Why Kids Don’t Master Science: Teaching Science That Sticks

The word “science” comes from the Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge.” It implies that to use one’s mind, one need not “look it up” first.  Rather, the scientist has already looked it up along with an array of other details, has assimilated them, and finds them ready for use without re-finding them. Ivan Pavlov expressed the point succinctly: “A scientist must accustom himself to the gradual accumulation of knowledge.”  We expect scientists to “know stuff.”

John Jensen, Ph.D.

Contrast this model with the structural design of U.S. high schools arranged around courses that begin and end.  After the “final,” both learning and non-learning are equally dismissed, notes and assignments are discarded, and any retained learning rapidly deteriorates until literally nothing is left behind.  The student may not even remember that he had the course.

Using this popular model, assumed to be the only feasible way to teach, U.S. education has a string going. Comparing its science scores to those from other nations for years now, article titles use words like “dismal,” trail,” “aren’t proficient,” and “don’t understand.”  While people seem not to grasp why, their puzzlement is the true mystery.

In fact the outcomes are predictable. You assign homework that, even when done correctly and on time is later discarded so that the learning in it is not mastered.  You start and end courses, making clear to students when they are no longer “responsible” for the knowledge.  You prepare them for tests by review questions that collapse a semester’s ostensible effort into a tiny bowl of ideas they can “learn” in a couple weeks. And one walking away from “the final” knows he will not be expected to answer to that body of knowledge later.

No one tells him “You’re going to master a body of knowledge, and I’ll show you how to keep it all your life.”  The hourly structure of effort, over which he has no control, insures that he will obtain only brief familiarity, and then pass on even from that.  The mainstream structure of effort removes any doubt about where causality lies.  To understand science scores, just examine what teachers ask students to do. .

Many respond defensively to this picture, blaming someone else:  It’s parents, it’s poverty, it’s the peer group, it’s state funding, it’s poor teachers. Certainly conditions have their effect, but our aim is to find central ones we can alter directly.  We want to uncover what propels sustained energy in all students regardless of peers, parents, poverty, or tenure.  What occurs systemically that, done differently, could quickly galvanize students?  The resource available tomorrow morning is six hours of student effort.  What will you ask of it?

First, get an outcome picture clear.  It’s not of students passing a test (only to discard it on exiting their “final.”)  It’s not students getting A’s on assignments they never look at again.  It’s not teachers “preparing them for the exam” with review questions that formerly would have been teacher-complicit cheating. The outcome picture instead captures a competence and an attitude about it. In your mind’s eye, assemble a roomful of students each of whom is enthusiastic about science;  who willingly do more than required, who are more interested in the work they do than in the grade they receive.

Running that movie as what we want instruction to produce, we inquire what goes on in students’ minds.  What can we reasonably presume occurs there?  What conditions underlie that scene to generate interest and commitment?

I submit that only one cause is strong enough. An idea seizes their imagination, and they identify personally with its pursuit. Their idea fuses the tools of science with a mental purpose, and the two mesh smoothly.

The point emerged from something that happened to me recently. For my birthday, my son sent me a copy of The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality (Richard Panek, Mariner Books, NY, 2011). My son and I enjoy talking about ideas far exceeding our knowledge, so the book fit our family discourse.

I didn’t expect what I found. The book read like a detective story with a cast of characters. Each had his/her own experience, biases, limitations, and aspirations leading to the piece they contributed to the trajectory of a long-running journey into the unknown.  In it we encounter a bit of evidence, a theory, an argument, more data, a wild guess, a resource, a new tool, a competence, the coloring of personality, serendipitous events, risk-taking,  publicity seeking, teamwork, arbitrary preferences, conflict, racing against the clock, formulations of ideas, and the gradual elaboration of a picture of the universe over the course of centuries, but mainly during the last one.

Noticing my own response to the book with an eye toward our goals for students, I realized, “This is how we want students to feel”–eager to race on to the next page, the next chapter. That’s how we want students to grip a book.  An unfolding drama stretched my imagination as it filled in corners of knowledge. That’s what we want students to experience. We want the wonder of a chase occupying their imagination so strongly that it lends to the drudgery of details an evolving personal meaning: “This is getting me somewhere.”

This view of one’s effort is not confined to science of course. In most people’s occupations, details take on personal significance. Browsing in a public library, I ran across a book on careers comprised of interviews with people in varied occupations on the theme of “What sort of problem do you try to solve in your daily work?  What are your challenges, and how you go about meeting them?”

People’s verbatim answers were fascinating, placing the reader inside a stance of going after an objective.  They described vividly how the attempt to achieve a challenging but feasible outcome stimulated them and fueled their energy hour by hour.

Applying this to teaching science, we might reason that students are more likely to invest in it as educators understand what makes it stimulating, attractive, and a worthwhile challenge. Some teachers generate this by connecting instruction to practical projects but a similar impact, I believe, lies just in engaging oneself in an unfolding story like people do with a movie. Scientists need a toward  orientation that makes an outcome imaginable, and then imaginable with fascination, and then imaginable with fascination and effort.  These are conditions we can supply to students if we wish.

Panek’s book offers a model that could apply to many unfolding dramas.  Its concepts are relevant to current public discussion. They are within the grasp of nearly any high school student aided with teacher presentation, class discussion, and illustrative projects. Mathematics can be incorporated at any level desired, as well as principles of chemistry and physics.  Telling the story itself amounts to a significant personal achievement.  In the course of a semester, students might answer the following questions:

How did early thinking about cosmology differ from thinking now?

What two numbers organized the chase for knowledge?

How did the differences between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity generate a major problem?

Explain the development of cosmology by the people who moved it forward and their contributions.

Describe how the interplay between theory and experiment moved cosmology.

Why did physicists and astronomers need each other?

Einstein called one of his ideas “my biggest blunder.”  Why did people argue over it for nearly a century?

What are standard candles, and why were they important?

What is omega?  What is lambda?

What conditions determine whether the universe is open, collapsing, or flat?

These questions might each be answered in a sentence or two, yet the potential knowledge to be tapped behind them is unlimited.  For a median goal after a semester’s work, imagine each student able to stand  and present a competent, detailed, three-hour lecture on how the current understanding of the cosmos developed.

Imagine.  Without a driving imaginative basis and a purposeful intent to acquire a body of knowledge, students are more likely to dismiss learning about science as fast as they complete a course. Mastering the story of the universe is a worthy, important, and mind-altering ability more likely to interest a student in science than “covering” any lesson curriculum designers might impose.  To enlist long-term interest, wrap instruction around mastering a narrative of people solving a worthwhile problem. A proportion of students will realize that a lifetime of fascination awaits them, and that that is precisely how they would like to spend the intellectual resources of their adult years.

The first book of John Jensen’s three-book Practice Makes Permanent series was issued February 22 by Rowman and Littlefield, titled Teaching Students To Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent. Readers interested in previewing the second book due out in mid-summer, titled Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent, can contact him at jjensen@gci.net.

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.