Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Lessons not learned from 50 years ago

A few months ago Nature published an article on how to create a science-literate population. There's a letter in the Sept. 17th (2015) issue that addresses this point by reminding readers of another article published 50 years ago (1965).

The title of that older article was "New thinking in undergraduate education." Here's what it said ....
Students are in danger of "spending too much of their time memorizing facts, and [have] insufficient time at [their] disposal to master the principles underlying [their] subject and to develop [their] powers of thought." .... the most important purpose of a university education is to teach [students] to think for [themselves] ... it may on occasion demand a re-examination of the whole approach to a subject in undergraduate courses."
I remember that the biology department where I was an undergraduate (Carleton University in Ottawa) organized a weekend conference to discuss revising undergraduate education in 1967. I spoke about the need to focus on ideas and concepts and get away from boring lectures about facts.

plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

UPDATE: A reader asked for the references. The letter in the Sept. 17th issue is from Barry S. Winkler [doi: 10.1038/525321f]. The original article from 1965 is in the issue of Feb. 27, 1965 [doi: 10.1038/205835a0]. The 2015 article referred to in the recent letter to Nature is Bradforth et al. (2015).

Bradforth, S.F., Miller, E.R., Dichtel, W.R., Leibovich, A.K., Feig, A.L., Martin, J.D., Bjorkman, K.S., Schultz, Z.D., and Smith, T.L. (2015) University learning: Improve undergraduate science education. Nature 523:282-284 [PDF]


  1. Alright. So why don't we move on to the second step and beg the obvious question "Why is it taking so long for us to apply this information?"

    Because taking the first step would be an awful waste of energy if we didn't.

    1. Could it be because it is a complex situation that shouldn't be oversimplified. The challenge, I think, is to find that fine balance between the "focus on ideas and concepts" while recognizing the need to first become aware of (and yes, in many instances memorizing) basic facts. I don't know how many modern professors treat their lectures solely as long laundry lists of isolated facts to be simply memorized, but I suppose they exist.

      As for the scientific literacy of the general public, it is tough for them to be aware of broad scientific concepts when they never learned, or have long forgotten, basic scientific facts. Haul a hundred random people off the street and ask them what a protein is and what its relationship to a gene is. Forget about the gene part - most of them will answer that protein is what you order in the restaurant along side your salad and pasta.

      It's a difficult situation.

  2. The problem is that attempts at trying to teach concepts rather than facts tend not to work all that well in practice. "New Math" is mostly remembered these days for parodies that people like Tom Leher made, but it was a serious attempt at revamping American mathematical education by starting with set theory rather than teaching the operations of arithmetic by rote.

  3. Mastering the principals is still memorizing things. otherwise the kiids would be introducing their own ideas. Its all memorizing and in fact most human thought is just that.
    THE MOST IMPORTANT PURPOSE ,,,is to think for themselves!!! Thats what the kids are paying for? NO! University is to learn things and prove it with the result of a degree proving same. then use it/or not to get a better job then the mean.
    Kids thinking for themselves is just more people getting things wrong.
    School is to teach what has already been thought out. its about conclusions in knowledge,
    A re examination is just not an option to students. People get awards for having figured things out. Even if kids knew better why would they be the judge?
    With all the speech/content control PROUDLY enforced in schools, especially origin things, its an ABSURDITY to say thinking for oneself is welcome!!
    Sgool can't teach intelligence. just information. The smarter ones after the schooling will prevail in society as long as no interference.
    School is not to teach people to think for themselves. No time for that. Too much info to learn especially in more complicated subjects.
    Its funny about university philosophers.
    Anyways university is just a finishing school for high school these days as , I heard, 40% of high school kids go to university/college. Seems high but i heard that.

  4. While it would be nice to have a public that was interested and inspired by what science has uncovered about the natural world, the most important reason for the public to be informed is so they can elect science-literate politicians. Here in the US many of the most powerful politicians are creationists who don't accept climate change much for that.

    1. We're having an election here in Canada. In the last election I could vote for a science-literate politician in my riding (constituency). Unfortunately, in this election none of the candidates in my riding are science-literate so I have to hold my nose and vote for one of them on other issues.

      I tried going to the nomination meeting for one of the parties (Liberal) but that didn't work out either because my preferred candidates didn't get the nomination.