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