Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Science is a subset of thinking

Here in New Jersey students are now required to pass three years of science to get a diploma. While this does wonders for my job security, it takes a special kind of reasoning to figure that if two years fails to produce a scientifically literate litter of children, then three years ought to do the trick.

Few children have the curiosity and the capacity needed to become professional scientists. The same could be said for becoming accomplished pianists, master carpenters, or licensed harbor pilots.

We have imbued science with mysticism and romance and holiness. Might have made more sense to throw our faith in agriculture, but science won, and now we're so efficiently removed from the earth that most of our children have never seen a wheat berry.

This is not to demean science. The thrust, however, should be on thinking, no matter what the discipline. A high school biology course that surveys ecology, genetics, protein synthesis, evolution, biochemistry, taxonomy, respiration & photosynthesis, cellular reproduction, DNA technology, evolution, and so on in less than 180 days in about 140 hours of class time cannot adequately address critical thinking.

Problem-solving comes in a lot of flavors and cuts across disciplines. If we're losing the battle against Japan or China or India (pick your favorite foreign country whose children's success is threatening the American Way), it's not because our children cannot recall how many electrons dance on the head of a pin.

If we want to develop a science "class", we will need to identify the children who show early aptitude and interest, and then help them develop the discipline needed to carry on professional research. Elitist? Perhaps. Not sure I'd want my kids selected for that track--professional science looks like a lonely existence to me, no matter how the sexay the NSTA wants to dress it.

We can keep the back door open for the late bloomers. In the meantime, we might consider putting a priority on thinking again, in every discipline. Even in science.

Fancy vocabulary words does not guarantee fancy thinking, even if it is cute to hear a 4th grader say "photosynthesis."


Anonymous said...

I'm really not comforted by the idea of "leaving the back door open" for kids that get passed over early on. If coming in through the back door was so easy, then it wouldn't be worth tracking the kids from a young age in the first place.

doyle said...

Never said it was easy, but it's certainly doable--just need to leave high school prepped for calculus, decent study habits, and the ability to think critically--university will take it from there.

Anonymous said...

That seems sort of hand-wavy to me. "just need to leave high school prepped for calculus", for example, is a condition that's typically only satisfied for students who've been pushed in that direction for an early age. So what, then, does "the back door" consist of?

doyle said...

Not sure what hand-wavy means--I'm sure you'll be kind enough to explain it to me.

The point is that much of what passes for conditioning for science is not necessary; pre-calculus is available and open even to those who might choose not to load up on content-heavy courses.

As it stands now, even our top end students are not being challenged effectively, yet we're paradoxically pushing less able kids to master some math they will never use.

A lot of the better prepped kids tread water in middle school while others catch up--offering a scaled up track to those ready for it does not lock out others.

I never said setting up a separate track requires that others get "passed over" early on--that's the straw man that keeps people twitchy about tracking.

You takes your picks....

Anonymous said...

Hand-wavy means, basically, unexplained. It's like saying, "Well, you know, it'll happen." You're supposed to imagine somebody dismissing a request for an explanation with a wave of their hand.

"Leave the back door open" is a very brief way of making it sound like there's a plan to make sure kids don't get passed over but, as far as I can tell, there isn't. Similarly, saying that kids can get through the back door if they "just" leave HS prepped for calculus doesn't actually explain anything. Because, after all, if a kid's been on the non-science track for years and years, it's actually really hard for them to get prepped for calculus. It's like saying that I could be an engineer if I "just" got a degree in engineering. In theory that's possible, but it's kind of too late for that, for all practical purposes.

And I think you're mischaracterizing middle school. I'm not aware of any evidence of achievement gaps closing during the middle school years. I am aware of some evidence to the contrary, however.

So, really, it's not a "straw man" at all to worry that kids would get passed over. Note that you haven't actually explained how they get in through this mysterious "back door". I think we'd be less twitchy if somebody explained how the back door actually works.

doyle said...

The "back door" is what we do now--there is no elite track. There are different levels, of course, but no track I'm aware of that picks out a handful of kids early on specifically for science. Setting one up does not preclude current practice.

The original thrust of the post was that asking kids to take three years of high school science does not create scientists, and that the focus should be on thinking, not science per se.

(I'm watching my hands carefully--no wavies that I can see....)

I should have clarified the middle school discussion as anecdotal--my kids, both fine high school students, did not gain a whole lot during 7th and 8th grade. They were both interested enough in the world, however, that the hours wasted in class did not do them too much harm.

If your argument is about tracking kids in general, well, that's another whole can of worms, worthy of discussion, but not the point of the original post.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I realize that it wasn't the main point of the original post (I mentioned as much when I wrote about it on my own site here). And incidentally, I think I agree with you about critical thinking in general. But you went there, so I thought I'd go there, too.

Anyway, I think there are very real problems with the idea of bumping kids up to an "elite" track based on performance in the early grades whether you're talking about adding something to the current system or rearranging the system altogether.

In either case you end up with one class of kids receiving an elite-level science education, and another class of kids receiving, by definition, an inferior science education, with no obvious way of getting from latter to the former. Heck, it's sort of inherent to the idea of tracking that moving between the tracks is tough; otherwise there'd be no point.

doyle said...

I hope the discussion gets some traction over at your site.

If the state, pressured by business, wants to push science on kids (as opposed to critical thinking in general), then it either needs to create small classes with phenomenal resources, or it needs to set up tracks.

I agree that tracking at an early age for specific disciplines has enormous problems; I also doubt I'd want my kids in that track. Unlike Louis XIV, je ne suis pas l'etat. Don't confuse me with the state of New Jersey.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Michael

There are 3 things a child must have to study Science and learn from it.

Familiarity with (scientific) language is important. Without this a child cannot think in scientific terms. The vocabulary doesn't have to be involved and complex, but it has to be specific. The word 'cell' for instance, can have several meanings to a child, including a term for a mobile phone. But to introduce the term as something meaningful as a unit of life, is a stepping stone to a child's understanding of biology. Other fundamental terms are gas, liquid, solid - words that science teachers take all too much for granted.

Ability to think. This is a developmental factor. Not all children develop it in the formative years when Science is taught in schools. For this reason there are myriad instances of so-called late starters who begin to study Science, if they have the opportunity beyond their teenage years.

A curiosity about how things are - an interest if you like that makes them want to find out more.

Have these three attributes together in the one child and you will have someone who can study Science and learn (Science) from that study.

doyle said...

Kia ora Ken,

Good stuff!

I think number 2 and 3 make number 1 easier (make life easier, at that).

We focus here too much on 1--it matters, but without the rest, it doesn't work.