By Richard E. Bleil
Some years ago, I was about to sit down to a lovely dinner with a friend of mine and her sister. Her sister was a science teacher at a private middle school. In an effort to get to know her better, I asked her what her bachelor’s degree is in. To my surprise, she said “elementary education”. Knowing that she had her master’s degree, I asked what her master’s degree is in. Again, she answered “elementary education”. Taken aback, I asked when she learned science. “I don’t have to know science,” she replied, “because I know how to teach!”
Seriously?!? This struck me as rather disrespectful of the discipline. Would she feel equally qualified to teach a foreign language, say Mandarin Chinese, if she didn’t speak the language?
I believe one of the major reasons that science is so poorly received (and math as well) is that teachers often do not have the interest in science (and mathematics) that a teacher should. Dislike for a subject is easily picked up by the students, even if an attempt is made to hide this dislike. The tonalities, inflections, and body language can be picked up and are nearly impossible to hide. It fascinates me that, to teach chemistry at the college level, I was required to have an advanced degree (a doctorate, actually) in the discipline of chemistry. With a degree in education, I would not be qualified to teach chemistry. Ironically, I do not, and was never required to have, a degree in education. Yet at the lower levels, a degree in education is required, but not in the discipline.
Okay, that’s just a little something that I find odd about our educational system. The real issue, in my humble opinion, is that science is not made to be fun. Yes, I said fun.
Maybe there are cool demonstrations for the students, and maybe they do labs, but there’s a lot of what I consider to be superfluous work that goes along with it. For example, I used to watch a very bright young man when I was in graduate school in exchange for room and board. He was in a very prestigious middle school in Boston. One day he asked me if I could help him prepare for a terminology quiz in science, the subject of which was meteorological terms. I asked him what a “cumulus cloud” is, and he recited, verbatim, the the exact definition, word-for-word. I told him it was right, then continued to ask him what it means. “I don’t know,” he replied, “we aren’t required to know that.”
Seriously?!? That was around 1990 (give or take a couple of years). Do you suppose he remembers that definition today? He might be able to recognize one, but it’s more likely from interest or experience than what he learned in school, so, what did he really get from it? In chemistry, many students are required to memorize the periodic chart, but how many really remember it? Even if they do, do you suppose they would trust that if they really needed to know something from it, or would they look it up?
The reality is that there is too much to learn about chemistry and science to waste time memorizing the periodic chart. And herein lies what I believe to be the problem. Over reliance on memorization really teaches nothing to the students. Sadly, with the “No Child Left Behind” act, memorization has become even more important, when, in fact, I believe it hurts education.
My proposal is as follows.
- Elementary School. Science should be like a magic show. Demonstrate what we have discovered, and what we can do with science. Forget laws, forget terminology, just get the kids to begin to see the world as a bigger place, excite them about learning about their world, and get them excited about science. If they come home excited to share something that scientists know, that’s a win.
- Middle School. Start introducing basic laws, but again, ignore terminology. Understanding momentum, for example as it applies to car crashes and the importance of seat belts, is important to understand, but is it really important that students be able to say that this is Newton’s First Law of Motion? Personally I’d rather they understand that they can’t stop a car rolling downhill by standing in front of it than be able to state the law.
- High School. Here, students don’t tend to take as much science, and don’t take the variety of science disciplines as elementary and middle schools. This would be the time to teach the scientific method (the common thread among all science disciplines), and begin giving names to some of the basic science laws, especially the common ones. For example, all sciences deal with the laws of conservation of matter and conservation of energy. Introduce such laws and terminology, but not to a great extent.
In college, students have to take a year of science. This is the time to start relying on terminology so students learn to speak intelligently, and how to find definitions as they need them. In this manner, we would excite students about the discipline from a young age, produce students who understand the basic laws of science, and how to do research and learn terminology on their own, leading to self-reliance.