More Teachers, Smaller Classes: Are These Our First Priority?

Gauging Cultural Literacy in an Age of 'Isms' and Curricular Neglect

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Who invented the light bulb? 1. Thomas Jefferson; 2. Benjamin Franklin; 3. Thomas Edison; 4. Albert Einstein. Answer: Any of the above, according to American 5th graders. This essay is not a new twist on an old joke. Rather, I use the results of a small piece of research I did in January to document our students' stunning scientific illiteracy. The educational culprit is not class size. As the directors of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study comment in recent newspaper reports of American students' poor showing, their low achievement in science and mathematics is more likely due to the absence of demanding academic standards, substantive curriculum content, and well-trained math and science teachers in K-12.

Once upon a time, most American schoolchildren studied important inventors, scientists, and discoverers of the past several hundred years. They used to read about them in their social studies classes, in a biography series that I can still see standing on a shelf in the school or public library, or in their reading instructional textbooks. For example, the now-defunct grade 4 Lippincott reader sold from 1965 to 1971 contained selections about Louis Pasteur, Sir Alexander Fleming, and the Wright Brothers. Moreover, according to regular surveys of children's reading interests throughout the 20th century, both boys and girls have always enjoyed reading about the achievements of such people as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charles Lindbergh. Students were probably not told whether these inventors, scientists, and discoverers were also wretched fathers, adulterers, brutal to their employees, on the wrong side of certain political issues, jealous of their rivals, or hungry for fame or money. Their achievements were what educators used to think mattered, even if almost all of them were white males. Stories about their technological or scientific breakthroughs also gave students models of intellectual curiosity, patience, hard work, perseverance, and risk-taking.

Yet, as I have found from other research in the past two years, selections about famous inventors, scientists, and discoverers have almost completely disappeared from our leading reading textbooks for grades 4, 5, and 6. As a result, I was interested to find out how Massachusetts 5th graders responded to an open-ended question about inventors on a statewide pilot test in reading in November. The question was: "If you could travel back in time, what inventor would you like to meet and why? If you do not know the name of the inventor, you may write about the invention." With permission from the state department of education, I spent a day examining 788 of the 3,450 responses to this question. As I read through these 788 papers, my reactions alternated between absolute amazement and total dismay. The problem is not that our students know so little, it is that they "know" so much that is wrong and are so confident about the anti-knowledge they have "personally constructed," to use current educationese. Here is one outstanding example. This 5th grader began with a promising opening sentence: "Eli Whitney was the inventor of the Cottin Gin." But what followed that sentence reflected touches of various "isms" now shaping school curricula. "I think she was black," the student continued. "In social studies we learned a little about her. I do not remember her though. I'm not into inventors so I don't know of any. Well I do kind of know that Ben Franklin invented the light bulb. But that's all." Note that except for "Cottin," the spelling was perfect, the sentences were complete, and they were punctuated.

What were the overall results for the 788 papers I examined? Only 55 percent of the students (430) could name someone I was willing to classify as an "inventor." Another 32 percent (248) could only name an "invention," another concept I had to interpret charitably, while another 11 percent could not name anyone or anything that could be construed as an invention. About 3 percent named such non-inventors as Nelson Mandela, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, John Travolta, "Teddy" Roosevelt, and Mark Twain (the last two were also identified as inventors of the "light bulb").

It is possible to find some solace in the fact that 31 percent of those designating an inventor (131 students) identified Ben Franklin, while 22 percent (96 students) identified Thomas Edison, 8 percent (36 students) identified Alexander Graham Bell, 5 percent (20 students) identified the Wright Brothers, and 4 percent (16 students) identified Henry Ford. Their names have not totally disappeared from common knowledge. But advocates of cultural literacy have no cause for even mild cheer; most students think Franklin invented electricity! More than a few students are curious to know how he invented "lightning." Only a very few of these 10- and 11-year-olds understand that Franklin invented the lightning rod, not electricity or lightning. Ford's achievements are also misunderstood. Most of the students who identified Ford as an inventor believe he invented the "car"; only a handful mentioned the "assembly line." And although Edison is almost always associated with "electricity" too, and most often with the light bulb, some students believe he is the inventor of the flashlight, the telephone, or the VCR.

The "inventor" whose lifework has been transformed beyond belief by our students' exceptional ability to "construct their own knowledge" is Albert Einstein. That they have probably read almost nothing about him is suggested by the variegated spelling I found of both his first and last names: Albort Instine, Elabret Instine, Elbert Instin, or Albert Ainshtin are among the many examples of the creative spelling for which American students are now justly famous. The vast majority of the 69 students who see him as an inventor know that he was a "very smart person," possibly the "most intelligent person who had ever lived." Perhaps that is why they also tend to believe that he is the one who invented electricity.

The 'inventor' whose lifework has been transformed beyond belief by our students' exceptional ability to 'construct their own knowledge' is Albert Einstein.

Some also believe that Einstein "made a holder for the light bulb," did "drawings" in his book that are "similar to inventions we have today like a car, helicoptor, and bike," "painted the Mona Lisa," "wrote backwards," and invented the "plane," "the Franklin stove," "gravity," the "telephone," the "phonograph," "TV," and even the "Morse code." The student who thinks that Einstein is responsible for the Morse code concluded his paper with the apt remark that "Albert Einstein still doesn't get enough credit for all that he did for mankind."

Yes, a few students (a very few) did associate Einstein with his lifework. One wrote that he had invented the "Adam bomb" and "E=mc square." Another that he was an "inventor of theories," an exceptional response. Yet another that he "invented atomic energy." Only one was able to set forth in a clear sentence that Einstein had created a "theory of relativity," but this student also believed that he had invented electricity as well. Only a handful of Einstein's 69 admirers explicitly labeled him a scientist.

A number of Einstein's admirers are upset with his indifference to his appearance, some pointing out that he "should have goten a haircut sooner." But there was something touching in this particular group of papers. Although most of them are poorly written, the writers almost all expressed a respect for intelligence and knowledge, wishing they knew more themselves. They would like to meet him "because I want to get smarter," "to ask how he gets all of his great ideas," "because maybe he could make me smarter," "because it would be very nice to meet someone who is inteigent," "to be as smart as him," and "because he was very intellengent he should have been the President."

One of the most poorly written papers was for that very reason one of the most poignant. This 5th grader wanted to meet "eleven Istine so he could teech me things I never knew he could teech about sceinz. He could teech me bout chmastray. then he could teech me about other things to. He knew everything their was not one thing he didn't know. He showed some people things that they never knew. That is why I like evelen Istine. He was very smart." In yearning for knowledge and to be taught, are these students telling us something?

Because of the intensive effort now under way to provide girls with role models in science and mathematics, I must say that I expected to find a few women mentioned--Marie Curie, in particular. I was startled to find only one woman mentioned in all 788 papers I read. And it was Ruth Wakefield, the "inventor" of "chocolate chip cookies."

I have spent many minutes pondering the implications of that finding and have come up with a hypothesis. Perhaps elementary school curriculum specialists have decided not to teach boys and girls anything about the great scientific discoveries and technological inventions that have shaped modern life, rather than expose them to what these specialists apparently see as a Pandora's box of almost all white males and a negative model for "diverse" student bodies. The few students who mentioned doing a research report on a famous inventor in grade 4 were able to name an authentic inventor and could explain accurately what that inventor invented. Unfortunately, this curricular vacuum has left our students' minds vulnerable to pollution by TV commercials, movies, and the icons on their computers. It has also left them scientifically illiterate.

To judge from these papers, 5th graders seem unable to distinguish natural phenomena, such as electricity, lightning, thunder, fire, sunlight, dinosaurs, or gravity, from an "invention" and from an understanding or use of these natural phenomena. Indeed, a few students approached the concept of "invention" with a distinctly supernatural or metaphysical perspective. One wanted to find out who had created "light." Another wanted to know who had created "dinosaurs." Yet another was interested in the inventor of "life." Perhaps the most majestic image of an "invention" was offered by the student who identified God as an inventor because "God had created heaven and earth." It was not clear from her paper, however, that she wanted to go back in time to meet the Supreme Inventor.

These 5th graders also seem unable to distinguish inventions from discoveries and inventors from discoverers or scientists when a distinction is fairly clear. Nor, with a couple of exceptions, do students seem able to identify as scientists those few scientists they chose to write about, for example, Albert Einstein, Werner von Braun, Richard "Finman," George Washington Carver, Galileo, and Von Leeuwenhoek. Leonardo da Vinci was explicitly labeled as a scientist (and as an "inventor" and "artist," too, in a few papers), but only by two of the 11 students who chose to write about him. That he was mentioned at all (and merged with Einstein by many students) is undoubtedly due to the exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston last year.

I found it a bit heartening that even if their construction of knowledge was inconsistent with the facts, many students could still derive a character lesson from the life (they largely made up) of the "inventor" they identified. As one student wrote, "The famous inventor Albert Einstein had an interesting life and was very smart. When people didn't buy his telephone or his early recorder, he kept on trying to make it work." Another Einstein fan, who believes that "Albort saved us from bumping into walls at night," concluded her paean by noting that "Albort Instine is a great person because he never gave up and always did his best."

An ardent admirer of Thomas Edison wrote: "Smart, black inventor Thomas Edison patented many things. Two things he patented was one the phonograph, and second the light bulb. Many people liked Thomas even though he was black. He patented the light bulb in the late 1800s. He would stay in his room without eating or drinking for days under candlelight until he made something marvoulous, extraordinary, or something he would become famous for. ... Thomas Edison was hard working and he never quit. ... " I suppose some might ask whether it makes a difference (to anything but the truth) if the inventor who serves as a model of inspiration and perseverance is an invented one.

Can the state of scientific and technological knowledge revealed by these 788 5th graders be generalized to all 5th graders in Massachusetts and to students elsewhere? Probably yes; these students were part of a large, stratified, and randomly selected sample of 5th graders throughout the state for this test. And there is no reason to believe that school curricula in Massachusetts are that different from those in the other 49 states--or worse. With a debased culture outside the schools and a growing intellectual vacuum inside the schools, we cannot expect an improvement in student achievement in science until our educational priorities include more substantive science curricula, more demanding state science standards, and better-trained science teachers in K-12.

Vol. 17, Issue 29, Pages 48, 72

Published in Print: April 1, 1998, as More Teachers, Smaller Classes: Are These Our First Priority?
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Web Resources
  • From the American Association for the Advancement of Science, read about Project 2061, which aims to forge a K-12 curriculum from the science literacy goals for high school graduates.
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