Sunday, July 8, 2012

"Certainty is absurd"

"NSTA’s most serious and profound concern with the NGSS first public draft is the explicit omission of nature of science."
National Science Teachers Association's comments on NGSS draft

"Trapped," xkcd, of course!

My grasp of the world is as tenuous as anyone else's, but I enjoy not knowing things, especially not knowing things that may be knowable, maybe for the same reason I like digging holes.

I may be about to dig myself into a deep one.

High school science teachers complain about the magical thinking that permeates our schools and our culture, and we like to blame everybody that has had a hand in a child's life before they walk into our classrooms.

This is, of course, far easier (not to mention more satisfying) than recognizing that all of us are hanging onto reality by skin of our teeth (or rather by the fields of electrons--vast empty space--that we perceive as the surface of tartar).

The Next Generation Science Standards are careening towards implementation. The National Science Teachers Association, which I thought had a primary role in developing the standards, has woken up:

The appropriate grade level for students to learn a particular science concept in the NGSS should not differ from the recommendations in the National Science Education Standards and Benchmarks for Science Literacy unless there is published research that provides evidence in favor of the move.

That Achieve, Inc.,  even needs to be told that more than once highlights the core issue here. This is not about teaching science, or learning, or about children beyond preparing them for the "21st-century workplace."

If we can ignore the profiteers for the moment, we still have a problem. We all love the idea of science (like we like the idea of truth, justice, and the American Way), but we can't be much bothered to practice it.

I've talked about gravity, and I'd like to talk about it some more. Everyone sees its effects, it seems blindingly obvious, and yet we manage to screw it up in school in unacceptable ways.

(It's perfectly fine to screw up concepts in acceptable ways--science does this routinely.)

From Shorpy, 1942

When we're young, before we're so comfortable enough lying to ourselves that we believe "reality" is real, we start to put things together through language.

We tell children that gravity pulls object together.We call it the Law of Gravity. When we say this, gravity becomes as real as the objects it pulls. And maybe that's OK.

When we say this, though, we also teach children that gravity is something independent of objects, and this is confusing, because it's not true.

It would make more sense (at the elementary school level) to call it the Law of Objects. Material objects "pull" on all other material objects. [Yes, of course, this is Newtonian and simplistic--we're talking about 8 years olds.]
Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is absurd.

That objects behave this way makes no sense. Kids (and their teachers) could have a lot of fun pondering that together. It flips the idea of school science on its head--the more we learn, the less we know. We bend kids to see the world with certainty, and something breaks.

This may be a trivial concept to memorize, but it's an amazingly difficult concept to internalize. Everything made of stuff is attracted to everything else made of stuff.  And the teacher has no good idea why.

Too many folks are certain they can "fix" American education (and about a whole lot of other things). A lot of folks know they know more than I do, and I'm not going to argue the point. That would be absurd.

In the meantime, I'm going to go teach science while I still can.


John T. Spencer said...

"the more we learn, the less we know."

I fell in love with the humanities for this reason. I loved literature for the uncertainty. I loved history for the conflicting narratives. I loved the notion that the more I knew, the less I knew. I think it's why I grew to hate science and math. It was always one way, one story, one process. Looking back, I don't even think it was real math or real science.

William Chamberlain said...

What if science was taught from wonderment instead of from content areas?

David Rudel said...

Thanks, Mr. Doyle. I had been planning on writing a post on Newton for a while, and this provoked me to discuss some of my thoughts on how we discuss him.

You can read about it here.