Science classes should include actual science.

 

But don’t they already? I mean, we have a textbook. Surely there is some “science” in my chemistry textbook, or at least my biology textbook. I’m not sure about physics: that looks too much like maths.

When I read those textbooks, I learn about scientists, and I learn about experiments, and I learn about discoveries. I memorize formulas and I solve equations. That’s actual science, right? Sure, you’re reading about science. But that’s not science.

Like history, science is about asking interesting questions: Why does the light turn on when I flip the switch? How does an airplane stay in the sky? Why do I have to breathe to stay alive? What is that stuff that grows on my fruit when I leave it outside for too long?

As with maths, many students go through their entire science careers without learning what science actually is. That’s because science is not fundamentally about Newtonian laws and f=ma. It is about understanding that the world is a comprehensible place, and that there are methods by which a student (yes, you! You, the student! You, the non-scientist! You, the person whose name is not in the textbook!) can understand it for himself, without relying on what anyone else has told him.

We should stop indirectly teaching our science students the exact opposite of the first rule of scientific discovery. Instead of directing them to memorize the textbook, we should teach them to question everything, and to develop their own conclusions. More than that, we should teach them the tools to do so successfully: hypothesis testing, isolating variables, inductive and deductive reasoning, presentation of findings, etc.

These are the important skills for a scientist, as well as for a thinking human being. If you can do all of those things when you finish your science courses, you have followed an effective programme, no matter how little else you have learned. If you can’t do those things, you have wasted your time on an ineffective science programme, no matter how much else you have learned.

I can’t resist one more thought:

I am a Boston Celtics basketball fan. The Boston Celtics recently traded for Kyrie Irving, an incredibly skilled player who also happened to attend one of the top universities in the world (for one year, but still!). I mention the latter point because Kyrie Irving earnestly believes that the earth is flat.

I listened to the podcast last year where he explained his reasoning. “You can’t trust what they tell you,” he said. “They want you to believe the earth is round. You have to do your own research. I have, and now I know that they are lying to us.”

The rest of the people on the podcast, two other players and a reporter acting as the host, nodded along. “I’m not sure about this ‘earth is flat’ business,” they said, “but you’re right about the questioning. You’re right that you can’t trust what you read.”

In fact, he is right about the need to question. He clearly has not learned the key skills needed to do so effectively, however. If he had, he could discover the earth’s roundness for himself using the same methods Aristotle used: observing how ships disappear over the horizon, using the shape of the earth’s shadow on the moon during an eclipse to deduce the earth’s shape, etc. He could also observe that he, personally, can travel around the world by airplane and not fall off the edge (Aristotle did not have that luxury).

This is the great danger of our unscientific science education. Children who do not learn how to question will still, eventually, question some things for themselves. They just will not have the tools to do so effectively.

That’s why parents in Tsakane believe there is a mythical monster living in the dam next to the township, emerging during storms to rip the roofs off of houses. It’s also why people in the United States believe climate change does not exist.

 

-Jay Kloppenberg, African School for Excellence Co-Founder