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Fighting The Science Dumb-Down

Glenn T. Seaborg is an eminent scientist – so eminent that he’s the only living person with an element named after him. But the state of California won’t let him help write science standards for its public schools. His problem? Taking the idea of standards too seriously.

Seaborg, 85, is what more trendy educators today would call an elitist. That is, he thinks schools should teach the difficult principles of science even if all students may not grasp them. He’s worried that if schools try too hard to make hard subjects fun, they’ll cheat the students out of essential knowledge.

He and two other Nobel laureates have joined with more than 30 other scientists and teachers to fight for rigorous goals in teaching science in California public schools. They’ve been treated with less than respect.

The state board set up to adopt science standards turned down their offer to write standards for free. The job went to a group made up mostly of teachers and education professors, at a cost of $178,000.

And one member of the state panel, Judy Codding, added insult to injury. “They wouldn’t know a classroom if you put it in front of them,” the Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying.

In fact, Seaborg and his colleagues, who call themselves, Associated Scientists, know plenty about classrooms and what make them work. Seaborg, a 1951 Nobel laureate in chemistry and still active in research, co-headed the panel that wrote the famous 1983 report A Nation at Risk about the decline of the nation’s schools.

Another member of Associated Scientists, 1986 Nobel laureate Dudley R. Hershbach, helped develop school science standards for the National Academy of Sciences.

But age, experience and credentials aren’t the issues here. The trouble with Associated Scientists, in the state’s view, is that it has old-school, rather than what we would call wow-school, notions about the goal of teaching. That is, they see the goal of teaching as primarily to impart knowledge, not to make sure all students have a good time.

The newer thinking aims to make science (and math, another area of controversy) more accessible. One way is to make the subject more fun to learn, even if it is taught in less depth. Another method is to make the subject more tangible and less abstract. It aims, in effect, to make the student say wow, even if he or she is a little dim on the factual details.

That’s not exactly how the wow-school folks would put it, but that’s the gist of the ruling theories in the teaching of science and mathematics. Memorization and multiplication tables are out. Hands-on work and broad concepts are in.

Good teaching embodies something of both – a mastery of number and detail as well as a grasp of the big ideas and some excitement about the subject. But when the wow becomes the whole mission, colleges get flooded with lots of students who are unprepared for college work. And lacking the basic knowledge, they also lack real grasp of scientific principles.

Seaborg put it well in a letter to the California standards panel: “Our citizens lack a depth of understanding even of the implications to society of rapid scientific progress, and our college-bound high school graduates lack the most rudimentary preparation for careers in the natural sciences.”

Seaborg’s message is directed at California schools but could serve for the whole country. California, as the biggest market for textbooks and other educational products, is a pacesetter sheerly by virtue of its size. The standards it adopts will almost surely go nationwide.

His words and his recent experience with the state should also be a warning to anyone who thinks American schools can be improved simply by hiring certified education experts and having them develop standards. The fact is that the prevailing idea of standards in schools of education today is not what most of the public would mean by that word.

In the education establishment’s view, standards must be written to make sure that virtually all kids can meet them. That means inherently tough subjects like science are elitist if everyone doesn’t get the really hard concepts. How to solve that problem? Make the subjects easier – never mind what the Nobel laureates say.