Friday, March 25, 2016

Doubting Thomases all

The earth awakening, again

Today my school district is closed because the symbol of the dominant religion round these parts was crucified on this day.  I am a science teacher in this district, paid to teach young humans a way of thinking that unveils the terrible beauty of patterns in the natural world, so that we can alter the same natural world in beautiful and terrifying ways

Make no mistake--science is a revered discipline not for what it teaches us about our role in the universe. It is revered for the awesome power it unleashes. We have become the gods we pretended to become back when Adam ate the apple.

Madam Marie's, Asbury Park, a place for believers
(credit Leslie Doyle)

I have faith that the outside world exists external to us. I have faith in uniformitarianism, that things behave the way now that they always have, that they behave here as they do there. And that's about as far as my faith goes as a science teacher within the walls of Room B361.

During lunch yesterday I was asked if I was "religious" by a colleague who wondered aloud if any science teachers have faith. I answered yes, and that's as far as that conversation went. I grew up Catholic because I was born of Irish American parents in the mid-20th century in the eastern part of the United States. God's honest truth.

I am a man of faith, maybe too much, but not a man of belief. I maybe could use a little more of that.


The oldest Gospel Mark was written a few generations after the death of Jesus--the original version ends with the women running from the empty tomb.
"When they heard, they fled and went out from the tomb, for shock and trembling had seized them and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

And that's it. That's it.

Nothing of the power of believers to drive out demons, to handle snakes, to speak in tongues, to drink poisons without harm, to heal with a laying of hands. None of the fun stuff that makes evangelical Christianity so powerfully attractive.

Ol' Doubting Thomas doesn't appear until the Gospel of John, written a few generations after Mark. Thomas needed to see Jesus' wounds to believe he was Jesus, and the Lord invited Thomas to thrust his fingers into the wounds, or so the story goes.

I suppose I should appreciate the story a bit more, given that it gives the stamp of approval for skepticism, allowing us to poke our fingers places we shouldn't poke them. but the skepticism only goes so far.

I have today off because a good portion of folks in this part of the world confound faith and belief.

It's been raining off and on for hours.  I will wander out to a muddy patch of earth, poke my fingers into the ground to remind me that it, too, exists, then drop a few peas into the ground, hopeful that they will grow.

Peas growing in B361

I have faith that they will, even if I do not believe it. And they do.

The heart of science is blowing up beliefs.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Gamifying ed? Just say no.

Joy and pleasure are not the same things.

By Steve Paine, used under CC
Much of what we find pleasurable--winning a round on a computer game, getting a piece of corn out of our teeth, hearing the ping of a new message on our phone--relates to surges of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that alters our behavior. It literally helps our brain send the messages that get us to move our muscles for some purpose that ultimately provides pleasure, or more dopamine release.

Sounds a bit like motivation, eh?

The brain is not stupid--if a child has no hope of success (at least from the child's point of view), there is absolutely no reason to initiate movement. Better to save the energy for something else.

I suspect the next few years we will see a rush of ed research detailing ways to maximize these dopamine rushes, much of which we already know--build on what children know, keep confidence up, make learning goals achievable.

What I worry about, though, is getting too good at this--to make children seek learning the way they build worlds in Minecraft--pushing dopamine on the brain. (It's actually the way Ritalin and Adderall work, and while we're at it, cocaine.....)

And yes, screen time in schools under certain conditions will, in fact, aid learning. But at what price?

The is plenty of evidence out there that playing more than a couple of hours of violent video games is linked to depressive signs. There is also some evidence that for some, video games may help battle depression. Both could be explained in terms of dopamine changes, and I could wile away a day seeking my own dopamine surges chasing these studies.

I used to be on the fence on gamification in education--but I have fallen off on the side of caution. Until we know the long-term effects of years of sustaining motivation through surges of dopamine prompted by screens, I think our pursuit of developing motivation in educational settings by the means of learning (as opposed to the value of what is being learned) is a dangerous game.

If that is your goal, raising pleasure-seeking children who will do anything to learn whatever it is that the state wants learned,
why not just give them cocaine?

Had a go at this with The Innovative Educator a few years ago--see comments.

The NGSS Executive Summary as a CCSS exemplar text

I am a science teacher, and I (mostly) love the Next Generation Science Standards,
but its opening document smacks of hubris and arrogance and is riddled with logical fallacies.
Any chance it could be edited?

CCSS-LITERACY.RL.11-27: Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).
CCSS-LITERACY.RI.8.8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

"There is no doubt that science—and, therefore, science education—is central to the lives of all Americans."

First let's examine the main clause here--"There is no doubt that central to the lives of all Americans." Raising a level of a claim to "no doubt" in the opening sentence of a document meant to support scientific thinking, which at its heart is based on skepticism and doubt, is inane--why else experiment? On the plus side, as a CCSS exemplar text it makes for a great example of irony or satire .

The other claim in this same sentence is that if "central to the lives of all Americans," so is "science education.," a logical fallacy. Breathing, for example, is also "central to the lives of all Americans" yet most of us have had little to no breathing education--no wonder the Chinese are kicking our butts in the international market.

There's probably some standard (CCSS-LITERACY.RI.7.4?) that applies to the use of emotional appeal by singling out "Americans" as though we have some kind of American exceptionalism in science,

"Never before has our world been so complex and science knowledge so critical to making sense of it all."

Another sentence, another hyperbole--between "no doubt" and "never before" this document is taking on a pretty high-falutin' authoritarian tone (where's Richard Feynman when you need him?)

The statement makes little sense--and what little sense it makes is not supported by evidence. If by "our world" we mean the natural world, well, no, things are every bit as complicated as they ever were, though our understanding of it has grown. If we accept this, then the statement becomes a  tautology--we need science to understand a view of the world made more complex by our use of science, two logical fallacies in the first two statements of the NGSS Executive Summary.

I doubt very much that humans will ever "make sense of it all," and the wording suggests we already can--with dogma comes hubris.

"When comprehending current events, choosing and using technology, or making informed decisions about one’s healthcare, science understanding is key."

What's so sad about all this is that science in and of itself--the desire to observe the natural world and describe its unfolding patterns--does not need this kind of defense. This statement is absurd, a mishmash of science and education babble.

I you want to understand the conflict found in current events, knowing the historical trajectories of various peoples' hearts trumps knowing the trajectory of a MIM-23 Hawk surface to air missile. Heck, just learning to speak another language fluently goes a lot farther than anything science is going to do (other than developing a more efficient way to get to Hell faster).

Choosing healthcare? The biggest key for the vast majority of Americans is cost. I was a practicing physician, a pretty good one at that, and trust me, knowing the biophysics behind the MRI machine isn't going to reduce that hospital bill.

"Science is also at the heart of the United States’ ability to continue to innovate, lead, and create the jobs of the future."

Oh, yeah?
From US Bureau of Labor Statistics, click to see better picture

Maybe the authors meant jobs all over the world, or jobs performed by robots, or jobs created on Mars, but if you're looking at American jobs, if it doesn't involve touching another human being or stuff wealthy folk would rather not touch, you're not going to make the list even with a PhD in physics.

(Well at least the authors used an Oxford comma--always a plus in my book.)

"All students—whether they become technicians in a hospital, workers in a high tech manufacturing facility, or Ph.D. researchers—must have a solid K–12 science education."

Yes, another sentence, another logical fallacy, this time a non sequitur--80% of the statements made in the opening document of one of the most influential documents in American science education .

The use of the word "must" is almost cute--like a parent telling a two-year old to put on a sweater because  Daddy feels cold. Next time you run into a tech in a hospital--assuming you know enough science to make an informed decision to get to a hospital--casually ask her about how that machine she uses works before she zaps you with a roentgen or two of radiation.

And, oh, by the way--Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, was home-schooled until 6th grade.

Only a committee could have created this kind of gobbledygook.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Stemming STEM: a science teacher speaks out

Basil seeds harvested moments before
“Men have become the tools of their tools.”
Henry David Thoreau

My students do not need a 3D printer, and I doubt having access to one makes them any more aware of the material world around them.

My students do not need to learn to code, and I doubt success in a binary and logical language makes them any more aware of the nuances of the words we share.

Both 3D printers and coding are tools, very useful at that, but still just that, tools, no matter how aroused the ed-chatterati get as these tools hit the schools.

I teach for a reason: to help our lambs conceive of a life worth living in a world worth living in. The tools they will have to do this will change, maybe even improve, but the purpose of any tool is to work towards a purpose beyond the tool.

Otherwise school becomes just noise and ambition, neither of which contributes to happiness.

We are molding a generation of kids with the power to meld plastics to create artificial worlds that will collapse when the limits of the only world that truly exists reminds them, as it will, of mortality.

So for now, the only 3D printers I want in my room are a handful of seeds, some seed starter, and sufficient light to allow creation to happen. Watching a tiny basil seed erupt into a sensuous (thank you, John Milton) living being alters a child's perception of her place in our universe.

Why else teach?

I am not anti-technology.
I am pro-education.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Humans vs. the rest of life

What truly separates us from the dumb animals?

I think one of the few things that separate us from the rest of life is that we plant things.

And that may reflect more a lack of faith than intelligence.

Have you done more than your neighborhood squirrel today?