Science Minus Science


Written by Dylan Holmes

I'm worried that science classes are becoming unscientific. Typically, science classes are supposed to teach not only how the world works, but also how to think scientifically. Lately, however, our mentality has been marginalized to make time for teaching students all the theory that eventual college students should know. Because our theories are complex, with intricacies that would be cruel and unusual to inflict upon unsuspecting pupils, such a curriculum requires teachers to be frugal with the facts: they must prune tangential subjects and pare whatever's left, watering down complicated results into simplified half-truths. They must avoid the imperfect boundaries of our knowledge, instead concentrating on an idealized and sanitized account of what we know. But what's the result of such abbreviation?

In modern science classrooms, students must still swallow a deluge of unfamiliar scientific dogma in time to regurgitate it onto an exam. In their forced hurry, they cannot stop to ponder various alternatives which scientists have methodically eliminated over the course of centuries; instead, they must simply trust that science has done what it purports to have done–or, faster, simply stamp out their own conjectural, critical instincts.

Facility with scientific concepts and language is not such a bad skill to have. By the end of such a course, students might be able to recite the tenets of our current scientific creed and might employ those tenets when answering carefully formulated questions. I am worried, though, because even if our students get their facts straight, they will still have acquired at most only our pre-processed truths, and nothing of the empirical machinery that produced them.

In my opinion, this shortchanges our students, and we ought to re-evaluate our priorities. Surely the essential mark of the scientist is not his ability to recount the latest model of reality, but rather his pervasive inquiry and methodical, empirical approach to obtaining answers? Instead of canonizing the latest theories, shouldn't we be stimulating a zeal for scrutinizing them? Might we even want to postpone handing our students canned knowledge, at the very least until we've taught them enough about how to be curious, how to acquire knowledge for themselves, how to be analytical—in short, how to live like scientists?

When we value data absorption over methodical reason, we give our students a fragmentary and moreover inexplicable impression of nature, one which will probably evaporate outside the classroom. That's an approach to science which hardly sounds like science. Instead, let's teach students how to think, so they can build a framework that will house the rest of their knowledge. Let's stop rushing to teach students everything we know, and let them grapple with Nature themselves for a while. Let's train them to be curious rather than complacent learners. The results will be worth our effort.

Date: 2012-04-26 21:09:51 UTC

Author: Dylan Holmes

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