Friday, May 25, 2012

NGSS: The first "S" means "science"

As I sink deeper into the morass of words that pretends to advance science in the name of economic security (which is like asking a flower to open in order to fulfill an order for FTD), I find comfort in reading  Walt Kelly's Pogo, a document at least as sophisticated as anything "managed" by Achieve, an organization of governors and business folks working to push "college and career readiness" as the primary purpose of public education. (They are starting to pay lip service to citizenry now...)

When you mix a corporate agenda with "science," you get oddly unscientific practices:
"Obtain and communicate information about..."

The above phrase appears nine times in the performance expectations of the prepubescent crowd (4th grade and under) in the draft of the Next Generation Science Standards. You could look it up.

Obtaining and communicating information is what business folks do. Science is not in the business of information, it's in the business of grasping how the natural world works. It starts with observation.

We're talking about children. The committee might consider renting one out, and setting it up on a beach somewhere. Observe what a young child does as she runs, crouches, runs, then crouches some more. She's observing. Sure, it's undirected, and yes, she'll need context and language and technological tools to help her along--but what she doesn't need is a formal education that confounds science with obtaining and communicating information.

We don't need science teachers and business leaders leading the charge here, we need child development specialists, we need pediatricians, we need Mommies and Daddies. Heck, we need could use a few children on the committee.

We got too much  Howland Owl, a pedantic pricklish sort, and not enough Porky Pine, a wise, if cynical, denizen of the swamp. I'd make Grundoon the chile woodchunk or his sister Li'l Honey Bunny Ducky Downy Sweetie Chicken Pie Li'l Everlovin' Jelly Bean the chair.

Francis W. Parker had a few words to say about this long before public schools fell prey to the agenda of careerists more interested in the dubious concept of "global economy" than the interests of America and its children:

I wish to earnestly protest against making school-children wander though a long desert and wilderness of words before a few of them, who intellectually survive, can have the inestimable privileges of direct observation found in the laboratories of universities. When pupils in the lower schools study science throughout the course there will be a hundred students in our universities where now there is one.
Francis W. Parker, Talks on Pedagogics

Maybe, just maybe, elementary school teachers know a tad more about the Grundoons of this world than do Eli, Bill, and Arne. Maybe, just maybe, they'll do what they have always done when faced with nonsense imposed from on high.

Put a nice poster of George Washington on the window, close the door, teach and explore the world together.

Yes, of course, communication is a huge part of what scientists do--
but it's what they do after the science is done, to share their observations, to keep them honest.

The Walt Kelly cartoons used without permission, but hopefully fall under educational use.
I hope the Kelly family agrees. Let me know if you don't--we've chatted before. =)


Jenny said...

As a primary teacher I would hope that what elementary teachers will do is close the door and explore rather than teach. At this point the word teach connotes something done from on high, from a place of superior knowledge. I hope we explore alongside our students, sharing when we can the things we have learned through experience.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

Good point! (I changed it.)

Anonymous said...

I think your interpretation of the phrase "Obtain and communicate information about..." might stretch a tad beyond cynicism. As a 6th grade earth science teacher, I think an increased emphasis on communication is important.

I find that many students have an under-developed ability to communicate their observations (especially without over-interpretation or opinion) or to understand others' scientific communications. It seems related to their questionable notions of credibility.

We are preparing these students for life, which means enabling them to share their findings and to be critical consumers of others' findings. I appreciate your watchful skepticism, but I see no reason to assume ulterior motives here.

doyle said...

Goodness, another anonymous!

The cynicism lies with those who would present science as "obtain and communicate information" at the lower grades.

By 6th grade, I agree that increased communication is important as part of the science curriculum. I also believe it's important in the lower grades, but not as science. There's a reason my count only includes 4th grade and under. Otherwise I would have said the phrase was used over a dozen times.

The notion of credibility is huge, and essential if we're to reclaim the functioning republic we once were. That's why I want schools to get this right. The first step in developing appreciation of science is accepting that observations trump "information."

Seeing 6th graders as "consumers" of others' findings strikes me as a tad cynical itself. Just sayin'.

BTW, I am not "assuming" ulterior motives--Achieve et al. are very clear on their motives.

(Are you Thing 1?)

Todd said...

I really think you hit the nail on the head. i teach 9-12th grade science and find the whole standards based curriculum depressing. Especially with its emphasis on "the scientific method," as if that is how real discovery is done.
I think why I ever personally became interested in science and it had everything to do with Feynman's "The pleasure of finding things out" and nothing to do with communicating it to anyone, except in the sense of grabbing someone and telling them how cool it was.
I just read a biography of Frank Oppenheimer "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens" he was the brother of Robert and founder of the Exploratorium and his views on science "teaching" were profound.

John T. Spencer said...

I'm not bothered by communicate. To me, that seems like such a natural part of science. You try and explain what you've observed. You draw pictures. You share verbally. My issue is with "information" and with "obtain." To me, that's where it breaks off into technology and business rather than science.

doyle said...

Dear Todd,

I wandered over to your blog, got caught up in it, and ended up writing a post because of it. =)

Dear John,

Agreed--I should have made that more clear. All of education (formal and otherwise) requires communication. It's "information" that pokes at my amygdala.

Anonymous said...

Why are you interpreting "observing" to mean something so different from "obtaining information"?

Don't you think when we observe, we find something out? Isn't that information? I really don't get what you're so upset about.

doyle said...

Dear Yet Another Anonymous,

The act of observing and "information" are different words, with different meanings.

The difference is real, though a bit subtle for many in education--which is, of course, the point of the post.

Connotations matter, especially in education. If you're truly confused, let me know. If you're just badgering to badger, well, it's too nice a time of year for that nonsense. Get back to me in November.

Anonymous said...

Well yes, I am truly confused, and to respond to what you said on the other post, I am in fact a science teacher, and I'm not sure why you'd see that as a problem.

I think it's weird that you say "Science is not in the business of information" as if there is no information content in what science learns about the world. You are very willfully imposing cynicism where it may not belong. I have observed this, which means I have gained some information about you.

Now you seem to want anonymous commenters to just leave you alone, and I am happy to.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous Science Teacher,

It saddens me to see teachers trapped in binary universes--especially science teachers. We have an obligation to help children learn how to grasp the natural world.

Science is involved with interpreting the natural world, creating models to help us grasp the patterns we observe. We really are not in the "business" of information. Oh, we need to communicate, we need to share ideas, but our business is the natural world--our "information" is secondary to that. (To be fair, I do not know what you mean by "information"--I welcome clarification.)

Too often we deliver science to students. We lecture, we ask them to memorize lists of vocabulary words, and we applaud when they mimic ideas as mindfully as a mynah bird.

You are very willfully imposing cynicism where it may not belong. I have observed this, which means I have gained some information about you.

And there's my point--you hypothesize that I am "willfully imposing cynicism where it may not belong" , then say "I have observed this, which means I have gained some information about you."

Your observation (reading my words) is a different thing than the (erroneous) information you gleaned from it. A student may agree with you, of course, but I'd rather that student make her own observations before assuming that your "information" (my alleged cynicism) is true..

There is a difference, and the difference matters.

(I don't think cynicism has any place in a classroom, or in a well-lived life, for that matter. I hope a more complete observation of my words would lead you to the same conclusion.)

Stating your position as a science teacher reduces your anonymity a tad, no? Saying as much garnered a response before ovember.

Kate said...

The Colonel would have been an entertaining dinner companion, I think. His thoughts about the classroom and the interactions of the people inside of it inform my work every day. How do we read? Why do we read? What are the dangers of not reading and writing well? How are we persuaded? How do we persuade?

There is a no doubt apocryphal story about Parker asking a group of formally accomplished students questions about this planet we live on. He is said to have asked, "If you started digging here and kept digging to the center of the earth, what would you find as you dug?"
Apparently the students were stumped until their teacher become frustrated and told Parker that he was asking the wrong question. "what is at the earth's core?" she asked.
"the Earth's core is molten magma," was the unison response.
I keep trying to ask better questions.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

That Parker book you sent me has become treasured--I talk to the Colonel once or twice a week, scribbling down thoughts, dog-earing pages.

I love the story, and will share it. Feynman had a similar experieince in Brazil--a whole generation of physics students who were trained in the words without an appreciation of the ideas.

And those students could answer in unison as well.

Susan Eckert said...

I tend to agree with you. But the strangest daughter has never shown much interest in science (okay, the natural world). We plant together, we take care of a marine fish tank, we look at birds, pet bumble bees, dig for coquinas at the beach. She is mildly interested, yes, (sometimes I feel like she is humoring me) but the most interested she has ever been in anything science related is the dinosaur unit she just finished in school. She is suddenly very passionate about dinosaurs! And I ask her why and she says it's because she liked reading the interesting facts about them. She didn't observe them (obviously)--in fact when I took her to AMNH, she was not very passionate. But she read about them. And she fell in love. I don't really know if this goes against what you are saying but it definitely shows that she, at this time in her young life, is intrigued by facts and information about a world that she cannot observe and can only read about.

gkpeter said...

Love your blog, but I wanted to hopefully have something clarified. Observation is not science, science is a field, it is a body of knowledge that was gained in a very particular way. Observation was a component on how it was obtained. The other component(s) was recording the "information" of the observation and then analyzing it. It would then hopefully lead to questions, observations, "information", etc. What I am getting from your post is that you want kids to be kids and have the chance to explore, is that correct? I totally agree. However, that is not by any stretch of the imagination science. Hopefully it will get somebody interested in science. The same observations over time have lead to both the creation of science and the creation of religion.

doyle said...

Dear gkpeter,

I don't believe I said what you think I said, but since you read it that way, maybe I need to be clearer:

Science is not in the business of information, it's in the business of grasping how the natural world works. It starts with observation.

My issue is with pushing the results of science, what we (I believe erroneously) call "information" as science.

Heck, I'd be fine without formal mileposts for science "knowledge" before middle school.

I spend more time helping kids unlearn what they think they know than helping them develop a sense of what science is.

(Sorry about all the quotation marks--it's hard to know what anyone means anymore in education.)

gkpeter said...

So, for sake of discussion, can we define "information"? This is tough, I assume "information" to be data, but it may be just scientific "facts". What does everyone think on this? To are definitely two ways to look at this: 1. I would argue that it is necessary to have a certain scientific knowledge base in our society. This can help individuals lead, hopefully, more productive and healthier lives. and 2. I want to maintain the creativity in individuals so we contain to have a gain in scientific knowledge overtime. So, the process of doing science is important. Both of these create interest in students, if done properly.
I think if there is more investigation early on in education, with the use of observation, but more importantly, gathering of data and analysis of data, we will have a generation of students who better understand what science is about and better understand the different application and uses of mathematics.
Just out of curiosity, what are some things you have to have your students unlearn? I teach community college and there are a lot of Biology things I have to "unteach" at that age. Color of blood in veins, what is a gene, nutrition, etc.