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Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as If Science Were Tennis, We Wouldn't Know Love


If Science Were Tennis, We Wouldn't Know Love

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Only a small fraction of Americans like science. Lots of people like tennis. But how many tennis players would there be in the United States if tennis lessons were a series of lectures and fragmented simulations followed by multiple-choice exams over tennis content like, "Who won Wimbledon in 1966?" and, "What are the dimensions of the court?" Who could imagine enduring more than a decade's worth of such lessons before being allowed to actually play the game? If tennis were taught like science, the pool of budding tennis players would gradually dwindle to just a few who persist all the way to game time. By that point, whatever they might lack in court savvy, these tennis academics would certainly be walking encyclopedias of the game. Many might end up with faculty positions at tennis schools--teaching the game just as they learned it.

If tennis were science, most people would view it as a boring compendium of facts that appeals only to eccentric weirdos dressed in white. Remote lobes of everyday folks' brains would house sequestered tennis facts to be called upon for answering sports questions on "Jeopardy." If tennis were taught like science, a majority of us would possess dangerous misconceptions and incomplete pictures of something we should all be playing. We might know some rules, and we could recall some names, but we still wouldn't know love about the game.

As things currently exist, only the players know science as a game--an immensely exciting and competitive team sport--with special rules and a rich history that define the field. But science has evolved to require Herculean stamina for absorbing nearly half a life's worth of indoctrination in those rules and history before finally getting a chance to play, perhaps as early as graduate school. That's rare company--about 1 percent of the population--who actually suit up for science. The majority of Americans associate science with endless terminology and a parade of historic players of renown--mostly deceased Europeans. Of course, the size of textbooks, the length of lectures, indeed, the duration of embryonic development to be a scientist, have mushroomed to include the same knowledge that has so irreversibly changed our ways of communication, leisure, transportation, health, and entertainment.

But therein lies the rub: Too many Americans are distancing themselves from the science behind nearly every aspect of their lives at the very time when we all need to employ the logic and thought processes of the game of science in making decisions about an increasingly complex future. If only science were more accessible. Then everyone could get a taste, play a set or match of it, engage in enough real science to know what it's like and to transfer some of that skill to other aspects of life. But to change the collective science experience requires a change first in the teachers.

Most science teachers have never played the game of science. If this were tennis, they'd be a crop of instructors who fell just short of stepping onto the court--progressing as far as racquet grip, notable players, and court dimensions, before being turned loose to tell everyone else how things are done in the world of tennis. An undergraduate degree in science is merely a culmination of 17 years of seat time learning the language (and arguably not learning it well). Science teachers don't stay in the pipeline long enough to actually play authentic science. Their limited vision of the game consists of 50-minute laboratories that end up verifying the facts as shared by the real players who teach as they were taught, even though instructors themselves know full well the misrepresentation they're committing.

Budding science teachers need to play real science early and often in the course of their preparation. Their undergraduate professors should invite teachers-to-be onto the court for some lobs and volleys, where rules and strategies arise within a context of real science. And since the science-teaching profession can ill afford to advance one retirement at a time, the slew of science coaches already promulgating the rules in high schools across the country also need experience at the game they recruit for, but do not know. To prepare science teachers who accurately represent science to their own future charges, science-teacher schooling must include authentic research--long-term, novel problems, relevant questions, messy data, crunched numbers, and meaningful lessons. Teachers teach the way they were taught, and teachers taught science through doing science will represent it as a way of knowing things instead of a litany of things known.

Kids taught science by playing it understand the nature of the game. They know what it is and is not, what it can do and cannot do. And they know better how to govern without choking or spoiling it. They know that evolution isn't competing with creation, and that astronomy is different from astrology. They learn a way of thinking that counters prejudice and superstition. Learning science by playing the game invites every child to participate and leads more players toward the professional ranks. Knowing how to play real science enables its future governors to make rational decisions about health care, energy, ecology, family.

But here's where the metaphor crumbles: Poor tennis pedagogy would only lead to parking lots where tennis courts once stood. If poor science pedagogy persists, impuissance will fill a void where ideas once flourished.

Jeffrey Weld is an assistant professor of science education in the college of education at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla.

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Page 50

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