is).

The children learn something more important than physics, though. If we could unleash unfathomable power, would we? It's already been answered.

J Bowie said...

This is such a fantastic post and I agree that xkcd should be read by every science teacher. Strangely enough (or not) my curriculum coordinator has begun putting a cartoon (from xkcd) into our monthly curriculum review. What I find the MOST odd is that some science teachers don't get it and this scares me a lot!

I think many students really have no idea much of what they learn are simply models. A large majority think the atom is a (relatively) giant nucleus with electrons going around in nice circular orbits. Definitely one of the major flaws in science education and I'm as guilty as the next person for not stressing this enough.

Tyler said...

In the quest for rich inquiry (easier said than done), this is a core goal. Student questions and curiosity must drive the curriculum awhenever possible.

When I, or the state standards, drive the curriculum train with what we think is important, engagement is a fickle mistress. Often, key topics bore many (most?) students to tears. Sometimes, students are hooked by topics I expect to incite mutinous apathy.

I'm getting better at knowing the difference but it varies dramatically from student to student, group to group, year to year. Every time I think I've found a topic that kids love or a method that keeps them engaged, I'm brought back to earth by a group (or a vocal minority) that reminds me I don't have all the answers.

Better to let student interest drive the train, methinks.

doyle said...

Dear J Bowie,

Thank you for the warm words.

If science teachers are not getting his work, maybe they're in the wrong field.

It takes a lot of time to unlearn "science"--I'm at a critical point, but I'm leaning towards spending more time unraveling nonsense than attempting to teach new concepts.

We'll see....

Dear Tyler,

I agree, letting student drive the curriculum would be ideal, and, ultimately, would result in a better educated student.

None of us, of course, have all the answers, but (unfortunately) too many see uncertainty as weakness.

I'm about as uncertain as they come. The more I trust my students, the better I get at this.