Talking About Science
If you ask the mythical person-on-the-street for a definition of science, you’d probably get something like, “a body of knowledge about the physical or biological world.” My dictionary chimes in with “a branch of knowledge dealing with a body of facts on the natural world.”
Working scientists would likely offer a wholly different definition because to them science isn’t a fixed body of facts, but a process of discovery, an iteration, an actively evolving understanding of reality.
These different ways of seeing may be why science education is judged so poorly in the U.S., and why the oft-repeated calls for reform are ineffective at getting real change. Teachers convey fixed structures of knowledge, but science is actually practiced as discourse and continuous inquiry between humans.
A recent publication illuminates the problem. Researchers in the School of Education at the University of Michigan studied how high-school teachers actually engage students in scientific discussion. Predictably, perhaps, both students and teachers are ill equipped to sustain inquiry-based learning on inherently hard subjects, and they quickly fall back to traditional patterns of teachers reciting what students need to know (Science Education 94:3 [May 2010], 395–427).
Solving this problem defies easy solutions. Perhaps one is to encourage high-school science teachers to spend their summers in active research labs to participate in the daily conversation of science in the making (paid handsomely, of course).