Thursday, November 26, 2015

Science and the Culture of Education

I love the approach of science to learning. As a professor with a research focus in weather and climate science, my objective is to better understand aspects of the natural world. Science is a way of interrogating that world through observation, developing models of what we observe, and testing them against observations and other knowledge. This testing is necessary because we cannot simply accept our hypothetical models as fact. Fundamental to the whole scientific process is skepticism about our explanations. Successful scientists doubt their own explanations and those proposed by other scientists. Every idea is open to being discredited and discarded, even those with deep consensus, and confidence in an idea depends on the evidence presented in favor and the lack of verifiable evidence against.

In the end, the “truth” of a scientific notion or model depends not on how many scientists accept it, but on whether observed facts remain consistent with its predictions. The more evidence that piles up over years or even centuries of testing and experience raises confidence in an explanation or ultimately discredits it. Some models have been so thoroughly tested without refutation that confidence levels of most experts exceed 99%. Some aspects of quantum mechanics, the germ theory of disease, the general theory of evolution of living organisms by natural selection, and even the safety and efficacy of some algorithms of genetic modification of food crops have reached that level of confidence in the scientific enterprise, even if some political or religious movements resist or ignore the evidence. At its most fundamental level, the theory of climate change, including global warming in response to burning of fossil fuels is at a similarly high level of confidence. It is a fact, tested repeatedly in the laboratory, that CO2 absorbs infrared radiation and re emits it. In the atmosphere, it is demonstrably true that CO2 reduces the rate at which the atmosphere emits radiation into space, thereby increasing the heat retained at the surface of the earth. The direct effects of changes in CO2 concentration due to human activities is fairly small, but several known feedbacks amplify or reduce the resulting warming. Some gaps in our understanding of the size of these competing feedbacks remain. Thus the details of climate change induced by human activities, including how warm the planet will ultimately get given doubling of CO2, are not as firmly grounded as our simple knowledge that increases in CO2 concentration would raise the average temperature of the surface of the earth. In that context, the most appropriate public policy decisions with respect to climate change should be informed by our understanding of risks and the likelihoods of negative and positive outcomes, even though we are not absolutely certain at what level the altered climate will ultimately verify.

Although scientists do exist in a culture that motivates asking certain questions over others, the conclusions of science are not forced upon scientists in advance by some authority or by pre conceived notion. Instead, scientists are free to engage the data, the models of other scientists, and their own ideas, and they are free to present their ideas. Healthy scientific culture welcomes new ideas. In general, no formally submitted scientific proposition is shouted down or mocked, but new ideas or claims are brutally scrutinized through peer review. Those ideas that survive the test of time become broadly accepted.

Several aspects of the general processes of science seem natural to our youngest children. Young children are always asking questions. They observe nature and poke and prod at it, developing explanations for what they see, and they test those explanations. Of course they do not always come to conclusions that are consistent with prevailing scientific views, but most children genuinely want to understand nature. Although a small fraction of children maintain that healthy curiosity into adulthood, many of them lose it while very young, as adults squash their curiosity by suppressing their questions. They also lose interest as they begin to see science and math from the perspective enforced in public school. Many great teachers and teaching algorithms inspire interest in scientific thinking, but the system as a whole destroys that thinking, reducing it to sets of facts, rote exercises with clear pathways to a single right answer, and bubbles on standardized tests. The curriculum has become so standardized that the next steps and the next questions are almost entirely specified by the system. Thus students rarely maintain the vision of how to craft questions themselves and how to follow the evidence where it leads. The curriculum quells curiosity and excitement as a heavy wet blanket kills fire, and I am convinced that loss of these motivations for deep learning is one of the biggest tragedies of the modern world. Many heroes in education are working from within to improve the effectiveness of science curriculum, and I admire their efforts. 

I love and respect my students at the university, and nothing thrills me more than to see them ultimately buck the shackles of the system by taking back responsibility for their own learning. I teach applied mathematics, statistics, and computer programming as tools to better understand natural systems. I find that my greatest challenge is to help students learn to craft questions and algorithms to solve broadly stated problems. The education system has trained students to constantly ask authorities what they should do next. Students want the exercises set up for them. In my view, this represents the greatest failure of public education. It emerges because students are almost constantly directed by autocracy in the classroom that tells them when to do something, how to do it, and what to conclude from it.  

The real world, in contrast, requires that they learn how to pose questions, and then work out pathways to answering them when there is both too little and too much information available. They need to learn to make appropriate assumptions and how to test those assumptions. This type of learning cannot be reduced to a blank space on a worksheet or a bubble on a test form.

My own children are not perfect students, but they are curious contemplators. They left the public school system for home education years ago, and I don't recall them ever asking to go back. They spend hours each day playing, reading, computer programming, drawing, craft making, and in other pursuits. They are largely self-directed. My wife and I provide them with the topical expectations of the state, and we help them generate learning plans. We expose them to people and ideas that they might not necessarily have discovered by themselves, but only rarely do we impose our wills firmly on them. They connect with other children and adults at the park and at Yacon Village, a community-learning center in the Albany New York area. They occasionally participate in classes taught by other students and adults in the community. As one might expect, they end up behind their peers in public school in some areas and well ahead of them in others. 

We do support limited testing and assessment, by offering our children one standardized test each year. We use that test as a tool to help guide their future learning activities. Curriculum dominated by testing does not yield vibrant curiosity-driven learning. When student motivations for learning are internal, their outcomes nearly always exceed expectations. They wake up excited about what the new day will bring. They thrive on a healthy level of autonomy. Students around the world cry out for such autonomy. Let's help them achieve it.  

You may contact the author at proundy at Albany dot edu

The opinions presented here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of my employer or the State of New York.