education, science

Facts vs. Skills and Content vs. Pedagogy Expertise: Tensions in Science Education

The challenges of the modern era are great. How can we restore our global economic might? How can we accept anthropogenic climate change as a problem and being to address it? Belief in one of the foundational theories of science (evolution) is low and trending lower, how do we restore trust in science? Despite the complexity of these challenges, many point to improving science education as a way to address them. So ,how should we teach science? Who should be teaching science?

Sophia A. Satina (1879-1975) and Albert Francis Blakeslee (1874-1954), shown with samples of mold from Flickr Commons, Smithsonian Collection, photographer: Fremont Davis

As a college science educator, a cognitive scientist, an unrepentant nerd, and the father of three budding scientists, I find myself considering these questions with two related pairs of tensions in mind. The first is the tension between facts and skills. Do we focus on learning science facts in a “traditional” classroom atmosphere? Or, do we shift to the skills one learns in science fair projects and the like, such as observation, critical thinking, communication? The second tension is about the people who do the teaching of science. Should they be science experts first and educators second? Or should they be trained as teachers first, gathering science content knowledge as needed?

Despite the many loud voices favoring one side of these tensions, I argue that they are fundamentally unresolvable, and that we should attempt to strike a balance in each; no “one true ring” will solve our science education problem.

LOIRP Moon, NASA on the Commons
The tension between facts and skills is nicely illustrated in a recent (ok, last month, meaning millions of internet years ago) blog post by PZ Myers, in which he writes a letter to a nine-year-old girl who recently visited a moon rock. Upon hearing that this moon rock was 3.75 billion years old, Emma B. asks the NASA docent, “Were you there?” Myers, who has long battled with young earth creationists (the story was shared by a triumphant Ken Ham), pleads with the girl to instead ask a scientifically keener question, one that she doesn’t know the answer to: “How do you know that?” Myers then proceeds to answer his own recommended question.

In the case of our present tension between facts and skills, “How do you know that?” is the fundamental question of science, and the first step in any definition of critical thinking skills. The associated questions of “how do we measure this?” and “how do you know our measurement is accurate?” are the ways that we move beyond the empiricism of our own eyes and into the modern scientific method. These are the critical thinking skills that my rising third grade sons are beginning to learn; they are the questions that will guide their science fair projects (please let there still be science fair projects when they get to high school!). The asking of these questions is critical, but how far does that get us towards better science education for Emma or perhaps towards a revelatory experience with His Noodly Appendage?

Touched by His Noodly Appendage
Touched by His Noodly Appendage (PAstafarian fine art, from Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

Unfortunately, for Myers, not very far. The first paragraph of his explanation reveals the trouble:

The technique scientists use is called radiometric dating. It uses the fact that some radioactive elements slowly fall apart, turning into other elements. For instance, a radioactive isotope of potassium will decay over time into an isotope of another element, argon.

Sorry to break it to you, PZ, but I think you have already lost her (the girl’s mother’s letter confirms it). Despite our insistence that students exhibit critical thinking skills with probing questions and keen observations, these skills are built on a foundation of factual knowledge. In this case, Emma first needs to know what an element is, then what a radioactive element is. My kids are almost eight, and despite hours of listening to They Might Be Giants, I am pretty sure they don’t really know what an element is. “Well, Emma, they are the fundamental building blocks of all matter” “How do you know that?” “If they are so fundamental, how can they fall apart?” It is not absolutely necessary that she understand what “radioactive” or “isotope” means, but if she doesn’t, specifying one type of element, or a unit of an element, could be confusing: “Why are these elements special? What makes them radioactive?” These questions have answers, but those answers quickly lead to other questions.

I don’t mean to pick on Myers, of whom I am generally a fan, or trash his letter, which is excellent. He realizes that he has to explain what “decay” means and his tone is caring, polite, and full of wonder. What Myers’ letter reminds me is of the importance of facts in learning science. As my colleague Daniel Willingham points out “Factual knowledge precedes skill.” Without a rock solid foundation of factual knowledge, we aren’t able to comprehend and integrate the answers we get from all these wonderful questions we ask.

Facts are critical, but if we never get the chance to apply these facts through projects, or witness them in action through experiences, they can come to seem sterile and distant. Our science teachers should certainly teach science facts, but they should also engage students through discovery learning. This need not be an either/or choice. Swinging too far towards facts can deaden science, but swinging too far towards projects can leave weeks for dropping egg contraptions from balconies, without ever learning the physics principles that make some crack and keep others whole. Of course, these tendencies need not be true for every fact and every project–many of my fellow nerds can reminisce of many happy hours spent with reference books, and discovery learning can lead us towards facts, instead of away from them.

Given that there is no easy recipe, who should be leading us on our quest for better science education? Do we have a personnel problem, as Arne Duncan and many in the current wave of school reform assert? Calls to improve science education often include calls for more science degrees for our teachers, with a goal to get more science content experts in the K-12 classroom. This is not new; former NSF director Rita Colwell instituted a program to get Ph.D.’s in classrooms in the late 90’s. The current UTeach program is based on this assumption. But Ariel Sackseloquent recent post about teaching teenagers attests to the relevance of insights into the teenage mind (and teenage lifestyle) in teaching teenagers. My high school physics teacher knew a lot about physics (he had a Ph.D.) but not as much about the minds and hearts of sixteen-year-old boys and girls. Despite my interest, I learned almost no physics.

Expert scientists, like Myers, with little experience teaching know-it-all nine-year-old girls, are doomed to be pointed away from their students, marveling at the wonders of science without realizing the cognitive and social constraints of their flock. But teachers who are only experts in the nine-year-old mind often don’t have enough deep factual knowledge themselves about what “radioactive“ “isotopes,” “elements”, and “decay” mean to adequately explain them to their students. They realize the importance of fun projects, but without adequate content knowledge, they don’t know which aspects of the recipe they can change.

In conclusion, there is no platonically perfect science curriculum, and there is no perfect science educator to deliver it. Skills and facts complement each other, and any curriculum which neglects either will suffer. We are not going to fix science education any more than we are going to cure cancer. Just like different cancers demand different treatments, teaching science to kindergarteners requires more expertise in five-year-olds than in chemistry, but teaching organic chemistry in college is different. Where should we go from here? As a first step, I think we should start giving our science educators more freedom to practice their craft and to learn how to settle these tensions in their own classrooms. The more we look to simple solutions to these tensions, the more we drive away potential teaching professionals, who are drawn to situations in which they are allowed to strike their own balance.