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Science

    I just wanted to say your science section is dead on. I'm a chemistry teacher in Illinois with a Masters degree in my content area and the nonsense that the "education elites" are pushing is disgusting. We are creating a generation of science idiots thanks to the hands-on, touchy feely way of teaching these people are pushing.
    -- a reader, October 2009

    In too many American schools, the science program consists of little more than

             a) Cute animals and their environments,
             b) People are evil and are destroying the Earth,
             c) Sex and drugs and
             d) Measuring things.

    The actual science content has been so eviscerated that one education expert derides the result as "science appreciation" rather than science.

    In many schools, there is vanishingly little effort to promise parents that their children will actually learn about science. Fun projects certainly add spice to a science class, but what ever happened to learning anything? Go get your parent handbook (if your school even bothers with one) and take a look under "science". Does it prattle on about "experiencing science", or the "scientific method", or "skills of reasoning and discovery", or such like that? Does it enthuse about having lots of "experiments" and "hands-on discovery"? After going through all that, the real test is this ... does it ever get around to promising that your children will actually be taught factual knowledge about science? If not, welcome to fuzzy science.

    What's happening here? Read on...

"Hands-On" vs "Minds On"

    Note: For your convenience in printing, this section on "hands-on" science is also available on a webpage by itself.

    Your child's school keeps on expanding "hands-on" "discovery" activities in science class, and you're wondering, "But when are they actually going to learn anything?"

    And yet it is difficult to resist the allure of hands-on activities. When you visit a class of second graders dropping things into bowls of water and making notes on which things float, what you first see is a roomful of happy kids, pretty much enjoying what they're doing. Only upon reflection does a glimmer of doubt set in: What, if anything, were those kids actually learning?"

    Those who argue in favor of discovery learning like to frame the argument in terms of either-or: Should children merely learn boring facts, or should they immerse themselves in hands-on activities? The problem is that's a straw man argument: No one is arguing that knowledge is a substitute for understanding, only that it is a prerequisite for understanding. The education theorists want to portray content knowledge as a poor substitute for understanding, as though we were arguing for priming a wall instead of painting it. But just as a wall must be prepared and primed before final paint coats are applied, understanding of science is crucially dependent on acquisition of a vocabulary and base of knowledge about science.

    Knowledge is the basis for understanding, and when that base knowledge is developed or developing, hands-on activities can add vitality and engagement.

    "Hands-on investigative activities ought to be sprinkled into a science program like a 'spice'; they cannot substitute for a 'main dish'."
    Dr. Stan Metzenberg

  • Projects vs. Learning: The heavy use of so-called "discovery" projects in science often has more to do with fashionable au courant theories than it does about learning science. The constructivist, "discovery" theory of education is responsible, indeed, it is at the root of much of the wasted time and lack of substance in all subjects in K-12 education.

    For much more on this, we have devoted a full section of this website to the question of Projects vs. Learning.

  • "In doing research, students learn facts at a snail's pace."
    "Minds-On" Science Education, Science News, April 27, 1996. A professor of biology writes, "... there comes a time, starting in middle school or high school, when students must acquire a body of knowledge. How can they do this and still have the hands-on science that everyone is calling for? Hands-on science moves far too slowly for them to acquire a body of knowledge." Another person writes, "Having students formulate and carry out experiments is an important part of their education. ... However, making this the main curriculum is misguided. In doing research, students learn facts at a snail's pace. If they are ever to become scientists, they need to stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. For a more thorough overview of this topic, read Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles J. Sykes. Meanwhile, parents need to insist on proven techniques in the education of their children."

  • Which Ionic Compound Would You Like To Be? by Margaret White, Globe And Mail [Canada] June 16, 2005.
         "Attention, parents. Teachers don't teach science the way they used to. ... 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.
        
    "You are a moss.
    Describe your experiences."
    "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.' ...
         "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 [one teacher]"...
         "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?"

  • In Scientific American (November 1997), Douglas R. O. Morrison writes a review of Alan Cromer's book Connected Knowledge: Science, Philosophy, and Education. This review is not now available online (except as a purchase), but here are some excerpts:
    "I began to wonder some years ago why my children were learning science in such a crazy fashion. Teachers told them to do lab experiments but gave them no textbooks or notes to explain why they were doing those experiments or what they meant--evidently, the students were supposed to work it all out for themselves.
    "At a PTA meeting, I protested and was told that this was the new fashion in education. None of the other parents, I was informed, had made any complaint, except the ones who were scientists. This circumstance seemed to me to indicate a problem.
    "Most scientists have never heard of the 'Science Wars'; they are too busy working to worry about how sociologists think their enterprise progresses. But it is becoming increasingly common knowledge that a harmful vision of science has been steadily taking over education in schools and universities. ...
    I often hear American scientists lament the low standard of education in their public schools. After reading Cromer's explanation of how constructivists have worked their ideas into science teaching programs and introduced their nonscientific ideas, I can well understand how these actions have exacerbated the problems."

  • Improving Mathematics and Science Education: A Longitudinal Investigation of the Relationship Between Reform-Oriented Instruction and Student Achievement (PDF), Rand Corporation, 2006. When someone announces they are going to study "Reform-Oriented Instruction" you have to think that they're going into the project laden with a bias. Nonetheless, this impressive study comes up with some surprisingly candid observations about constructivist math and science. For example:
      "weak ... nonsignificant ... weak ... negative ... nonsignificant ... weak ... less effective"
    • "Despite large investments in the promotion of reform-oriented curricula and instruction, the evidence supporting the effectiveness of these practices in raising mathematics and science achievement is relatively weak."
    • "The first research question concerned the relationships between exposure to reform practices and student achievement. We found that exposure to reform-oriented instruction generally had nonsignificant or weak positive relationships to student achievement in both mathematics and science, with the exception of groupwork-related practices in mathematics (for which the relationships were negative)."
    • "The second research question asked whether the relationship was affected by the way achievement was measured. ... findings suggest that relationships between instruction and achievement can depend on how achievement is measured."
    • "We found nonsignificant or weak positive relationships between reform-oriented instruction in mathematics and science and student achievement measured using multiple-choice tests."
    • "Many teachers believed that the reform-oriented practices were likely to be less effective than other kinds of practices for promoting high scores on state accountability tests."
    • "Perhaps the most important unanswered question regarding reform-oriented instruction concerns benefits and costs. [These] mathematics and science initiatives [are] relatively expensive... And, although they appear to have had some effects on mathematics and science teaching, this study did not address whether these changes in practice and the associated improvements in achievement were worth the cost."

  • Igniting a Fire to Learn by Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2006. "Prodded by an unusual teacher, kids at 112th Street Elementary 'eat, drink, breathe science' -- and take on a top charter school. ... Jazmani Busby has learned things in her nine years that no child should have to learn. She has learned to drop to the floor at the sound of a gunshot. She has learned what an AK-47 looks like. ... Jazmani, a lifelong resident of the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts, doesn't like to talk about these things. When she calls her best friend, Raquel Hernandez, the two fourth-graders are much more eager to talk about something else they've learned, something that makes them bubble with excitement. Science. Their mothers have gotten used to it. The phone will ring, and Jazmani and Raquel will start gabbing about exoskeletons and endoskeletons, arachnids and crustaceans, photosynthesis and cell biology. 'Science is my life,' Jazmani explained. 'I eat, drink, breathe science. I just love science.' ... Principal Brenda Manuel says, 'The kids are just on fire about science.' How did this happen? ... The children of 112th Street are on fire about science because a teacher named Stan White came into their lives last fall like a blowtorch -- a large blowtorch with a wide smile, a shaved head, a crisp no-nonsense manner and a deep-seated belief that these children are as capable of excelling as any children anywhere. ... It's old-fashioned and rote, and it seems to work."

  • "U.S. students ... spent more time ... doing activities without a direct link to learning"
    Editorial: Less Fun, More Science Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 29, 2006: "... As part of the long-running Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), researchers videotaped eighth-grade science classes in four high-achieving countries and the United States. An exhaustive analysis of the recordings, released this month, shows that teachers in the United States spend markedly more time than international peers working to motivate students with games and puzzles. U.S. students also spent more time than others doing activities without a direct link to learning actual scientific concepts, and were held to lower expectations in taking responsibility for their own science learning. ... teachers abroad seemed to feel less need than American teachers to make science 'fun' and instead focused squarely on conveying information."

  • Often, the best judge of effective teaching is a student, rather than ivory tower theorists or teachers steeped in the latest fads. From our page on Scary Web Postings, here is a terrific exchange between a young teacher and a student:
    [A teacher posts this message:]
    What teaching or other methods have you found to be successful in motivating and stimulating students to learn, especially college or HS biology/science? Active learning ideas? Group activity ideas? Lab based instruction methods? Problem sets / case studies?

    [A student replies:]
    I am a college junior currently taking a Physical Science course ... I think that it is probably the worst class that I have ever taken, the instuctor doesn't teach. She basically stands in front of the room, mentions something and then has the class discuss it in small groups. ... Also, almost all of the class activities are done in groups. Even part of each exam is a group problem. I think that some group work is okay, but not all the time. I like to do projects on my own because I can get them done and not have to wait for the rest of my group.

  • From the excellent book Dumbing Down Our Kids by Charles Sykes, Amazon has provided an excerpt that includes a "scene from the front" featuring an eighth-grade class bored to tears by a science program that is heavy on "hands-on" meaningless activities but light on learning: "Scenes from the Front: Andrea's Complaint.".

  • The Equivalence of Learning Paths in Early Science Education: Effects of Direct Instruction and Discovery Learning (PDF) by David Klahr and Milena Nigam, Psychological Science, 2004. The conclusions of this study merit special emphasis:

    "We found not only that many more children learned from direct instruction than from discovery learning, but also that when asked to make broader, richer scientific judgements the (many) children who learned about experimental design from direct instruction performed as well as those (few) children who discovered the method on their own."

  • "Discovery learning is successful only when students have prerequisite knowledge"
    Empirical Evidence About Science Learning From Unguided Instruction, (PDF) excerpt from paper Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based experiential and inquiry-based teaching by P. A. Kirschner, J. Sweller, and R. E. Clark, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86 (2006). "The work of Klahr and Nigam (2004), discussed earlier, unambiguously demonstrated the advantages of direct instruction in science. There is a wealth of such evidence. A series of reviews by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has recently described the results of experiments that provide evidence for the negative consequences of unguided science instruction at all age levels and across a variety of science and math content. McCray, DeHaan, and Schuck (2003) reviewed studies and practical experience in the education of college undergraduates in engineering, technology, science, and mathematics. Gollub, Berthanthal, Labov, and Curtis (2003) reviewed studies and experience teaching science and mathematics in high school. Kilpatrick, Swafford, and Findell (2001) reported studies and made suggestions for elementary and middle school teaching of mathematics. Each of these and other publications by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences amply document the lack of evidence for unguided approaches and the benefits of more strongly guided instruction. Most provide a set of instructional principles for educators that are based on solid research. These reports were prepared, in part, because of the poor state of science and mathematics education in the United States. Finally, in accord with the ATI findings and the expertise reversal effect, Roblyer, Edwards, and Havriluk (1997) reported that teachers have found that discovery learning is successful only when students have prerequisite knowledge and undergo some prior structured experiences."

  • "direct instruction works and generalizes better"
    Instruction Versus Exploration In Science Learning: Recent Psychological Research Calls "Discovery Learning" Into Question by Rachel Adelson, Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, June 2004. Subhead: "Klahr's controlled studies demonstrate that, at least for many of the multistep procedures used in science, direct instruction works and generalizes better." Excerpts:
    "Welcome to the fourth-grade science fair, with its baking-soda volcanoes, bread mold grown in drawers, proud parents and thoughtful judges. The teachers can't help but wonder if the young would-be scientists can tell good science from bad. In science, how is critical thinking best taught? This question may be answered by David Klahr, PhD, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Milena Nigam, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biomedical Informatics. They have new evidence that 'direct instruction' -- explicit teaching about how to design unconfounded experiments -- most effectively helps elementary school students transfer their mastery of this important aspect of the scientific method from one experiment to another. ... [D]iscovery learning has persisted, [Klahr] says, partly because of a lingering notion that direct instruction would not only be ineffective in the short run, but also damaging in the long run. Piaget thought interfering with discovery blocked complete understanding. More recent cognitive research, says Klahr, shows that 'this is just plain wrong.'"

  • Carnegie Mellon Researchers Say Direct Instruction, Rather Than "Discovery Learning" Is Best Way To Teach Process Skills In Science : a fascinating report from Carnegie Mellon University, made available on the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAA).

  • "He watches another balloon-powered rocket fly across the room. But just what is this actually accomplishing?"
    Fat in California's Budget by Thomas Sowell, June 21, 2004. Excerpt: "[In a recent article] the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program (MESA) is praised because it helps students become 'excited' about math and science. 'Exciting' is one of the big fad words in educational circles, as if getting your emotions worked up is the same as mastering skills. In keeping with the excitement theme, students in this program are pictured making balloon-powered rockets and one of them is quoted as saying that this program "inspires" him to go to school. One of the teachers in this program calls it 'crazy' to cut the program -- 'as he watches another balloon-powered rocket fly across the room.' But just what is this actually accomplishing? The teacher says, 'Look at this: It gets a bunch of diverse cultures into one room to build things. You always feel like a family here. It's just a good place.' But actual bottom-line results in terms of math and science? ... Apparently the state legislators have not been too foggy to spend $85 million of the taxpayers' money to bankroll this program that apparently cannot show hard evidence of serious improvement in math and science, as a result of balloons flying across the room in this 'good place.'"

  • The Dumbing Down Of Science In Education by Mike Horne. This is an interesting essay on why teachers and scientists find it necessary to "dumb-down" science in the classroom, public lectures and in the news. A special emphasis is placed on dumbing-down of museum exhibits about science.

Illinois Standards for Science

  • The Illinois State Board of Education would have you believe that our official state standards for science education are tough and demanding. Yeah, right. What could possibly be the point of a science standard that doesn't even mention "mammals", "machine", "electronics", "acid", "radiation", "reptile", "dinosaur", "muscle", "brain" or "astronomy"? Here is our compilation of some words that do not appear anywhere in the Illinois science standard, for any grade level from first grade through senior year high school.

  • The whole movement for educational standards are supposed to ensure a high goal of academic content and achievement, right? Well, one parent (who endured a putative parent-teacher committee looking into the local public school's science curriculum) saw first hand how a weak Illinois state standard gave the school license to thumb its nose at serious, meaty standards such as those of California or Core Knowledge. In an attempt to point out the anemia evident in the Illinois standards, that parent wrote this proposal for his school, including a detailed point-by-point comparison of the Illinois and California science standards (this is a downloadable PDF document).

  • In a special report in the Spring 2008 issue of American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), the AFT scored Illinois' science standards:
    • The Illinois Science standards DID NOT MEET criteria at the Elementary level
    • The Illinois Science standards DID NOT MEET criteria at the Middle school level
    • The Illinois Science standards DID NOT MEET criteria at the High school level

  • Fordham: Review of State Science Standards

National "Standard" for Science???

    Much has been made of the "National Science Education Standards" (NSES), a document which was developed by education insiders under the banner of leading science organizations. However, the content and approach of these supposed "standards" have not been endorsed by the scientists of the groups involved, nor in any way do they represent actual national "standards."

  • Bastiaan J. Braams, on the mathematics faculty of New York University has researched the background and status of the NSES. Here is his critique of the NSES that he directed to the Committee on Education of the American Physical Society.

  • Experimenting with Students? -- Bastiaan Braams offers additional comments on emerging but unsupported "standards" in science.

  • Whole Hog for Whole Math, by Lynne V. Cheney. If you are alternately appalled and frustrated by the dictums of the National Science Foundation when it comes to teaching science and math, read this article. Mrs. Cheney reports on Alan Cromer's dissection of just who is running the show at the NSF.

The "Scientific Method"

    Modern schools spend an extraordinary amount of time discussing "the scientific method." This emphasis follows directly from a strongly constructivist approach to science education. Students are drilled in definitions of "the scientific method." They do some project ("which of these things float?"), do lots of measurements, and then write essays about their "experiment." The kids are busy, and they usually report that this was "fun." But in the process of adding experiments, acquisition of content knowledge too often is diminished. We often find that the kids have actually gained very little useful knowledge or even understanding.

    Dr. James Trefil, a noted professor of physics, wrote an essay "Two Modest Proposals Concerning Scientific Literacy" in which he declares, "If you expect students to know something, you have to tell them what it is." In defense of that proposition, he writes,
    "There is a common divide among those engaged in scientific literacy, roughly characterizeable as a divide between advocates of content versus advocates of method. ... (For the record, I am closer to the content end.) [This] proposal is designed to counter what I see as an excessive move among modern educators toward the method end of the spectrum. In its most extreme form, this move works directly against the goal of scientific literacy. ... [L]et me state the method position as follows: There is something called the scientific method, and someone who understands this method will be able to understand all of science, regardless of the specific subject matter that person has been taught. Thus the goal of science education should be to teach that method. It's hard for me to understand how anyone could hold a position that is so clearly untenable. ...
         The fact of the matter is that in order to be scientifically literate, the citizen needs to know a little bit about every field of science. He or she also needs to know a little about the scientific method as well, but that can't substitute for knowledge of the basic facts. ...
         In short, if we expect students to know a little bit about every branch of science, then we have to teach them a little bit about every branch of science."
    -- Dr. James Trefil, "Two Modest Proposals Concerning Scientific Literacy," an essay in "Science Literacy for the 21st Century." Bolding added for emphasis.
    Even some of those who are cheerleaders for "discovery" activities and projects decry the time wasted on formulaic observance of a supposed "scientific method." Here is a good example:
    "Precollege students, and the general public for that matter, believe in a distorted view of scientific inquiry that has resulted from schooling, the media, and the format of most scientific reports. This distorted view is called The Scientific Method, that is, a fixed set and sequence of steps that all scientists follow when attempting to answer scientific questions. ... The perception that a single scientific method exists owes much to the status of classical experimental design. ... The problem is that experimental research is not representative of scientific investigations as a whole.
      -- Norman G. Lederman, Ph.D., "Scientific Inquiry and Nature of Science as a Meaningful Context for Learning in Science," an essay in "Science Literacy for the 21st Century."
  • Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? by Daniel T. Willingham, professor, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia. In this extremely thought-provoking article, Dr. Willingham raises crucial questions about what it means to "think like a scientist" in a school setting. A key conclusion: scientific thinking depends on scientific knowledge. Here's one of his examples:
    More formal experimental work verifies that background knowledge is necessary to reason scientiically. For example, consider devising a research hypothesis. One could generate multiple hypotheses for any given situation. Suppose you know that car A gets better gas mileage than car B and you'd like to know why. There are many differences between the cars, so which will you investigate first? Engine size? Tire pressure? A key determinant of the hypothesis you select is plausibility. You won't choose to investigate a difference between cars A and B that you think is unlikely to contribute to gas mileage (e.g., paint color), but if someone provides a reason to make this factor more plausible (e.g., the way your teenage son's driving habits changed after he painted his car red), you are more likely to say that this now-plausible factor should be investigated. One's judgment about the plausibility of a factor being important is based on one's knowledge of the domain.

  • What methods do real scientists really use? Is science about understanding the world, or about methods? From our page on education quotations, here are some thoughtful comments on the so-called "Scientific Method":

    What Real Scientists Actually Do

    "I do not frame hypotheses"
    -- Isaac Newton

    "It has become fashionable in science education to mold K-12 students around an idee fixe of a modern scientist; formulating hypotheses, observing measuring, and discovering through hands-on investigations. What has been left unsaid is that real scientists don't actually spend very much of their day 'observing' and 'measuring.' They read! Reading for understanding of content is the core process skill of science, and there is no substitute for practice at an early age. ...
    -- Dr. Stan Metzenberg, "Reading: The Most Important Science Process Skill"

    "A scientist works largely by intuition. Given enough experience, a scientist examining a problem can leap to an intuition as to what the solution 'should look like.' ... Science is ultimately based on insight, not logic."
    -- Brother Guy Consolmagno, Ph.D., S.J., "Brother Astronomer."

    "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny...'"
    -- Isaac Asimov

    "In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind."
    --Louis Pasteur

    "Research is what I do when I don't know what I'm doing"
    -- Wernher Von Braun

    Prof. Barnhardt: "You have tested this theory?"
    Klaatu: "I find it works well enough to get me from one planet to the next."
    -- dialogue from The Day the Earth Stood Still

    Some quotes from "On Scientific Method", by Percy W. Bridgman, from his "Reflections of a Physicist" (1955):

    • It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it. No working scientist, when he plans an experiment in the laboratory, asks himself whether he is being properly scientific, nor is he interested in whatever method he may be using as method.

    • Scientific method is something talked about by people standing on the outside and wondering how the scientist manages to do it.

    • But ... the working scientist ... is not consciously following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to utilize any method or device whatever which in the particular situation before him seems likely to yield the correct answer. ... No one standing on the outside can predict what the individual scientist will do or what method he will follow.

    • In short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.

    Science Is About Knowing

    Our English word "science" is derived from the Latin word scientia, which means "knowledge". It does not mean "method" or "discovery."
    -- editor

    "Science is the knowledge of consequences, and the dependence of facts upon one another."
    -- Thomas Hobbes

    "Having students formulate and carry out experiments is an important part of their education. That is why schools sponsor science fairs. However, making this the main curriculum is misguided. In doing research, students learn facts at a snail's pace. If they are ever to become scientists, they need to stand on the shoulders of those who came before them."
    -- Sally Levinson

    "There comes a time, starting in middle school or high school, when students must acquire a body of knowledge. How can they do this and still have the hands-on science that everyone is calling for? Hands-on science moves far too slowly for them to acquire a body of knowledge."
    -- Ralph W. Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Biology, Michigan State University

         "Many of the popular hands-on kits in current use provide no reading materials for students at all, and this is the fulfillment of the constructivists' dream. For everyone else it is a nightmare. ...
         "A student who has not developed the skill of learning through reading has no professional future in science. Without a foundation in scientific vocabulary and with minimal knowledge of scientific fact, their words bear an accent of ignorance that is impossible to conceal and nearly impossible to remediate. While young people should be encouraged to enter science, they must also be given the education that will permit them to succeed.
         "Hands-on investigative activities ought to be sprinkled into a science program like a 'spice'; they cannot substitute for a 'main dish'. The best 'hands-on' program would be one in which students can get their 'hands on' an informative textbook!"
    -- Dr. Stan Metzenberg, "Reading: The Most Important Science Process Skill"

Science Textbooks and Programs

  • Suggestions on Evaluating Science Textbooks by Kevin Killion, March 17, 1999. In seeing presentations from science textbook publishers, it was easy to quickly discern glaring errors, silly time-wasting activities, and low interest in substantive content standards. With rare exception, publishers have managed to take the excitement and wonder of science and turn it into mindless and boring makework projects. These suggestions suggest some considerations in considering science curricula and textbooks.

  • RECOMMENDED:
    The state of California has some of the most substantive and useful science standards in the country, and avoids fad-laden curricula. Here is the California State Board of Education's reviews of 16 specific science programs (PDF file), adopted in March 2000. (Note that these reviews consider the California editions, and there may be differences in other editions.)

  • State of California 2000 Science Adoption: State Board of Education Adopted Programs -- a one-page summary listing those programs accepted -- and those programs not accepted -- for use with California's excellent science standards.

  • Errors in science textbooks: Go to the section of this website on textbooks, which includes a number of references regarding the widespread problem of factual errors in science textbooks.

Science Fairs, etc.

  • A School Science Fair: What Are The Kids Learning? by Kevin Killion, July 31, 2001. A visit to a local grade school science fair raises troubling issues about excessive emphasis on a supposedly universal "scientific method", the nature of a hypothesis, the heavy investment of time, work being done by parents and whether the children actually are learning very much. Sections of this paper include:
    • "Scientific Method"?
    • Hypothesis
    • Control vs. Test
    • Evaluation of Results
    • Can Children Test Hypotheses?
    • Gender Equity
    • An Anachronism?
    • If You Must Have A Science Fair

  • Here's an alternative to the usual science fair: The "Science Olympiad" is gaining favor as a more lively and possibly more educational alternative to traditional science fairs. It's certainly not the ideal: The official website prattles on about vaguely wanting "to develop teamwork and cooperative learning strategies" (ugh!) "with an emphasis on problem solving skills and hand-on, minds-on constructivist learning practices" (yikes!) Having said that, the program seems more oriented towards actually learning science rather than an imaginary "scientific method." Find out more at the national or Illinois websites for the Science Olympiad.

  • As another alternative to science fairs, one concept that is gaining favor is that of a "science expo" wherein kids are free to make a study of some area of science they are interested in, and report on what they learned and found fascinating. The whole notion of a unique and pure "scientific method" is deemphasized to a more appropriate level.

Science and Schools

  • The state test scores for one suburban public school were unsettling: The school was third from the bottom of the heap, while another small, one-school district (Bannockburn) had stellar results. What was Bannockburn doing that the other school was not? Here is a report by Kevin Killion, March 2, 1999.

  • We've assembled this list of Core Knowledge science lesson plans by combining references from several other websites. Does this sound like what your child's school is doing in science? Why not?

  • Resources on science education, assembled by Dr. Martin Kozloff

  • Popular Culture and the Threat to Rational Inquiry by Douglas R. Hofstadter. Excerpt: "When I was growing up science was not sugar-coated. By this I mean that science, when presented to children and teens, was not combined with irrelevancies ... It never occurred to me that science was some kind of 'bitter pill' that needed sugar-coating. No, for me, science ... was already filled with alluring romance and enticing mystery. ... Today's sugar-coated television science shows would have totally turned me off when I was a child, and perhaps they turn children off today -- those who, like me, are lured by mystery, those who prefer a schematic, black-and-white diagram to a full-color, glossy set of photographic images that dazzlingly capture the surface of some phenomenon but convey nothing of what lurks behind the scenes." (See another excerpt from this article in the section here on literature.)

  • Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man? Women earn most of America's Ph.D.'s but lag in the physical sciences. Beware of plans to fix the 'problem.' by Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, The American, March/April 2008.
         "Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.'s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.'s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities.
         "But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering. ...
         "So why are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physical sciences? ...
         "The power and glory of science and engineering is that they are, adamantly, evidence-based. But the evidence of gender bias in math and science is flimsy at best, and the evidence that women are relatively disinclined to pursue these fields at the highest levels is serious.
         "When the bastions of science pay obsequious attention to the flimsy and turn a blind eye to the serious, it is hard to maintain the view that the science enterprise is somehow immune to the enthusiasms that have corrupted other, supposedly 'softer academic fields. ...
         "American scientific excellence is a precious national resource. It is the foundation of our economy and of the nation's health and safety. ... Will an academic science that is quota-driven, gender-balanced, cooperative rather than competitive, and less time-consuming produce anything like these results?"

  • Science Corner at Mathematically Correct link to another website

  • Fordham Foundation report, "Politicizing Science Education" by Paul R. Gross. This report explores four case studies of threats to the integrity of science education, available as a web site or as a PDF file.

  • Teachers Without License by Benjamin DeGrow, May 25, 2006. "Smart and capable professionals who want to impart their expertise to high school students should have a clearer path to the classroom. Seeking to expand students' horizons, one Colorado school district has unveiled a creative plan to enlist the services of 'real world' specialists who don't have the time to acquire a teaching license. Leaders of the Douglas County School District two weeks ago announced to the Colorado State Board of Education their intention to request waivers from the state's teacher licensure requirements. Concerned that not enough pupils are prepared to compete for high-level jobs in the international marketplace ... the district wants to hire nontraditional 'real world' teachers, including community members highly skilled in engineering and foreign exchange instructors who can offer more languages to students. However, most of these busy professionals do not have the time or interest to wade through the lengthy process and paperwork to become licensed."

  • Colorado School Seeks Permission to Hire Scientists to Teach Science, June 15th, 2006. "[L]eaders of the Douglas County School District in Colorado have requested waivers from the state so that professional scientists and engineers can teach science to students. The question is why they need licenses in the first place. If a Ph.D. makes one qualified to teach students who are paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend universities, why should a person with a Ph.D. need approval to teach high school courses? Government licensures shouldn't prevent knowledgeable people from teaching, especially when they are instituted to ensure teacher quality. Making professional scientists first seek approval from the government to teach only protects less qualified teachers from competition."

  • More Foreigners Getting Advanced Science-Engineering Degrees National Center for Policy Analysis , March 30, 2005. "Foreigners are earning a greater percentage of science and engineering doctorates from U.S. universities than ever before. ... In 1966, foreign-born students received 23 percent of science-engineering doctorates. By the year 2000, they received 39 percent of those doctorates. This occurred even as the United States expanded its Ph.D. educating capacity -- America graduated 11,000 more Ph. Ds in 2000 than in 1970."

  • From our page on books on education, see this section on science.

  • From our page on education quotations, see these entries on science.

Enviromania

    Science has helped our civilization move from primitive beginnings to advanced technological societies. Lifespan is greatly lengthened, and many diseases have been conquered. In more recent years, many forms of pollution have been drastically reduced, industrial and automotive emissions have been slashed.

    There is much more to be done, of course. But too often environmental issues are treated in many school lessons with non-stop despair, focusing on science and technology as a blight rather than as a vehicle of human advancements and a better world.

    In some cases, this "environmania" in schools is well-intended and simply naive. In others, it emerges from a more deep-set political agenda.

    Here are some links on rampant enviromania in schools. Note that some of these links, while bringing up interesting questions, are in themselves politically charged! If nothing else, the bottom line is that environmental questions do not have easy, obvious answers and that environmental education must reflect the complexity of the issues and the full spectrum of viewpoints.

    • An online excerpt from the excellent and highly recommended book, "Facts, Not Fear: Teaching Children about the Environment" by Michael Sanera and Jane S. Shaw: "Childhood was once supposed to be idyllic and carefree. Children were allowed to be children. But today many schools are plunging our children into serious environmental activism. ... We want our children to learn good citizenship. We don't want them to be polluters when they grow up. But often, instead of being taught information that will lead to intelligent choices in the future, they are being enlisted in trendy causes and sent out to bring their parents 'on board.' ... In the past, most environmental education was called ecology and it was taught as a part of science. ... Starting in the 1970s, however, as interest in the environment exploded throughout the country, 'environmental science' began to crowd out traditional science. Environmental education spread from junior high and high school to the primary grades, while invading other subjects in an oversimplified way. Texts on health, geography, and history now typically contain one or more environmental chapters. Unfortunately, the textbook authors often know little about the environment."

    • "Environmental Education: What the Textbooks Teach" (PDF file) by Michael Sanera, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), June 1996.

    • "Teaching Environmental Education to Wisconsin Teachers: A Review of University Course Materials" (PDF file) by Michael Sanera, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), November 1997.

    • Political Manipulation of Students: Environmental Education in Action (PDF) by Michael Sanera, Wisconsin Interest, 2000, Vol. 9 No. 1

    • Evading the Issue of Biased Environmental Education (PDF) by Michael Sanera, Wisconsin Interest, 1998, Vol. 7 No. 1

    • Saving the Planet Without Scaring Kids to Death: Parents need facts to counter environmental extremism in the classroom by George A. Clowes, School Reform News, October 1, 1997. Excerpt: "A six-year-old girl gets a new bed, but she's sad because 'They killed trees to make my bed.' A five-year-old boy sees clouds obscure the moon and exclaims, 'Look at the pollution!' A second-grade class's Christmas wish is 'for a new Earth' because we have destroyed ours through 'pollution, disappearing rainforests, and the elimination of the ozone layer.' A nine-year-old warns former President Bush, 'Mr. President, if you ignore this letter, we will all die of pollution and the ozone layer.'"

    • Textbooks Mislead Teachers on Environmental Issues: Accuracy and fairness lose out to dogma and advocacy by George A.Clowes, School Reform News, March 1, 1998

    • Save the Elephants: Don't Buy Ivory Soap by Katie Johnson Slivovsky, Newsweek, August 16, 2004. Slivovsky, a parent from suburban Western Springs and a Senior Education Specialist at Brookfield Zoo, writes, "Burdening kids with issues they can't understand creates confusion, not future environmentalists." A longer and more helpful version of this presentation is also available here. In that version, Slivovsky closes with this quote from David Sobel: "If we want children to flourish, to really feel empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it."

    • Teach your students about the importance of critical thinking: Visit the website of the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division at DHMO.org. Be sure to see surveys from real schools on proposals to ban DHMO.

    • On Coercive Environmental Education by Jo Kwong, Acton Institute, March/April 1995. Excerpt: "In The Religion of Environmentalism, John K. Williams wrote 'Extreme environmentalism ... is a decidedly dangerous religion. Its vision of the world and of humanity's place in it reeks of superstition. The pattern of behavior it prescribes is morally grotesque.' Williams' sentiments are hardly unique. A growing number of people are disturbed by the methods and strategies used by the environmental special interest movement, particularly in the realm of environmental education."

    • Green Zombies by Henry Lamb, June 15, 2002. Excerpt: "Are our schools producing green zombies? Ask any student in any grade what causes global warming; odds are that their reply will be cars, or fossil fuels or 'human activity.' ... Public schools are brainwashing our kids. Rather than teach the science that underlies the global-warming debate so the students can make their own informed decisions, educators are brainwashing them and calling it English, or math or history."

    • Group insists science books be thrown out Houston Chronicle, Sept. 7, 2001: "Newly drafted middle-school science textbooks contain errors and exhibit a pro-environment bias, more than two dozen speakers told the State Board of Education on Thursday. The criticisms focused on the proposed textbooks' discussions of global warming, acid rain and rain forest destruction."

    • Educational Indoctrination, Environmental Style by Ari Kaufman, Opinion Editorials, January 21, 2006. "During my ephemeral teaching career in Los Angeles, there were numerous troubling examples of educational ludicrousness and lunacy. Of all the examples, the environmental indoctrination of my students was the most disconcerting. ... It wasn't only that the students were regularly pulled from my class at inopportune times to have the same information ingrained into their ten year-old minds, but rather, that the messages a high percentage of these groups pontificated were that human beings are inherently bad people, animal killers, and are ruining our once-beautiful earth."

    • Groups Criticize Proposed Science Textbooks: "Critics say science books being proposed for Texas school kids could be more agitprop than proper facts, and it has some of them hopping mad. ... While it's not unusual for there to be criticism of the content of textbooks, from typographical or factual errors to differences of philosophy, this year some critics are suggesting the books more closely resemble political science books than science books."

    • Inaccurate Textbooks Nixed by Kenneth Green. Excerpt: "Students should be presented with the facts about the environment without gross distortions. The State Board of Education recently made a brave decision, rejecting two proposed environmental textbooks that were not only factually erroneous but also blatantly biased. The publisher of one of the rejected books has since agreed to remove the bias and correct the errors."


    From our page on books on education, see this section on enviromania in schools.

Evolution

  • The Illinois science standards are at best oblique in their coverage of evolution:

    • The Illinois Learning Standards for science never mention the words "evolve" or "evolution".

    • The ILS specifies this goal for "early high school":
      • "12.A.4c Describe processes by which organisms change over time using evidence from comparative anatomy and physiology, embryology, the fossil record, genetics and biochemistry."

    • The ILS specifies these goals for "late high school":
      • "12.A.5a Explain changes within cells and organisms in response to stimuli and changing environmental conditions (e.g., homeostasis, dormancy)."
      • "12.B.5b Compare and predict how life forms can adapt to changes in the environment by applying concepts of change and constancy (e.g., variations within a population increase the likelihood of survival under new conditions)."

  • Why Fight Over Intelligent Design? by Andrew J. Coulson, Cato Institute, November 22, 2005. "Supporters of the theory of human origins known as 'intelligent design' want it taught alongside the theory of evolution. Opponents will do anything to keep it out of science classrooms. The disagreement is clear. But why does everyone assume that we must settle it through an ideological death-match in the town square? ... We're fighting because the institution of public schooling forces us to, by permitting only one government-sanctioned explanation of human origins. The only way for one side to have its views reflected in the official curriculum is at the expense of the other side. This manufactured conflict serves no public good. After all, does it really matter if some Americans believe intelligent design is a valid scientific theory while others see it as a Lamb of God in sheep's clothing? Surely not. While there are certainly issues on which consensus is key -- respect for the rule of law and the rights of fellow citizens, tolerance of differing viewpoints, etc. -- the origin of species is not one of them. The sad truth is that state-run schooling has created a multitude of similarly pointless battles."

  • The Education Monopoly and Intelligent Design, by D. Eric Schansberg, professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast and adjunct scholar at the Indiana Policy Review and the Acton Institute. Excerpts: "... This issue provokes such controversy because the dominant provider of education has such strong monopoly power, and most consumers have little ability to avoid its dictates. ... If one group wants their children taught sex education with cucumbers and condoms in the fifth grade, then that should be their prerogative. But that shouldn't be forced on other people. Another contentious example is school prayer. Some parents want a prayer to Jesus Christ. Many parents want a prayer to the lukewarm deity of civil religion. Others want no prayer at all or prayer to other gods. By providing options, school choice deals with such issues in a far more effective manner than a government entity with significant monopoly power. ... For self-proclaimed liberals, this should be an easy decision, given their usual penchant for individual choice and support for the poor. ... Science, religion and politics. Real wars and now 'culture wars' have been fought in their name. Let's put down our weapons and give all Americans freedom to educate their children as they see fit."

  • Separating School and State by Jeff Jacoby, Columnist, Boston Globe, June 12, 2005. Excerpts: "Recent dispatches from the education battlefront: Kansans have been debating how the development of life on earth should be taught in public schools -- as the unintended result of random evolution or as the complex product of an evolution shaped by intelligent design. The board of education is to decide this summer whether the science standards should be changed. Kansas is just one of 19 states in which the Darwinism vs. Intelligent Design contest is being fought. Emotions have been running high, as they often do when the state takes sides in a clash of fundamental values and beliefs. ... Once there was a solid consensus about how public schools should be run. ... But as [recent] battles ... make clear, that day is past. From issues of sexuality and religion to the broad themes of US history and politics, public opinion is fractured. ... No longer is there a common understanding of the mission of public education. To the extent that one camp's vision prevails, parents in the opposing camp are embittered. And there is no prospect that this will change -- not as long as the government remains in charge of educating American children. Which is why it's time to put an end to government control of the schools."

  • "Since neither the creationists nor the evolutionists were there when the world began, why are our schools teaching either set of beliefs, when there are so many hard facts that the schools are failing to teach?"
    -- Thomas Sowell

    Also see: Our discussion of "Needless Conflicts" in education.

Sex Education

    Here are the sections of the Illinois School Code that pertain to parents' rights and sex education classes:

  • 105 ILCS 110/3. Comprehensive Health Education Program
    (Click for the full text)
      Sec. 3. Comprehensive Health Education Program
      ... No pupil shall be required to take or participate in any class or course on AIDS or family life instruction if his parent or guardian submits written objection thereto, and refusal to take or participate in the course or program shall not be reason for suspension or expulsion of the pupil.

  • 105 ILCS 5/27-9.1, 9.2 and 13.2
    (Click for the full text)
      Sec. 27-13.2. Required instruction
      ... Notwithstanding the foregoing provisions of this Section, no pupil in any of grades kindergarten through 8 shall be required to take or participate in any class or course providing instruction in recognizing and avoiding sexual abuse if the parent or guardian of the pupil submits written objection thereto; and refusal to take or participate in such class or course after such written objection is made shall not be reason for failing, suspending or expelling such pupil. Each school board intending to offer any such class or course to pupils in any of grades kindergarten through 8 shall give not less than 5 days written notice to the parents or guardians of such pupils before commencing the class or course.
    A full discussion of the arguments on sex education in school is beyond the scope of the Illinois Loop's mission for academic rigor. However, the following essay bridges this gap beautifully:

  • A Real Sex Education Should Be Based in the Humanities by Terrence Moore, Ph.D., May 2004. "But what is love, and who is capable of love? Young people are not thought to be capable of driving until they are sixteen. They cannot vote until age eighteen and cannot buy alcohol legally until twenty-one. When do they become capable of loving another human being and living up to the responsibilities that come with love? Of this, our sexual educators have little to say. Fortunately, history and the classics have a great deal to say. ... The humanities offer compelling and lasting lessons and examples of the good, the beautiful, and the true."

  • A Return to Chivalry? by Terrence Moore, Ph.D., August 2001. "Currently, there is a great cultural battle being waged on every street corner, and in every school, and in every family in this country. It is the battle for common decency. On many fronts, the battle is being lost, but the tide has perhaps turned."

More Quotes on Science Education

    From our extensive page on education quotations:

    "One must not assume that an understanding of science is present in those who borrow its language."
    -- Louis Pasteur

    "Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals -- the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned, if at all."
    -- Martin Gardner

    "I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. But at the same time, I see much more in the flower [than my artist friend]. I can imagine the cells inside, which also have a beauty. There's beauty not just at the dimension of one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimension. ... There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds, I don't understand how it subtracts."
    - Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate

    "Mathematics is the door and key to the sciences"
    -- Roger Bacon, 1267

    "If it cannot be expressed in figures, it is not science, it is opinion."
    -- Robert A. Heinlein

    "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
    -- Charles Darwin

    "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'"
    -- Isaac Asimov

    "No human inquiry can be called science unless it pursues its path through mathematical exposition and demonstration."
    -- Leonardo da Vinci

    "All science as it grows toward perfection becomes mathematical in its ideas"
    -- Alfred Whitehead, 1911

    "Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. ... The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus."
    -- Michael Crichton, author, M.D. Harvard University

    "...every effort is made to inject cultural content into math and science classes in order to appease the demand for "relevant" content -- no matter how irrelevant such material may be."
    -- Maureen Stout, Ph.D., "The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America's Kids in the Name of Self-Esteem"

    "Consensus science isn't science."
    -- William M. Gray, Ph.D., Colorado State University

    "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
    -- Richard Feynman

    "Unlike other belief systems, those of science are universal and culture-free. If the history of science were rerun it would take a different course but the conclusions would be the same - DNA would still be the genetic material, hydrogen would still be the most common element in the universe, and stars would still be powered by nuclear fusion."
    -- Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology, University College, London

    "I began to wonder some years ago why my children were learning science in such a crazy fashion. ... At a PTA meeting, I protested and was told that this was the new fashion in education. None of the other parents, I was informed, had made any complaint, except the ones who were scientists. This circumstance seemed to me to indicate a problem."
    -- Physicist Douglas R. O. Morrison, writing in Scientific American

    "I once did an analysis of a district science curriculum which, like most American curricula, had a hands-on, formalistic, process orientation and found that students did a hands-on study of seeds in four different grades but were never required to learn about photosynthesis at all."
    -- E. D. Hirsch, The Knowledge Deficit, p. 117




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