Sunday, March 28, 2010
Is it science that we teach?
No one would have believed that in the 21st century, we would still be teaching science in our schools using medieval methods and ways of thinking. Can we afford it?
Science was, undoubtedly, amongst the most important drivers to have led humankind out of the dark ages, through the age of enlightenment into our modern days. In its early days, science teaching – part of the religious discipline – involved the memorisation and analysis of the sacred texts: the earth was the centre of the universe, and the speed of falling bodies was proportional to their weight: the heavier a body was, the faster it fell. The truth was in the books, and for over 900 years, there could be no questioning, even when this truth didn’t match the observed world.
All this changed in the 15th century, when at great peril, scientists and philosophers started rebelling against the dogma, shaping our modern view. The sun became the centre of our world. The rotation of the earth became the reason for day and night, and in his renowned experiment, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) dropped two bodies of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and demonstrated that bodies fall at the same speed, regardless of their weight. This was indisputable proof that the ancient dogma was fundamentally mistaken, and modern science, based on observation, experimentation and questioning, had emerged.
However, in our schools nowadays, although we may teach ‘correct’ scientific facts, the fundamental way of thinking remains pre-Galilean: the truth is in the books. We read that the sun is at the centre of our universe, but how many students can explain how we know this fact? Similarly, every physics student knows that the earth’s gravitational acceleration is 9.8 meter/sec2, but can they devise an experiment that demonstrates this figure? And what about the speed of light? Although it’s impractical to measure it in the classroom, can any of our students explain how this figure was derived?
Without scientific thinking, without the emphasis on questioning, doubting and observation, without understanding of the underlying assumptions, what is the difference between the medieval way of teaching and our own? Is it surprising, therefore, that many American students cannot tell the difference between science and pseudo-science? After all, without scientific thinking, science education is nothing but the memorization of facts and formulae from the books we choose to believe in.
For some, the need for science education is so obvious that questioning it makes no sense whatsoever. Many, on the other hand, see science as an intellectual luxury and prefer to focus on practical education, humanitarian studies or education for values. Whatever your viewpoint may be, some facts are indisputable:
First, scientific progress has been a prime contributor to the advancement of countries and the world. Just try to imagine the world without the telephone, the combustion engine or the computer. With increased economical globalization, manufacturing of technologies derived from scientific innovation is moved to low-cost countries, such as China or India. America can never become a cheap manufacturing country without losing its quality of life. It is the scientific innovation and intellectual value that will create sustainable value and help maintain our standard of living.
Second, scientific thinking uses and develops a comprehensive set of mental faculties: it teaches how to analyze data and facts, and to combine creative thinking with critical analysis. It trains students to be objective and concise, and never to accept common practices, but always strive for new and better ways. No other discipline develops such a wide range of mental skills. Isn’t that what education is all about?
If we teach science but ignore scientific thinking, we risk ending up with what the physics Nobel Prize laureates, Richard Feynman, described as self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything. Universities around the country have been reporting of an acute decrease in the quality of the students taking science. What does it mean for the scientific, technological, and economic future of America? Can we afford it?
In times new economic forces are rising, when America’s education is falling, can we really afford to neglect science, and the many benefits, including the scientific way of thinking, that come with it? By not opening this opportunity for our children, are we really doing the best for them and for the world they will inherit?