Saturday, October 22, 2011

How many teachers does it take to say "screw the lightbulb"?

NJ World Class Standard:
8.2 Technology Education, Engineering, and Design

All students will develop an understanding of the nature and impact of technology, engineering, technological design, and the designed world, as they relate to the individual, global society, and the environment.

On this day not so long ago, Edison switched on a reasonably bright incandescent bulb using a carbon filament, and it lasted long enough to read the next evening's newspaper. (It was also the first time in history Samuel Ogden Edison, his Dad, shouted those immortal words "Shut off the damn light, Tommy, you think money grows on trees?!")

I mentioned this to class yesterday, then added that I thought Edison had done more to cause human misery than just about any other human ever born, largely because of this invention.

I said this on a dark Friday morning, with 22 pupating humans in front of me, sitting under the buzz and barely perceptible flicker of fluorescent lights, which, to be fair, were not Edison's thing (though he dabbled with them before an ex-employee  made a commercially viable version.).

A couple students giggled, but I was serious, and finally one asked why. I turned the question back on them. How would life be different without articial light?

I won't betray their words here, but I will say this--if you give young'uns a tiny bit of space to call their own, they can think. Deeply.

We lost any real connection with what happens outside our windows generations ago, and lose any semblance of connection when we abandon our religious rituals, the last vestiges of our pastoral (OK, pagan) past. For many of us, our biggest connection to seasons is shopping and sports, both poor substitutes for living.

I can use prepackaged glossy corporate curriculum "aids" designed to mislead, I can use textbooks tamed by fear of market loss, I can use all sorts of "educational" websites sponsored by folks with a vested interest in a particular way of thinking.

Or I can tell them what I think is true.

And no, I do not claim to have any special relationship with "truth"--I do have, however, a healthy respect for it, which means looking at what we do and teach with a critical eye, using logic and love, to explore the world around us. It means being wrong a lot, too.

In science, we're used to being wrong--our goal is to be more right today than we were yesterday, but if we ever figure everything out, science would no longer exist.

When we continue to ignore truth, though, we not only lose science, we lose ourselves.

Saying Thomas Edison invented the light bulb is like saying Christopher Columbus discovered that the world is round.
They both did really cool things, and both caused a lot of damage to a lot of people.

The Edison lamp drawing is from the National Archives; the jelly taken last week at Cape May.

And we wonder why 11% of American adults are on anti-depressants....


David Rudel said...

For whatever it's worth, even though the Texas standards require students

"in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student"
the actual educational materials adopted by the board to meet that standard generally do nothing of the sort.

After those standards were adopted, the TEA (Texas Education Agency, a body separate from the State Board of Education) was tasked with recommending curriculum materials to be approved for the new standards.

Our company's materials ( were adopted, and I played an integral part in that process and also looked at materials published by other educational companies. I think it is fair to say that the major education publishers showed no interest whatsoever in having students evaluate "all sides of evidence" about any theory. That just isn't done in educational materials. (I'm told that the president of one of the major textbook publications said in an interview that his company had no interest in conforming to such a claim). The company I worked for met this standard by including a historical research exercise asking students to consider evidence for an against Newton's theory of mechanics and how and to what extent it could be tested by scientists at the time. I don't think other publishers did something even this "controversial." Instead they generally ignored the standard entirely.

The TEA's review process was based on the evaluation of educational professioanls (teachers, college professors, scientists and other such people) rather than politicians. I think it is fair to say that anything promoting creationism or ID was rejected.

In addition to looking at other publishers' materials and producing content for our own bid, I also sat in on an excruciating 8-hour meeting of the board to discuss the adoption, and I can tell you that at that meeting the board showed no interest whatsoever in going against the recommendation made by the TEA based on the evaluation by scientists, teachers, and university professors.

David Rudel said...

Just to clarify, most of the hubbub regarding Texas standards adopted by the board in 2009 centered on that language: that students would be required to evaluate evidence for various theories. It was that standard that people saw as a dangerous one owing to its being prone to misuse.

That is why I highlighted it in the comment earlier.

doyle said...

Dear David,

I oversimplified a complex situation, knew it when I did so, even thought about tossing in an aside, then posted it anyway. So much for seeking truth, eh?

The current biology book we use says that "change over time" meaning descent with modification, is a characteristic of life. I'm not a fan of the word "evolution" (preferring "descent with modification"), but I think the intent was clear--avoid controversy in the first chapter of the book.

Which is ridiculous, of course, because there is no controversy among those relying on the natural world for the evidence for their models.

Hey, if anyone want to bring up The Controversy in class, I think the ensuing discussion could help a lot of children clarify their thoughts. Heck, the lambs ask about aliens among us, Big Foot, zombies, and all other kinds of nonsense I briefly address. (We have The Big Green Box into which kids can carry on the discussion if they care to--I'll post on that some day....)

Ironically, I am now in the midst of a time-sucking void trying to untangle the muddy thoughts of multiple grown-ups who have peripheral effects on my life. I keep reminding my students (and myself) it's all about the process.

(Not sure I'm making any sense here--as usual, your words kicked off several thoughts in multiple directions.)

David Rudel said...

Actually, and this is of course a separate topic, but when I saw "Textbooks worried about market share" I actually expected to see a post detailing how textbooks have gotten fatter and fatter simply because no one objects to extra stuff being there, so textbook companies feel obliged to have every pet topic each state chooses to emphasize.

I think that might be more of an issue in math, though. But still...that is what came to my mind, and then I clicked on the link and it brought up memories of that painful board meeting I sat through...which I hope to write a blog post about someday (when I have a science blog) because it was just an insane, surreal experience.

Hope you make it out of the time-sucking void soon.

Jenny said...

"In science we're used to being wrong" Hmm... why don't we show that to students? (I'm sure you do, but, in general, why don't we?) As a society we seem unable to accept ever being wrong. Being wrong is powerful, useful, necessary. That said, I hate being wrong.

David Rudel said...

Jenny is completely right... and her comment is directly linked to a major problem in science education exacerbated by the political fights over that arena, be it AGW or common descent evolution.

The simple fact is that there is (or has been) contradictory evidence against practically every theory ever accepted by the scientific community. This is the "dirty secret" of science that you never, ever, ever see in textbooks, which always claim that all theories are "well tested" (and give the impression that they have passed all those texts).

This shows a total ignorance of science history and its nature, but the political fights especially over climate change, has forced scientists and those who use scientists to back their policies, to put on a facade of surety. [I haven't decided how much of this discussion to include in Volume 3 of Science Myths Unmasked, which is devoted to science as a discipline.]

So, in an effort to protect science from (albeit unfair) attacks, we give the very false impression that educated people all agree that the current set of scientific theories is without any significant contravening counter-cases.

It is sad, really, that we choose to warp science as a discipline to obviate such criticism. It would be a wonderful world if we could be honest about science as a discipline without that honesty being exploited by the baser components of society.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny and David,

Every year I reach a dangerous point in class. I start the year with an explicitly stated goal--you will know less in June than you know now. (I could say "think you know" but that gets into all kinds of epistemology I'd rather avoid with kids, and it's, well, demeaning.)

Over and over again I focus on what we do not know--you'd be amazed how many studens see the model of the atom as something directly seen by scientists. Do this long enough, and they start to ask "How do we know anything?".

Over and over again I gently remind them that science "proves" nothing--by December, the words "proof" and "proves" drift out of our science class, replaced by "evidence." It takes time, and trust by teachers, that this will happen.

For a month or two, the Creationists and the AWG deniers believe I am one of them. What they hear is that I am denying science, because they do not yet grasp what science is.

Still, for 4 hours a week, for about 40 weeks, my kids are exposed to science, as science.

In the end, a few more are excited by it than in September, and a lot more have a sense of what science is, and of how powerful it can be.

Very few of them will go on to become professional scientists, and it is a sham that we pretend otherwise. All of them, though, have a shot at becoming true citizens in a faltering republic.

So, yep, I'm trying to save the country by teaching children how to think for themselves. If a child believes that an atom looks like the symbol of the NRC just because someone told them, they'll believe anything.

And we already have way too many people in the States that will believe anything.