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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Science Education and Teaching Controversy

I'm beginning to realize that there are (at least) two fundamentally different approaches to teaching science. One strategy, which I'll call the "fact-based" approach, concentrates on communicating facts about the natural world. The other approach, which I'll call the "methodological approach" concentrates on teaching students how to acquire knowledge.

In the fact-based approach to science education, the emphasis is on making sure that students have a sound knowledge of the basic principles of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. Let's take the teaching of evolution as an example. If you follow this strategy then you will want your students to know about the main mechanisms of evolution and the known facts about the history of life. You will only teach things that are supported by scientific evidence. In order to pass the course, students must demonstrate that they have acquired, and understand, the facts.

The goal here is to send students out into the real world armed with an understanding of what science has learned. Hopefully they'll be able to use that knowledge of evolution to choose the "right" side in any controversy.

The methodological approach concentrates on teaching students how to acquire knowledge using the scientific method. This "method" is not the kindergarten version so often seen in schools but the more fundamental version that emphasizes evidence, skepticism, and rational thinking. The idea here is not only to teach facts—although that's important—but to teach why those facts should be accepted as true. Another major goal of this method is teaching critical thinking and the desired outcome is a group of graduates who will be able to apply the methodology to any problem they encounter in the future. This includes problems that don't fall into the traditional science fields of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology.

The fact-based approach tends to avoid any distractions that might confuse students about what is known and what isn't. Thus, Intelligent Design Creationism cannot be discussed in this type of curriculum because there's nothing factual about creationism. It's not part of science.

That restriction doesn't apply if you are trying to teach critical thinking because the most important part of your objective is teaching students how to argue and how to reason. In that approach, you actually want to encourage controversy and debate in the classroom because that's how you learn to distinguish between wheat and chaff, or science and pseudoscience.

I was prompted to think about these two different approaches by a recent issue of Science containing a number of articles about science education.1 One of them is "Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse" by Jonathan Osborne [April 23, 2010: doi: 10.1126/science.1183944]. Here's the abstract ...
Argument and debate are common in science, yet they are virtually absent from science education. Recent research shows, however, that opportunities for students to engage in collaborative discourse and argumentation offer a means of enhancing student conceptual understanding and students’ skills and capabilities with scientific reasoning. As one of the hallmarks of the scientist is critical, rational skepticism, the lack of opportunities to develop the ability to reason and argue scientifically would appear to be a significant weakness in contemporary educational practice. In short, knowing what is wrong matters as much as knowing what is right. This paper presents a summary of the main features of this body of research and discusses its implications for the teaching and learning of science.
Clearly, this approach is consistent with bringing creationist ideas into the classroom in order to teach students why they are wrong. You will also want to bring up astrology and the ancient theory of demon possession if that helps make the point. You can't discuss every single controversy, but, at the very least, you should include the "active" ones—the ones students will encounter as soon as they step outside the classroom and watch FOX News or listen to their preacher on Sunday morning.

"Teaching the controversy" is good science if you adopt the methodological approach to science education but it's anathema if you adopt the fact-based approach.

Here's A.C. Grayling, a philosopher at Birkbeck College, University of London, and also a Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford, giving his opinion on science education. Can you guess which approach he favors? Why isn't he aware of the "controversy" in science education? I wonder if he avoids all controversial topics in his philosophy classes?

1. Thanks to Bruce Alberts who, as editor-in-chief, is trying to promote more emphasis on science education.

P.S. I don't want to discuss whether the methodological approach is possible in American schools. If you think that science teachers are too stupid to adopt this approach, or if you think that many of them are secret creationists, then that's an entirely different problem. It's a defeatist attitude to conclude that the quality of science teachers is so bad that science education can't be fixed. If you have bad science teachers then the first step is to replace them with good ones. The sooner the better.


  1. Okay, that's the single most coherent observation I've ever read on the subject of science education. Of course, there's still the argument over whether we're discussing science education as it is, or as it should be....

  2. I cannot help its a balance of the two which ebbs and flows depending on the course being taught. The Ontario curriculum has slowly opened to be more favourable to the methodological but still has much fact pushing involved. In grade 9 and 10 I personally favour a methodological approach with the academic classes because: 1. they need to learn to think critically and examine evidence for problem solving skills to develop 2. they should be capable of learning to do this.
    With other classes, this approach may be rather difficult. Blooms taxonomy demonstrates that some individuals have great difficulty attaining higher level skills. Knowledge and comprehension may be quite challenging as it is. Balance in everything you do. Walking the line, that is, challenging students enough but not TOO much, is difficult. I personally beelive they all need to be able to self educate by practicing their reading comprehension, research skills, analytical ability and presentation skills [of any type].

  3. It's a defeatist attitude to conclude that the quality of science teachers is so bad that science education can't be fixed. If you have bad science teachers then the first step is to replace them with good ones. The sooner the better.

    Since you don't want to discuss it, let me just explain:

    There is no "you" to fix it. There are (IIRC) 10,000+ school boards in the US who decide who to hire and fire among the ranks of K-12 teachers. Please don't tell us that we should massively overhaul our Constitutional system to fix it ... at least until Canadians do the same so you can stop paying taxes to support Catholic and other "faith-based" schools. We have to live with our history and consider the dangers of the can of worms we'd open by throwing open our system to widespread revamping, especially in these times.

  4. They are not different approaches. You cannot use the methodological approach if students don't have at least a bit of context to evaluate new ideas in. Sometimes you just have to memorize a lot of stuff. In my view, both approaches are necesarry to provide a balanced curriculum. However, I would agree that only memorizing facts is not a good way to learn science.