Posted by Michael Dickens on February 20, 2010
The current state of science education in primary and secondary education is far from ideal. The purpose of science education should not be to teach facts about science, but to teach how to think scientifically.
Nearly every moment I have spent in science class has been spent learning about something that was already discovered. I learned about the different phyla of animals, about the periodic table, about meiosis, about covalent bonds, you name it. But has this fostered in me a better understanding of science? Frankly, no. The best science education I have got has been from reading about science on the internet, from websites and from science blogs like Pharyngula. On the internet I have read about how to examine the veracity of scientific claims. I think that this is one of the most important tenets of a science education. But have we ever gone over this in science class? No.
Another pillar of science education is not what science has discovered, but how it has discovered it. Sure, every year we briefly look at the “scientific method”, but all we really do is memorize five or six steps in what is supposedly the quintessential scientific process. What is really important is that we are able to take some phenomenon and find a legitimate explanation. This phenomenon doesn’t have to be “scientific”: it can be any sort of empirically testable phenomenon, including something that comes up in real life. For example, through science education you should be able to more effectively answer the question, Is my friend telling the truth, or is his story completely made up? That is where science really shines.
But in addition to this, we must remember that there are certain things that it simply helps to know. And some aspects of science are simply fascinating. Maintaining a proper balance will not be easy; still, at the moment the balance is much too far towards the side of facts rather than the side of investigation.
Ideally, how would science be categorized? As it is, we have Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and high school students spend one year on each. (The classification in elementary and middle school is more vague.) These categorizations are convenient, and could probably remain this way while at the same time emphasizing more critical thinking. In Biology, students could study creationism vs. evolution — this is how I developed most of my critical thinking abilities — although that might not end so well given the history of conflict between those subjects. I know of no other obvious tests of critical thinking for other subjects, but I’m sure they exist. A clever science teacher could think of plenty of things to do.
Implementing an environment to foster critical thinking may be difficult. I know that at least for me, no one could have made me learn it. But they could have made the tools more readily available. Through the internet, I was able to find plenty of tools; but I had to look for them. It would have been easier, and I would have started sooner, had those tools been presented in the science classroom.
The problem still remains, though, of how you teach people to think critically. I hypothesize that people will learn on their own if presented with the proper tools. The real trick to critical thinking is really just thinking. I remember that after seeing What The Bleep Do We Know, I believed everything in it. But after someone pointed out to me just how ridiculous some of its claims were, I instantly realized that, yes, it didn’t really make sense at all. The problem there was that I was simply trusting what was said without thinking about it at all. If I had considered the claims made even a little, I would have easily seen their absurdity. Then, is it as simple as asking the question, “Is this for real?” In many cases, I think so.
Which brings me to another important pillar of science education: objectivity. Something useful in science as well as in life is the ability to judge a situation dispassionately, and to try to remove one’s own biases. Completely eliminating your own biases is extraordinarily difficult, but it should be the role of science education to help out. One thing that I find helps enormously is to talk to other people about what your biases might be. On my other blog, I have questioned my own assumptions numerous times thanks to the feedback given to me by some very intelligent commentators.
Facts are important. But so is critical thinking. So is objectivity. So is understanding how to go about making a discovery, be it a new field in Quantum Mechanics, or whether or not the Chevy Malibu is a better deal than the Ford Explorer. Science is fascinating, but its true value comes from its ability to expand your mind and heighten your thinking. This is what ought to be reflected by science education.