Friday, December 29, 2006

Science Ed

As I have no doubt mentioned before, I spent some time on a citizens advisory panel for grade 6-12 science textbooks and related materials. The overwhelming impression the experience made on me was that they were all, quite uniformly, awful. It wasn't their failures with the content that bothered me, though there were many such, but the way they managed to make the subject so excruciatingly boring.

Fast forward to the present: My wife has me read a bit from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. He told the story of the producers of a television show for preschoolers and how they made some fundamental but probably previously unnoticed discoveries about preschooler's learning. Everyone with children, or who has worked with small children, has probably had the noticed their fascination with repetition. Often they want the exact same story read to them every night, or want to see the same movie about 200 times - which fact, by the way, accounts for why I have seen the movie Ghostbusters a zillion times.

The first discovery the producers made was that their shows were more watched if they showed the exact same show five times in one week than if they showed five new episodes per week. The more important discovery was figuring out why.

It turns out that three and four year olds are quite dedicated detectives. Living in a world where almost everything is new and strange, they need to process the tale more than once to extract the various levels of meaning. Once they learned this lesson the producers learned how to structure their episodes as mystery stories for four-year olds, with clues presented in pretested order to engage the four year olds at their level. I think that Gladwell's main point was that attention to the details played a critical role here, and it's a good one.

I was more interested in the mystery story format, though. The fascination of science for me has always been about the detective story - the patient accumulation of clues, those aha moments when one sees that seeming unconnected facts are manifestations of a deeper pattern. In his review of one of Jo Rowling's books, Steven King noted that her books were mystery stories, and that a large element of their appeal is based on that. It's precisely that element that was missing from all those awful science textbooks I reviewed. In each case, vast teams of authors had labored to produce a somewhat coherent body of facts in language a twelve year old could read, but that nobody would want to. The result was dull, boring, and devoid of the wonder and mystery that the subjects natively have.

Humans are natural detectives, scientists and explorers. Jared Diamond tells of his travels in New Guinea with native peoples to regions strange to them, of their eagerness to learn everything about any new plant or animal they encountered, and their systematic investigations of the same.

It's no secret that the US does a lousy job of teaching science to its children. Maybe one of the reasons is just a very poor choice of teaching methods. Science isn't just a dry collection of facts. Science textbooks, especially those aimed at elementary and secondary students, need to engage the student. Textbooks need to be tested on students before being widely adopted, and education needs to stop being a fashion industry and start being scientific in its approach.