There are recurring concepts in the current science education initiatives.
How we learn
What we teach
How we teach
How we know what works
The emphasis in science education used to be the production of scientists; now it is science for all. We need citizens who are scientifically literate to staff the jobs of the future and make wise, informed decisions in everyday life and for our nation's well being. We need citizens who can function well in a world of increasing technology; we need people who can think in scientific ways. One place we can start doing this is public school.
To reach all children in school, we have some catching up to do, and that means increasing participation from underrepresented groups. There are various approaches - making sure all children have truly equal chances seems to help. So do role models drawn from the underrepresented groups. (Note, please, that children are perfectly capable of using someone who doesn't look like them as a role model - but when they see nobody who looks like them, they may be more readily discouraged.)
I once thought that a clear explanation was the most important component for learning to take place. If I could only explain something in the right way, the person I was trying to teach would understand. I was wrong.
We're not empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge. We make our own (mental) models of the world based on our experiences. We don't always get it right, but a model can be quite workable without being 'right'. (Think of a geocentric model of the Universe - unless you work with spacecraft, it's probably good enough for your everyday practical purposes.) If we have a working model, though, we're not likely to discard it just because we see something that doesn't fit - we're more likely to ignore what doesn't fit. The existing ideas that hamper further learning have been called "misconceptions", "naive notions", "preconceptions", and probably a lot of other things. I find the word "preconceptions" the least offensive when I discover them in myself (see first paragraph).
So . . . to get people to learn, it is first helpful to determine what they already think. It also helps to get them to be aware of what they think - and then (if their working model is incomplete) challenge the model without attacking the person. Easier said than done, but not so difficult with practice.
Oh -- if you need a word for this school of thought that says people make their own internal models and understanding, it's constructivism. It goes hand in hand with a de-emphasis on vocabulary - first address the concepts, and give the words only when they're needed. It's too easy to think that if you know the definition of a word, you understand the concept -- and that can block further learning.
We value understanding over rote learning (such as pure definitions). Along similar lines, we want to convey that science is a process, much more than a body of knowledge. To give students experience with the process, we generally have to sacrifice some of the (rather overwhelming quantity of) information. That's not so bad -- if they miss some of the knowledge, they can always figure it out or look it up . . . if we make sure they can figure it out, or understand what they've looked up. This is where the phrase "less is more" comes in. It's rather cliche, but useful, because it's so easy (I really mean "tempting") to teach and test information. It's much harder to go for understanding and attitude, but those are vital.
There's one caution: if the process is the important part, then we have to be willing to let people play with "wrong" ideas. For me, this has meant training myself not to give answers or judgements. That's hard, especially when people start talking about pseudoscience. The neat thing is, though, if I concentrate on "how could we know for sure?", people start coming up with their own tests, and mostly get themselves back on what I'd consider solid ground. And they know how to get there again, if they get thrown off. Patience and restrain pay off.
Common themes and patterns, and the connections between traditionally isolated subjects are also important. The more we connect what we're teaching to what a student has already learned, the stronger the new knowledge is, and the more we teach students how to learn. Students need to encounter many different science topics, and see their connections, throughout their years of learning. Some concepts depend on others, or on skills that may come with maturity (such as the ability to project one's point of view), so it's best to teach those aspects of a subject that students are ready to understand -- it may not be possible to have complete understanding at a given stage.
People learn in different ways -- different senses, different organizational patterns, different analogies. The first challenge is providing experiences that reach different ways of learning. Hands-on activities, ones that get students actively involved rather than passively reading or listening, are a good start.
There's more, though. Activity without clear purpose (in the mind of the student) isn't as useful as it could be. I certainly recall enough recipe-style labs that didn't work, but from which I was nevertheless supposed to draw valid conclusions. Do you have similar memories? What if we'd been permitted to draw conclusions actually based on our results, even if it disagreed with the book? What if we then, as a class, compared all our results and tried to reconcile any differences? What if we were allowed to redesign the labs and work them again, pursuing answers to the questions we came up with? . . . it probably wouldn't have taught us all the material we were supposed to learn, but it might have taught us about how science actually works. Plus, we would have had to think, and experiment purposefully (well, I would have). This quality of deliberateness is sometimes labelled "minds-on".
It's so easy to get carried away with plans and good ideas and fun that sometimes, when scientists get involved with science education, we forget to be scientists. Theories need to be tested. We need to assess the results of our efforts. This doesn't mean grading the kids -- it means grading our efforts, and changing our approach based on the results. We don't have to wait for the final results, though: the best time to assess a program is while it's happening. Well, actually, it helps to measure before starting, since we don't always get to use a control group. Plus, looking into a problem before trying to solve it sometimes causes one to redefine the problem. Once started, measuring along the way lets us adjust as we go, and that's usually best when our intent is to make a difference rather than to make a study. Measuring again at the end (and maybe a while after it's all over, to look for lasting change or surprises) gives us a further opportunity to learn.
This can be challenging for those of us used to testing theories of the physical Universe. Working with human beings changes the rules. It's tempting to try to use familiar methods and look for statistical significance (and indeed, we do ultimately hope for changes broad enough to measure statistically), but that's not usually a good place to start. If we start there, we end up with multiple choice exams that measure factual knowledge or memorization or test-taking skill. With people, and especially when the goals are understanding and attitudes, it's much more complicated. We have to use many different techniques -- sometimes qualitative evaluations are the closest we can get to measuring what we're trying to achieve, and that can be hard to get used to, or even to use in a relatively unbiased a manner. Fortunately, there's are professional evaluators who make their living assessing the success of programs and other efforts.
Unfortunately, not all our efforts are at a level where we can hire someone. Assessment is still important, even on a small scale. It can sometimes be done as part of the process. If I'm using a lamp and hand-held styrofoam balls to teach moon phases, and partway through I ask them to model First Quarter, I can tell by what they do (and what questions they ask) whether they're ready to go on or not. Sometimes accomplishment of a stage of an activity can be a quick evaluation of understanding. There are other methods suitable for minor efforts: I've started classes by asking the group to describe the Solar System -- to find out their initial ideas before teaching that the Solar System is a dynamic, changing, happenin' sorta place. Sometimes they surprise me. Listening to questions at the end can also give feedback on how I was successful (or what I need to work on). Bigger projects mean that more effort (a similar fraction) should go into evaluation.
Although I said this was about assessing the program, not the student, we do sometimes need to assess the students individually. In that situation, too, it's important to assess what you value. Evaluate what you're trying to teach, not just what you can measure easily. Children learn fast to believe tests and gear their learning to succeed at them. Give them valid ways to measure their own progress at the things you're trying to teach -- understanding, attitude, the process of science, the ability to reason and to find information, as well as a moderate level of factual knowledge. This lets the students take responsibility for their own learning, which supports them in constructing their own understanding and models.
Assess opportunity, too. If a student is working from a disadvantaged position, that should be part of the evaluation. If a program has many resources or is geared toward "gifted" students, that should be part of the evaluation.
One recurring disadvantage is working in a vacuum. It's easy to give up with the first failure when working alone. A teacher who works for active learning in a classroom but then gets reprimanding for failure to keep discipline (this really happens) is not supported. A scientist who brings the learning of their institution to classrooms or the public but is evaluated only on their research is not supported. The scientist might be able to help the teacher by involving the principal. The teacher might be able to help the scientist by informing the science institution of the value of the scientist's educational work. A scientist can help a museum get up-to-date information. A museum can help interpret up-to-date information in ways nonscientists will enjoy and understand. A government agency can put money into infrastructure so that we're working together and making our efforts count for more. We can each contribute the things we're best at, if we work with and support those with complementary needs and skills.
We are a community. We are seeking scientific literacy in our community, for our common future. We must support each other; we can do more together than separately. We are all accountable.
Go (back) to the Astronomer's Education Notebook, or Elizabeth Roettger's Homepage.
Created 14 March 1995, last revised 15 June 1997by Elizabeth E. Roettger, email@example.com