I’m currently reading the last book published by famed astronomer and science advocate Carl Sagan, “Billions & Billions“; it is a bittersweet experience, not only because Sagan passed away in 1996, but also because many of the problems he discusses have worsened in the nearly 15 years since the book’s publication. Environmental pollution, global climate change, and the unnecessary conflict of religious and scientific worldviews continue to permeate world affairs, and it seems as if the United States has made little headway in establishing the widespread understanding of math and science needed to alleviate these problems. In the nation’s schools, where progress might be made most easily, American students rank in the bottom third of learners from industrialized countries.
Ironically, the way science is traditionally taught has little scientific backing. As Grover Whitehurst, former director of the Institute of Education Sciences (a government think tank for education), explains, “You could pick up an education journal and read pieces that reflected on the human condition and that involved interpretations by the authors on what was going on in schools. It was more like the work a historian might do than what a social scientist might do.” The concept of “learning styles,” for example, spread largely on qualitative or anecdotal reports rather than quantitative data. Most studies of learning style fail to include controls in which students are taught with a style they do not prefer, and even properly conducted studies tend to conclude that style has little effect.
The rote memorization of theories, facts, and formulae comprises a large portion of instruction time in math and science classrooms. Yet the past 20 years of research support an entirely different approach, one based on experiencing concepts rather than learning them by heart. In response to this work, a coalition of state governments and educators has produced the Next Generation Science Standards, a framework for science education in grades K-12. Educators should place their focus “on the core ideas—not necessarily the facts that are associated with them. The facts and details are important evidence, but not the sole focus of instruction.” One approach recommended by the standards is the use of modeling: instead of being shown a diagram of the water cycle, students might construct a diorama with a lamp for evaporation and a plastic lid on which water could condense.
Technology in the classroom is also a hot topic among educators, but the research warns against expecting gadgetry to act as a cure-all for student engagement. Students without access to technology want it to become available, but beyond a certain point, interactivity and a sense of a learning community become more important. Teachers risk disengaging their classrooms if technology is merely used to upgrade the efficiency of traditonal, top-down models of education. A report by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explains that if students use technology to explore their own interests, as mediated by their peers and mentors, it becomes a much more effective learning tool. An educational system that frees the curiosity and inventiveness of students has the best chance of producing a generation ready to tackle the heady scientific problems of our time.