Education Reform

Arthur Camins: Tell It to Your School Board: We Demand Science and Care

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Arthur Camins is a retired science educator.

In this post, he emphasizes the importance of teaching students to ask the right questions, rather than memorize the “right answers.”

Camins begins his article:

It is inescapable: Truths, lies, and inaction about climate change, Covid-19, and racism. Everywhere we see pitched battles over whether and how to respond. Our children live in this adult-made mess. They pay attention. Some age-appropriate shielding of young children may be wise, but they don’t live under rocks. The very least we can do is ensure that they grow up to be smarter about evidence and more caring than so many adults. It is imperative and possible through K-12 curriculum that prioritizes scientific thinking and a caring school culture.

Adults and young people alike are bombarded with a range of information which, depending on personal perspective, appears to range from obviously true to patently false with a whole lot of ambiguity in between.  We want to figure out what’s true and what’s not, but too many of us are flummoxed. Even more challenging and frustrating, we often hit a wall in dealing with repeaters of clear disinformation or folks who simply refuse to care about others.  For the sake of our children, we need to do better now and prepare them to face similar conflicts in their future.

Some mix of scientific illiteracy, mistrust of social institutions, and lack of care for fellow humans created a perfect anti-truth storm. As a result, we failed as a nation to stave off the dire climate-altering effects of uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels or to take timely action to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Several generations of decision-makers in government and industries have abetted the use of scientific inquiry to make things worse rather than better for most of their fellow humans. In addition, we live with the lie that inequity and racism are normal and unavoidable, making the impact far worse for some than others.

Alarmingly, a small cadre of parents, with Republican support, are now making a loud fuss at school board meetings demanding purposeful ignorance of history and disease prevention measures.  The rest of us, the majority, need to fight just as vigorously–but without the anger and threats–for curricula and instruction that help prepare students to deal with complex contentious problems.

Let’s start with evidence rather than conjecture about what goes on in classrooms every day. Children are not always the most reliable or detailed reporters of, “What did you do in school today?” Parents cannot nor should they be constant classroom observers. Students and their teachers need some space. So, we need inferential evidence.  It’s what comes home: A backpack filled with papers or what is in notebooks.  Along with all the other normal and pandemic-enhanced demands on parents, it’s a lot to pick through. But take a moment to look for some specific indicators. It is a matter of life and death– not for tomorrow but for the world our children will inherit and be able to influence.

Look for evidence that they are engaged in answering scientific questions through investigations: Across the day, what causes the length of shadows changes from long to short and back to long? What explains that rain puddles remain on some materials, but not others; What causes some species to become extinct or the polar icecaps to shrink; Where does all the material in a giant redwood tree come from?    

These questions lend themselves to learning vital science concepts but there is something more important: You should see that students offer their tentative ideas about natural phenomena and then gather evidence to confirm or revise their thinking.   For example, you might see some variation on:  I used to think……., but then we found this new evidence ……… Now, I think ………

That is quite different from what many of us remember about school science: Memorizing–and soon-forgetting the chemical equation for photosynthesis; What went where on the periodic table; or the order of the planets in our solar system.  And, it is not just getting to do hands-on science, although engaging in investigation with materials is important...  

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