Thursday, September 01, 2005

When parental involvement is maybe a bad idea …

You've seen, as it's been commented upon a number of places, the New York Times reporting on the recent poll results. Almost two-thirds of the respondents (64 % of what is presumably a representative sample of Americans) think creationism should be taught with evolution in public schools. In science class (because you don't teach religion in the public schools). And, 38% said creationism should be taught instead of evolution (though perhaps these respondents also think that the public schools ought to require religion classes, too).

The question of the hour: Should the average American set the science curriculum for the public schools? If so, what would it look like?

Over at Philosophy of Biology, in a comment that is a thing of beauty, Roberta Millstein illuminates the dangers of democratically designed science curricula by helping us remember just how scientifically, um, differently abled your average American is. She presents a 6 item science quiz. Administer it to your friends, your neighbors, your students, your employer. Grade them. (If you need an answer key, I'm certain Roberta can provide one. If you ask me for help, you'll likely get 20 minutes of the Socratic method ... just like Dad used to do when I asked him a question about my chem homework.) Tally the scores. Weep.

As Roberta writes, "Given that most Americans cannot answer basic science questions correctly, are they really in a position to be determining what ought to be taught in a science classroom?"

There are a few issues that form an interesting confluence here:

1. What kind of knowledge does the average American have (in this particular case, about scientific theories and scientific explanations of various bits of our world)?
2. What kind of knowledge does the average American value -- what knowledge does s/he wish s/he had even if s/he never actually got that knowledge in school?
3. What, really, do we want our public schools to accomplish (in particular, by teaching science)?
4. What are the dangers of cutting scientists out of the decision about what science gets taught in public school?
5. What are the dangers of cutting the parents out of the decision about what science gets taught in public school?

While the science quiz described above would doubtless show many Americans to be woefully lacking in even very basic scientific knowledge, that wouldn't necessarily mean that those same Americans want to be scientifically ignorant. Probably many of them are victims of crappy science instruction and the pervasive myth that one must be a super-genius to comprehend matters scientific.

On the other hand, there is a fairly strong anti-intellectual-and-proud-of-it current that sweeps through American culture of late. So, possibly some of the bad scores of the quiz would be due to willful ignorance.

OK, but if you decide you're proud not to know science (or that other intellectual crap), how exactly does that qualify you to decide what the kids should learn about science in the schools? Are you really, ultimately, moving toward the no-science option (because real Americans don't need it)? Why not say so?

My guess is that most people know, somewhere in the back of their minds (in the part not yet damaged by beer and reality TV), that it is better for kids to learn science than not to. They probably can't explain why ... maybe it has something to do with economic competitiveness? But they're not ready to say "dump science" outright. But, because of the vector sum of crappy science teaching and willful ignorance, they think science class is all about facts rather than methods, patterns of inference, problem solving strategies. So, they want to put the kibosh on particular "facts" in the list that are inconvenient because they clash with religious beliefs (or complicate lifestyle choices like mom's Hummer).

From the parents' point of view, they're just asking scientists to leave a few of the facts off the list. There are so many other facts the scientists could be talking about in class that it shouldn't be a big deal.

But the scientists aren't trying to teach facts so much as an approach to making sense of the physical world. From their point of view, they're being asked to water that approach down rather than showing students what it can accomplish.

To the extent that scientists are the ones who do science, and that what students should be learning about science in school is not just the results but the method that was used to produce the results, it is perfectly reasonable to say the scientists ought to have the main responsibility for science curricula.

The parents should have a say, though. If they're wise, they'll use that say to insist that the science curricula are taught by educators who can actually get the students to understand science -- at least, to understand it better than their parents do.


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