Curiosity Won't Kill Science Classes

Richard Gallagher
The Scientist
March 28, 2005
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I'm concerned about the state of science teaching. Over the past few months, three quite separate accounts have made me nervous. The first was an opinion published last month in The Harvard Crimson, the university daily, in which student Irene Y. Sun detailed her wretched experience in a science class.
Describing the erosion of her intellectual curiosity [1] by the relentless pursuit of grades by teachers and students alike, Sun wrote:
"At what point did professors automatically expect that their students studied their subject matters because of career requirements rather than intellectual appeal? Why are so many of my fellow students so hell-bent on requirements instead of passion? What happened to that sense of academic adventure, excitement and curiosity?"

She asks good questions.

The second prod was provided by the summary of a Science Advisory Board poll of scientists on ways to improve "scientific literacy." [2] Teaching teachers to teach topped the list, as it should have. But I'm not so sure about the conclusion that "preparing children for tomorrow depends upon a nation's willingness to invest -- over the long term -- in the training and tools teachers need to keep abreast with the leading technologies of today."
What about imparting a sense of curiosity, excitement, and experimentation?
Isn't this what teachers should be best at, even more so than staying abreast of the latest technologies?

My third encounter has been a little more personal. You'll notice that we've foregone the Opinion article in this issue. In its place is an expanded Letters section, largely given over to responses to the Editorial of a couple of issues ago, [3] on beating off the challenge to evolution from intelligent design. I am criticized by a fair number of the responses from "our" side, some rather strident. Here's an example from a blog [4]:
"You know what I hate most about the evolution/creation debate? It isn't the ignorance peddlers of the Discovery Institute or the gibbering insanity of Answers in Genesis. It's not the semi-literate know-nothings who pollute the comment boards of blogs with their repetitive drivel. It isn't even the fawning press coverage these dangerous right-wing ideologues occasionally receive. No. What I really hate is the child-like naivetÚ of some scientists who really ought to know better."

That's me. But I think I got off lightly. Even though I'm "most-hated" -- is that anything like being granted "most favored nation" status? -- it's for being a hopeless na´f, not an ignorant, gibbering, dangerous, semiliterate no-nothing polluter of bandwidth. Phew! Still, the question must be asked:
Is this sort of self-important bluster helpful in the battle against proponents of intelligent design? I certainly don't see it as putting the best face on the pro-evolution argument to an interested public.

But to get back to science teaching, worse still, some (nominally) pro-evolution correspondents harbor remarkable views of science teaching.
Consider this missive from a blogger named "Desert Donkey" [5]:
"The impulse to compare and demolish is strong, but high school students are basically in a position where they are taught well-established truths in most subjects. Math classes don't spend time questioning the reality of prime numbers. Facts is facts. Some type of critical thinking class for inquisitive students might fly, but I still think it has no place in an actual science class."

Critical thinking has no place in science class? Really? That bodes incredibly poorly for the future of science teaching. We're shelving our best weapon against intelligent design, and I find it incredibly sad that scientists who support evolution so strongly would have us shield growing young minds from the "dangers" of critical thinking.

If that's not dogma, I don't know what is.

References
[1] http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=505618

[2] http://www.scienceboard.net/community/news/news.238.html

[3] R Gallagher "Intelligent design and informed debate," The Scientist
19(4): 6. Feb. 28, 2005

[4] http://evolutionblog.blogspot.com/2005/02/this-is-depressing.html

[5] http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/what_was_he_thinking