Physioprof recently posted some comments on science and religion that I basically agree with.1 But I want to add an observation that I’ve been thinking about since this Pew Research report came out.
The current issue is that the average American thinks that an electron is larger than an atom, and some other stupid stuff. Back in the 1980s, the poster-concept for the stupidity of Americans was an exam given to school children in which the plurality of individuals placed Boston firmly in the middle of Tibet. This exam was given in Massachusetts. In those days, Geography was the bugaboo of education, now it is electrons.
It will always be possible to construct a test or survey that will make Americans look stupid and that will identify a number of really funny stupidities that we as a culture posses. This is because by and large Americans are stupid and there is a lot of stuff we get wrong as a people. But this approach, the identification of widely held dumbosities, is itself dumb. The reason that it is dumb is the reaction it will lead to.
For now there will be a frenetic conversation about electrons and atoms and whatever. That will die down but not be forgotten. Then, in the next few rounds of developing education standards in science, the education community (which will include actual scientists brought on board the committees writing the standards) will make sure to attend to these details and other details like them that students could also get wrong unless we make a list (the standards) and use it in our teaching (the curriculum).
The result of this will be a step backwards rather than forwards. This is because science standards for education are being done in the wrong way.
The way science standards are done now is this: We imagine a scientist and what she knows, a scientist in a particular field knowing certain stuff. Then we think about the basics that she has to know before entering graduate training. That is what she needs to know at the end of her BA or BS. Then we imagine what we would like her to know on entering a four year college program. That will constitute our ideal learning set for, say, AP exams. Then we imagine what would get her to an AP or other advanced or honors level high school course, and that is the eight, ninth, or tenth grade learning that we specify.
You do see why this is totally wrong, yes?
This imagined scientist does not need a half baked eight grade life science class to form the fundamentals of her learning as an advanced learner in college. Indeed, anyone who has ever taken on a science as a career must realize that you actually re-learn many of these basics …. relearn them in the non-fucked up way they are learned in high school or intro college courses … as you advance into upper level study.
The accretitive approach with an advanced practitioner as the end point is NOT the best way to teach science to the VAST majority of students.
Our goal should be entirely different. Our goal should be to educate people to be good citizens with respect to science. You know what that involves … scientific thinking, some core concepts but not a lot of detail, exposure to wonderful examples, a knowledge of current issues, and a study of the relationship between science and citizenship and policy.
I say, and I will be lambasted for this, that knowing the Krebs cycle may or may not be important to someone who is never going to be an actual scientists.
The funny thing is that these policy and citizen related goals are pretty much held by everyone in the education community. This is what everybody thinks. But then, when people sit down to write standards or curriculum, the accretitive method almost always emerges. “You can’t really understand physics without understanding X, and to get X you must know Y. And you can’t really understand Y at a deep level until you’ve grasped Z and done a lot of A, B and C…” and pretty soon you have the samo-samo.
And it is the samo-samo except with one small problem. We have had, since almost the year 1800, the same exact overall plan for education. K-12 education with the basic subjects has not changed in almost 200 years. But the amount of detail that makes up the X,Y,Z,A,B and C of a discipline has gone up slightly. And by slightly I mean a whole shitload.
There is simply no longer room for the accretitive method. We need a whole new approach to making science education actually work.
1Don’t get the wrong idea. Adhominially speaking, I still think CPP is a pretty shady character.