Category Archives: Education

Are Children "Natural Scientists" or not?

ResearchBlogging.orgNeil deGrasse Tyson if famous for telling us that children are natural scientists, and cautioning us to be careful not to ruin that thing about them. He makes a good case. No one ever thought, I think, that he meant that children were born resistant to the sorts of biases that scientists actively eschew, or with a developed sense of probability theory that all scientists need to evaluate their work and the work of others, and those other tools that scientists get trained in for several years before they can really call themselves scientists. He mean, rather … how shall I put this. Oh hell, you can see what he says here:

(You should see Huxley with a screwdriver!)

Now, there is controversy, and it is my job as your blogger to tell you about it. It starts with the video above and others like it, and is expanded on by a paper by Claire Cook, Noah Goodman and Laura Schulz in the journal Cognition called “Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play” (PDF) which hast this abstract:

Probabilistic models of expected information gain require integrating prior knowledge about causal hypotheses with knowledge about possible actions that might generate data relevant to those hypotheses. Here we looked at whether preschoolers (mean: 54 months) recognize ‘‘action possibilities’’ (affordances) in the environment that allow them to isolate variables when there is information to be gained. By manipulating the physical properties of the stimuli, we were able to affect the degree to which candidate variables could be isolated; by manipulating the base rate of candidate causes, we were able to affect the potential for information gain. Children’s exploratory play was sensitive to both manipulations: given unambiguous evidence children played indiscriminately and rarely tried to isolate candidate causes; given ambiguous evidence, children both selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) informative interventions.

To make that just a tad more clear, here is a bit more from the same paper:

These results suggest that preschoolers distinguish, not only ambiguous and unambiguous evidence but also potentially informative and uninformative interventions. In cases where there was information to be gained, preschoolers spontaneously selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) actions to effectively isolate the relevant variables. Critically, the target experiments were not otherwise part of children’s exploratory repertoire; children almost never performed them given unambiguous evidence.

So, scientists seem to have found evidence that children have certain key behavioral characteristics that one would normally see in a growed-up scientist.

Also, we have the blog post “More Than Child’s Play: Ability to Think Scientifically Declines as Kids Grow Up” by Sharon Begley.

Since the 1990s studies have shown that children think scientifically—making predictions, carrying out mini experiments, reaching conclusions and revising their initial hypotheses in light of new evidence.

She discusses the above cited paper, and concludes:

… If even the youngest kids have an intuitive grasp of the scientific method, why does that understanding seem to vanish within a few years? Studies suggest that K–12 students struggle to set up a controlled study and cannot figure out what kind of evidence would support or refute a hypothesis. One reason for our failure to capitalize on this scientific intuition we display as toddlers may be that we are pretty good, as children and adults, at reasoning out puzzles that have something to do with real life but flounder when the puzzle is abstract, Goodman suggests—and it is abstract puzzles that educators tend to use when testing the ability to think scientifically. In addition, as we learn more about the world, our knowledge and beliefs trump our powers of scientific reasoning. …

Now, we have the dissenting view, from Matthew Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum, in his post “Children Are Not “Natural” Scientists“:

A pernicious myth, repeated with good intentions in many places and by many people, is that children are natural scientists. They are born with something that gets beaten or worn out of them by bad teachers, bad schools, bad educational practices, and then must relearn what it means to be a scientist later in life. Like many myths, there’s a mixture of truth and falsehood, but ultimately the myth is damaging and leads us into bad habits of thought.

One gets the impression that Matthew does not like the idea. He states:

“Thinking like a researcher” is not the same thing as a natural curiosity and mental plasticity — scientific research is very much a learned skill, in my experience, but I admit to being entirely ignorant of child development…

The answer, of course, may be more nuanced than simply “yes” or “no” to the scientific kung fu of children, and for nuanced answers we look to people like Marie-Claire Shanahan, who always has interesting and valuable things to say. Marie-Claire argued some time before this recent questioning of the issue arose that Students don’t lose their ability to think scientifically:

…school children and teenagers continue to understand the basics of experimentation very well. There are several resources for teaching the concept of fair testing in science. They usually begin with intuitive ideas related to general fairness, like using the analogy of a race where everyone must start at the same place and take the same route. Even the idea of a fair test experiment, though, gives a very simplified introduction to scientific investigations. What is much more difficult is, for example, the idea of a variable. And here’s where I disagree not just with Sharon Begley but with the authors of the paper. By trying to isolate which blocks will make the toy work, the children are not isolating variables. There is only one variable – the blocks – and the children have found an innovative way to try to test one block at a time.

… Even simple variables like length are more challenging than they seem. It is one thing to measure the length of a particular piece of string, quite another to conceive of length as a general property that can be measured or manipulated in any object. This especially true because it is also somewhat arbitrary, requiring the person doing the experiment to choose an operational definition (e.g., by defining length as the measurement of the longest side). There is no concrete thing called length. It is an abstract word that describes a type of measurement. Understanding that is much harder than trying to find a way to measure it in specific objects, which is analogous to what the children are doing in trying to find a way to test each block individually.

Personally, I don’t think there is a lot of disagreement here. Neil deGrasse Tyson is right: Children ruin things in their never ending quest to find out what they are. The cited experimental research demonstrates that children have certain aspects of the scientific method built in. Marie-Claire is correct in parsing out the fact that true adult scientists have created a discipline in which things that are hard to automatically address are seen to with methology and theory, things that people would not automatically think of on their own.

I’m reminded of some of my recent reading in the literature of Witch Hunting in the late Middle Ages and early Enlightenment in Europe. The argument went like this: There are typical characteristics of Witches that let you identify them. Thus, there is a list of interrogations one uses to spot the Witch. Part of the methodology is to torture the suspected Witch until she or he confesses. It seems like every time a Witch is found, the interrogation produces the same result, confirming the method. Everyone involved seemed to believe this; there is even evidence of individuals “realizing” that they must be a Witch because they confessed under torture to the accusations of the inquisitor. That’s how adults seem to think when left on their own. But at the same time thousands of Witches were being “found” and usually executed, other adults were busy inventing hydropower and figuring out that the Earth is round and that there are planets, and that various elements existed with specific properties, and so on and so forth.

Are children born pre-scientists? Probably. Do we ruin them? Maybe, maybe not. More research is needed.


Cook, C., Goodman, N., & Schulz, L. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play Cognition, 120 (3), 341-349 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

What should be your college major?

A small college out east. Photo by wallyg.
I very strongly agree with the basic conclusion offered by a post at teenskepchick by Ali Marie, advice for those now looking at college: “…what’s the undecided student to do? My advice: community college.”. Ali discussed the problem of getting all the required courses in within a four year time span. The key problem she points out is that unless you know pretty much what you want your final major will look like you may end up having to take more than the expected number of courses and thus, have a hard time graduating in four years. I’ll add to that the following: Some of the courses you will want/need won’t be offered when you need them, and it is possible that something else will go wrong while you are busy prostrating to the higher mind and all that, causing you to be unable to complete the usual (e.g. 4) classes per term. Between switching interests, unavailable classes, and things going wrong, you won’t easily finish your four year degree in four years. I recommend that if you are looking into college, read Ali’s post.

I do want to add a few more thought, however.

The importance of Liberal Education Requirements

First, Ali discusses what are generally called the liberal ed requirements and does so with the usual dislike of the process. I want to put in a plug for the liberal education requirements that all colleges have. The purpose of these requirements is not to give you an exposure to a wide range of disciplines in order to help you decide on your major. Yes, it can do that, but that is not only not the main reason they exist, but also, they don’t do that good of a job of that in some cases. Take Cultural Anthropology for example. One reason that many advanced (junior, senior college and early graduate school) Social or Cultural Anthropology students always look so unhappy and eventually get permanent Academic Frowns painted on their face is this: They took the intro Cultural Anthro course, loved it, then went to major in the topic and found out the awful truth: What is taught in Anthro 1001 is not what Anthropologists do or think. It is what they hate about themselves. Once you’ve taken that intro class, and switch majors into Cultural Anthro, the rest of your classes will be about how everything you learned in Anthro 1001 is wrong, and moreover, that for thinking that it was cool, you are an asshole.

I’m sure this does not apply to all disciplines, but in some way…small, medium, or large…I think it applies to many. Even computer science, which one would think would be more logical and laid out, teaches at the intro level stuff you only need to know for the purposes of the exam, not to be in the field of computer science. When was the last time a proposal to implement a commercial web site, or a project to rewrite an operating system, used scheme? Never, that’s when.

The real reason for the Liberal Education requirements is to make society better by seeing to it that a larger proportion of the population leaves college not clueless about so many important things. Someone like Ali Marie probably does not need liberal arts much, but not because she is innately liberal or artsy, but because she’s probably absorbed all that on her own, being a writer and a nerd and all that. But this is not the case for many people.

For a few years, I worked in a program to help adults get their degree. I was on the board of advisors for the program while I was on the Anthropology faculty, and later, I worked directly for the program. This issue came home to me very clearly in many cases. We had many students who, in their own life’s work, including but by no means limited to taking courses and engaging in training programs, had learned way more than you need to learn to get a college education. But some of these students, maybe about half, had skirted the liberal arts. Go look at the internet. Check out the letters and comments on various news sites, or other places where people have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and perspective. A lot of the annoying commentary we see is from either kids who have not yet taken a range of courses in the humanities, social sciences, hard sciences, and so on, or are people who are older but never did. As great as my students were (and they were all great) those who had skirted the liberal arts had bad attitudes about things like education, learning, international perspectives, and diversity. These are the people who can hear a presidential candidate say “we have to preserve our American Exceptionalism” and not throw up a little in their mouths. Until they take a full range of Liberal Ed courses. That helps them to throw up a little in their mouths.

How to pick a college major

The other point I wanted to make is about college majors. The answer to the question, “How to choose a college major” is a bit complicated, but there is another question that is closely related: “How to change your major from one subject to another.” The answer to that second question is: “Don’t”

Here is a reality that many college students, and sadly, many advisors, don’t know, or if they know about it, they don’t believe it: Your major is not as important as you think it is. It will be important for about two months after you graduate, then every month after that for the next two years or so it will reduce in importance until it matters not at all. When you are applying to certain programs you will have a better time if you have a certain major, but what is more important, are certain sets of courses that you’ve taken and other things you’ve done in college. Seriously. I know many of you in college today won’t believe this, but it is true.

OK, your major is not entirely irrelevant, but it is much less important than you might think.

If you want to go into a graduate program involving science, and your major is related to that science, but you have C’s on all of your tough, hard, grueling science courses and you have only the minimum required, then your application to a good graduate program is shit. If, on the other hand, you have a major in a field not that closely related to the science related field you want to study, but you’ve recently developed a sincere interest in that field, and you happen to have more hard science courses than required for your degree and they are all A’s, then your application is golden. All else being equal. Ultimately it is the argument that you make to the graduate application committee that counts, using a persuasive essay, showing excellent performance in certain (as mentioned) classes, and a few other things, not the argument that some committee at your college made to their dean to structure a major a certain way. At the same time, if your transcript has a lot of bullshit on it, then that’s what you have: A bullshit transcript. I once reviewed a transcript of a student who had nine semesters of golf and not much else. I did not take that student’s college career seriously, as clearly he did not either.

Yes, yes, of course, try to match your major with your interests and abilities and then aim for a graduate program or career that fall in line with that. The system is indeed set up that way. But the specific courses you take, how well you do in them, the balance of courses overall, matter about as much as what major you picked. Having the “wrong” major is not catastrophic, but taking two more years of college to get the perfect major may be. In other words, for the average college junior who is contemplating changing majors, the medium and longer term wise move is to put less value on the major than on the degree. It is the degree that counts, and within that framework, the specific classes you’ve taken and your ability to make a good argument (which is helped with good performance on on certain classes coupled with a lack of bullshit on your transcript) matters much more than you might think. I’m not talking about abandoning the system as it exists, I’m talking about calibrating. I’ve sat on admissions committees for both grad programs and undergrad programs and advised a lot of students, and it really is true that most of the time the major is a fetish not as valuable as people think it is when they are busy tearing themselves up over the details.

Is it good to take Community College courses?

Getting back to the point of Ali’s essay for a moment: I do think that taking a year off from college and taking one course at a time from a community college is an excellent strategy for a lot of students. Sometimes community colleges give deep discounts for your first class, so check into that. Also, if you are concerned that the teaching at community colleges is not as good as at the big research university down the street, then you need to recalibrate. Why would it be? Community colleges hire teachers, of which there is a great oversupply, based on their teaching abilities. MRU’s fire faculty if they focus on teaching. Until that changes, teaching at the Big U will be spotty, often wonderful but also often horrid, but the community college will rarely fall below a fairly high bar most of the time. This, of course, applies only to my own experience in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I don’t know what they are doing down in Mississippi and Texas.

Photo by wallyg

Romney on How To Fix Edumication

First, dismantle public school funding. That was pandering to the charter school people he was sitting with. Second, more “no child left behind” type policies. Third, increase classroom size. Because classroom size doesn’t matter. Fourth, cancel teacher improvement programs.

From the Washington Post:

During the roundtable session, Romney said there was no correlation between classroom size and student performance, citing a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company. That sparked a debate with some educators and other leaders around the table.
“I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I’ve been teaching, for 10 years, 13 years, who would say that more students [in the classroom] would benefit,” said Steven Morris, a music teacher at the school. “And I can’t think of a parent that would say I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids and only one teacher.”

Yes, some studies showed that but as far as I can tell, they were comparing class sizes that were too big with class sizes that were way too big. Turns out there is not much difference between totally broken and way totally broken.

Teaching After The Test: An argument for a national school schedule

First, a word about Nazis and Free Speech, and other matters: Catch up on the latest news about Repression of Nazis, and join the conversation about Free Speech and how sometimes it is better to shut up, over at the X Blog.

Today I am preparing a presentation and discussion for a course in AP Biology. Amanda and her colleague have been teaching AP Bio all year, and the test was just given, so there is nothing to live for any more as it were. I asked Amanda yesterday why the students even show up now that the test is over, and she looked at me funny and said “well, they’re required to.” … Oh right, high school.

Continue reading Teaching After The Test: An argument for a national school schedule

Religious Message Delivered to Iowa Public School Students

In the form of song.

High school students in Dunkerton, Iowa were expecting an assembly about bullying and making good choices. What they got instead was the Christian rap/hard rock band called Junkyard Prophet delivering an anti-gay and anti-abortion rant.

After the band played, they broke the students up into gender-based groups and then lectured them.

“They told my daughter, the girls, that they were going to have mud on their wedding dresses if they weren’t virgins,” said Jennifer Littlefield, whose 16-year-old daughter, Alivia called her in tears after the event. Reportedly, one of the band members led the girls in a chant pledging purity and encouraged them to be submissive to their husbands after marriage.

Here’s part of the presentation:

And another:

Let me tell you two things about this: 1) It is an outrage; and 2) This kind of thing happens in high schools across the country on a regular basis; it is not that frequent, but it happens.

Hat Tip: Gwenn Smith Olson

Vote for Something Good for Kids to Do

Budget Travel is running one of those ill-fated Internet Polls to help make a list of the top 15 places to go for kids before they are 15. Sort of like bucket list but instead of dying you turn 15. One small problem is that the Creation Museum of Kentucky has been intruding in the top ten, even top five, of this list. You need to go there and vote for something else! Like, all the attractions that you happen to like that are lower than the Creation Museum at the moment.

Click here to help save the Youth of North America from certain doom!

Ten States Will Get No Child Left Behind Waivers

My State is better than your state! (Or Province or District.)

The No Child Left Behind Law, for better or worse, is a Federal program to make states to a better job in education. It is a fairly specific plan. But many states came up with their own plans which are different, yet in some cases, still considered effective. A state can apply for a waiver of the NCLB regulations if they have come up with an alternative that is as good or better.

The Federal government is reported to be prepared to grant waivers to ten states and they are, alphabetically: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. New Mexico also applied for a waiver but will not receive one, but may manage to do so with a few changes that are currently in negotiation. A majority of other states, DC, and Puerto Rico plan to seek waivers as well.

Republicans seem ready to fight this granting of waivers to states, which is interesting (but unsurprising) because Republicans are all about States Rights. I assume that the Republican resistance to this has to do with their dislike of anything Obama does, and I attribute this to a combination of Partisan politics and racism.

It will be interesting to see how the Republican governors of Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee, react to their compatriot’s lack of support for their state’s waivers.

For the NEA’s take on this, click here.

The State of State Science Standards

The vast majority of American public school students are not proficient in the level of science learning expected for their age group. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has issued “The State of Science Standards 2012” as part of an effort to assess the causes of this dismal state of affairs. Here’s a map summarizing their results:

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State Science Standards Grades, 2012

Notice that some of the battleground states for the “Evolution-Creationism Controversy” have reasonable ratings. Notice also the vast regions of D and F states. In fact, in order to convey the meaning of it all, I’ve created a new version of the map that signifies all states with D and F rankings with one color, and all states with C or better grades with a different color (The “Pass/Fail” version of the test!):

Continue reading The State of State Science Standards

$4 Million Raised for Kentucky Ark Park

Unfortunately, the fundraising goal for this creationist project was $24.5 million. The groundbreaking of the park has been delayed numerous times.

LEO Weekly tried to find out from the state Tourism Cabinet what was going on, and their representative claimed that they’d heard nothing from Ken Ham’s organization. But, they lied. Emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act indicate that there has been communication, and that the situation for the Ark Park is not good: Continue reading $4 Million Raised for Kentucky Ark Park