In the 20 January 2012 edition of Science Magazine, editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts makes a strong argument that science education should not be about the “facts” of science or the false god of “rigor”:
Trivial Pursuit is of course merely a game; but it reminded me of the much more serious battle. . .for my grandchildren, “science” includes being able to regurgitate the names of parts of the cell in 7th grade. . .Although rigor might appear to be a worthy goal. . .they are taught with an overly strict attention to rules, procedure, and rote memorization. . .for far too many, science seems a game of recalling boring, incomprehensible facts.
There are better places to store trivia than our brains. Our brains can do some wonderful tricks that sheet of wood pulp and semiconductors cannot (yet). Incidentally, Alberts himself helped create one an extremely popular repository of science trivia (as seen on my bookshelf in the lab).
In his follow-up editorial from the 27 January 2012 edition, Alberts advocates exposing children to the actual process of science, not the rhetorical construct of Science that we present when we want to pretend everything works all the time:
Our goal is to make it much easier for teachers everywhere to provide their students with laboratory experiences that mirror the open-ended explorations of scientists, instead of the traditional “cookbook” labs where students follow instructions to a predetermined result.
Science education researcher Marie-Claire Shanahan will tell you (as she did in the session she lead at Science Online 2012) that people have been making exactly these points for the past century, at least. We’ve got the idea. Apparently, we stink at implementation.
When I have spoken to high school students about their scientific education, I’m always challenged by how to address the importance of “knowing facts”. On the one hand, understanding how we know what we know is certainly more important than memorizing a state-mandated subset of what we do know (or did know when the textbook was published or standards were implemented). On the other hand, the ability to make creative, non-linear leaps when problem solving requires some factual landmarks in order to operate productively. But, how to achieve that balance?