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Which Ionic Compound Would You Like To Be?

    Globe And Mail [Canada]
    Thursday, June 16, 2005

    Which Ionic Compound Would You Like To Be?

    By Margaret White

    Attention, parents. Teachers don't teach science the way they used to. If you suffered as much through Grade 11 physics as I did, you may think this is a good thing. On the other hand, if you're interested in scientific literacy, you may be interested in the trendy notions that have infected modern science teaching. Drill 'n' kill has been replaced by something called discovery learning, in which students are encouraged to stumble across the theory of relativity all by themselves.

    That's not all. Science teachers are encouraged to make their material accessible and touchy-feely, so kids will feel good about it. "If you were transformed into an ionic compound, which would you be?" asks a sample test question included in Nova Scotia's official science curriculum. No, this question isn't for Grade 5s. It's for Grade 11s. In British Columbia, Grade 11 (!) students are instructed: "You are a moss. Describe your experiences."

    According to Nova Scotia's provincial curriculum, the idea is "not to teach content but to help students become mini-scientists, lifelong learners and hypothesizers." In order to become mini-scientists, Grade 11 chemistry students are instructed to demonstrate intramolecular forces by organizing into groups and holding hands. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Nova Scotia students have some of the worst science-test scores in the country, according to results made public yesterday. (Alberta, as usual, leads the pack.)

    Experiential, child-centred learning is the order of the day. Drop in on any science class and you're likely to discover groups of kids huddled together doing projects as the teacher looks benignly on. The teacher is there not to instruct, but to facilitate. This is fine as far as it goes. But it's gone overboard. "Little Emile is supposed to go out and investigate things as if he were Archimedes and Newton all rolled into one," says Donald Cropp, a retired science teacher who co-authored a new report that evaluates science curriculums across the country (Teaching Science in the 21st Century, published by the Society for Quality Education).

    You might think that something as objective as science would be immune from ideology. But you'd be wrong. In many U.S. states, creationism is being sneaked back into science teaching in the guise of something called "intelligent design." Progressive educators are properly appalled at this. But among progressive educators, the whole idea of objectivity itself is under fire. The education establishment has succumbed to the siren call of postmodernism, which holds that all truth -- even scientific truth -- is relative. In Quebec, for example, students learn that scientific knowledge is "constructed by human beings and is not necessarily an absolute reflection of reality." This may come as a surprise to those of you who were brought up to believe that if you fell out of an airplane you would accelerate at the speed of 32 feet per second{+2} until you went splat. But what do you know?

    Nor is science class immune from today's obligatory multicultural pieties, whatever damage is inflicted on the facts. Instead of being oppressed by the unfortunate fact that nearly all the great scientific discoveries of the past millennium were made by white males, students learn that science and technology have "evolved from different views held by women and men from a variety of societies and cultural backgrounds." Manitoba students, despite much historic evidence to the contrary, are assured that aboriginal people have "exemplified the qualities of good stewardship in their interactions with the environment."

    Teachers who've been around for a while say that in the interest of equality, democracy, and experiential learning, science content has been dumbed way down. (The province of Ontario is smartening it up again, an effort that's causing complications of its own.)

    "We've become less quantitative. We're frightened to give them numbers to crunch," says Barry Armstrong, head of the science department at Lower Canada College in Montreal. He points out another problem: Science, even in secondary schools, is frequently taught by people who don't have science degrees, and don't know much more science than they themselves picked up in high school. School systems have enormous trouble recruiting people with BScs, who can make far more money elsewhere, and teachers unions make it impossible for them to pay physics teachers more than phys-ed teachers.

    There's a fair bit of evidence that teacher-led instruction, high expectations and frequent tests work better than child-centred learning, especially in the early years. There's also quite a bit of evidence that people who have a background in and passion for their subject are better teachers than those who don't. But who needs evidence? The real question is, which ionic compound would you like to be?

    Personally, I'd like to be salt.

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