TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

The Real Key to Fixing Science Education

Science education is a frequent topic in the news these days. This past Wednesday, Microsoft announced a campaign to improve math and science education in the Seattle area. According to Brad Smith, a senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft: “We’re very concerned about the possibility that our kids are falling behind in areas like math and science.”

As well they should be. Study after study shows that the average American student has an abysmal level of scientific knowledge. And as we witness greater and greater demand for strong math and science skills—and the thinking abilities that math and science foster—a poor background in science is a greater handicap than ever.

Many smart, wealthy, and well-meaning people are attacking the problem of science education. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic about their chances of success.

Why? Because, from what I have seen, they are not getting to the core of the problem. They are trying to improve science education with a combination of money, computer programs, motivational speeches, and exciting field trips—but without changing the fundamental flaw of almost all science education today.

Consider this example from a newspaper story on Microsoft’s initiative:

“One idea being floated is to have Microsoft employees volunteer to meet with kids to explain how they use math on the job, such as in developing the Xbox videogame player. If kids can see real-world applications for the advanced math skills they’ll learn in school, it can get them more enthused about the subject, Smith said.”

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with showing students the modern, practical applications of math and science. But does anyone really believe that kids talking to Xbox engineers will do anything significant to alleviate the mass boredom that exists in math and science classes around the nation?

Students around the nation are ignorant and bored with science because most science education goes against the most crucial principle of education: the hierarchy of knowledge. In brief, the hierarchy of knowledge is the fact more abstract knowledge, such as Newton’s laws, depends on less abstract knowledge, such as Galileo’s discoveries.

But consider how most of us were taught Newton’s laws.

As I write in my essay, “The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education“:

“If your education was typical, the teacher came into class one morning, stood at the board, and declared that Newton identified three laws of motion—which you dutifully wrote down and later committed to memory. No context had been established for these discoveries. No information had been given as to what earlier observations and theories were made by other great scientists, what further discoveries were made by Newton, and how Newton’s incomparable genius enabled him to integrate all this information into three fundamental, universal laws governing the behavior of every object in the universe.

“Pick up any grade school science textbook and you will see the same problem. Page one usually displays in vivid color a diagram of the structure of an atom. The chapter tells the students that an atom is a tiny unit of matter, that it has a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons, that the nucleus is surrounded by electrons, and so on. The question that such books make no attempt to answer is: Why should a child believe this drawing any more than he believes the Saturday morning cartoons? He has never seen an atom, or a nucleus, or an electron; he has not been told how scientists discovered the existence and properties of this thing that cannot be seen; nor can he possibly understand the implications of the existence or nature of atoms. Thus, all of the material stands as meaningless gibberish he has been asked to accept on faith.

“The vast majority of today’s science teachers simply do not understand what it means to learn. They do not understand that there is a necessary order to learning, and that adhering strictly to this order is the only way to ensure that the student has a clear, independent grasp of the material. Today’s teachers seem more concerned with enabling their students to parrot impressive-sounding words than they are with fostering their ability to think. That is why a high school chemistry teacher of Kira, one of my former students, said the following when he began a section on quantum theory: ‘This material is far too complex for any of you to really understand—but don’t worry, we’ll only spend a few days on it.

“Such ‘teaching’ is a betrayal of the purpose of education, which is to give children the essential knowledge and cognitive powers necessary to be independent, productive, happy adults. In terms of content, to the extent that the hierarchy of knowledge is violated in students’ education, they learn nothing of the material they are being taught; they learn only to repeat what they are told. In terms of method, to the extent that the principle is violated, students fail to learn what it really means to come to know something; this is replaced with the deadly lesson that knowledge of complex, abstract scientific issues is gained by parroting the words of an authority.

“If students are to be truly knowledgeable about and excited about science, they must be taught by teachers who recognize that there is a necessary order to the formation of the concepts and generalizations that a students learns throughout his education. An abstract idea—whether a concept, generalization, principle, or theory—should never be taught to a child unless he has already grasped those ideas that necessarily precede it in the hierarchy, all the way down to the perceptual level.

“Visitors to VanDamme Academy often comment on the total engagement of the students. It is typical for every student in the class to be completely attentive and actively involved in class discussion. The fundamental reason for our students’ excitement is that we teach students knowledge in a sequence that allows them to gain a real, deep understanding of it; they grasp its connection to reality and its importance in human life.

Several months ago, I gave a lecture to the parents at my school about the hiearchy of knowledge—and how it is the most neglected issue in education. If you’re concerned about the state of modern education in general, and science education in particular, I highly recommend that you listen to this lecture. I am making it available free, in three parts, on our school’s website.

If you are interested in gaining a real knowledge of the scientific principles that animate the wondrous world we live in—or if you wish to help a junior high, high school, or college student gain that knowledge—there is no better source than VanDamme Academy’s “Introduction to Physical Science” course by David Harriman.

Rather than putting into my own words why this course is so valuable for just about anyone, let me quote a review I recently came across, by Andrew Layman of StrongBrains.com, who happens to also be a Product Unit Manager at Microsoft.

“These wonderful lectures, recorded before an audience of students just learning science and mathematics, teach the critical ideas in man’s knowledge of the physical world by starting at the beginning of science and showing each step by which more was learned, what evidence and reasoning validated the new knowledge and how each step built on and extended prior knowledge into wider integrations. I was a physics major when I entered college, yet I can easily say that my actual understanding of physics is much greater as a result of this course than I can credit to any other class I’ve taken—in large measure because I now have a clear grasp of what the physical theories actually refer to and, thus, why they are correct. (ages 13 to 16)”

This is what it means to have a real science education. Nothing less—for our children and ourselves—will do.

Posted in: Education and Pedagogy

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