Just a theory: Modern culture destroying science education

The Chronicle of Higher Education writes about the decline of science education, which has wussed out and become too interested in its own cultural propriety to adequately teach the nuts and bolts. We just don’t challenge kids with hard stuff like trig anymore, preferring that they have self-esteem, which qualifies them to have just gotten laid off by Starbucks.

The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences. … The science “problems” we now ask students to think about aren’t really science problems at all. Instead we have the National Science Foundation vexed about the need for more women and minorities in the sciences.

Now, bringing women and minorities into all this marks the writer as an old fart. I bet a dollar he’s the type that weasel-words like a champ in the evolution debate, because The Left is science’s real enemy. But he’s right about how soft science education’s getting. Identifying something more fundamental than merely “creationists” or “postmodernists” is not without utility.

After all, science’s organized enemies all more or less openly proclaim their agendas. But the shallow pool of talent that results from a culture of entitlement isn’t something we can nail down, as it were, quite so easily.

Relevance: science is where the iPhones come from.

How Our Culture Keeps Students Out of Science [CHE]

About Rob Beschizza

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21 Responses to Just a theory: Modern culture destroying science education

  1. yer_maw says:

    The endarkenment is coming.

  2. KeithIrwin says:

    There are problems with our science education system, but this article discusses them in a manner which is completely and entirely unscientific. This article is a bunch of biased bluster against the left. Many of the ideas it advances are ridiculous on their face, and they are all unsupported by any form of statistics.

    For instance, he argues that the problem is that we aren’t motivating students to study science, but he considers examining why women are becoming less likely to study science to be a waste of money. Consider computer science. The percentage of female students in computer science peaked in 1984 (see http://www.barnard.edu/bcrw/womenandwork/spertus.htm for graphs). More recently, the number of male Americans in computer science has started to decline as well. Maybe, if we understood why women were less interested in computer science, we could also understand why men are becoming less interested in computer science. Maybe it’s the same cause.

    Anyway, in the overall what we do not need to improve science education is more obnoxious blowhards spouting on about how things used to be so much better in their days before anyone cared about women and minorities. So, next time you see an article like this, please don’t give it more publicity. It isn’t a gadget.

    The only thing that science education needs is to be approached scientifically. We need to try new methods and evaluate their effectiveness. We should form hypotheses about how best to encourage students to learn science and test them. We need to approach science education as a science problem.

  3. DragonVPM says:

    Article Fail.

    IMO any serious discussion of students and their performance/educational decisions etc.. that fails to bring in parents’ attitudes and their roles in their child’s lives as important factors, just. doesn’t. get. it.

    That’s not to say that only people with good, supportive parents/families will do well, but as a society, letting parents off the hook with things like “no child left behind” and whatnot is about as stupid as you can get. Regardless of how good or bad a school is, you will always have a few students who push themselves to excel and push themselves to excel in “hard” subjects. Then there will be a big chunk who could do well but need a little encouragement (or outright threats at times ;). Maybe their hormones are raging, maybe the xbox/ps3/wii is calling, etc… etc… That’s when parents step in and help guide them into more productive tracks.

    Well at least that’s when they should step in. Unfortunately you’re a lot more likely to see parents pushing their kids to excel on the football field, or in romantic endeavors than you are to see them pushing for an A in physics or calculus.

    For a while now, I’ve wondered what would happen if instead of punishing teachers for having students who can’t pass standardized tests, we punished parents. Make their income tax deduction a function of how their kids do in school. So if your kid fails a grade and doesn’t pass a basic skills test for no reason you don’t get one, but if they are a C, B, or A student you get one and it’s slightly bigger for better grades (so there is an incentive to get the best grades possible, but it’s small enough that parents don’t push their kids unreasonably).

    Then make the teacher’s pay based not on how many kids pass, but on how many kids that pass their class can take some sort of yearly skills test and be within at least 1 grade level of where they should be. This way teachers have a reason to flunk kids who don’t work/try, but the bar isn’t set so high that they unfairly hold back kids who might not be super bright but are perfectly capable.

    Keep in mind that this is just a random, coffee break level of detail, I’m sure that it could be refined quite a bit, but I think as a basic premise, holding parents and teachers responsible for performance in different ways is important. Teachers can be the gatekeepers, making sure that kids do need to work and try to get through school and not being rubber stamps the way NCLB expects them to be. Parents OTOH have a financial incentive to keep their kids on track or they take steps to prove that their kid has a genuine disability (e.g. autism) and putting them on a different track that’s suitable for them that still expects some appropriate level of performance (and no, there would be no “my kid is lazy or an underachiever” track ;)

  4. dragonize says:

    Women and minorities have no place in science.

  5. DragonVPM says:

    Article Fail.

    IMO any serious discussion of students and their performance/educational decisions etc.. that fails to bring in parents’ attitudes and their roles in their child’s lives as important factors, just. doesn’t. get. it.

    That’s not to say that only people with good, supportive parents/families will do well, but as a society, letting parents off the hook with things like “no child left behind” and whatnot is about as stupid as you can get. Regardless of how good or bad a school is, you will always have a few students who push themselves to excel and push themselves to excel in “hard” subjects. Then there will be a big chunk who could do well but need a little encouragement (or outright threats at times ;). Maybe their hormones are raging, maybe the xbox/ps3/wii is calling, etc… etc… That’s when parents step in and help guide them into more productive tracks.

    Well at least that’s when they should step in. Unfortunately you’re a lot more likely to see parents pushing their kids to excel on the football field, or in romantic endeavors than you are to see them pushing for an A in physics or calculus.

    For a while now, I’ve wondered what would happen if instead of punishing teachers for having students who can’t pass standardized tests, we punished parents. Make their income tax deduction a function of how their kids do in school. So if your kid fails a grade and doesn’t pass a basic skills test for no reason you don’t get one, but if they are a C, B, or A student you get one and it’s slightly bigger for better grades (so there is an incentive to get the best grades possible, but it’s small enough that parents don’t push their kids unreasonably).

    Then make the teacher’s pay based not on how many kids pass, but on how many kids that pass their class can take some sort of yearly skills test and be within at least 1 grade level of where they should be. This way teachers have a reason to flunk kids who don’t work/try, but the bar isn’t set so high that they unfairly hold back kids who might not be super bright but are perfectly capable.

    Keep in mind that this is just a random, coffee break level of detail, I’m sure that it could be refined quite a bit, but I think as a basic premise, holding parents and teachers responsible for performance in different ways is important. Teachers can be the gatekeepers, making sure that kids do need to work and try to get through school and not being rubber stamps the way NCLB expects them to be. Parents OTOH have a financial incentive to keep their kids on track or they take steps to prove that their kid has a genuine disability (e.g. autism) and putting them on a different track that’s suitable for them that still expects some appropriate level of performance (and no, there would be no “my kid is lazy or an underachiever” track ;)

  6. Paul says:

    So, by analogy from the author’s argument, Title IX has resulted in a complete and total loss of athleticism in the US? He also seems to think that self-esteem and self-discipline are mutually exclusive…

  7. zuzu says:

    Hasn’t the “enemy” for ages been the suppression of children’s natural curiosity* supplanted for a factory-model education system that compartmentalizes knowledge and rewards compliance?

    The monomyth which has fueled human innovation since at least the Greeks basically advocates that the rites of adulthood are predicated on breaking the mold of the society in which you were raised and asserting your own individual identity and autonomy.

    *Particularly curiosity for “dangerous” activities such as explosive chemistry, high voltage electricity, and human sexuality.

    c.f. hidden curriculum, critical pedagogy

    p.s. the cake is a lie

  8. Brian Carnell says:

    @7 seems to be right. The article makes no sense because a) Wood links the decline in science to the focus on the sex/race of would-be scientists, but then b) later notes that the problem really is a K-12 issue:

    “International tests indicate that American fourth graders rank among the top students in the world in science and above average in math. By eighth grade, they have moved closer to the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, our students score near the bottom of all industrialized nations. As a result, too many of them enter college without even the basic skills needed to pursue a degree in science or engineering.”

    Of course, when you have 1 in 8 biology teachers presenting creationism as valid science in their classrooms, what do you expect?

  9. zuzu says:

    Roughly 80% of people who do have offspring, really shouldn’t have if they thought about it rationally. (c.f. Idiocracy)

    And given the existence of condoms, hormonal contraception, and legal abortions, there’s no excuse at all for “accidental” children. The childfree movement really needs to get into gear and advertise realities such as that even really half-assed parenting (using the State babysitter that is public schooling) costs half a million dollars across the 18 years of raising a child. Nevermind if you actually raised them well with ready access to scientific and musical instruments, international travel, powerful computing and communications devices, and an extensive multimedia library — which necessarily means privately funded schooling.

    Having children simply because “it’s the scripted expectation at this time in your life” or “the ticking biological clock” is a major league dumbshit basis for making such a monumentally important decision of creating and raising another human being.

  10. bardfinn says:

    No Child Left Behind is the name of this iteration of the cause: When your funding and bonuses depend on every kid hitting the curriculum standards, the curriculum standards become reworked to a lowest common denominator.

    I graduated from a Texas high school in the early Nineties – the physics, chemistry, RF, and EM science education I got was pulled out of my father’s Army manuals and Einstein’s works from the library. The only reason we were taught anything about evolution in biology class was because A: we were an AP class and B: our teacher was a Greek spitfire who knew that the unwritten policy on silence over evolution was bullshit, and told us exactly that.

    No Child Left Behind needs to be repealed, and the education system reworked to the strengths of each child.

  11. Shane says:

    @Downpressor…

    not so much the “mommy state”. More the rise of narcissism. I can go along w/ to a degree that self-interested Teachers Union have a role in this play, but, as someone who has taught in K-12 (albeit as a substitute), has many family members working in full-time K-12 education, and have children of my own in the public schools, I think it has more to do w/ parents who either don’t want to parent, or, conversely, try to interject themselves way too much into their kids lives.

    My impression, for example, of the high school teachers is that students see them for the emasculated figures that they are. The kids know that their parents will side with them. They know that they have a right to be in school, so, short of posting an emo-tirade on myspace that hits the Columbine-terrorfied panic button, there’s a hell of a lot that you can get away with before they chuck you out. Why work hard to bring up that D grade when mommy can make one visit to the principals office and get it up to a B?

    Working in the tech sector, you see daily the lack of preparedness of the American education system, or else my IT staff wouldn’t be 75% Indian, Russian, Chinese immigrants or tech-worked visas.

  12. Anonymous says:

    We have to get women and minorities into the science pipeline because visa problems are throttling the supply of immigrants.

    This stuff has never been the favored field of the power class. Engineering used to get your kids off the farm or the out of the mine, without requiring social capital. It’s now less rewarding for the effort than sales and management, so it will be effective to recruit kids who will get glass-ceilinged in the gladhanding games.

  13. mgfarrelly says:

    I am the product of a Catholic education. We had excellent math and science education, including AP Bio/Chem and Trig. The emphasis was never on standardized tests, but on learning, experiments and application of knowledge. My favorite science teacher was a Christian Brother with a PhD in Physics who assembled a scale model trebuchet for firing oranges across the football field. We had bridge building competitions, attended “grown-up” science conferences and got to meet with alumni in a range of scientific fields.

    Yes, it was a religious school. Yes, some of our teachers were in religious orders, so what? My junior year a student tried to argue creationism with my bio teacher, who responded “Watch inherit the wind and talk it over with the campus minister, we’re talking about Darwin.”

    The lowered expectations on kids today worries me as much as any group trying to “teach the controversy” if not more so. Stunting curiousity, reducing science to a series of drab lectures or test answers is far more insidious a threat.

    I know I sound like a fogey, but I’m in my 20’s so this is hardly the early days of man.

  14. mgfarrelly says:

    ZUZU:

    It’s a quote from a Harvey Danger song I love

    “Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding/The cretins cloning and feeding/and I don’t even own a tv”

  15. long-orange-arms says:

    Incompetence and ignorance were once character flaws, now they are almost things to boast about.

    As a PhD in a supposedly prestigious university science department I get to see this from the inside all the time. The cutting edge really isn’t that sharp! Half the people here only have a very hazy idea how the instruments they use work and even fewer could use them for anything really novel.

    It seems to me, almost no-one can do anything anymore, and no-one is prepared to feel ashamed at that because they’ve been brainwashed into thinking it’s ok.

    Great article to highlight.

  16. Downpressor says:

    One way to see this is like Spengler, that all civilizations follow a cyclical model (The Decline of The West, 1918). Of course thats just defeatist and so I’ve little use for it in the practice of the here and now.

    I however prefer to blame The Left and its Mommy State emphasis on self esteem over measurable achievement. As for gaming the system to meet the standards of NCLB, what else can you expect when corrupt, lazy Teachers Unions have more to say about how children are (not) taught?

    As long as American parents accept Teachers rewarding piss poor grades as passing, as long as a Gold Star in Esteem is more important than an A in Chemistry or Math, we get reports like like this.

  17. android says:

    “…the type that weasel-words like a champ in the evolution debate, because The Left is science’s real enemy” … WTF? Is there a tag I missed there?

  18. Rob Beschizza says:

    I’m speculating that is his viewpoint. It’s not mine.

  19. Zachariah says:

    Some teachers are realizing that self-efficacy is more important than self-esteem.

    (though they realize self-esteem can block any kind of learning if it’s too low)

  20. Ceronomus says:

    I read the comment about women and minorities not as a slam against them, but a slam against an establishment that cares about WHO you are more than WHAT you know.

    Shouldn’t we be promoting the best and the brightest REGARDLESS of who they may or may not be rather than worrying about trying to find the right “sort” for the job?

    Anyhow, that is how *I* read the comment, rather than his being an “old fart.”

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