Published Online: August 31, 2009
Published in Print: September 2, 2009, as Learning Science vs. Doing Science

Commentary

Learning Science vs. Doing Science

Why the Texas State Standards Won't Do

The state of Texas has developed a new set of standards for elementary, middle, and high school science education. ("Retooled Texas Standards Raise Unease Among Science Groups," April 8, 2009.) Always a controversial undertaking because of the issue of the theory of natural selection and its evolutionary consequences, the Texas board sought to approach the task by drawing on contemporary ideas that the study of science should examine both the strengths and limitations of science.

Much of the comment about the standards has focused on a requirement to “analyze and evaluate a variety of fossil types, such as transitional fossils, proposed transitional fossils” (italics added), and so on. Texas’ detractors have rightly pointed out that it is not the function of school science education to engage in the discussion of speculative evidence. School science, after all, deals in well-established, consensually-agreed-upon knowledge.

Much less comment has involved the assumptions implicit in the statement that a student should:

In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.

At first sight, this seems noncontentious. After all, many leading science educators have maintained that students should have the opportunity to engage in argumentation to explore not only what we know but how we know. The value of argumentation comes not just from opening a window into a discursive practice, which lies at the core of science. There is, in addition, a considerable body of evidence showing that a student who knows why the wrong idea is wrong has a much more secure knowledge than the student who solely knows why the right idea is right.

The capability to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations is one of the primary skills required of the scientist, not the high school student of science.

So what objection could possibly be raised to such a statement? Basically, it makes the fundamental and ever-present mistake of confusing the learning of science with the doing of science. The two are not one and the same. Science education seeks to offer students an understanding and vision of a body of knowledge that is beyond question, the methods by which that knowledge has been obtained, and why it provides the best explanations we have of the material world. Some might add, myself included, that it should also attempt to show why this knowledge represents an enormous cultural achievement.

Science, in contrast, seeks to establish new knowledge. Failing to distinguish between the two is to make a category error, and is the same as arguing that the only way to learn music is by engaging in performance. Just as there are many people who love music who have never so much as laid a hand on a recorder, there are many who can come to know and value science without engaging in the doing of science.

This is not to say that the process of learning science is not enriched by engaging in scientific inquiry. But the capability to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations is one of the primary skills required of the scientist, not the high school student of science. After all, the stock in trade of the school classroom is knowledge that has been placed beyond doubt. No school student is going to be able to seriously critique Newton’s Laws, the conservation of matter, or the atomic theory—or, for that matter, the theory of natural selection. They simply do not have the knowledge or the intellectual skills to engage sufficiently critically with the evidence in a manner that would be productive.


The political intent is evident. There is only one theory that the supporters of this view wish to see analyzed and critiqued. But given that adult supporters of creationism and intelligent design (who presumably do fully understand the nature of the evidence) have been unable to mount a scientifically defensible critique of Darwin’s theory, and given that the tenets of Darwin’s theory are now consensually agreed upon by the overwhelming majority of life scientists, Darwin’s place on the school science curriculum is justified because it meets two fundamental criteria.

First, it is a “big idea”—one that dominates and frames the discipline. For the life sciences, anyone who does not understand its major principles and tenets would be as illiterate as someone studying English who has never heard of Shakespeare. Second, within the scientific community it is not up for discussion. And, as it lies beyond criticism, it is hard to see what value any attempt to evaluate critically the evidence and logical reasoning on which it rests would serve. This is especially true when the main body of evidence to support the basic premises of evolutionary theory—those provided by molecular and developmental biology—are glaringly omitted from this new specification.

This does not mean that the study of scientific argument has no role in science. The consideration of common-sense but erroneous ideas—that day and night are caused by a moving sun, that plants get their “food” from the soil, and so forth—is vital if such pervasive beliefs are to be undone and students are to be shown why the evidence supports the canonical scientific explanation. Moreover, exploring the evidence for believing in entities such as protons, neutrons, DNA, and other “imagined” objects is vital if the teaching of science is to transcend mere dogma, where belief is dependent solely on the authority of the teacher.

Above all else, science is the epitome of a rational activity. Undoubtedly, it sometimes fails to meet the high moral standards it sets for itself. But offering students insights into the evidence for the many strange beliefs we ask them to accept—that we live at the bottom of a sea of air, that there is force of gravity in space, and that you look like your parents because every cell carries a chemically coded message of how to reproduce itself—is vital if science is to convince its neophyte audience that it is both to be valued and valuable.

So often education founders because we lack a sense of clarity of the goals. Texas would do well to remember this message before the state’s flawed thinking spreads further confusion to the teaching of science in its schools.

Vol. 29, Issue 02, Pages 26-27

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