On Science Education

by Michael Rossman

        I read recently that California has, in the nine branches of its state university system, precisely 47 students preparing to be science teachers in secondary education. Another 117 are in training in the huge state college system. The total's not much for a state with 22 million people. It's about one-third the number needed to replace those retiring this year from the high-schools and junior highs, in which fewer students have been learning less science each year for quite some time.

        Nation-wide, only one in five are being replaced. Many observers see money as the basic problem, since a bent for science and a master's degree can start you at twice a secondary teacher's salary in almost any other field. Few have the wit or heart to talk about the deeper problem of how we have quit caring for our children, and for teaching as a vital way of caring for them.

        Breast-beating over science education has begun again, and brow-beating too. The statistics emerge as a national disgrace: we graduate only 8% engineers as against 22% for nasty Russia, 40% for clever Japan. Comparisons of how many study science in secondary school, and how much they study, show us falling as far behind. Oh dear, what shall we do? Science education is ripe for identification as a national disaster area, a prime candidate for massive remedial programs vital to the "reindustrialization" of America, if ever Reagan stops savaging the national budget.

        Yet how curious these sad statistics seem, when measured against the booming circulation figures of OMNI and Scientific American! Such figures and a host of other signs show that public interest in science has been steadily increasing, and is perhaps greater now than ever before in our lifetimes. What can one make of this paradox?

        Of course, some of the interest is professional: business falls behind if it doesn't keep abreast. But much more is simply personal and romantic. For science's inquiry into the world's mystery is an ongoing romance with wonder still in these days of plate tectonics, genetic script, and space flight, despite whatever else be true about Three Mile Island and technology's corruptions. And it hath power to charm whatever mind be not sealed to it by mistaken scars.

        Something like this must explain the nature of most of the public interest. For the people I see reading science articles or watching the TV specials do so with the rapt wonder of children, reconnected to an enjoyment which most had long ago renounced as a specialty for others to pursue. Many are aware that their schooling helped them renounce it, well before they chose their own directions. "I wish I'd taken more science," they say; and think of taking a course now, but who has time?

        Something vital has been severed, almost at the root; yet it persists. And thus the paradox, of adults hungry for a learning denied them as children, yet still starving the children. More than simple economic logic, it's this sense that our children should have a nourishment we have not had, that will power public support for the re-emphasis of science education when it comes. The sense is noble. It is also dumb and blind, and will support whatever's offered in whatever terms, having no terms of its own.

        Likely, the thrust of what's offered will be more of the same: computer literacy and an update of the "new math", biology's reformulation for the Genetic Age, ecological perspectives if we're lucky. Likely. the only coherent goals will be to increase America's percentage of technically-trained graduates, and to prepare the rest to punch high-tech buttons. Likely, it will be successful in its own terms, which are potent and not to be scorned.

        Nonetheless, its success will be a disaster, of a sort we are so accustomed to already that we scarcely have terms to discuss it.

[Teaching Science to the Young]

        Myself, I work closer to the root, having taught science part-time for a decade in an alternative school. Following my son and his classmates from pre-school through the sixth grade has given me much pleasure, and a rough-hewn perspective on the subject -- a rare perspective, unfortunately, since school systems rarely assign special resources and people to teach science in elementary school, reserving the action for grades 7-12.

        Nor do they invite "uncredentialed" people to teach regularly, whatever their grounding and passion for a subject. Public schools aren't organized to permit this, it's just inconceivable, and anyway, teacher cutbacks and unionization make it impossible. I'm lucky to have found a school to take me as I am, a place to reconnect the passions I followed through graduate school till I left for other fields. In these recent years, led back to science through helping my son learn, his school has become my school too, in which I've been learning to be a teacher.

        What I've learned to teach is somewhat idiosyncratic, since I don't follow a standardized curriculum but go from one thing to another from year to year as my interests and the children’s and occasions move. I do come back often to favorite and basic ground: how the body works, the transmutations of energy, life through the microscope. But even in organized units there's always time to dissect a choice piece of roadside carrion, or go into how Mt. St. Helena erupted.

        What I teach can't be very sophisticated, since the oldest are barely up to kitchen chemistry, while what the 3-to-6 year olds absorb might as well be called "nature study," as indeed it all is. Still, I try to give understandings as deep as I know, or to help them grow. By now I've accumulated a good assortment of low-budget props, a seal's skull and a dozen secondhand microscopes and what-all; and the kids bring in whatever they find too to help as we consider the world together, time the ice-cube as it melts.

        Though I'm sometimes grumpy, the children forgive this for the charged delights I bring, of inquiry into blood, excrement, explosions, sexual parts, rot and slimy pond-muck, poisons and suffocation, all marvelous in nature. I do think often about where we're going, but I don't much keep track of what we've covered. I might teach more effectively if I covered a balanced and systematic curriculum. But the children, who never get graded on anything, do so well on the standardized achievement tests, topping even their other scores, that I suppose we must be covering enough of whatever can be measured to get by.

        For what I teach is not in the particulars of curriculum, but is something of a different sort, harder to measure. In these early years before culture and institutional processes have so divided science from other aspects of life, I try to teach that science is natural to us, that it is natural to see with scientific eyes too almost everything in the world.

        Nothing fancy, not much more than this. I do it mainly by becoming as a child myself, rich now with technical details and tools to adorn the basic thrust of concentrated interest and delight. As we fondle snake and fossil and the morning's surprise mushroom, notice a cloud or someone's bruise, wonder why the tape on the solar housing peeled this time, what I teach remains always the same.

        I teach that each place we cast our attention is worthy of attention, each pebble and leaf and odd trick of light is a door to wonder (and oh yes, sometimes to use), a story open to whoever wants to see and know. I teach that it's a natural act to really pay attention to what we encounter and behold -- sometimes by simply absorbing, sometimes by prying with our hands and minds, always with marvel at how everything connects how deeply, world without end.

        It's an easy curriculum even without microscopes, since everything's grist for the mill. For the true subject is not the world, but how to be a person in it. And how else could a person be, than to notice what's what, like the texture of bread, and wonder why? Children find this natural if you catch them early enough, before they've been taught that noticing what and wondering why and finding out are special activities reserved for a special sort of people.

        Most children have a natural appetite for the ways of learning that we later call "science". The appetite grows if it's fed and fades if it's starved. Children engaged with people who notice and wonder and find out tend to learn to do likewise. This learning begins at home, as early as language does. But in most homes it goes on much less than it might, because most parents have themselves lacked encouragement at home and in school to develop their own capacities and habits of noticing, wondering, and finding out. This holds for early schooling too, for most teachers have little more preparation or confidence in these regards than most parents do. Thus starvation breeds starvation, and we turn the problem over later to specialists to fix if they can, knowing no other way to handle it.

[Science as an Art]

        Our educational system treats the matter as if science were something out there to be learned, something "objective," beyond the self. Well, the world may be so, but science itself is not. Science is a human attitude and posture, a way of knowing. What passes for "science education" in schools and even in college concentrates on teaching students about what and how other people have seen and known. Only incidentally, and rather by accident, does it teach students how to see and know by themselves -- how to bring forth these capacities within themselves, as an attitude and way independent of any particular subject or discipline, that applies broadly and naturally to the world.

        Indeed, there's reason to suspect that ordinary "science education" inhibits the development of natural scientific capacities. Observers remark on the sharp difference between children's art here and in "underdeveloped" countries. Bombarded by media, children in our land tend quickly to abandon their own unique ways of trying to express what they see and feel, and turn instead to imitating the stereotyped images offered everywhere as proper. Most "lose interest" in art early, largely through frustration at being unable to imitate them well enough. By comparison "underdeveloped" children's art remains wildly inventive, and their interest more persistent.

        This might be irrelevant, if the essence of science were simply to arrive at images of the world stripped of all eccentricities of personal vision and meant merely to be imitated. Yet the creative thrust of science, as opposed to its mechanical advance in opened ground, is an art and proceeds as an art, mainly through the work of people so loosely fettered by stereotyped images of what's what and why that their quirky personal capacities for fresh vision have persisted.

        Our standard way of handling such a truth is to segregate it -- e.g. by developing special courses in metaphor or poetry for some of the "scientifically gifted", hoping to free a few more key imaginations at late stages in their learning. Yet if creative imagination is the vital spark of science, it may be so not only at the live outer edge where this activity encounters the world, but also at the live inner edge where each person encounters this activity. If so, we might better try to universalize the spark -- to fan it not just belatedly in a small elite but early in every one's experience, hoping to kindle modestly in many the fire of a direct connection in science, rather than leave almost all to indirect connection through "appreciation" of the world-images it produces.

        Something better would be served by treating children as if the spark of scientific imagination were in each in their own way, requiring a tending and a maturation as individual as those of any artist. We should worry less about how early children's ways of seeing scientifically can be brought into precise imitative accord with the ways and images that state textbook and curricular committees, aided by panels of distinguished scientist-educators, have decided should be normative; and should concern ourselves more with helping them develop ways of seeing in the first place. Once a child has a way, it can be instructed, or "corrected" if you will. But to force one too early to try to imitate the normative images and ways courts the same kind of early frustration ("loss of interest"), and the same stunting of native capacities, that our children experience with art.

[Science Education as a Technology]

        Such thoughts suggest a fundamental reconception and reconstruction of early (and later) science education. Some of its principles are neither mysterious nor untried, but are well-known. Teachers who work intensively with "discovery methods," leading students through repeated cycles of observation, hypothesis, and experiment, find that most children enjoy this purposeful play and grasp science differently through it. Many display fertile and often penetrating imaginations, not only in explanatory hypothesis but in experiment design and critique.

        What keeps us from developing such ways further with more children is in part custom's sloth and superstition, in part practicality. Truly to help a child to develop a personal way of vision and then to connect it constructively with our shared vision -- this is a long-drawn work, a labor-intensive craft. Its principles may be simple and general, but its practice must be custom-fitted to each individual case. This could be done. But the truth is that we have neither the perspective nor the human resources necessary to work this way with many children; nor the will to develop these. Though such practice might deeply reform the general citizenry's relation with science, and multiply the imaginative workers at science's edges, it's just not cost-effective in the short run. Mass-production methods are easier and cheaper than hand-crafted custom work, more familiar, and seemingly more dependable.

        We know well how to codify what we know and present it to people who will present it systematically to students, covering stereotyped common ground in stereotyped sequences at stereotyped paces, in an industrial practice whose only claim to "personalization" is that its levels of learning are pitched to a stereotyped age-specific sequence of cognitive development. We know well how to induce children early to abandon their slow, inefficient, quirky ways of construing the world, and to absorb instead our codified vision and methods as received truth, to be memorized and repeated so that we can test the efficiency of our teaching what we know how to teach.

        What we don't know is any other way to conceive the very issue and enterprise of science education; or how to recognize and mobilize the talents and energies in teachers, students, and society that might support another way. Our way is mechanical, exterior, "objective," quantifiable, like the image of science it works to inculcate. Something deeper than intention is at work in this: it is the lock of paradigm, a closed loop of assumption and mechanism supporting the assumption.

        Most of what's written and taught about science education presents it as a straightforward technology shaped in the image of its product. In each class or course, the knowledge to be taught has a certain structure -- a set of related principles and practices making sense of a body of information -- which is generally conceived and presented in as linear a form as possible, mainly because it's easier to conceive and present this way. Teaching then becomes a process conducting students linearly through a linear journey, in each stage applying approximately the same techniques to convey the aliquot of information, the segment of structure, and to test the result. Thus teaching becomes a routinizable and reproducible technology: "Students are ready to learn thus-and-so at this stage. This follows that; these ideas in this order explain those; those examples and activities will help them grasp this." The resulting view of science education seems both natural and complete; it is like our image of science itself.

         Yet the true shape of a science in a human mind is not an abstract linear skeleton but a gestalt of many dimensions, connected more complexly than we can describe, and structured with reference to the unique living being that it inhabits -- which is to say, pivoted partly on idiosyncratic images and experiences, colored and weighted by personal capacities and style. So it is for a science in society: the logical action is propped up here by corporate fiscal support, heated there by current cultural passions of imagination, stunted elsewhere by stagnation in a related field. And so it is too for the learning of science, an activity as richly subjective, non-linear, and trans-logical as its subject really is, whether or not our instructional technology can measure and mechanize these qualities.

        Still our practices work, in their way; the students learn whatever they do learn. We are dismayed that so much of their learning is so shallow, that so many forget so quickly what they managed to memorize for the test. We sense that their inner connection with the spirit of science has withered or never sprouted, but do not connect this with the way they've learned that "science learning" is the task of absorbing what's been codified. We see only that for most the task becomes an increasingly-demanding duty rather than a developing pleasure to engage; and that most grow glad to escape it as soon as they can, encouraged to believe that further "specialization" in the subject will not be "necessary to their careers." We ascribe the attrition to lack of scientific talent, rarely wondering what factors other than genetic might produce this lack or remedy it. And we accept all this -- the shallowness of learning, the scarcity of talent -- as being in the nature of the human material, rather than the nature of our methods.

        Little in this analysis is peculiar to science education. Similar things hold for our teaching of writing, art, social studies and citizenship, and other subjects -- for this pattern is a feature of our educational system as a whole rather than of any part. But the pattern is more developed in science education than in other subjects, because the sciences appear to be the most readily codifiable and mechanizable learnings by virtue of their apparent "objectivity" and logical structure, these qualities so easily mistaken for the whole.

[Science Learning as Craft]

        In speaking so of science as an art, I may seem to scorn 99% of its action, all its painstaking, tedious, clever routines. But isn't every art this way? There is the flash of vision, most often incomplete; and then the stretching of the canvas, a brush-stroke, another, a thousand more, considered and formed one-by-one, with many perhaps redone, until the vision deepens and completes itself in one form, only to lead on towards another. Who is an artist, without the patience so to bring the image to earth in tangible detail, without pride and pleasure in the craft and its routines? The opposition I too express above, between science's creative thrust and its mechanical progress, is an illusion, or rather an artifact of culture. The true activity is integral, imagination and the craft of its working-out. But we have divided industrial society, and have industrialized science itself, so that only a few generate new vision, leaving a small corps to work on the routines of its support and implications, a larger to develop its applications, and all the rest of us outside the action to use the results, a bit gingerly.

        Still it's natural, if the flash of vision is experienced as one's own, to want to learn the craft of its confirmation, the further brushstrokes that make it of use, doing and re-doing until one gets it right. Nor is this integral art a mystery to teach, for its occasions are legion in common experience. Barefooting it in spring, the children stick to the crosswalk lines, so much cooler than the asphalt; guess dark colors must trap more sun-heat; confirm this by experiment with a rainbow of fabrics; measure how much more with a thermometer; paint a glass black to boil water in; find it doesn't boil; use a glass lid; find it's hotter but still won't boil; set up three mirrors to multiply the light; and make the teacher's tea. What a sense of quiet power and delight, of satisfaction in the quest -- the question resolved, the act completed, and in it the actors too! How much more fun to actually be a scientist, than only to read about it and do the problems with the answers in the back!

        Such experiences teach more about the nature of science itself than about the structure of any particular science -- though we've hardly begun to explore how well their more sophisticated use might teach the structures of specific fields. Still, it's impossible to cover a balanced and comprehensive curriculum this way, even in umpteen years. One must survey the breadth of science rather than experience it. Yet this view is different in kind, if seen from a perspective grounded in experience that encourages an imaginative identification, both cognitive and deeper, with the whole. We think of this sense of identification as professional, the badge of an elite. Yet it is now fundamental to citizenship; for without it how can we be fully participant in, rather than subject to, a society so moved by science as ours has be come?

        Our alienation from science can only be transformed by making everyone a scientist, in a sense transcending the profession-bound meaning of this term. Our present educational system has no program for this broad enfranchisement. If one ever develops, its vital focus will be in integral experience of the sort I sketch. As for its breadth, most "good" science students know how readily one can go through a standard survey or sequential course in a science, if the motivation's there and one has developed the ability to grasp coherent structures. We must presume that something of the sort holds for "ordinary" people too, in appropriate degree; for few lack the ability to become good science students in their own ways. Once having climbed a mountain, one's appetite for mountain-climbing tales grows.

[Demystifying Scientific Method]

        Meanwhile, an effort to revitalize science education is pending. Given our habitual perspectives, its most profound purpose will be "to familiarize students with the principles and techniques of scientific inquiry" -- i.e. to address the surface of this deeper project of vision and imaginative identification. Still, it's a step in the right direction. But I wonder whether it will be in the right spirit. For I've never really understood our pompous mystification of the idea of Scientific Method, or known what use it serves -- except to convince people that they can't understand what they might, and to mystify science itself.

        Tracing N. cutaneus antebrachii dorsalis down the arm on the anatomy chart with my fifth-graders, we chant the trippy syllables aloud to make the feel of this lingo familiar. I tell them it means literally "the front branch of the skin nerve on the top side", and ask them to think about why they make up secret code-words for their clubs. They are not too young to grasp the historical dynamic of obfuscation, the function esoteric languages play in preserving the mystery and power of closed craft-guilds. To explain this is part of explaining the human meaning of such technical terms, and they listen avidly. But how can they grasp what we've done to ourselves through our reification of Scientific Method, or what deeper function it serves?

        For really, what's so mysterious about the Method? You observe, you play around to see what happens, you speculate; you experiment to test your ideas against each other and the facts; you try to keep track of what matters, to see what is rather than what you want or expect to be, to make sense of your results in ways that others can confirm. That's the basic action, and one must call it natural and intuitive, for it begins well before you watch Mommy put a pot on the fire, which you know is HOT, and stick your finger in the water to see if it indeed is getting HOT.

        In time, the action grows more conscious and sophisticated. You observe statistical deviations, smash nucleii together to see what happens, deduce black holes from general relativity. You learn to appreciate the experiment with fewer variables, the one posed clearly to decide between mutually-exclusive lines of thought, the one confirming the new prediction. You learn to recognize more of what matters, to keep track more methodically to more decimals; to recognize the limitations of your methods and tools, the effects of your interventions; to record what can be confirmed, and to confirm others as you would be confirmed.

        So goes the Method of High Science. But how does it differ from what you do when the old car develops a new rumble and you keep track of the speeds it appears at, check the tires for indirect evidence of worn alignment, think it might be the crank, change to heavy oil, think the rumble's gone, find it back and erratic, realize belatedly that it's worst on rough roads, figure that the U-joint might be going, jack the car up, find the joint does wiggle some, and take your data and diagnosis to the mechanic to confirm?

        Alas, such an example may seem indeed as mysterious as nuclear physics to most people. If so, it's because we have mystified not only science and technology but the ordinary modes of thought that are their substrate, the methods that apply throughout our common experience with the material world. Leaving more and more to specialists of this sort and that, we abandon also our own occasions for growth in general skills, and some wholer sense of engagement and empowerment in the world than even our own specialties grant us.

[Here, Not There]

        Such ideas as these about science education arise naturally from working with young children, in that fluid era of learning before the lines dividing one subject from another, interest from avoidance, and talent from its lack have been made firm. I follow them through as best I can in 90 minutes a week with each class. That's 43 seconds per child per day -- even in an alternative school, the mandate and budget for teaching elementary science don't stretch very far -- but it does make a difference even in what shows up on the tests, and in the heart and spirit as well.

        Perhaps I've grown simple-minded from working so long with the young, to imagine that those dividing lines might remain undrawn in later life too, opening us all to enfranchisement in science as in all else. I don't know how to get from here to there, how to make a whole of this beginning. Merely to give every elementary student 43 seconds a day would take more new full-time science teachers than we employ already in secondary schools (and are failing to replace.) To use part-time community resources instead would require not only 400,000 people like myself to work in schools one day a week, but a small revolution in our ideas of "job" and "professional career," and our sense of what is good for ourselves as well as for the children.

         And to give more than 43 seconds a day, to "enrich" secondary and higher science education also, to "enrich" all the other vital subjects in which our children learn so little of what they might . . . well, who's counting? It would take only a third of the military budget to do the job right. But money's not the basic problem, nor pedagogy, but rather what we value, how we care.

        So I work on, or rather play, at what seems natural to me, still thrilled to hear the children cry out "Michael's here!" each week. Though I don't much care how many will grow up to be Scientists, I suppose industrial society will find them enriched raw material for its specialist slots. I'm sure they'll get more than their share of the scholarships due as new funds flow into science education. Already Apple's knocking at 50,000 school doors with a free tax-write-off computer, and soon the improved software will follow, promising great multiplications of pedagogic resources and all the "individualized instruction" that students need and aren't getting. But when it arrives you'll still find us on our knees in a puddle in the warm Spring sun, watching the water-fleas hunt the bacteria who graze on the algae that grow on the mud, and wondering about those pretty bubbles.


Published as "Why Kids Fail to Learn Science" in Learning 12:2, Sept. 1983.

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