Friday, January 15, 2010

A way out of pseudoscience

Science education is non-existent in Luxembourgish elementary school. We do a little bit of geography and history in fifth and sixth grade and we have a science curriculum for first to sixth grade. But, as far as I can observe, natural science is often reduced to filling out work sheets and doing personal projects where students individually or in groups look up information on the Internet or in science books to produce a short work on a topic they choose. Common subjects are dinosaurs, an animal, natural phenomena like tsunamis, volcanos and hurricanes, a social problem like alcohol and tobacco consumption, and so on. The production of these pieces of work are usually referred to as "project work" although most of the time they are limited to a few text pages with pictures and illustrations downloaded from the Internet. The situation in secondary school is not much better - sometimes even worse.

When teachers want to offer "real science" and scientific experiences to their students they go to the museum of natural history and science once or twice a year where expert animators take over. Subjects range from fossils to robotics, and from astronomy to chemistry. Most of the time, the teacher's activity is reduced to accompanying their students during the bus trip to the external expert institution. They seem to act according to the principle: If you don't know something yourself, at least you should know where you can find it. Why not? If students have fun and learn, it is better to leave the job to someone who knows something about science, and who is passionate about it, than to try to teach something you don't master yourself, or something you are not interested in. But, back to school, the experience is soon forgotten and nobody seems to care a lot about that.

There are some obvious reasons why science isn't valued that much in Luxembourg. It could well be that the majority of elementary school teachers' interest in science is as low as their knowledge about science because they have experienced a school system where science wasn't valued. Then, there is the fact, that Luxembourgish language curriculum (with German, French and Luxembourgish) has such a high status, that there seems to be not much time left for science - and I don't expect this to change in the near future. Another characteristic of Luxembourgish elementary school is, that more and more teachers are female, which by "tradition" seem less interested in science. There's no doubt that this is a serious gender issue, but only few seem to care about it so far.

Recently some think, that science teaching should be taken more seriously. The reasons are obvious. The worldwide economic crisis has left its footprint on the Luxembourgish economy which, since the decline of the steel industry, is characterized by a low degree of differentiation and a high dependency on the financial sector.
A second cause has been the PISA-Test (Programme for International Student Assessment) where Luxembourg scored as low in science as in math. Finally, compared to its neighbours, Luxembourg has not enough young people choosing careers in science and engineering. Nowadays, where scientific literacy seems to be more important than ever, this turns out to be a serious issue.

So how could schools respond to this challenge? If teachers aren't passionate about science, forcing them to teach more of it will not necessarily bring the effect that stakeholders hope for. Bringing the students to science labs or museums once or twice a year doesn't seem to have that lasting effects either.

Maybe a new way to teach science would be to just leave most of the "teaching" to the students themselves. Even and sometimes due to the absence of direct instruction from teachers, students can learn by themselves and develop knowledge through experimentation, self-instruction and by peer-sharing knowledge.

For this to happen schools should provide time to students to investigate in scientific questions engaging in long-term open activities, room for experimentation, and some material.

Putting to much emphasize on factual knowledge which is often thought to be the same as scientific knowledge is definitely not the right way. Nor do I think that designing a new curriculum with prescribed topics, just to make sure that all important areas of science are covered makes much sense.

Teachers (and politicians) should have more confidence in children's will and potential to learn. Interventions from adults should not be invasive but marked by their interest in the ways children question the world and deal with challenging thoughts. Answers and solutions are not what they should expect from their students, neither should giving answers and quick solutions be expected from teachers. Their main contribution should be curiosity, dialogue, collaboration and awareness for possible networks between children and connections between fields of inquiry.

Of course, when questions get really challenging teachers should provide guidance to their students so that they - themselves - can get in touch with scientific experts. Such experts could then be invited to school, not to bring answers but to help scaffolding scientific thinking.

In my view, letting children take over science education would cause no more harm than letting teachers continue to teach science, as long as many of them don't know
It's fine with me if children do an experiment with baking sodan and vinegar to simulate an erupting volcano. But it's problematic if teachers rely on such a scientific experiment to demonstrate and explain volcanic activity - without questioning the experiment.

One last word on Wikipedia or the Internet in general as a source of information. I use both a lot myself, but I don't think that it's the place where students should begin their project work. Being able to find the "right" information is important but it's not equal to constructing knowledge or to thinking scientifically.

Title image source:

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain