Saturday, August 30, 2008

A MythBuster adds to the Education Myths

On the CuriousCat, MythBuster Adam Savage is quoted as having 3 Ways to Fix U.S. Science Education. While I applaud his willingness to get into the fray, I have to wonder if this isn't a prime example of how we got into this mess in the first place.

Take Adam Savage's well-meaning ideas ( I'll discuss them in a moment. ) and couple them with the head of Intel who calls for ed reform, STEM innovation. ( The headline continues: "Craig Barrett ralies (sic) educators at the 2008 Intel Developer Forum" ), blend in a healthy dose of NCLB and parents who KNOW how to teach because they homeschooled their 3rd grader, and mix in the local coroner/ policeman who thinks that forensics is cool and "why wouldn't you want to have kids investigating crimes?" What you invariably get is scientific mishmash and bad education.

None of these folks has actually looked at how kids learn material. None has had to be responsible for a kid knowing enough Biology to join the AP class the next year. None has the experience of guiding twenty-five 14-year-olds through a physical science course. From afar, education is easy. Every "new" idea hatched by these folks is "obviously workable" and a "great new idea" because these reformers are using vague memories of their own educations from 20, 30 or more years ago.

If these guys are so gung-ho on research abilities IN students, how about running some actual research ON students? Find out if "hands-on, get your hands dirty" science education is truly the best for all students, or some (and which ones), or none?

Instead of simply proclaiming an "obvious truth," Adam Savage could conduct experiments using proper methods (control groups, double blind, the works) and show THAT on MythBusters.

The head of Intel could order that all new hires be required to submit clear and accurate accounts of their educations, the teaching styles used, and grades earned, and then correlate the data with later success in the company. Of course, that sample would be extremely limited, but if the data would be interesting nonetheless.

The governors who spend less/more on education could insist their states do some actual comparisons between schools and teachers, between curriculae, between those schools who offer forensics or not, those who require 4 years of science to graduate and those who don't, those who lecture a lot and those who only do hands-on discovery, maybe even between those on a block schedule and those who aren't. Instead of bloviating about scores, how about finding out some possible reasons?

Again, Adam Savage:
1) Let students get their hands dirty.
It’s really difficult to absorb things just by being told about them—I know I don’t learn well that way. If students could get their hands dirty in science class they’d be more likely to internalize information. You can lecture about the surface tension of water, but it’s not as effective as conducting an experiment with a needle and a single beam balance. Jamie and I are in touch with a lot of teachers from industrial engineering programs, and one of them told us he thinks our show has helped shift the emphasis from the strictly theoretical to a more hands-on approach.

So Adam doesn't think he "learn(s) well that way." No offense, dude, but how do you know? Did you take the course twice and compare the results? Did you control for teacher quality and classroom setting? You think students are "more likely to internalize information" without any idea that it's true or not, or whether the information they internalize is correct. I think it's great to get in the lab. I don't think kids can discover in a couple of months what took the human race centuries to discover. They need to be taught. Sometimes hands-on isn't the best way to learn -
"students who were taught abstract math concepts fared better in experiments than those taught with real-world examples, such as story problems. Adding extraneous details makes it hard for students to extract the basic mathematical concepts and apply them to new problems. We're really making it difficult for students because we are distracting them from the underlying math," said Jennifer Kaminski, a research scientist at Ohio State University. (from reuters).

Does this apply to science, too? I think it does. The real world is messy. Students have a hard time understanding the nugget of information in the mass of data. You also get erroneous interpretations - reasonable ones are the hardest to correct later. It's not fair to expect that students can deal with all of these mistakes and internalize what we consider necessary for a good scientific education. Remember the old ideas of the flight of a cannonball, developed in the "lab" over centuries? The flight was assumed to be nearly straight, then dropping off suddenly. It wasn't until recently that it was matched to a parabolic curve.

Experiments should be used to confirm teaching, not used as a substitute for it.

2. Yes, spend more money on science.

Spend money, yes. Waste money on "show-off" technology, no. The chemistry lab needs equipment but doesn't need to replace everything to buy the latest electronic whizmo and gizmo. Get your sensors and CBL equipment, but just the ones you need for teaching the classes you have.

Get reasonable equipment. You don't need a DNA analyzer in each school. If this $25,000 piece of equipment is at all important to the teaching of AP Biology, the state should be buying it and making it available for every school within 50 miles. Scheduling as opposed to budgeting. What's the ROI on that analyzer? A small part of the school year of one course for 30 AP Biology students - most of whom passed the AP test. That piece of equipment was "bragging rights" more than educationally necessary.

3. Celebrate mistakes.
A good scientist will tell you that being wrong can be just as interesting as being right. The same holds for our show.

Sorry, Adam. These aren't good scientists or engineers. Some of them might actually want to become such, but many would rather ignore science and be a mechanic or a DJ or a snowboarder. They're kids with parental pressure, adolescent and social pressure, college and academic pressure. They're learning how to drive. They're learning what kind of a student they are and how to balance work, school, sports, dating, and all the other things that get in the way.

Why shouldn't we simply teach?

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