Monday, February 2, 2015

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Science education in Cloud Cuckoo Land

It’s back to school and study – well, the latter for some kids anyway. 

People have asked me why I don’t write more on education. I went into the field almost 40 years ago and found things that really did interest me, including science education. That had something going for it then, but now it’s gone to the dogs. There’s been an ideological hijack and the word ‘science’ hardly seems to fit in ‘science education’ any more. Not that everyone has fallen for it, but the so-called ‘academics’ on the whole have swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

A suggested classroom activity that caught my eye when looking at science education course descriptions some time ago was getting students to debate food irradiation. Sounds interesting – it’s the sort of thing we used to do over coffee in my undergraduate days, and when you’re up against cluey opponents, you have to know what you’re talking about so you make sure you do your homework. But that gem of paedagogical advice, lifted from a College of Education programme, refers to primary school kids who don’t know an isotope from an allotrope. One can only shudder at the thought of the scientific merits of the ensuing ‘debate’, and wonder what on earth kids would be expected to learn about science from it.

Welcome to the phantasmagorical  fairyland of contemporary science education doctrine, where teachers are merely ‘facilitators’ while children and young adolescents are supposed to ‘think like scientists’ and conduct ‘inquiries’

A word about language use is important at this juncture, especially for readers of my vintage. ‘Students’ here refers to what you and I would call ‘pupils’ – school kids, not undergraduates as older versions of the Oxford have it. As for ‘inquiry’, that doesn’t refer to a fact-finding exercise by a qualified body but to kids finding things out for themselves about a topic. (These are American imports ..... sigh .....).

The old ways of teaching science, the pundits have been telling us, are all wrong. They rely on memorisation and don’t develop scientific thinking skills. Kids should be thinking like scientists and that means devising and conducting investigations.

But it takes little knowledge of the workings of science to realise that the suggestion that school kids should think like scientists is absurd. A scientist approaching a problem brings to bear a vast stock of knowledge that s/he has amassed about the subject matter – mostly stuff that s/he had to laboriously learn the old-fashioned way, through listening to and reading authoritative sources and committing to memory. S/he then applies set procedural rules acquired through training to a systematic investigation of hypotheses derived from theory. It all has to be done properly, including the use of controls. A school pupil simply cannot mimic this series of events because s/he is not equipped by prior learning and training to do so.

A bit of scratching of the surface of the fashionable avant-garde approach to science teaching and learning reveals its ideological basis. The old-fashioned way of teaching science is ‘elitist’ and reinforces ‘stereotypes’, we are told. It is based on an idealistic misrepresentation of science as an objective search for truth, we are told. Accordingly, the new dogma has its own version of what science is – the ‘Nature of Science’ [NOS] mythology. In the NOS creed, science is ‘subjective’ and ‘value-laden’. What the advocates of this ideology fail to understand is the essential distinction between science as an abstract entity – as an ideal – and science as a workday activity. Science in the abstract is objective, but scientists are subject to the same foibles as any group of people including vested interests, prejudices and intellectual dishonesty. It’s like saying that because some judges and juries are biased, justice is inherently biased.

The notion of objectivity is, of course, a red rag to an enraged ‘post-modernist’ bull. All truth is subjective and ‘socially constructed’, we are constantly and authoritatively told by post-modernist gurus. The doctrine of ‘social constructivism’ is a bed-fellow of the NOS distortion. This attitude to objectivity seems more at home in settings such as a mediaeval witch trial where witnesses would swear that they had seen the defendant dismounting from a broomstick or conferring with ‘familiars’.  They were mostly not lying in the sense of telling a falsehood that they knew to be false – they sincerely believed in the claptrap they had ‘constructed’. The Enlightenment brought in the Age of Reason and this kind of tripe began to decline in the face of objective approaches to reality and truth. Unfortunately, the ‘post-modern’ ideologues have been doing their damnedest to turn the clock back, with some success. We may well be entering a new Dark Age.

The ‘inquiry’ method also promotes kids ‘researching’ issues, including complex real-world science-related issues, using information sources such as the internet. The trouble here is that there is a great deal of misinformation out there and kids do not have the savvy to be able to identify the shysters from the Real McCoy. Many websites of the former genre are much more accessible to uninformed readers in terms of readability than are sites and articles that have scientific credibility but accordingly make for much harder (and less engaging) reading. And so ‘research’ on kids’ part all too often comes down to doing copy-and-paste jobs of material that the child doesn’t understand and/or is just so much bunkum. I fail to see how this haphazard activity can be anything but counterproductive as a means of inculcating ‘scientific thinking’.

So how should we go about teaching science – stick to the old “Here’s the facts, learn them” approach? A UK report following a study by a visiting group of British educators to China suggested that the ‘old ways’ still have a lot going for them (see Kevin Donnelly’s article “’Chalk and talk’ teaching might be the best way after all” of 27 November 2014 on this website). The Mail Online of 16 November put it bluntly thus:  “Minister tells schools to copy China - and ditch trendy teaching for 'chalk and talk': Teachers speaking in front of a class 'much more effective than independent learning’.”

No surprises really as the ‘new way’ is a product of ideology pure and simple however that fact is disguised through the voluminous use of psychobabble and sociobabble.

But the ‘old ways’ admittedly have their shortcomings. I recall starting lab reports with the words ‘Aim – To prove that......’ back in 1960s high school science and I am with the critics when they point out that this ‘verification approach’ certainly isn’t science in the epistemological sense. And yet the ‘verification’ approach to practical work in school science does make perfect sense in a way – the aim of school science (or undergraduate science for that matter) is not to extend the boundaries of knowledge but to instil in learners an understanding of established scientific precepts. At the same time, they should be learning about scientific reasoning. A good compromise is ‘guided discovery learning’ in which learners conduct prescribed investigations such as experiments to find answers to questions arising from material they have been taught. Critics refer to guided discovery as a continuation of the ‘cookbook approach’ but appear to conveniently ignore the fact that ‘real’ science (i.e. research science) relies heavily on that approach – a scientist who deviates from established procedures is likely to draw a great deal of flak from within the scientific community.

Teacher competence is a delicate issue but has to be raised. Most primary teachers are ‘generalists’ and are much more inclined towards the humanities than the sciences. Despite [mostly] being graduates, most teachers at secondary level are teaching ‘out-of-field’ much of the time, such as a typical biology graduate teaching physics topics to a Year 10 or 11 General Science class. All teachers who teach science at any level are expected to have a firm grasp of the basics themselves. Ensuring this should be the task of teacher training programmes but a perusal of many a science teaching methods course reveals precious little science and lots of the new ideologically-driven poppycock. And of course the students are much more comfortable with prattling on about ‘social constructivism’ or NOS baloney than getting to grips with redox reactions, ray diagrams or plant gas exchange.

Where this nonsense runs into serious trouble is when the youngsters are facing a major external examination hurdle. In NZ this comes in at Year 11 and by Year 13 the stakes are very high, especially for able, ambitious kids. If I may quote myself for a moment,

            Upper secondary science is the gateway to tertiary education programs leading to
high-prestige careers in fields such as medicine, pharmacy, engineering, and computer science. These careers tend to be competitive-entry, and the gate-keepers are high-stakes examinations conducted by either the public examination authorities or the tertiary institutions themselves. The mind-set that prevails is one of mastering content with a view to scoring highly in examinations. The fashionable mantras of ‘inquiry’ and ‘student-directed learning’ ring hollow in this context.
(Issues in Upper Secondary Science Education – Comparative Perspectives, edited by Yours Truly and Neil Taylor, Palgrave Macmillan 2014, p. 263; sorry, the publishers Americanised my spelling and punctuation!)

In my view, the functions of school science education for the first 10 years or so are to expose children and adolescents to the basic concepts of modern science and to the scientific mindset and prepare pupils who show promise for higher study in science. This last goal is particularly important for those who enter science-intensive tracks in Years 12 and 13. The ideological hijack of science education as a subdiscipline is doing a great deal of harm to these processes by subverting those aims. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the good news is that the ‘unreformed’, be they countries or the markedly ‘traditional’ top schools, tend to be the ones who pick up the laurels if not always the accolades. 

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Breaking Views on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at


Robert Mann said...
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Having written a little on food irradiation, and taken part in the campaign to stop (read: delay) this dud caper in my country, I fully agree it is NOT a suitable topic for primary school where children cannot conduct an informed discussion on it.
One connection worth making is to the fanatics at Harpie Haven (aka the "university" of Waikato) where Beverley Bell & a few others perpetrated their 'discovery' version of science education which you are so capably rubbishing now.

Robt Mann M.Sc Ph.D

Anonymous said...
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According to the political Left, all teaching, in any field, is ideological.

Since this is the case, they reason, it may as well be our ideology that is being taught.

These people entered the Academy under the Western tradition of tolerance and pluralism. Once they achieved critical mass in various disciplines, they saw no irony in using their dominance on faculty hiring committees to deliberately exclude competing world views.

They endless recite the “diversity” mantra but when it comes to the most important diversity of all, intellectual diversity, they are silent.

There is a world of difference between disinterested teaching and that self-consciously undertaken to advance an ideology.

Throughout our education system from Kindergarten to post-graduate, students are being intellectually conditioned to adopt the views and values of the political and lifestyle Left.

True educators educate, they don’t indoctrinate. They value neutrality in the classroom. But in schools in which Leftism is now the dominant pedagogy, every academic subject is a means to a "progressive" (anti-Western, pro-collectivist, anti-Christian, pro-Muslim, redistributive) ideological end. The radical transformation of our schools into petri dishes of Leftist activism is embedded in the mission of countless teacher colleges, which require “social justice” training and offer special certification in its indoctrination techniques.

Our teacher colleges are pumping out generations of educators who cast themselves as leaders against "social injustice" -- instead of facilitators of intellectual inquiry. Passing the most rigorous student standards in the world won't amount to squat as long as the overseers of public education exploit government schools as indoctrination factories for captive tots, tweens and teens.

Lindsay Perigo aptly referred to these people as “paedophiles of the mind.”

Penelope Shadbolt said...
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This reminds me of the long-running argument as to the best way of teaching reading - look and say or using phonics.
As a mother and a teacher I found that children naturally begin with look and say and then they need to be taught phonics to become independent readers.

I was working as a long-term relieving teacher in a Band One South Auckland school in 1998. The children were aged 5-6 years and were mostly Polynesian, and Maori. Many did not speak English at home. None had been to a pre-school.

I was told that the topic for science was "Design a watering system for the school gardens." I went to the local supermarket and bought birdseed and dried beans. I took some plastic lids, cotton-wool, glass jars, and blotting paper to school. Together we put the birdseed on cotton-wool and the beans were placed in the jars between blotting paper and the glass. Some seeds were watered and put on the window ledge, some were not watered but placed on the window ledge and some were placed in a cupboard. I wrote short notices about each. We observed the seeds and beans daily. I allowed the first children to class to water the seeds that were being watered and wrote a sentence using the child's name each day. The children were racing into school each morning. They began to read the notices because they saw their names on them. They made observations about the seeds and beans which were growing and how some did not grow. Finally they all came to understand that plants need water and sunlight to grow. And they began to talk and to read.

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