Thursday, July 10, 2014

My qualms with the Next Generation Science Standards

New Jersey just adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, a fancy title with a fancy logo:

(OK, cheap shot alert, but what  does this motto mean? "For States. By States." I thought the standards were for the science education of children by reasonably adept adults who hope to make the world make more sense.)

I'm ambivalent about all this, not because I think that the idea of standards is some deadly sin, nor because I have strong disagreements with the contents of the standards. I'm OK with letting evidence take us where it will take us, and while some folks fear the wrath of Baal should a standard or two clash with the worldview of folks who fetishize the words of ancient dead people, science has proven to be pretty bloody convenient.

My ambivalence stems from my fear of what happens when officials from on high impose standards onto those below when neither the high nor the low have a good grasp of, say, Newtonian physics.

The hardest part of Newtonian physics is abandoning our perceptions of what we think is true, perceptions that have kept us alive (in one form or another) for well over 3 billion years (sorry, Baal). While high school students fret over the algebra, it's the underlying concepts of Newton's Laws of Motion that bend our souls.

Here's my concern. Grasping that "[a]n object at rest typically has multiple forces acting on it, but they add to give zero net force on the object" is tricky enough, and one many teachers are not equipped to handle. But let's take this one step further, imagining that the folks deciphering this core idea are non-science majors.
What can be said about an object in motion, say, a car going down the Garden State Parkway at 60 mph in a straight line? That car has multiple forces acting on it, forces that add up to zero, at least until the car comes to a bend in the road.

A more subtle (though perhaps much bigger) point is this--what does it mean for an object to be at rest? A third grade child is getting tremendous amounts of huge pieces of information. The Earth spins on its axis. The Earth revolves around the sun. Gravity keeps you "stuck" to the Earth.
Now I am not expecting a child to come out of 3rd grade grasping Newton's First Law--I am expecting, though, that the schools do not plug up her worldview with nonsense.
Watch this--Derek's Three Incorrect Laws of Motion."You would think you were understanding them, but I think you wouldn't..." (0:20 seconds)

If a teacher does not own Newton's Laws of Motion, and most of us do not, particularly in the non-science fields, he will fail to get this right in class, no matter how the standards are worded.

I'd rather have naive students than ignorant ones. 

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