Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning Environments

Science, as a subject, can be understood in two ways; either as a set of facts about the natural world and how it works, or as a way of acquiring knowledge and looking at events in the world. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) present evidence of learning environments that successfully engender conceptual understanding of problem solving in physics and environmental science. These same environments, however, seem to lack the balance of conceptual understanding with factual acquisition. Having, at least, some basic factual knowledge about the world allows for a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of many aspects of daily life that are simply lost on individuals without such knowledge.

Due to increased technical specialization and the vast amounts of scientific claims in modern life it is essential that scientific literacy is maintained and developed as a goal of education. Every citizen in a democracy must have some ability to evaluate claims made by technocrats and other authorities which may impact his life. To effectively develop scientific literacy, educators must help their students develop an understanding of the manner in which scientists work and develop theories, as well as build a foundation content knowledge which will allow for fluency in scientific discussions.

The model learning environments presented by Bransford, et al (1999) focus almost exclusively on the understanding of scientific process skills, while allowing students to confuse details and facts. The Haitian students profiled in their study of water quality confused the characteristics of good drinking water with the characteristics of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Their methodology may have been sound, but this is exactly the kind of half-understanding that allows people to be misled by unscrupulous individuals such as advertisers, politicians, and pundits. Regular claims about the dietary benefits or pitfalls of various foods are made tenuously based on a target audiences’ limited understanding of the scientific facts behind those claims. As another example, debates about global warming are thoroughly confounded by the colloquial dismissal of “global warming” on any unseasonably cold day.

It is not enough to build abstract logic skills in a vacuum without reference to the natural world they represent. Further, descriptive science can be fulfilling in its own right. I remember learning about trees and insects and seeing the world around me as a much richer place to be in. When I walk outside, I notice the leaves and bark around me and begin to catalog the insects that fly and craw about. Based on my knowledge and experience a narrative of the environment opens up to me. I’m more aware of the world around me, and more thoughtful of it. By having a vocabulary to look at the world I conceptualize claims about the environment in a more personal manner. Hearing statistics about the diversity in an acre of Amazon rainforest has my thoughts rushing to large insect collections I have seen or afternoons I have spent by creeks and ponds, patiently collecting specimens of my own. While I have never been to the Amazon I have a frame of reference which allows me to make abstractions more concrete.

If science is to be an effective tool for understanding of the world it must couple this intimate, factual knowledge with the conceptual framework of scientific methods at every step. Science education cannot treat facts and methods as separate subjects which can be taught successively or individually. Students must practice science as scientists do, by using the methods of science to test and refine the ideas and preconceptions, the facts, they acquire.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Its only a theory, but I don't think we can speak intelligently about science.

In consideration of the design of effective learner-centered environments I find myself reflecting on my own experiences as a science teacher. Science teachers often encounter misconceptions of small and large magnitude. Diagnostic teaching hopes to use preconceptions as a point of departure for learning in which teachers can address and challenge the ideas students bring with them (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). In science, however, misconceptions can cause a serious impediment to acquiring new knowledge.

A few typical examples of student misunderstandings in science include inaccurate use of the word, “theory,” and an inaccurate grasp of how scientific consensus is reached. These are skills which I consider to be a basic component of scientific literacy and are essential for citizens to understand and evaluate scientific claims they may encounter throughout their lives. The word theory is used synonymously with “guess” in casual conversation, and by scientists as they are depicted in movies and television. Equating theory with guess is detrimental in that it undermines the predictive power of a theory, as assessed by copious data. A theory is a strong scientific statement and represents widely accepted knowledge among experts in the field. Consensus in scientific fields is developed by a system of peer review and evaluation of new procedures and conclusions proposed by researchers. Scientists seek to push a hypothesis to determine its validity, possibly to elevate it to the status of theory. Peer-reviewed science has been criticized for being undemocratic, and in truth, it is. Scientific ideas are not judged by the number of people who like or support an idea. One carefully conducted experiment can discredit years (or even millennia) of dearly held beliefs, if it is found to be well-conducted and logical in its conclusions.

While the misconceptions listed above may seem philosophically complex to those without scientific training, it is for this very reason that I advocate a comprehensive K-12 science curriculum which builds a knowledge base of the process of science. A comprehensive science curriculum would allow secondary students to bring the prior knowledge required to assemble a logical philosophy of science for themselves.

In my first classroom experience, I was a substitute teacher in Brooklyn. I was called to a magnet school for math and science in my neighborhood and told that I would fill-in for the one science teacher in the building that day. I was not given plans, or activities, or even worksheets. I was told which rooms to be in at any given time and that was it. My first interaction with fourth graders became an exercise in Socratic teaching. I asked, “What have you been learning with your science teacher?” I was told: “I’m a scientist!” “Science is fun!” and “Everybody can be a scientist!” among other things. I discovered that the science curriculum at a science magnet school was apparently designed to reduce anxiety about science, rather than to promote understanding of science. I also discovered that fourth graders are curious about a lot of things. They bubbled over with questions about earthquakes, where electricity comes from, why clouds don’t fall out of the sky, and the nature of Spiderman’s powers. I resolved to become a science teacher that day.

Children posses innate curiosity about their world. Science offers satisfying and exciting answers to many questions which begin with the word, “why.” This curiosity should be harnessed in a comprehensive curriculum, taught by primary teachers, properly trained, which promotes the development of scientific skills and literacy which can be transferred to later grades and be used as a basis for a deep, meaningful understanding of the nature of science.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gym class for everybody!

Rene Descartes posited that the mind is a separate entity from the brain. However, recent research cited by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) may refute Cartesian dualism, and provide an opportunity to develop new pedagogical methods which take advantage of the links between the body and the mind. Rats were experimentally manipulated to observe the effects on brain anatomy of exercise and learning. Rats which engaged in exercise were shown to have increased density of blood vessels associated with neurons in the brain; while rats which exercised little, but engaged in learning, developed increased neural synapses. Rather than demonstrating a schism between mind and body, this suggests that both physical and mental exercise have positive effects on the brain.

Descartes published Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641, consequently, the philosophy of mind body dualism has had a profound effect on the western perspective on thought and intelligence since the Age of Enlightenment. Scholars are stereotypically thought to be pale and pasty, while athletes are thought to be uninterested in intellectual matters. While there are many exceptions to these typical attitudes, the cultural dominance of these types is pervasive enough to merit serious consideration. Academic ally, physical education only became part of public school curricula following the First World War, as the military exercised its influence to better prepare future soldiers. Presently, physical education is languishing as one of the most ignored or maligned parts of public school curricula. While students the majority of the school day in “academic” classes, serving the development o their minds, their bodies are, at best, given a few hours a week for physical education.

If the development of rat brains cited above correlates to human development, it can be argued that physical education is a necessary component in maximizing the education of young minds. Physical exercise leads to increased blood vessel density, which transports increased amounts of oxygen to the brain, removes wastes and transports neural transmitter chemicals more efficiently. In effect, increased blood vessel density promotes a healthier, more efficient brain. Rat learners develop more synapses per nerve cell, which is a likely consequence of learning and memory, in general. It seems likely that learners who engage in vigorous, regular physical activity will develop superior mental capacity.

While it is tempting to argue that students are provided with ample opportunities for physical exercise in the form of recess in the elementary grades, and competitive sports in the middle and high school; it must be acknowledged that most students do not participate in these activities, and funding for sports is declining in school districts most in need of support for their students learning. Nothing short of comprehensive curriculum overhaul will provide a level of physical activity commensurate with the needs of students’ mental development. Students should be provided with a variety of options for physical engagement, whether they take the form of team sports, or outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, and biking, or less formal setting such as hacky sack or Frisbee. Students which engage in physical activity during every school day will benefit from a healthier body and more productive mind.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online: