Nothing heretical about teaching students to recognize BS

“The most useful skill we could teach is the habit of asking oneself and others, how do you know?…Science is not a collection of facts but a way of interrogating the world. Let’s teach kids to ask smarter questions.”

This clear and compelling statement is from Sharon Begley’s (somewhat) recent piece in Newsweek called ‘Wanted: BS detector. What science ed should really teach[i]. She crafts a short but effective argument, based on Ben Goldacre’s new book ‘Bad Science’, that the nature of science and scientific processes should be the core of science education. Students should learn what good science is, including what good evidence is and how to distinguish valid inquiries from the BS (eye-winkingly defined as Bad Science). I liked the quote above so much that I used it as an attention grabbing opener for an ad that I sent to our graduate student list for a course I’m teaching next term call ‘Examining the Nature of Science’.

That being said, I have a major concern about how her argument was framed. The quote above is from the conclusion of the piece (and I hope I’ve been clear that I agree with this conclusion). The opening is another matter. She begins:

“This column is about science education, but teachers and curriculum designers should click away now rather than risk apoplexy. Instead of making the usual boring plea for more resources for K–12 science (or, as it is now trendily called, STEM, for science, technology, engineering, and math), I hereby make the heretical argument that it is time to stop cramming kids’ heads with the Krebs cycle, Ohm’s law, and the myriad other facts that constitute today’s science curricula. Instead, what we need to teach is the ability to detect Bad Science—BS, if you will.”

The only apoplexy that I feel is in response to this introduction. First, this is by no means a heretical argument. I would go so far as to say that it is almost status quo. Second, it seems to me to be a strange decision to open by alienating the very people who could actually enact the change that you suggest.

A couple of days after reading the Newsweek piece[ii], a colleague (Frank Jenkins, Co-director of the University of Alberta’s Centre for Math, Science and Technology Education) sent me this advertisement for a lecture sponsored by the Alberta Teacher’s Association Science Council. This is the professional organization for elementary and high school science teachers across the province. They host an annual conference in November and professional development activities throughout the year. This is an organization run by teachers and science department heads. The topics of discussion reflect the issues and questions emerging in school science and those that teachers identify as relevant to their practice.

Thursday Afternoon Presentation and Discussion:
Consultant and Guest Speaker: Dr. Paul deHart Hurd,
Professor of Science Education, Stanford University, California USA
Topic: Recent Trends and Developments in Science Education
“Future emphasis will be on methods of science as opposed to verification of facts.”

That’s fantastic, I thought. That fits perfectly with Sharon Begley’s argument…except that it is from the conference in 1961. A stroll through the archives of the Science Council newsletters shows discussion topics such as  “Chemistry is what chemists do…[not] what chemists know” (1983), “It is the method not the content of science that matters” (1984). Similarly the National Science Teachers Association has emphasized scientific processes and methods as the core of science education for many years. Take a minute to read their Nature of Science position statement. It is anchored in the following statements:

“The National Science Teachers Association endorses the proposition that science, along with its methods, explanations and generalizations, must be the sole focus of instruction in science classes to the exclusion of all non-scientific or pseudoscientific methods, explanations, generalizations and products. … Although no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science, a number of shared values and perspectives characterize a scientific approach to understanding nature. Among these are a demand for naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence that are, at least in principle, testable against the natural world.”

All this is to say that what Sharon Begley has argued is by no means heretical. It is common and well accepted. Science teachers, science education researchers, science curriculum developers and others have been making the same argument since at least the 1960s. The problem that she should have addressed is why, despite this widespread recognition of its importance, this approach to science teaching is not consistently front and centre in science classrooms.

One of the most obvious reasons is the disconnect between this recognition and assessment practices. Most large-scale assessments (such as the diploma exams that students must write here in Alberta) emphasize factual knowledge and mathematical problem solving (e.g., “If a ball is thrown into the air with a velocity of +2 m/s…). It’s not hard to guess the impact of assessment of this type of assessment on teachers’ practices. If this were the only reason though, the solution would be easy – just change the assessments. But of course it’s not that simple.

Science teachers, curriculum developers, and science education researchers are constantly pulled in several different directions. The science education that Sharon Begley advocates emphasizes the needs of students as future citizens and participants in democratic and consumer culture. But what about preparing students for future studies in university, what kind of science education do they need for that? What is the best preparation and encouragement for future scientists? It is not necessarily exactly the same and teachers often (and understandably) feel considerable pressure to meet the demands of the science pipeline.

There are also cultural understandings of science education that impact teachers, students, administrators, parents and anyone else with a stake in school science. In 1996, Ken Tobin and Campbell McRobbie published a classic case study of a school in Australia examining why reforms (such as emphasizing how scientists know over scientific content) were not necessarily enacted in classroom even when teachers understood them and recognized their value. Tobin and McRobbie identified several cultural myths or values that worked, often implicitly, to impact what one particular teacher did in his chemistry classroom. They found that the teacher and his students shared these conceptions about what science education should be like and could not commit to the reforms when those reforms contradicted these values and beliefs.

For example, they observed that students and their teacher adhered to a myth of rigor – that science teaching must always be conducted at a consistently high level for all groups of students and that this rigor is among the defining characteristics of science education. Many of the scientific concepts of high school science are esoteric and abstract. Emphasizing these concepts easily meets expectations of the myth of rigor. Identifying good science from bad, however, is difficult to reconcile with the myth of rigor because it cannot be reduced to simple list of characteristics that students can be taught every year. It involves analysis and argumentation and is accessible rather than esoteric. So despite knowing the value of teaching students about evidence and experimental design, underlying fears of not meeting the myth of rigor may continue to hold teachers in patterns of primarily teaching scientific content.

Similarly they identified the myth of efficiency. There is a justified feeling among many teachers (I know I have felt this myself) that there is so much that students need to know, so much in the mandated curricula, that efficiency must be a major guiding principle. Approaches that facilitate moving quickly from one curriculum element to the other can feel like a necessity. Again, content oriented teaching meets the expectations of this myth much more easily that teaching that emphasizes the discussion and critique of scientific methods. So despite knowing that differentiated good science from bad will be of extreme importance to students, most stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, administrators) have an underlying acceptance of the myth that efficiency is paramount.

What we see in studies like Tobin and McRobbie’s is that teachers know that approaches such as those suggested by Sharon Begley are important and valuable. The difficulty is that there are several constraints to making it happen. This is not to excuse science educators from the important work of making changes to science education. My suggestion is instead that the Newsweek piece misses the issue by framing it as something that science teachers would disagree with.

This brings me to my major personal concern with the framing of the Newsweek piece. The author is not embedded in the world of science education and can to some degree be forgiven for not being aware that these ideas are well-recognized and well-established. The negative tone of the opening paragraph means though that the piece will likely not have the impact that it might have. From case studies like the one above, we know that changing cultural expectations of science teaching especially among teachers is important for seeing these ideas integrated into science teaching. Teachers need to know not only that they are supported in seeing these as important issues but that the wider public conversation about science education is moving away from ideas of rigor and efficiency and to a place where the cultural expectation is of science education that prepares students to understand what good science is. Pieces in major news publications could be powerful in supporting teachers to make these changes. Instead, though, this piece opens by alienating them. Aside from building solidarity with readers who may remember their own childhood science classes less than fondly, I am not sure what the value is in creating a fictitious boundary between those outside of science education who are enlightened to the importance of teaching about the nature of science and those within who are ignorant or in disagreement. I see it as just another missed opportunity for engagement with the real (and complex) problems of science education.

Further reading

Bartholomew, H., Osborne, J. and Ratcliffe, M. (2004). Teaching students “ideas-about-science”: Five dimensions of effective practice. Science Education, 88, 655–682. doi: 10.1002/sce.10136

Tobin, K. and McRobbie, C. J. (1996). Cultural myths as constraints to the enacted science curriculum. Science Education, 80, 223–241.

Wong, S. L. and Hodson, D. (2009). From the horse’s mouth: What scientists say about scientific investigation and scientific knowledge. Science Education, 93, 109–130. doi: 10.1002/sce.20290

[i] I know that timeliness is the essence of blogging and commenting on electronic media and that I’ve clearly broken that. Please forgive me – grant writing and teaching had to take over for a couple of weeks.

[ii] I apologize for the awkwardness introduced in my sentences by avoiding using Sharon Begley’s last name to identify her. Those who know me IRL will know that I have a very silly terrier mix named Begley. In writing this post, I couldn’t write ‘Begley’ without giggling. My apologies. For reference, this is whom I picture when I write the name Begley:


5 responses to “Nothing heretical about teaching students to recognize BS”

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