Is Science, Math, and Technology truly for All?

Note to my readers: This entire post is written by and is the opinion of Louise Maine as a blogger that I have been mentoring. If you quote this article, please link to her post above and cite her (except as noted where I have added my comments.)

Is Science, Math, and Technology truly for All?
simulpost with Hurricaine Maine

by Louise Maine
Hurricane Maine Blog
printed with permission
(c) 2008 Louise Maine, All Rights Reserved

edited by Vicki Davis

I have been in a period of great doubt. It happens because teaching can be very isolating. I doubt my effectiveness, best practices, and whether they are in line with my beliefs. When I reach obstacles in trying to explain our thoughts and positions, I often look to my colleagues on the Internet for support.

Recently, I become so frustrated and I guess down right defensive of my position that blogging and any other application that promotes and develops critical thinking is an excellent addition to ANY science classroom.

I was intrigued to hear criticisms on Dean Shareski’s blog of teacher sharing and using blogging. Dean relates a comment:

"If what I’m planning could just as easily be done as a traditional assignment, then why do it using blogs?".

Clay Burrell comments that
"I’d love to see science teachers using blogs to focus instead on the creativity of science and scientists in general, its wonders and powers, and above all, WTF it’s actually used for in the real world" and "process being the ultimate teachers in how to use this stuff effectively for learning."
Though I agree that conventional assignments may save class time, my heart sinks to think that as a science teacher we would not identify what learning is important before dismissing possible alternatives for better instruction.

The point was made in the comments that blogging would be best for the big ideas. I agree with this statement. But, as a fellow science teacher, I think science teachers are so inundated with the details, that we often miss the big ideas.

WE get the big ideas, but I am sure that as a rule our students are not truly understanding of the big ideas of science such as systems, order, and organization; form and function; and evidence, models and explanation.

Blogging is for Good Teaching but Good Teaching isn't Necessarily to Teach Blogging

I have been mulling this for some time. I am not looking at just blogging as a use of technology. I am focusing on Authentic Instruction and pulling the technology into it. There are few good examples of Authentic Instruction for Science out there but we science teachers are a discriminating, cynical lot.

Science is facts, right?

That is what we teach.

We rant that anything else could ruin good science education, when I am certain that kind of thinking is not good right now.

The debate over the state of Science Education

Issue #1 Science Scores Are Terrible

Even politicians are discussing this. Barack Obama discusses the problems with science education on his website. He advocates for a “strong science curriculum”. But, what is that? (Note: Every candidate has a viewpoint, but this post is already long enough).

You can find many articles about deplorable test scores from U.S. children.

Issue #1 Revisited - Science Scores Aren't Terrible.

There is another viewpoint and we must consider it. In Businessweek's Article, the Science Education Myth, the article discusses how a non-partisan review of the data shows that test scores aren't so bad! (As I was reading I thought: "Enough about the test scores, what are they really measuring?")

Vivek Wadhwa states at the end of the article:

“Perhaps we should focus on creating demand for the many scientists and engineers we graduate. There are many problems, from global warming to the development of alternative fuels to cures for infectious diseases, that need to be solved. Rather than blaming our schools, let's create exciting national programs that motivate our children to help solve these problems.”

Okay, but what do we do?

The big idea

Rather than argue the point online, I decided to head to the back room where all my old books are in hopes of finding something to help me with what we should do to improve science education. Science for all Americans caught my eye.

Just how relevant today is this book that was published back in 1990?

Obviously, the Michigan Department of Education felt strongly about it back then and gave it to all the science teachers in the 90’s. It was met with cynicism then too. It is co-written by Project 2061 founder F. James Rutherford.

  • I did not have to get very far re-reading to clue into the same ideas that we hear today. The arguments in the preface of the book (Rutherford, F. James and Ahlgren, A. Science for all Americans, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. vi) are (this is pretty wordy, so hang in there)Science, energetically pursued, can provide humanity with the knowledge of the biophysical environment and of social behavior that it needs to develop effective solutions to its global and local problems; without that knowledge, progress toward a safe world will be unnecessarily handicapped.
  • By emphasizing and explaining the dependency of living things on each other and on the physical environment, science fosters the kind of intelligent respect for nature that should inform decisions on the uses of technology; without that respect, we are in danger of recklessly destroying our life-support system.

  • Scientific habits of mind can help people in every walk of life to deal sensibly with problems that often involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments, and uncertainty; without the ability to think critically and independently, citizens are easy prey to dogmatists, flimflam artists, and purveyors of simple solutions to complex problems.

Note: I should have been with David Warlick at a Science Blogging Conference where it was mentioned that “responsibilities lie with the reader” and “people need to be learning critical thinking skills”.

Technological principles relating to such topics as the nature of systems, the importance of feedback and control, the cost-benefit-risk relationship, and the inevitability of side effects give people a sound basis for assessing the use of new technologies and their implications for the environment and culture; without an understanding of those principles, people are unlikely to move beyond consideration of their own immediate self-interest.
  • Although many pressing global and local problems have technological origins, technology provides the tools for dealing with such problems, and the instruments for generating, through science, crucial new knowledge; without the continuous development and creative use of new technologies, society will limit its capacity for survival and for working toward a world in which the human species is at peace with itself and its environment.

Consider an example of an issue that many do not truly understand. (See Will Richardson's post "How It All Ends.")
  • The life-enhancing potential of science and technology cannot be realized unless the public in general comes to understand science, mathematics, and technology and to acquire scientific habits of mind; without a scientifically literate population, the outlook for a better world is not promising.

The text also makes the case for crushing workloads of teachers and a lack of a modern support system to back them up. I think those in the edublogosphere are changing the lack of a support system mentioned.

“As the world approaches the 21st century, the schools of America - when it comes to the deployment of people, time, and technology - seem to be still stuck in the 19th century.” (Rutherford, F. James and Ahlgren, A. Science for all Americans, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. viii)

This text was written 18 years ago and the case could be made that we have not improved anything yet!

Our current paradox

The paradox is that science is currently emphasizing learning of answers over its father, the exploration of questions, memory instead of critical thought, pieces of information in lieu of understanding in context, repeating information instead of argument (argument a/k/a conversations), and reading instead of doing.

This whole paradox describes the failure to encourage students to work together and to share ideas and information. Are we treating them like the lab rats of famed scientists in that they are being "done to" instead of being "part of" the process?

Got to love that last bit: Encourage the working together and sharing of ideas and information. Imagine what the future could be!

So, what are the common ideas recommended from the book?

The reasoning for change is based on the belief that a scientifically literate person understands science, mathematics and technology are used together and needs to be evaluated critically. Citizens use knowledge and a scientific way of thinking for the better of the individual and the society.

Whether you teach science, math, technology, or any other subject, critical thinking can be emphasized.

A scientific way of thinking creates a more informative, resourceful, and creative human being.

If you had access to information and had the habits of mind to use information, can the world be a different place?

Google says Yes!
Google must think so with its coming launch of an open source science repository, also discussed in Wired Science.

Our goal for our students and humanity depends upon the habits of mind for ALL students to read, understand, and use critical information.

Promote the change…

It am uptight to think that the responses to this post may be purely negative and that the big idea may be missed. I suggest the following:

  • Understand that what is considered a basic science, math, and technology education today is very different than that of yesterday.
  • All of this will require leadership, communication, collaboration and sharing. The more who engage in collaboration and discussion, the stronger our preparation for students will be.

  • Have students uncover the facts/formulas/ideas rather than do something with just the facts they are given. This is not an afterthought final critical thinking question but how we should initiate the instruction instead.

  • Focus on comparing/contrasting/evaluating information.

  • Identify the revolutionary and conservative values that underlie all knowledge and examine both ends.

  • Emphasize the scientific habits of mind which are not specific to science and every teacher can cultivate these:

    1. Observation and manipulation of data and information

    2. Communication skills to share with truth and clarity

    3. Read and listen with understanding

    4. Critical response skills.

As I skim through the book to read to the end, it strikes me that what is being done in the edublogospere today is the premise of the kind of reform needed for scientific literacy to happen.

Not top down reform, but bottom up linking those at the heart of the discussion to one another in order to support one another and exact change.

Reform is essentially about people and not policies. We tend to change slowly as we have our own beliefs. We don’t change on whim, but instead respond to ideas and positive experiences developed from our colleagues that allow us to explore the possibilities. Those who are the change need to continue their collaborative, reflective nature!

(As we were discussing this article, Vicki Davis said to me,

"This makes me think, what if more scientists blogged their reflections as they went instead of writing it down. What if a scientist would let us be PART of pure science by videoing and posting his/her observations. What if my students could literally be observers as PART of pure science in action. What would happen? What would be the effect? Or would they not be able to do this because they THINK science is a set of arbitrary rules. What if they were truly exposed to the fuzzy bleeding edge of scientific exploration. Could they handle it? Could teachers handle it? I doubt it. Perhaps we are more concerned about using the mental faculties of memorization over that of observation." )

I am still in the journey of my own education and best practices along these lines. Perhaps more sharing starting with the teachers can move all of us forward. I implore your thoughts and ideas on this discussion.

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Notes from Cool Cat Teacher

This post is from Louise Maine of the great new blog Hurricaine Maine and is part of my own desire to foster, mentor and encourage new bloggers. (See my call to new bloggers If you were Cool Cat Teacher for a Day, What would you say? ) Immediately, I received a response from Louise that she has something to say and boy does she!!!! (Hey, beginners, if you want to be "mentored" and coached on a blog post, here is your chance.)

I praise Louise for her willingness to let me be part of the writing of this article. (I gave her editing suggestions only, the main content is here. I did get so hyper that she quoted me at the bottom!)

Her thoughts on science education are important and worthy of discussion. I particularly like her ideas that blogging can truly play a role in advancing science.

In my own opinion, while science in itself is not the answer to all that ails man, I do believe that improved communications among scientists AND the school children they wish to educate will do a better job of bringing our science education in the direction it needs to go than treating science as a discrete, rote list of items to memorize.

Relevance is a key component of today's effective academic environment... teachers who make it relevant AND scientists who reach out and make it relevant.

In short, science needs to hyperlink itself into a fantastic network of learning, experimentation, observation and innovation.
Thank you Hurricane Maine!

If your blog readers are growing, who are you mentoring and bringing out to share with others?

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