Trivial Pursuits

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?

Author: Josh Witten

3 thoughts on “Trivial Pursuits”

  1. There is nothing like judging school science fairs to see how students who can regurgitate facts have completely failed to understand how science is done.

    I’m liking the increased focus (at least at the university level) on problem solving courses – you learn the facts relevant to a particular scientific problem, and then spend much of your course effort that week actually solving the problem.

    (I’m glad to see that you still have the Chinese version of Biological Sequence Analysis!)

  2. It is a tough balance to strike: at some level you have to sacrifice “content” for “process” and be able to be comfortable with sacrificing some details for the big picture. As graduate students we become so focused on those details (and whatever science we’re teaching keeps including more of them!) that it is hard to step back and remember that they aren’t as important for most of our students and for the rest, there’s grad school.
    One big problem with implementation is the lack of models: how do I figure out how to teach inquiry-based courses when all of my undergrad course work was in giant lectures? I continually remind myself that even if it does take more class time, one does learn material better through application instead of memorization, so process-based approaches should theoretically give more bang for my buck.
    One detail that is often lost in this discussion is the “recruitment” issue: memorizing facts and creative problem-solving probably motivate different sets of students towards science. Which ones do we want?

  3. A science teacher friend of mine wrote her master’s thesis on this exact issue, and works hard (against the grain) to implement a more authentic inquiry-based classroom, versus following a recipe on a lab sheet. I, too, had the Alberts Cell book – nice!

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