Escaping the rhetoric of “the past” in science education

“Science students are rarely exhorted to question the present state of scientific knowledge. Somehow, it appears that boys and girls learn to accept the dogmatic assertions of teachers and textbooks. In the sense that all scientific data and conclusions are tentative, such acceptance is truly antiscientific. Every high-school science student should have an opportunity to explore at least one conceptual scheme so intensively that he begins to sense the limitations of what we know and observe about natural phenomena. He should understand that it is always proper to ask within what limits of error science data or concepts are accepted as correct.”[i]

In my office I have a small collection of historical science and science education textbooks. I haven’t spend much time trying to build a collection or anything but I like old books so I’ve been picking them up from retiring professors and used book sales since I was in grad school. Until recently, I wasn’t doing much with them (other than flipping through them over lunch occasionally) but I started posting some quotes from them on Tumblr, usually with a short comment.

This morning I went to do the same thing with the quote above. It’s from an old teacher education textbook called Quality Science for Secondary Schools published in 1960. In the midst of typing though, I paused, starting to feel like my comments were the same for almost all of the quotes: Arguments about good science education don’t seem to change, regardless of the year they were written.

Educators, critics, and scientists often argue for improving science education by teaching the processes of science, emphasizing critical thinking, and actively engaging students in doing science. Almost always, this is argued to be a great improvement over “traditional” approaches to science teaching that prioritize the rote learning of facts–an approach that is said to have dominated in the past. The problem is, it’s always a different past that we’re talking about – for us, it’s maybe the 80s, for those involved in writing the book, maybe the 40s.

In December, I made a similar argument in response to an article in Newsweek by Sharon Begley. She made a passionate plea for science education to emphasize scientific processes and critical thought. I agree with many of things that she said but she framed this as a new and, in her words, heretical argument. Archival material from the local provincial science teachers’ association says something different:

Alberta Teachers Association Science Council Conference 1961

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.”

These ideas were already the future of science education in the 1960s.

But what about before that? Were the authors of Quality Science for Secondary Schools justified in favourably comparing their new approaches to “traditional” approaches? Turns out they weren’t.

Modern science education – to go further, the inclusion of science in school curricula at all – owes a lot to Louis Agassiz and Nature Study education. Scientists, like Agassiz, educators and child psychologists (then a new area of research), were passionate about improving education, making it accessible and relevant for more students (for a variety of sometimes competing reasons, but I won’t go into detail about that here). One of Aggasiz’s most famous arguments was the students should “study nature not books”. They should engage in the processes of science (Agassiz emphasized the power of observation) and learn to analyze evidence and draw their own conclusions. One of Agassiz’s students was David Starr Jordan (later the president of Stanford University) who wrote in his summer field school notebook:

“There is no part of the country where in summer you cannot get a sufficient supply of the best specimens. Take your text from the brooks, not from the booksellers. It is better to have a few forms well known than to teach a little about many hundred species.”[ii]

Excellent idea! Encourage students to actively explore the natural environment instead of learning endless terminology from textbooks. Wait a second, when did Jordan write this?


At the turn of the 20th century, science was not a typical part of the school curriculum. Standardized curricula that flowed from elementary to high school were really just beginning to be created in North America in the 1890s. Including science in these plans was seen as modern choice, a way to prepare for the future but also to challenge the rote approaches of a classical education. Instead of memorizing Latin conjugations, students should be learning things that would help them live better and survive economically. Sound familiar?

So what happened? Greater efforts to standardize education and concerns about teacher education and training (among other things) created the same kind of push/pull that we see today. A flexible science education that emphasizes engaging in science in the local environment became a difficult thing to do when inspections, prescribed texts, and standardized exams became the norm.

The barrier that prevents active, critical and process oriented science teaching has never been the fact that it’s a new idea. It’s not. When you scratch the surface of these arguments it turns out to be a rabbit hole. There is no past where rote teaching of scientific content was thought to be the best approach. This past is a rhetorical one.

The challenge this presents is that arguments presented in this way can’t lead to change because the actual challenges are covered up.  When those challenges (e.g., (standardization pressures, assessment practices, changing curricula, to name just a few)) are invisible, they become a lot harder to address. A more fruitful approach might sound like this: “ We recognize that many teachers, scientists, and science educators have been asking for the same things for a long time. For many reasons it’s been difficult to realize this vision of science education. Let’s see what we can do to address the underlying issues.”

This can’t happen if the real reasons are constantly covered up by the rhetoric that this is new and non-traditional. So what do you say, can we leave that reason alone for a bit?

[i] National Science Teachers Association (1960). Quality Science for Secondary Schools. NSTA Press (p. X).

[ii] Kohlstedt, S.G. (2010). Teaching children science: Hands-on nature study in North America, 1890-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (p. 21)

Objectivity and ambivalence: The case of the Apollo scientists

Last week, a friend sent me this quote from a climate change opinion letter. 

“While we may or may not be correct on any scientific topic, the only pertinent arguments are real scientific arguments involving honest evidence. The only satisfactory outcome is a completely objective analysis.”

She said she was happy to see such a strong statment about the differences between science and politics, but I’m not sure I agree with her. [i]

When discussing controversial issues like climate change and MMR, the boundary between scientific and non-scientific claims is always an important part of the conversation. Most often that boundary is defined by objectivity. The work of scientists is usually portrayed as completely objective, in contrast to those who would rely on emotional, religious, or political reasoning. When science is portrayed this way, though, any perceived lack of objectivity can become a weakness – a sign that science should not believed. And while this black and white distinction is mostly a rhetorical choice, it presents a problem. The climate gate emails, for example, made people uncomfortable because the scientists were acting in ways that didn’t seem completely objective. And if they aren’t totally objective, is there something wrong with their science?

Not necessarily. Consider this comment from a scientist involved in one of the most celebrated and iconic American scientific endeavours: “The emotionally disinterested scientist is a myth. Even if there were such a being, he probably wouldn’t be worth much as a scientist” Calvin Johnson[ii], Apollo mission scientist.

Dr. Johnson’s comments were made during a time that is often seen as a golden age for science. Following World War II, it had gained an important place in public dialogue. In North America, and especially in the United States, scientists were no longer thought of as solitary geniuses working on esoteric projects, but instead as elite citizens making contributions to industry and defence. This was the time of the Sputnik moment, inspiring passion for science and science education. This enthusiasm for science and scientists also created curiosity and even sometimes distrust: who were scientists, what exactly did they do and what made them different from others?

Robert K. Merton, a sociologist interested social roles and structures, was among the first to try to answer these questions. As a result, he is often credited as the first sociologist of science. In The normative structure of science, originally published in 1942,[iii] Merton created a set of norms and ideals that characterized scientists and their work, a list that established objectivity as the defining characteristic of science.

Merton depicted these objective scientists as emotionally disinterested in their work. They were expected to gain satisfaction from serving the scientific community not from seeing their hypotheses supported. They should be impersonal about making decisions, thinking only about the strength of the evidence and not about the personalities or affiliations of the people involved. They were also expected to share their results openly with a sense of communalism and never to work in secrecy.  These norms were taken up enthusiastically in science education and public writing about science. To this day when people describe scientists, this is what they usually say – scientists and non-scientists alike.

What is often forgotten, though, is that Merton went on to question whether these norms were able to fully capture researchers’ work and values. He wondered if, in the real world of scientists, these ideals were balance by equally important counter-ideals. In other words, he wondered if sometimes the exact opposite of objectivity was necessary. Dr. Johnson seems to be saying the same thing.

Taking inspiration from Merton, Ian Mitroff from the University of Pittsburgh decided to explore the idea of counter-norms with one of the most recognizable groups of mid-century scientists – the physicists, geologists and chemists of the Apollo moon missions. Based on interviews he conducted between Apollo missions 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, including one with Dr. Johnson, Mitroff wrote a fascinating description of the ambivalence that scientists held towards Merton’s ideals. They were ambivalent in the strict sense of having two competing views. Like Merton, they acknowledged the importance of working from objective evidence and contributing to the scientific community. But Mitroff also illustrates, through the scientists’ own words, the passion, bitterness, competitiveness and intensity of doing science and the value that the researchers placed on these characteristics.

At the beginning of the Apollo program the structure and geology of the moon remained largely unknown. None of the scientists were sure exactly what would be found in the samples that astronauts would bring back with them. Based on Merton’s initial norms then, we might imagine a patient team of scientists waiting for samples before committing to any particular view of the moon’s geology. The scientists, however, described themselves and their colleagues much differently.

“Xavier is so committed to the idea that the moon is [X][iv]” said one researcher, “that you could literally take the moon apart piece by piece, ship it back to Earth, reassemble it in Xavier’s backyard…and he would still continue to believe that the moon is [X]. His belief in [X] is unshakable. He refuses to listen to reason or to evidence. He’s so hopped up on the idea of [X] that I think he’s unbalanced.”

This might seem like a description of an outsider – a scientist who has broken the rules of science and is being rejected by his peers for his lack of objectivity (and possible imbalance!). The surprising thing, though, is that the three scientists perceived by their peers as the most committed to their hypotheses (Xavier included) were also judged by their peers to be among the most outstanding scientists participating in the program. They were the ones who drove the field forward and created genuinely new and exciting ideas.

This surprising judgment shouldn’t be taken to mean that scientists have no use for data or evidence. On the contrary, what Mitroff saw in the scientists was that they recognized the importance of a constant back and forth negotiation between objectivity and subjectivity. Merton’s norms weren’t false, they were just only one side of the coin. Scientists ought be objective and convinced by evidence but they also must be driven by personal commitment and willingness to argue for a possibly unsupported position. In his interview with Mitroff, Dr. Albert Masters contended that without personal commitment, science could not be done.

“Commitment,” said Masters, “even extreme commitment such as bias, has a role to play in science and it can serve science well. Part of the business [of science] is to sift the evidence and to come to the right conclusions, and to do this you must have people who argue for both sides of the evidence. This is the only way in which we can straighten the situation out. I wouldn’t like scientists to be without bias since a lot of the sides of the argument would never be presented. We must be emotionally committed to the things we do energetically. No one is able to do anything with liberal energy if there is no emotion connected with it.”

Masters was not alone in his assessment. Dr. Gordon Hereford, another Apollo scientist, went further, saying that only simplistic views of science can leave out passion and commitment to ideas. “You can’t understand science in terms of the simple-minded articles that appear in the journals” Hereford argued, “Science is an intensely personal enterprise. Every scientific idea needs a personal representative who will defend and nourish that idea so that it doesn’t suffer premature death. Most people don’t think of science in this way but that’s because the image they have of science only applies to the simplest, and for that reason almost non-existent, ideal cases where the evidence is clear-cut and it’s not a matter of scientists with different shades of opinion.”

Based on these interviews Mitroff’s conclusion was that science is fundamentally ambivalent about objectivity, not ambivalent as in undecided but instead meaning that the community holds simultaneously conflicting views about it. Objectivity and reliance on evidence are essential but so are personal commitment and bias, sometimes in the face of insufficient or contradictory evidence.

This ambivalence makes it challenging to defend science by saying things like “The only satisfactory outcome is a completely objective analysis.” When absolute objectivity is the only way that science is described, not only does that represent an incomplete picture, it also sets up an inevitable crisis when researchers are shown to be passionate, driven and subjective. This is important to keep in mind when considering how science and scientists are described to students and when science is defended and challenged in the public sphere. Instead of focusing on only objectivity, it is crucial to acknowledge the important role that personal commitment, bias and passion play in science. These characteristics are essential to science not a perversion of it. This is a challenging task but I would propose that understanding of science, scientists and contentious scientific issues will be the better for it.

So, what might it look like in science communication? How might this ambivalence be explained as a strength rather than a weakness?

[i] The letter happened to be from someone who is vocal in disagreeing with global climate change. The substance of the letter isn’t the part that I’m interested in though, it’s the claim to objectivity.

[ii] Mitroff, I.I. (1974). Norms and counter-norms in a select group of Apollo Moon scientists: A case study in the ambivalence of scientists. American Sociological Review, 39, 579-595. In Mitroff’s original paper, as was customary at the time, the individuals are noted only by letters (e.g., Scientist C). For readability, I have chosen to update this to the more contemporary practice (in my field) of naming individuals with pseudonyms. The names begin with the same letters that Mitroff used to identify them. For example, Calvin Johnson is Mitroff’s Scientist C.

[iii] Merton, R.K. (1942). The Normative Structure of Science In: Robert King Merton (1973). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iv] For confidentially, the exact hypothesis that Xavier was committed to was removed by Mitroff. X was used as a placeholder to represent some particular belief about the moon.

Looking forward to panels at Science Online 2011

Thursday morning I’ll be flying down to North Carolina to attend Science Online 2011 – the fifth annual international meeting on Science and the Web.  Not only will this provide some delightful respite from the cold and snow of Edmonton (left), but I am honoured and excited to be participating in two panels.

On Saturday morning, I will join Stacy Baker (an outstanding science teacher from Staten Island), eight of her students, and Sophia Collins (director of the online outreach program I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!) for a panel to discuss the value of the online science community to science education. Specifically, I’ll be talking about the projects that my science education students completed last term using science blogs as inspiration for science lessons but mostly I’ll be listening and learning from Stacy, Sophia and all of the students.

Saturday, January 15th: 11:30am-12:30pm, Room D

Still Waiting for a Superhero – Science Education Needs YOU! – Stacy Baker, Marie-Claire Shanahan, Sophia Collins and 8 high school students:

Stacy Baker is bringing her students again to discuss online science and education. Her eight students ranging from age 14-17 will join a panel of educators and scientists to discuss the problems and possible solutions to the science illiteracy crisis in schools. For example, what does the importance and prominence of blogging etc. mean for students and teachers/professors? Are the processes and people of science more visible because of blogging? Does that matter? What would bloggers, journalists, and scientists want students to learn to read and engage in online science and online science communication? One approach is to realise that a real barrier in science education is students feeling science is ‘for boffins’ and ‘nothing to do with them’ – if you can change students’ feelings it makes all the difference. Showing students that scientists are real people (which you can all do, by showing your real selves in whatever medium), and giving them a say over something (as, for example, in I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here!) can make all the difference.

Then on Saturday afternoon I get to indulge my other academic love – science communication –  in a session with science writers, journalists and communications scholars. In the panel session Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries I will be discussing boundary work and blog audience boundaries with Alice Bell (senior teaching fellow in science communication at Imperial College, London), Ed Yong (science writer and blogger at Discover Magazine blogs), Martin Robbins (science writer and blogger at The Guardian) and Vivienne Raper (science editor at BioNews). I’m very excited for the diversity of perspectives on this panel – being a part of it will be as much a learning experience as anything else.

Saturday, January 15th: 2:00pm-3:00pm, Room D

Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries? – Marie-Claire Shanahan, Alice Bell, Ed Yong, Martin Robbins and Viv Raper

Science blogging is often seen as an opportunity for science and science communication to be made more open and in doing so, help connect people. Blogging thus might be seen as a chance to break down cultural boundaries between science, science journalists, and various people formerly known as audiences. But do these traditional roles still affect blogs, bloggers and their readers? Are blogs still producing a rather traditional form of popular science, one that largely disseminates knowledge, maintaining a boundary between those who are knowledgeable and those who are not? Or do they provide new opportunities for these boundaries to be blurred? Similarly, do blogs help foster cross-disciplinary communication or simply allow bloggers to keep talking to ever more niche audiences? They allow science writers to connect with more people, but do they end up as an echo chamber where writers only talk to more of the same people? And how can bloggers tell if their writing is actually making a difference? This discussion will explore the boundaries that are maintained and blurred through science blogging, including the value of some of these boundaries and the importance of being aware of them.

I’m really looking forward to being a part of both of these sessions and to meeting everyone on the panels, most of whom I’ve only met online so far. Science Online is a very rich conference in terms of idea sharing and generation and I anticipate coming back with inspired new directions for both research and teaching (and hopefully not a cold like last year…)

Changing students’ minds about what it takes to be a scientist

Yesterday, this terrific Q+A post by Joseph Hanson came to my attention. He answered a poignant question from a reader who is interested in a career in research science but isn’tt sure if he can do it because of his less than perfect achievement on school science tasks such as tests and quizzes. As Joseph points out in his answer, this is a common worry. Dispelling it though is complicated because many aspects of school science don’t reflect laboratory and research science. School science can tend to reward memorizing, replication and conformity while research science is more about intense curiosity, and creative and innovative thinking. (This is of course a very broad generalization and there are many science teachers and science educators out there working very hard to create a science education that encourages and rewards students for engaging in challenging scientific inquiries). I was really impressed with Joseph’s candid answer to the question and with the follow-up discussion that happened on twitter. Several people responded with agreement that they had heard students say things like this and they themselves had held similar beliefs in the past.

In the “About” tab above I wrote that as a science teacher I was frustrated by the ways that students would talk themselves out of being part of science. I always remember one Grade 10 student in particular, Kara. She stayed after class one afternoon to help me clean up in the lab. As we were chatting. I complimented her on the great improvement I’d seen in her work in science and the really insightful comments that she had made in a recent discussion. She had good marks overall (~85% overall if I recall correctly), not the top in the class but certainly good, and to me she had shown real scientific curiosity creativity of thought. So I asked her which science courses she was planning to take the following year (in Grade 11 science courses were optional and students could choose between physics, chemistry and biology). Her response really surprised me – she laughed and responded with complete bemusement, “Who me? Oh no miss, you don’t understand. I’m not a science person.” What? Not a science person? Why not?

I asked her to tell me more: To her, science students were quiet, diligent students who always did all of their homework, wrote perfect neat lab reports and always got 100% on tests and quizzes. The next year, when I began graduate studies in science education, students like Kara were always on my mind. I wanted to know how and why students didn’t see themselves as the right type of people.

Over Twitter, I mentioned to Joseph that I have a paper coming out soon related to this idea. I’ll write about it some more when it is finally published (I just sent back the proofs so it should be out fairly soon) but his post got me thinking more about the ways that we can start to change students’ minds. In my study, I collected high school students opinions of the expectations that they face in school science – specifically what type of people they feel they need to be (how do they need to ask, what skills and attributes do they need to have). I used their responses to create a model of their perceived ideal and compared this to ideals in other subject areas to see if these fears are specific to science. For example, do students ask the same questions about being a historian or is getting 100% on all the tests and quizzes something that seems specifically important to science. Students presented a wide array of expectations, some that were clearly relevent to the practice of science and others, like quiz marks, that were really school expectations. One thing I was surprised to find is how common these perceptions are even when students go to different schools and have different teachers. There were small differences based on things that their teachers said and did, but overall most of the students had the same perceptions – meaning that challenging them is very very hard.

I wonder though about the potential value of comments like Joseph’s post to contribute to changing students’ perceptions. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would value responses like his to share with students.

So that’s what I’m asking. If you’ve read this and have had a similar experience, could you help me build a collection of stories to share with high school science students who are interested in science but not sure they have what it takes. Think about any answers that you could share that fit the following basic format:

“I used to think that to be a scientist you needed to __________ but now I know that __________.”

Thanks so much for any contributions that you are willing to share!

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:

Is IRE the best way to respond to blog comments?

[Scene: Middle school science classroom in an urban setting. Students sitting in their desks with their science notebooks open. The teacher is standing at the front of the room and has written the word WEATHER in the middle of the whiteboard.]

Mr. McNab: When we’ve been talking about weather, what are some of the different things that we can measure?  I know we looked at ‘Weather Underground’ to do some observing from their website and some different pieces of the weather.  What are some things that we can measure, what are things that we can measure in weather?

Camryn: Precipitation?

Mr. McNab: Precipitation, yah.  What’s a way to measure precipitation?

Camryn: Um, I don’t know, um like centimetres of precipitation on the ground?

Mr. McNab: Yah? How do you think I can measure that?  Vivian, do you have some ideas?

Vivian: Uh, you can, so you can put a bucket outside and check how much is in it.

Mr. McNab: You put a bucket outside and….

Vivian: …check how much is in it.

Mr. McNab: Check how much is in it.  What am I gonna check for?

Vivian: Rain, hail, snow.

Mr. McNab: Rain, hail, snow.  Okay.

This is an excerpt from a middle school science class that I visited last year. It’s classic example of classroom science talk. The teacher initiates a discussion topic, in this case measurements related to weather. He then asks students to respond to his guiding questions. “What are some things that we can measure?” Camryn responds, “Precipitation” and the teacher says, “Precipitation, yah” – acknowledging the student’s response and repeating it for emphasis. He probes for further detail. This time, in response to Camryn’s attempts to elaborate, the teacher says “Yah?” suggesting that isn’t quite the answer that he wanted. He moves on to another student. Vivian suggests putting a bucket outside. The teacher responds by repeating her suggestion – both confirming it and validating it for the class. His repetition says, basically, “Yes, this is what I was looking for and you should pay attention to it.”

This form of classroom talk is often called IRE (initiation, response, evaluation) or IRF (initiation, response, follow-up) and in observational studies of classrooms it is one of the most common ways that teachers interact with their classes. Teachers initiate a discussion topic (usually by posing a question), they solicit responses from students and they evaluate them, often acknowledging students’ efforts and participation and letting them know if their answer was correct or not. In science teacher education, it is sometimes introduced to beginning teachers as a way to help them begin to acknowledge students’ contributions to discussions and incorporate them usefully.

Outside initial teacher education though it is usually seen as a strategy that teachers rely on too much – a pattern that becomes a default mode of communication, keeping the teacher in control of the discussion and of what the acceptable answers are. While that might be desirable in some contexts (such as when discussions are used for informal assessment of students’ understanding), IRE also tends to stifle students’ attempts to ask questions and can discourage students from actually listening to each other’s responses. They just need to wait for the teacher to tell them which contributions are important. It is not a pattern that encourages or supports real two-way communication. Despite the two-way exchange, it is really a transmission from the teacher to the students.

Because of these limitations, I was really surprised by a case study (Davies, 2009) I read recently that illustrated IRE as the dominant pattern in a context where I wouldn’t have expected it – public engagement dialogues. In her article, Davies looks at what she calls science dialogue events – in this case, experts panel sessions hosted by a science outreach centre. These were meant to encourage engagement and two-way dialogue between experts and audience members.

One of the things she noticed was that during these dialogues the panel moderator played the teacher’s role and the event ended up taking on the characteristics of formal education. Audience members listened to the panelists and raised their hand to ask questions. The moderator responded to each of the questions asked by audience members, acknowledged their contributions and commended them on their participation. Davies noted that the moderator evaluated the audience member’s participation more than the correctness of their answers but the link to the classroom was still there. The moderator acknowledged contributions that were especially valuable and commented when audience members were being brave for speaking up. Basically, the audience members contributions were evaluated like a student’s might be.

Seeing the IRE form reproduced in this unexpected venue made me start thinking about science related blogs. Are they sometimes IRE too? Should they be?

This summer I wrote a guest post for Bora  at A Blog Around the Clock discussing the ethical controversy surrounding a plan at UC Berkeley to invite incoming students to contribute their genetic information as part of a lecture and seminar series. It was my first contribution to a blog and I was excited to hear what people said in the comments. Looking back though, I can see that I defaulted to an IRE position. When comments came in, I read them carefully and then responded to each one, thanking them for their interest (i.e., acknowledging and encouraging participation) and then evaluated their comments. For example, one commenter wrote:

I disagree that the ethical considerations facing educators and human subjects researchers are different. Consider a teacher who violated any of the principles of beneficence, justice, or non-maleficence, perhaps by teaching only what advanced the teacher’s own agenda, or choosing only to teach white students, or intentionally teaching falsehoods. Most people would be justifiably outraged. These are principles which seem to me like good guides for almost any relationship (though not necessarily the only ones), and especially those which involve power differentials. Human subjects research obsesses over them because of a history of abuses which violate them, not because of any special difference between research and other activities. I think that Berkeley’s use of informed consent language was an acknowledgment that this particular educational exercise would be unusual enough that our assumption that teachers are following the 3 principles I mentioned might be questioned, as well as an attempt to address those concerns. I think the problem here is the incorrect idea that research is fundamentally unlike activities we all engage in nearly every day.

Taking on the teacher role, I felt that this commenter had not quite understood what I was saying and so I responded by explaining that I agreed with his or her comment and then essentially corrected what I felt to be a misunderstanding of my point. I wrote:

Thanks for reading! If you’ll indulge me for a second, I think my response might run along the lines of ‘we agree more than you may think’. I very much agree with you that core ethical principles are no different in almost any site of interaction between people (especially those where power is involved, as is the case in both research science and science education). The examples that you give would outrage me too. My contention though, is not directed at ethical principles. Research science and science education are different activities – they have different key actors, different objectives, different rules and norms. Because these are different activities, the actions that we take or expect others to take to ensure beneficence, justice or non-maleficence can be different. Choosing to include only selected students in a research project is, in many cases, ethically appropriate. It may even serve the cause of justice for those or other students. Choosing to only teach certain students in a classroom isn’t. The ethical principles are the same, but the actions appropriate to meet those principles aren’t necessarily.
I also agree with you that the informed consent procedures that Berkeley used were appropriate given the potential sensitivity of the information. What I was trying to explore though is why this situation stills leaves some people feeling uneasy. Because there are mixed messages about which activity is really going on here (research science or science education) my hope was to explore the idea that it might feel a bit uncomfortable because we can’t fall back on our assumptions and make easy judgements about the appropriate actions that would meet our ethical principles.

Looking back I was clearly working in an IRE framework.  To honest, as I read it again now I can almost hear myself saying this as part of class discussion. I know that IRE is my default as a science teacher and university instructor and I try to think carefully before I respond to students’ contributions in class. I think about whether evaluating what they’ve said is the most productive thing for me to do at that moment. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. What hadn’t crossed my mind until I read Davies case study was to ask myself the same questions about blogging.

My experience probably isn’t universal – I was a complete beginner in the medium of blogs (I still am…). I know that blogs have many different purposes and there are lots of different views on the purpose of comments. But I don’t think my IRE experience is unique. I’ve received similar responses when I’ve commented on other blogs and overall I didn’t really like it. In all cases the exchanges were very polite but I felt that in correcting me or saying that the topic was more complicated than my comment suggested made me feel like a student again who hadn’t made the right contribution to the discussion. It’s probably just because I’m not used to it any more – I’m usually the one that gets to do the evaluating these days. But beyond feeling mildly slighted, the responses (mine above and the ones I’ve received from other bloggers) tellingly never led to further discussion. The evaluation comment was always the last word. And that’s the same problem that we find in teachers’ classrooms when they overemphasize IRE patterns.

So is there a better way for blog writers to respond to comments? Science related blogs are often trying to explain ideas and concepts and therefore have a relationship to the type of communication that goes on in science classrooms, but is evaluation-centred communication still the best approach? Taking it further, is a very conventional face-to-face default pattern of communication the best way to use the interactions that happen when people comment online?

Further reading:

Davies, S. (2009). Doing dialogue: Genre and flexibility in public engagement with science. Science as Culture, 18, 397-416.

Lemke, J. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Westport, CT: Ablex.

van Zee, E.H., Iwasyk, M., Kurose, A., Simpson, D., & Wild, J. (2001). Student and teacher questioning during conversations about science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38, 159-190.

Relying on stereotypes is no way to address problems in science education

File this under “be careful what you wish for”. I have argued in the past that Canada has really lacked a public conversation about science education and in particular gender issues in science education. I sort of got what I asked for. The October 20 op-ed in the Globe and Mail, written by Sumitra Rajagopalan, was entitled “We need tool-savvy teachers” and addresses the problems facing boys in science classes. And while the piece was provocative (as befits an op-ed) and did raise some very important points, it was also deeply troubling.

Rajagopalan begins by stating some real and important problems such as “one in three male Quebeckers leaving high school without a diploma.” There is no doubt that this is a problem that needs to be addressed and she brings up her own work  with underachieving teenagers in Montreal (which I whole heartedly commend her for) to illustrate the issue.

It’s at this point that, from my perspective, the problems begin. She claims that ‘feminization’ of the classroom is the main culprit. This is a provocative claim and, again, one worth exploring. The problem is that in this piece it is not explored with evidence or facts but instead with stereotypes and generalizations.

The generalizations begin with the boys themselves: “boys are born tinkerers. They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff.” As Jen Ouellette has beautifully argued, there are so many things wrong with this statement. To begin with, we can all probably think of lots of boys that fit this description and, on the other hand, we can think of many who don’t. This claim that all boys have a particular orientation is a false and misleading one. The implication of Rajagopalan’s statement is also that girls are not like this. Again, that is a false claim – many girls are very interested in hands-on exploration (As personal evidence, I have a degree in mechanical engineering – something I chose precisely because of the opportunity for hands-on work. I have experience in welding, sand-blasting and plasma cutting.)

Beyond anecdotal thinking though, there is also no conclusive research base that ascribes these characteristics exclusively and deterministically to boys. While there are gender differences in typical learning style preferences  (and it’s important that I mean on average, not deterministically), gender is only one factor in these preferences. These preferences are also related to overall school achievement, age, culture and geographical region, information processing style, and creativity style. Hoginsfeld and Dunn (2003) found, in a study of teenage students in Bermuda, Brunei, Hungary, Sweden and New Zealand, that the differences in learning style preference between the countries was larger than any gender differences.

To offer an example related specifically to hands-on science education, as a graduate student I worked as a research assistant on a project looking at students’ responses to a science education program that visited their classrooms. One part of the study involved a survey of approximately 700 Grade 9 students from two large Ontario school boards (including inner city and suburban schools). Girls and boys responded in almost equal numbers that they enjoyed science generally and that they appreciated the hands-on nature of the outreach program. Girls in fact responded significantly more often that the program provided positive hands-on experiences that they did not usually experience.

But instead of looking at this evidence and offering a thoughtful consideration of the problems facing boys who drop out of high school, Rajagopalan relies on stereotype, saying that boys are just like this, it’s a fact.

To me, however, the even more troubling and even less supported generalizations are regarding science and math teachers. Rajagopalan writes “Enter today’s typical math/science teacher. She’s young and female with a social sciences background. She went through high school believing that ‘math sucks’ and ‘science is for geeks.’ Like most girls, she’s never held a wrench.”

This statement is just untrue. The recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2007) directly contradicts her characterisation (one that I might add seems steeped in unexplained contempt for these teachers). In a sample selected to be representative of provincial norms, in Quebec grade 8 students’ science teachers are almost exactly balanced by gender: 52% of students in the study had female science teachers, 48% had male teachers. The average Quebec math and science teacher also had 9 years of teaching experience. Ontario and British Columbia (the only other provinces for which the data are available) are very similar in both gender balance (ON: 55% F and 45% M, BC: 46% F and 54% M) and average experience (ON: 9 years, BC: 13 years). In Quebec, most grade 8 students also have teachers whose major area of post-secondary education is either science, mathematics, or science education. For example 69% of students have teachers with full undergraduate degrees majoring in biology, physics, chemistry or earth science, 10% in pure mathematics. More than that, 61% of Quebec students have teachers who feel “very well prepared” to teach every topic included in the TIMSS assessment, meaning they are confident in their abilities across the board, from reproductive biology to mechanics. Do I wish that some of these numbers were higher? Yes, of course.  Are there some content areas, such as climate science and engineering, where teachers are not well prepared? Yes. But does the evidence support Rajagopalan’s accusations of a horde of female teachers who are scared of science? – Absolutely not.

Science and math teachers in Canada regardless of their gender did not go through high school thinking that math sucks and science is for geeks and I cannot fathom the author’s reasons for saying that they do. Characterizing women’s views about science and math in this way reinforces the exact stereotypes that can cause female students to underperform in math.

The teachers that Rajagopalan is talking about went through high school liking science and math, wanting to study it in university – and that’s exactly what they did. Canadian science and math teachers are, for the most part, highly qualified to teach science and math. They have backgrounds in science and math content areas and certification in science and math teaching. Yes, there are areas where recruiting qualified teachers is challenging. This is especially true in language minority school settings (Anglophone schools in Quebec and Francophone schools in other provinces and territories) and in northern schools. But overall this in not what characterises science and mathematics education in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.

Rajagopalan is playing with gender stereotypes rather than evidence.  I would like to ask her if she would accept unsupported assumptions passed off as informed opinion in her area of science – if the answer is no (and I suspect that it is), then why is it okay to talk about science education in this way? There are issues to deal with but relying on scare tactics and tired stereotypes is no way to address them.


Hoginsfeld, A., & Dunn, R. (2003). High school male and female learning-style similarities and differences in diverse nations. The Journal of Educational Research, 96, 195 – 206.

Pedretti, E., Baker, L., De Coito, I. & Shanahan, M.-C. (2007). Scientists in school impact study. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, Centre for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education.

Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., & Quinn, D.M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28.

Note that this post was updated from its original form. The references to Spencer, Steele and Quinn (1999) and Hoginsfeld and Dunn (2003) were added.

Blogs as inspiration for science lessons?

In September, Greg Laden posted a piece with the intriguing title “How can science teachers use blogs?”  I responded in Twitter “Ok, but HOW would sci bloggers like to see science blogs used in sci ed?” The piece got me thinking about the possibilities of science blogs as a resource for science education – beyond just a resource for teachers to read to improve their understanding of science (which is primarily how Greg Laden was discussing them). The question stuck in my head and I came back to it recently when planning the assignments for my fourth year physical sciences education course. It’s a course that integrates pedagogical education as well as physical science content. I thought that the best way to try to answer the question of how science blogs could be a resource for science education was to try it myself and, better yet, to ask my students.

As a result, yesterday I gave my students the outline for their final paper (the course has two cumulative assessments – a more theoretically oriented final exam and a more practically oriented final project or paper). For their paper, they have to choose a science-related blog to follow and comment on for one month. For their paper, they have to reflect on what they’ve learned from reading, describe any interactions they’ve had through the comments and make connections to specific course content. The piece I’m most interested in, however, is the application. I’ve asked them to use their experiences to prepare a lesson sequence inspired by the blog. It’s completely open and they can use their reading experiences in any way that suits the blog they’ve been reading. I’m really excited to see what they come up with. Perhaps some will let me share their ideas here?

Welcome and…Canada needs to talk about gender in science

To start things off at my new (and first!) blog, I wanted to share something I wrote earlier this year (just around the end of the last academic term).  When I first decided to go back to graduate school to study science and society, it was because of an interest in gender in science. It seemed fitting to start this blog there. And despite an obvious tie to events in the news at the time, the idea behind this post is continues to be relevant.

So here goes:

This week, students everywhere are finally breathing in the summer sun. Diploma exams are finished, university degrees are in hand and summer jobs have started. In the haze of a heat wave, most are probably not thinking about the state of science in Canada or what their place in Canada’s scientific future might be. Someone should be thinking about it though.

Despite massive changes in university enrolment over the past 20 years, few women are reaching the highest levels in mathematical sciences and engineering. At the University of Toronto, only 16% of PhDs in engineering from 2005-2007 were awarded to women. At the University of British Columbia, less than 20% of tenure track faculty in science are women. And as of the most recent academic term, only 13% of graduate students in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta are women. On the opposite side of the coin, men are similarly absent from advanced study in, for example, speech pathology, nursing and occupational therapy. Despite the potential impact of gender underrepresentation on the progress of our national scientific economy and cultivation of our talented researchers, few in our government and media have been willing to address this issue.

In May, Industry Minister Tony Clement announced the names of nineteen top-tier science researchers recruited to Canadian universities through the new Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program– a list that consisted entirely of men. To answer questions about gender bias in the process, the federal government at first expressed surprise that the competition yielded no female chairs. They then consulted an ad hoc panel of three women with senior experience in research or research funding for possible explanations.

Their report acknowledged that women were traditionally underrepresented in certain research fields and proposed five actions to prevent future imbalances. These were, however, primarily procedural and administrative fixes for the CERC program. There was scant address of why there might be a dearth of women in those fields and why a program like the CERC might systematically miss them. The report instead proposed an open category for researchers outside the target areas and an award stream for rising stars. And that is where the discussion ended.

This response exhibits none of the vigour evident in debates south of our border. Currently, American legislators are considering a proposal requiring action to enhance gender equity in recipients of federal research and career grants. In response, New York Times writer John Tierney recently began a controversial series of columns with the title “Daring to discuss women in science” arguing against the rush for institutional causes and solutions. He provocatively (and to many, controversially) emphasized biological explanations for gender gaps in science career achievement. It has spurred a heated and active public debate amongst the media, government and university agents that highlights the deep divides that exist in research communities over the causes for gender discrepancies in mathematics and sciences.

Where, however, is our national discussion of this issue? Where are the provocative comments that can begin a national debate that reflects what a complex and difficult issue this is? For when we are silent, how can solutions be found? The assumptions underlying approach that relies on minor administrative fixes also remain unexamined.

In contrast to the public treatment of these gender issues, recent concerns about Canada’s place in the digital economy 1) were raised in the throne speech; 2) have resulted in a government discussion document for public review; and 3) led to a wide call by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for research-based policy recommendations aiming to address the matter. These actions have not been mirrored in response to concerns about gender issues in science.

Even without government policy intervention, like that in the United States, the act of discussion itself is important. I recently contributed to a large study of undergraduate students in American universities, asking them what factors influenced their motivation and persistence in science and physics in particular.

We found that female students who had experienced explicit discussion of underrepresentation in their high school classes indentified more strongly with continuing studies and future careers in physics. If this dialog on women and science is absent from our national discourse, what possible expectation can there be that it will happen regularly in classrooms across the country?

The CERC report put the issue of women in science at the centre of public conversation for a brief moment. But, the media and the public needs to go further. We need to ask questions of ourselves as citizens and of our researchers. We, as a country, need to dare to talk about genderand other social issues in science. Otherwise, we will continue to watch our talented students drop out of the science career path, and the end of school rituals of each passing year will serve as constant reminders of a complacent, uncurious nation, one that chose not to examine the full talent and potential of its youth.

Looking back at this, the CERC controversy seems long past but my feelings towards the public reaction to it haven’t changed. There is actually a strong message in both the lack of public conversation and in the report’s suggestions that finding women means just looking elsewhere. The message is that searching the world for the best sceintists and coming up with no women is totally normal and natural. No one was surprised that there aren’t sociologists on the CERC list because the program wasn’t looking for sociologists. Their absense is rightfully normal (in that it is expected) and natural (in that there is a perfectly reasonable underying explanation – they’re not scientists). Finding no women on the CERC list might well be normal but is it natural and, if so, what does that mean?

Without discussion and serious public questioning, everyone is left to decide what that means on their own. Those who already believe that women are naturally less talented in the physical science leave their assumptions intact. Girls who might be starting to believe that women aren’t welcome is top level science leave their assumptions intact. Those who believe that science is simply meritocratic – rewarding only the diligent hard work of anyone who is interested – leave their assumptions intact. To me, that’s the problem here – not talking about it reinforces that it is not only normal but natural, something that leads to a troubling reinforcement of assumptions both about gender and about science. That it has blown over so quickly only makes my concerns stronger.

I must thank my friend Ben Young Landis (currently of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, @younglandis on Twitter) for his help editing the original piece. Ben, your suggestions made this piece so much clearer and more engaging. Thanks!