Saturday, 15 March 2008

stop teaching about science

Jonah Lehrer notes that while it is well-known that American schoolkids are bad at math, it's less well-known that "the steep decline in proficiency only starts when kids are taught algebra." Indeed, those who have success at algebra in middle school are twice as likely to graduate college. At fault, Lehrer says, is the abstract nature of algebra--unlike other subjects, which students can grasp by picturing or through physical acts like counting, algebra is by its nature "disconnected from the real world." But just because the subject is abstract doesn't mean its teaching has to follow suit. The lessons of John Dewey's philosophy of active learning may help.

I learned of Dewey's philosophy relatively recently, in 2003, when I worked for Ameri*Corps helping to found an Office of Community Engagement based on a higher education movement called "service-learning." The movement is based on the idea that the best way to get connect academic learning with practical benefits is to literally connect them, both through traditional internships and through new community service-based assignments--CPAs could offer free tax advice to the elderly, cooks could make rounds at soup kitchens, and so on. Dewey's part in this project for social change is on the educational side--his philosophy, and the experience gained from putting it into action at the Laboratoy School, undergirds one basic tenet of sevice-learning: learning happens by doing.
At the Laboratory School, Dewey was determined to make knowing and doing part of the same learning process. His mission was to "reinstate experience into education". The Laboratory students spent most of their day outside of the classroom, engaging in activities like sewing, carpentry and cooking.... But these activities weren't simply exercises in manual labor. Rather, they were demonstrations of "active learning". "If a child realizes the motive for acquiring a skill," Dewey argued, "he is helped in large measure to secure the skill. Books, the ability to read and bookish knowledge are, therefore, regarded as tools."

Take cooking. At the Laboratory School, the children were often responsible for preparing their own lunch. Dewey's insight was to build into this activity a wealth of related academics. Before students could boil an egg, they had to conduct experiments to determine the proper temperature at which to cook the egg. When they graduated to the preparation of more complicated dishes, the students had to weigh and measure the ingredients (arithmetic), understand the process of digestion (biology), analyze the process of cooking (chemistry and physics), and so on.

The secret, of course, was to sneak in the science. The knowledge had to seem indivisible from the lunch. "Absolutely no separation is made between the 'social' side of the work, its concern with people's activities and their mutual dependencies, and the 'science,' regard for physical facts and forces," Dewey wrote in 1899, in his best-selling pamphlet The School and Society. If the teaching was done right, the children wouldn't even realize they were being taught.

Lehrer has it right, except for the bit about "sneaking in" the science. In fact, this is precisely the "erroneous distinction" disembodied knowledge acquisition reinforces in students who grow up "believing that learning and doing were separate activities." Moreover, the secret isn't to "sneak in" the science. The secret is to unlearn all of the bad ways we come to know science.

If we take science to be the body of bookish knowledge collated by scientists, we're bound to be bored with science--and we're bound to resent it when science changes its collective mind about eggs or climate change. This is exactly why we need to change the way we educate people about science. Put another way, we need to stop educating people about science. Science education has to be more participatory and far less about repeating canned exemplar experiments for which we all know the expected result. Ultimately, science isn't something you can be told, it's something you have to do. If you're participating, you own it, and you'll defend it.

(For more on Dewey's philosophy, I recommend Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club.)


4ll4n0 said...

Your noting that people are bored by the bookish knowledge accumulated by scientists scares and confuses me Isaac... I thought everyone loved the thrill of finding the roots of quadratic equations and integrating functions, with either no mention of an application or only ludicrously contrived examples divorced from real life experience. Other people don't read Euclid's Elements in their spare time? They told us learning was fun, but it was all a lie?

Seriously, it seems to be acknowledged (and have been for a long time, I could site Jean Jacques Rousseau (the dead one) and Emile) that learning by doing is best, yet this has rarely seemed to penetrate to the class room in many subjects (not just science). Perhaps as importantly different people learn best in different ways and yet our educational systems are often ill-equipped to deal with this.

It is probably the case that an approach to learning with fewer artificial categories would better serve the goal of a well-informed citizenry. However, I would say that abstract learning of science (for want of a better term) seems to me to have its place and be effective for some students and at some level of specialization may be necessary. I'm not sure everyone can own climate science in a way that would lead to a universal defense of it (except perhaps in the broadest sense that people won't just reject them fancy book learnings out of hand).

Isaac said...

4ll4n0, you're right, of course, that we can't simply give up bookish knowledge; there are certain facts into which our activities never bring us contact. Relativistic effects, for example, are notoriously difficult to master in any way other than to simply learn the rules and practice using them. Still, thought experiments help, and creative mental activities such as these should be preferred to rote memorization. Or possibly I am still upset at being made to memorize the steps of Krebb's Cycle.

You're certainly correct that not everyone can own climate science. I didn't exactly mean to imply that. I did mean to imply that if everyone had a feel for what doing science is like, they would feel, at the very least, as insiders to the process. Possibly I'm wrong.