Trends in Understanding Science and Technology (and What It Means to Education)

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 3.06.50 PMThe National Science Foundation released its report on Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 this last February. Needless to say, I find the trends disturbing. Yet, most people will go on with their lives with nary a thought about the trends, nor will these same people recognize the disingenuous concerns expressed by a state funded foundation.

While there is a wealth of information in the document (e.g., that people say they are interested in scientific discoveries, but their news watching/reading habits really say they are more interested in weather and crime than any specific scientific discovery), of particular interest to this post is chapter-7 Table 7-8, Page 7-23. This table shows ten questions in physical and biological sciences. The authors categorize the questions as nine facts plus a theory question regarding evolution used as a polling experiment.

As an aside, I see it as eight facts since the Big Bang, while supported with strong correlation between model and current data, is still a theory since there is no empirical methods (yet) to validate the models relative to what actually happened at the beginning; i.e., if we are wrong with regard to what the laws of physics looked like at the beginning (we have no way of really knowing) then it could have just as easily been a slow but accelerating expansion as the apparent dark matter and energy is very much a mystery. In mathematical and statistical terms: its an extrapolation. In other words: I know enough to know I don’t know enough.

But I digress… The real point to this discussion is what the numbers on Page 7-23 tell us about current knowledge with respect to the effectiveness of education. Unfortunately, the authors are not clear with regard to the how the answers correlated to age and education of the respondents, and such details may well be in the data (I just haven’t found it yet). Regardless, some of the answers are startling, and proof that our education system in this country (and others) is simply failing.

I decided to throw a Pop Quiz with these ten (true/false) questions at GranolaGirl, Primo (12 years old), and Secondo (9 years old) just to see how this compared to the averages for the four major peer nations or unions.

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As expected, Primo’s and GranolaGirl’s answers were spot-on; Primo even threw out a “Yeah, but…” in response to the two theory questions, meaning we are successfully building his critical eye. Secondo only “missed” three of the questions because we have not yet discussed these topics with him in any detail. Even though GranolaGirl’s educational background at university was history, finance, and management, she had a thorough enough education in basic sciences (that continues to this day) to answer these questions.

So how is it that the answers in the four major powers in the world produce such pathetic results? The answer to that question has many different facets: some cultures may simply not care, or some economies simply don’t have the need. Yet, for these peers, science and technology are cornerstones for their respective economies (at least if they hope to compete in the current marketplace).

Clearly, the education systems in all four countries/regions are failing to communicate the basics of scientific methodology, as well as the latest scientific knowledge and theories. While literacy can be high, and great strides are made in education to ensure that children can perform basic arithmetic skills, read, write, and have basic timelines of history (and trivia) memorized, the same attention to rigor cannot be said for the teaching of science. At least I don’t see evidence of teaching scientific rigor.

In particular, the teaching of scientific methods, the critical approach to analyzing information, and especially the teaching of methodical discipline is apparently missing from the educational outcomes.

But why?

I will posit that the source of the problem is somewhere within the elite structures of our society; this is coupled with the Prussian-style educational system implemented to ensure a stratified class system that serves the state. Given such purposes, only a small percentage of the society needs to be well versed in scientific thought. Simply put, a large percentage of truly educated (critically thinking) citizens is a threat to the power structure.

Can I prove it? Probably not yet. Maybe never. Is there some grand conspiracy? Probably not. It may be as simple as “social systems are just wired that way.” What we can do, in the meantime, is take this hypothesis, design tests, collect the evidence and attempt to draw reasonable conclusions and see where it leads.

Until then, I will leave the reader with a list (below) of some of my favorite links on the topic, which have had me thinking for quite some time (alas to no clear conclusion).

Carry on!

The 4th Purpose

John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down and The Underground History of American Education (I recommend getting a hard copy of this one as it is quite cumbersome in html form)

Charllote Thomson Iserbyt’s The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America and Back to Basics Reform


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