Saturday, October 20 , 2018, 5:01 am | Fair 56º


Victor Dominocielo: Why We Must Restructure Our Science Curriculum

Mathematics is, inherently, the perfectly sequenced curriculum. Basic numerical skills must be mastered before moving on to the next level of complexity.  

If one cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide, it is impossible to do algebra, geometry, calculus, etc.  So, mathematics has this rational, logical progression which cannot be supplanted by curriculum fads; teacher, parent or administrative fancy or federally funded programs.  

Four aspects of teaching mathematics should be noted:

» Basic mathematical skills are continuously used and reinforced during all subsequent higher mathematical instruction.

» Math instruction uses mistakes made to instruct until concepts are learned.

» The four basic math skills are pervasive in all aspects of our everyday life.

» Few students will become PhD mathematicians.

The same could be said for some non-science subjects.

English instruction must be carefully sequenced to build upon what has gone before: vocabulary, reading ability, basic sentence and paragraph composition must take place before reading Shakespeare.  

The basic skills of vocabulary, reading and writing are prioritized and focused upon at every level of instruction just as in the study of mathematics.

Other school subjects may not be as dependent upon and tied to strict sequencing. For example, one can study American history before or after Greek and Roman history.  

In science instruction, the curriculum has been hijacked out of its natural learning sequence by driving younger and younger students toward overspecialization, a high pressure learning environment and a narrow focusing on only one single aspect of scientific methodology: experimentation.  

We have been led to believe that experimentation is the ultimate basic skill of science. It is not.  

What are the most basic skills of science that should be emphasized every day in every science class? I suggest that the rigorous examination of evidence, including understanding the tool used to collect, analyze and interpret that evidence (the brain), are the most basic skills of science.  

All schools and all school subjects are seeing a drive toward overspecialization at younger and younger ages. The rationale is that if a certain depth of learning can occur in college, maybe then it can be pushed down to seniors in high school.  

Then if it can be pushed down to high schoolers, maybe it will work in junior high, and so on down the line. Intertwined with this phenomena, is a high pressure learning environment which is driven by a, “We can always do more; we can always do better” rationale.  

This overspecialized, high pressure learning environment is well documented in the award winning film, “Race to Nowhere."

Every educator I know will acknowledge the detrimental aspects of the “Race To Nowhere,” and then some will, within the next minute, espouse the, “We can always do more; we can always do better” philosophy.  

It may take teachers a while to hear the incompatibility of these two ideas and change their classroom teaching styles. “Replace the race” is the new buzz-phrase.

This high stress/high pressure environment is also apparent in athletics. Elementary and Junior High coaches observe this drive toward over specialization and over-focus at younger and younger ages.  

The cost to our student athletes is high in burnout at younger ages and repeat injuries that become chronic and negate wonderful high school and college athletic experiences.  

Regarding the science curriculum, the problem is an over focus on experimentation to the detriment of the rigorous examination of evidence. Very few science students will go on to professional science careers in which they perform experimental research; however, every single science student will be asked to evaluate evidence continuously, on a daily, even hourly basis throughout their entire lives.  

From grocery shopping (buying anything), renting an apartment, cooking a meal, considering work related variables, school social situations or to listening to family and friends, the evaluation of evidence is one of the most important aspects of our lives and the most basic skill of science.  

And…we are terrible at it.

Our science curriculum produces graduates who believe in alien visitation, Sasquatch, ghosts and telepathy. Some are conspiracy theorists; they think that “remote viewing” is a scientific skill and that magnets, copper pyramids and holographic bracelets will combine with nano vibrations to channel unseen “energy” to heal whatever ails you.

The adults who promote this nonsense and fall for these scams were once our students. We taught them everything they know about how to examine the world scientifically…and we failed them.  

Every one of these people graduated from elementary, middle and high school science programs. They took our tests and passed our science courses. They met the State requirements and the Federal No Child Left Behind or Common Core requirements. They did experiment after experiment.

They became good “cookbook” lab rats and lab technicians, and then when the first unexplained event happened in their lives, they immediately abandoned science and went to psychic, supernatural or “new age” fringe explanations.  

We failed to teach our former students how to think scientifically about everyday life. We failed to teach them what is a simple, basic prescription about questions to ask, how to examine evidence and how their perceptions and their pattern-forming brain can be fooled.  

We made them do experiment after experiment but didn’t teach them to use the basic skills of scientific investigation with every breath they take in their everyday lives.

Science is not about learning how to do an experiment. Science is about thinking and reasoning in a certain way. Just like mathematics is about reasoning, philosophy is about reasoning, history is about reasoning and intelligence is about reasoning.

Why this focus on experimentation?  

Historically, lack of experimentation is the main reason why science was a disjointed, mostly individual pursuit over the course of our civilization.

The ancients relied on philosophy, “natural philosophy,” logic and reason to know and understand their world. They didn’t bother to experiment because their philosophy led them directly to “knowledge” for thousands of years.  

As we began to understand the process for discovering the natural forces at work in our world (i.e. scientific methodology), teachers naturally embraced and even over-emphasized experimentation at every level of science instruction to make up for millennia of lack of experimentation. But experimentation is still not a basic skill of science.

Having students focus on laboratory skills and experimentation at younger and younger ages produces specialists who don’t know how to question seemingly incompatible observations in their everyday lives. 

This tendency in schools and the drive by teachers and parents to “always do more; always do better” and to make every student a “real scientist” by sixth grade has been a failure.

Experimentation became the be-all, end-all, must-do-all, hands-on splinter skill.  

Sacrificed on the altar of “laboratory experimentation” was the rich history, development and the how-and-why of scientific thinking in everyday life that is scientific literacy.

 “It is possible for a student to accumulate a fairly sizable science knowledge base without learning how to properly distinguish between reputable science and pseudoscience, write Walker, Hoekstra, Vogel in “Science Education Is No Guarantee of Skepticism.” 

College professors frequently lament that college level science students do not arrive with basic science skills. College students can do college level science work because they’ve been practicing college level experimentation in junior high and senior high school, when they should have been focusing on the rigorous examination of evidence.

They’re good in the lab, they can do experiment after experiment, but they're not so good about experimental rationale, interpreting scientific results or examining the quality of evidence produced.  

Of course, evaluating evidence can be done as part of every scientific experiment, but the skill of evaluating evidence must be emphasized in all aspects of everyday life, not just formal laboratory experiments.  

Science instruction and sequencing should follow the mathematical template:

» Use and reinforce basic scientific skills (question, analyze, interpret and evaluate evidence) at every level of instruction.  

» Use scientific mistakes throughout history to highlight scientific development.

» Show how basic scientific thinking and methodology is pervasive in everyday life.

» Few students will become PhD experimental research scientists, so focus on basic skills.

Considering the above four points, every science class can be two courses: the specific subject (biology, chemistry, physics, health, etc), which includes experimentation, plus a scientific methodology and investigation course or unit.

Gradually, over a few years, science teachers could develop a continuous thread of instruction incorporating the following:

1.  The history of their branch of science, mistakes made and how eventually corrected

2.  Everyday scientific investigation: What ideas, events, products and processes claim to be scientific but are not (psychics, aliens, crop circles, anti-aging scams, miracle weight loss, etc)?

3.  How our pattern forming brain works and can be tricked, video analyze some simple magic tricks, (students at every level, even adults love to learn how they can be distracted and fooled by simple magic tricks)

4.   Simple questions that highlight scientific thinking and methodology such as the following:

  • » What is the exact source of the information?  
  • » Does the source have a vested interest in the information?
  • » Does the research suggest a preliminary association or a causal relationship?
  • » What explanation has the most scientific evidence?
  • » What explanation makes the fewest assumptions (Occam’s Razor)?  That is, what’s the more likely explanation?
  • » Can the claim be disproved by gathering evidence? (Could someone falsify the information?).
  • » Does the explanation use scientific jargon to confuse rather than to clarify?  
  • » Have scientific experiments failed to disprove the claim?  
  • » Is the evidence positive?

5.  Does the information have a mechanism that conforms to the basic operations of physics, chemistry and biology? Reikian energy, psychic clairvoyance, dowsing, chi, yin, yang and drinkable sunscreen are all immaterial belief concepts without scientific mechanisms.

These are just a few of the areas and some of the sample questions that can be asked in any science course that examines scientific methodology and investigation in everyday life.  

There is a great deal of excellent material on this subject: the works of astronomer Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World", mathematician Martin Gardner's "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science" and science historian, Professor Michael Shermer "Why People Believe Strange Things" and "The Believing Brain," to name but a few.

As we start our new school year, I hope all teachers will consider the detrimental effects of the “Race to Nowhere,” and I hope all our science teachers will incorporate the rigorous examination of evidence in all aspects of life into their courses.  

Our science students will be the better for it.

— Victor Dominocielo, M.A., a California-credentialed teacher for 38 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local school. He earned his master of arts degree in education from UCSB. The opinions expressed are his own.

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