Assessment Opinion

‘Soft Science’ & Less Certainty

By Deborah Meier — April 05, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Passing the playground at 77th and Amsterdam in 1995 I overheard a child in the sandbox say: “I have an idea!” with such enthusiasm that I stopped to watch and listen. Over the next few weeks I kept hearing variations on that delighted cry from my grandchildren. I decided it summed up what I’ve learned from years of parenting and teaching. Thus my first book was entitled, “The Power of Their Ideas.”

We seem to be born with a love for ideas and for exploring each idea in turn, over and over again. (Those who care for children are driven a bit crazy with the tenacity of “their ideas” at times.)

It was that thought that led me to read last Sunday’s New York Times op-ed: “Overcoming Physics Envy.” Authors Kevin Clarke and David Primo talk about our glorification of the hard sciences vs. the “soft” sciences and our troubling confusion about the nature of “theories.” This confusion is partially to blame for not recognizing the power of young children’s ideas.

What Clarke and Primo are suggesting is that there is more than one way—"hypothetico-deductivism"—to seek truth. It’s not, they argue, even the way all hard science works. But it is the way we dumb down “real” science for K-12 students, and thus confuse serious ideas as “just your opinion.”

Theories are like maps, the authors argue. They are “useful in helping us get somewhere.” “Rather than attempt to imitate the hard sciences, social scientists would be ... doing what they do best: thinking deeply about what prompts human beings to behave the way they do.” This includes gathering data—anecdotes, myths, and other such “soft” insights along with the so-called “hard” ones. It means including direct data, not just indirect test data which we hope “correlates” with reality.” It means acknowledging tradeoffs: Do life, liberty, and happiness sometimes clash?

Of course, this kind of “soft science” leads to less certainty. But less certainty where certainty doesn’t exist is a good thing. One reason we need to stick with even flawed forms of democracy is that there isn’t any flawless form! Every form of voting, for example, rests on a bias about whom and what is more important. Anyone studying the gerrymandering of districts in New York state notes that the latest plan makes it likely that a majority of voters will be “out-voted” by a minority when it comes to our state’s legislative bodies. Our Constitution rests on similar “gerrymandering"—some voters count more than others.

We dumb down young people’s education early by suggesting that in democracy it’s one vote for every one person—and then we reinforce this myth with elections or class president, favorite colors, etc., while also glorifying our Constitution, which had and has a different view. We run into this dilemma also when deciding what we mean by “public” in “public education.” Should it be the public at large? Or should it be weighted toward the community the school serves, and perhaps even the families the school directly serves or left to professionals? These cannot be resolved by science or the Constitution, although both can inform our (and the Supreme Court’s) decisions.

Democracy needs a K-12 schooling that constantly raises such issues, a place where students, teachers, and citizens at large explore complexity ... and try it out!

Some of my friends think a school is not democratic if students don’t have an equal vote in all decisions—starting with 5-year-olds. I think this is absurd. But, maybe it’s not a true/false, but a “trade-off” kind of decision. We don’t often expose students to the kind of thinking (aloud) that goes into real decision-making. Although that’s what education for democracy should be about. That’s what we adults can do for the young.

I’m just back from speaking at two wonderful events. The first was sponsored by WISE, a New York organization that helps schools create powerful senior year experiences, and the second was the annual meeting of the National Coalition for Campus Children’s Centers, which brings together the directors of two- and four-year college childcare centers. I didn’t know many of the people at either but ... I had many fascinating and provocative conversations. I was sponsored at the second (held in Austin, Texas) by Community Playthings, the makers of wooden blocks, et al. I’ve been their fan for 40 years (when they donated blocks to us). They are the product of a Christian communal group whose religious views hardly coincide with mine. But their view of childhood does. I find that a hopeful sign.

Especially painful was hearing from those responsible for early childhood about what’s happening on the ground. Every month they face a new state or federal mandate to do everything earlier, and more tests to see that (not “if”) it’s working! What we need is the soft research and longitudinal data on the impact of such hurried childhoods. What we don’t need are more indirect so-called scientific “tools” for seeing if we’re getting “there” (higher scores). Instead, we need to rethink “there,” which science alone—hard or soft—can’t decide.


P.S. This is not meant as a critique of physics! Just its dumbed-down misapplication.

P.S. No. 2. Wouldn’t it have been fun to be in the room when New York decided which words (they settled on 50) to ban from tests?

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.