Over the holiday break I finally had a chance to read something that’s been sitting on my desktop for months: Lockhart’s Lament, an essay by the mathematician and teacher Paul Lockhart about the abysmal state of math education (he has also written a longer book version). If you haven’t read it, definitely check it out- it’s extremely thought-provoking and challenges a lot of assumptions about mathematics and education in general.
In his essay, Lockhart makes a lot of sweeping claims that may sound downright sacrilegious out of context: Standards? Get rid of them! Lesson plans? Planning to fail! Schools of education? A “crock”! But there’s a method to his madness, he makes a very convincing argument by cutting right to the quick of the debate: the point of math education itself. Lockhart rejects outright the common assumptions that students need to learn the standard math canon for use in everyday life (when’s the last time you used your school math skills to do something that required more than a calculator?), and he counters that advanced study should be relegated to the university level. In place of the standard math canon, he advocates for students learning by doing math as a mathematician would, puzzling things out for themselves and putting aside rote algorithms and standard notation for creative thinking and a sense of playfulness.
As a science teacher, I can’t speak to whether or not he’s right about math education (although you can read some interesting reactions from math folks here). But reading his essay did keep me coming back to science education to see if his criticisms also applied here… was science education in the same dire straits? My mind is still reeling from the implications, but here’s the first Lockhart-inspired thought I’ve been chewing on:
Scientific literacy: One of the fundamental assumptions of most science educators is that scientific knowledge is important whether or not students go on to work in a scientific field. The idea is that all people should have a certain level of “scientific literacy” so they can make informed decisions on issues that require some scientific understanding (think global warming, genetically modified food, vaccines, etc.). Lockhart argues (for math) that the current standard curriculum isn’t really adapted to this kind of purpose in the first case, and if we were serious about teaching students something useful for every day life it would require major changes. On that last point I have to agree with him in science as well- while I make an effort as a science teacher to show students how the subjects were learning apply to their real life, this idea of usefulness is obviously not the driving force, it’s more of an afterthought. What gives? Should the curriculum be changed to reflect the true importance of the goal of scientific literacy, or is it just weaker secondary justification for science education?
Interestingly enough, in a recent job interview I had for a Middle School science teacher position, a similar question came up: What’s the point of Middle School science education? I had already explained my belief that elementary science was all about establishing fundamental concepts and learning the skills of thinking like a scientist, and I had already conceded the truth that students don’t retain much factual knowledge from grade school anyway, so I had to stop and actually think during the interview (isn’t it funny how uncomfortable actual thinking on the spot is??). What I came down to was the idea that Middle School science would build on those elementary science fundamentals to teach students how science (and of course I also include in this the process of scientific thinking) really is useful and omnipresent in everyday life. After all, if every citizen had the equivalent of a good Middle School science understanding, we’d probably be in better shape than we are now, right?
So I can’t concede dismissing the value of scientific literacy, but I do agree that the standard science canon needs some serious reshaping in order to truly provide students with useful understanding for their everyday lives. Instead of teaching the subject first and then looking for applications afterward, why not start with the useful context and have that lead us to the necessary science? This reminds me a lot of the way Dan Myer approaches math problems: starting with the real-life context, and then having students add math as needed. I think this same approach would be effective to entire units of study.
I’m looking forward to digging into this next year in Middle School, so if you’ve got examples of this from your own teaching, I’d love to hear from you. Also looking for inspiration? Here’s a cool example of this kind of course for high school science.