Sunday, April 30, 2006

Teaching science, part deux.

Commenting on Teaching science, Matthew said:
While the physical sciences do not exist in a vacuum (I need help considering I instantly thought of the lack of air resistance in most experiments) the syllabus has removed a large amount of basic scientific content in order to introduce social aspects, which for the most part are irrelevant, such as Plancks and Einsteins differing views..., while being able to argue that is an important concept students aren't asked to argue it, they are told to discuss the viewpoints that two scientists had, one of which is probably the most well known and admired cousin marrying scientist around, it isn't impartial, it doesn't encourage critical thought on the subject but just more rote learning by those who are not interested and are just doing the physical sciences to get into law like their mummy and daddy wants them to.

I do agree with Matthew that, unfortunately, large tracts of purely scientific content has been downgraded in importance or removed altogether from the HSC science syllabuses. A finite period of time in which to teach the preliminary and HSC courses has meant to some things have had to suffer with the introduction of new content. That absence or diminshed focus has hurt, and is hurting, students with aspirations to higher education in the sciences by inadequately preparing them for tertiary study. Science education in secondary schools may have, in the past, been a means to getting students into university science courses, but I think there is a broader role for science education. Instead of focusing solely on those with science ability and prospects of going onto a science degree, there is a larger purpose to better educate greater society, albeit with a more generalised knowledge.

However, I wouldn't call the social aspects introduced into the course as irrelevant. Matthew's example of Planck versus Einstein with regards to the politicisation of science is, in my opinion, a valid issue for discussion in a year twelve physics class. Context is important in any study of history, and like the rest of human endeavour, science has a history. Granted, an understanding of the sociopolitical contexts that science develops within doesn't lead directly to encouraging critical thought, but surely it provides a basis for which critical thought can be developed. Rote learning, indeed, is a major obstacle to education and is the antithesis of deep-learning and critical thinking. In the next curriculum cycle, attention will need to be paid to that issue. Ideologically, however, I think we've only just started shifting that paradigm of education as the transmission of prescribed meaning.

Also it can quite easily be argued that the syllabus has been largely dumbed down by the introduction of simplified processes that are passed as factual or at least the current scientific understanding of a phenomenon, such as the Meissner effect which is discussed as an application of Lenz's law which fails to mention in the syllabus or requires to know in the syllabus that the Meissner effect will occur without a change in the relative velocity of the magnet and conductor because a penetrating magnetic field of a superconductor will decay on its own.

While various aspects can be taught using simplified models, indeed simplified models are required in nearly all aspects of education, teaching students wrong ideas about how stuff works (not knowing exactly how things works is better then thinking it works in a different way) is I believe detrimental especially when it isn't the current prevailing theory. But of course I do believe the fun of starting every sentence "A can be treated as B" or "A is currently thought to be caused by B".

It's a principle in constructivist education theories that students are best assisted in their construction of meaning and knowledge by means of scaffolding. Sure, simplified models may be giving students ideas which are slightly wrong about how things work to begin with, but at each stage of school education, those simplified models are refined and made more sophisticated (and more 'correct') as students develop their knowledge. Conveniently, some simplified models come from those which were once the generally accepted theories. That too, also provides insight into the development of theories and science in general.

Also, there are issues dealing with the cognitive development of students - depending on how far through stages of cognitive development he or she has progressed through, he or she may or may not be able to grasp particular scientific concepts. Usually as the student grows older and progresses through those stages, his or her ability to understand complex concepts increases. For example, according to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, a child under the age of seven years will not, generally, understand that a tall, narrow one-litre bottle contains the same amount of water than a shorter, wider one-litre bottle.

It makes sense then, for example, to introduce the model of an atom as a nucleus of protons and neutrons being orbited by point-charge-like electrons at a relatively early age. Then much later, students can use that knowledge, while technically wrong, to build a more sophisticated understanding of the ins and outs of particle physics: that electrons are not just particles-in-orbit but waves of energy, too (wave-particle duality); that protons and neutrons are made up of smaller, subatomic particles (quarks, gluons, et cetera); and that forces and interactions between those subatomic particles are mediated by other particles.

It is suprising that you think schools are made to impart critical citizenry when the schools themselves are some of the most authoritarian places in society. The teachers, in a position of power, are constructed to be in charge and obeyed without "backchat" or question. You have one socially authoritative group telling children to question authority then they get punished when they do.

I feel that, as schools are ostensibly agents of socialisation, it's a major reponsibility for schools to create a critical and healthily sceptical citizenry. I do recognise that in todays schools, students are being punished for questioning authority in one way or another. It could be argued that some of those students are barking up the smaller, wrong tree; that students are merely questioning the authority which maintains order in the classroom and the school, rather than questioning the greater authorities of knowledge and society.

But on Matthew's point as I interpret it, I think that authoritarian approaches to classroom order are on the way out. As the old guard retire from the ranks of teaching, those approaches which some of those retiring teachers practice will go into decline. In my education as a future teacher, I've noted that there is a shifting focus away from controlling the behaviours of individual students to orchestrating classroom activities; that order (as opposed to anarchy) is created through a wholistic approach rather than focusing on misbehaviour.

So yeah.

Listening to:
Title: Là Pour Ça
Artist: Nada Surf
Album/station: Let Go (2002)
Length: 3.17