E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages.  
July 08, 2003
With the end in mind

Bas Braams has started an education blog – Scientifically Correct – which will be about K-12 education.

(What is K-12 education? All I know is that it is American. That's the year, yes? What does the K stand for? It's time I knew about this.)

Anyway, Bas emails of his new enterprise:

There will be co-authors, and I hope that together we'll maintain an active schedule of posting. We will focus on K-12 education in the United States, with occasional postings on international issues and on college education. We especially care about curriculum issues. My own area is math and science education, but I expect that others will write about language and humanities.

Sounds promising.

In his latest posting Bas quotes from a conversation with Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton:

Q. How would you change the way science is taught at universities?

A. I think we do not teach the introductory courses appropriately. Right now, we just teach all the basic facts of chemistry, physics, biology or mathematics. Then, we teach a few basic principles. By the third year, we finally tell the students what is interesting about all of this. I think we should break the pyramid. We should begin with the most exciting ideas in chemistry, physics, biology and how you go about studying it. What are the things you need to know? We should only teach what students need to know in order to understand what those are.

Q. Would you teach science by changing science education into a "great ideas of science" course?

A. Absolutely. I'd like to see us teaching more than a canon, a collection of facts, but why this is exciting, why is the exploration of nature one of the most wonderful ways to spend one's life.

Says Bas:

All this without a hint of regret that even Princeton University students should have to be babied into an appreciation of science.

Point taken, but as a description of how it makes sense to teach science to younger people, when the burden of persuasion, so to speak, is more with the teacher, I think Tilghman's attitude makes more sense. It's asking a lot of a secondary school teacher to know such stuff, though. My answer would be: get the Professors to make DVDs about how life is at the scientific frontier, and distribute those to the secondary schools. And to anyone else who is interested.

In general, it makes sense to me that teaching should be done with some idea in the minds of the pupils of what it might be leading to. That doesn't mean that there is no place for teachers who teach the basics and nothing else. Teaching is, after all, usually a team effort. But someone ought to be trying to get across what it's all for.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:48 PM
Category: The curriculum


I think that it means from kindergarten to 12th grade (with high school ”graduation” at the end of 12th grade)

Comment by: David Farrer on July 9, 2003 01:28 AM


David has it exactly right. K for kindergarten through grade 12.

Teacher certification in the U.S. (i.e., state licensing) tended to be either elementary K-6 or secondary, 7-12. School systems tended to have three tiers of schools, elementary (K-6), junior high (7th & 8th grades) and high school (9-12). In recent years there has been a middle school movement which has resulted in many school systems dividing things up (as they do in my town) into K-5, middle school 6-8, and high school. Rhode Island still has K-6 and 7-12 licensing, but now insists that teachers in middle schools (who may have come to that from either elementary or secondary backgrounds) have a "middle school endorsement" added to their licenses. Yes, this means taking more education courses, etc.

I know nothing about how teacher licensing is done in the U.K., but here in the U.S. it is state-based, meaning each of the fifty states has its own set of rules (although they tend to have reciprocity with each other, or at least with their immediate neighbors, so that if you are licensed to teach K-6 in New York, Pennsylvania will license you based on your N.Y. license) Once upon a time you could get a permanent license (for example, in New York State, graduating from a teaching program got you provisional certification, then you had five years to obtain a minimum of thirty credits of graduate study to get permanent certification) but now many (perhaps most?) states have made licenses valid for a certain number of years, during which time you must complete a specified amount of additional study and training in order to renew the license. On the good side of that, it might eliminate the time-serving drudges who merely repeat the same tired stuff, year after dreary year... on the other hand, all those time-serving drudges just have to take a dreary boring pointless mindless graduate level class in "professional education" during their summer break, just jump through the bureaucratic hoops, and their licenses get renewed for more dreary time-serving years.

Comment by: Jim on July 9, 2003 12:28 PM

I haven't read the Tilghman conversation, but from this brief extract, it seems she has the right idea.

This whole subject (science teaching) is something I feel very strongly about. Indeed the prospect of our children receiving a standard school science education was one of the factors that led us down the road of home ed.

To my mind, a knowledge and understanding of the history of science and some grasp of the scientific issues which face modern society, is crucial for anybody who wishes to regard themselves as educated. I still my remember my old English teaching boasting about his ignorance of science.

I found it pathetic, but the school teaching of science is no less pathetic. It tends to consist of a futile attempt to teach children the "rules" of physics, chemistry and biology, as though all children are going to become research scientists.

This approach is guaranteed to bore most of them senseless. It may make some sense for the one child in a hundred who is destined to become a science practitioner. For the rest, it is a waste of time.

What children need is to be able to read a newspaper or website and understand what the science stories are about and what the implications are. They need to have a broad brush grasp of the issues. The fine details are (generally) irrelevant.

"Popular science" may not be popular amongsts scientists, but it is precisely what is needed for children. They don't need to learn science, they need to learn ABOUT science, which is a very different thing.


Comment by: Julius on July 9, 2003 06:24 PM

Whenever I see calls to teach science in a way to persuade kids into it by spreading information about the applications, DVDs, making it exciting, etc, I'm reminded of a letter to the IEE's newspaper from a retired guy noting that students entering engineering and science had been dropping off since the early 60s, when schools started trying to make it exciting and relevant to draw kids in.

So maybe we should be asking Shirley Tilgham what evidence she has that teaching her new science courses would raise participation. The relationship may not be what you'd expect.

Comment by: Tracy on July 10, 2003 03:37 AM


I wasn't so much thinking of drawing kids into science, as just ensuring that the average child leaves school with some idea and interest in the scientific issues of the day.

Otherwise I fear that the drift towards irrationality and science-phobia will continue or even get worse.

It is perhaps a different question as to what sort of science teaching is most likely to encourage budding scientists. My hunch is that budding scientists will probably "bud", almost irrespective of the quality of school science teaching, but in any case, I am pretty sure that teaching the rules of physics by rote is not the best way to produce a scientifically literate population (which is not the same thing as a population of scientists).


Comment by: Julius on July 10, 2003 05:52 PM
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