A study published in the January 30 issue of Science shows that learning more scientific facts doesn’t seem to improve the ability of students to use proper scientific reasoning. This seems like a “well, duh” observation to me, but apparently it isn’t obvious to those who create science curriculums in many schools around the world.
The researchers tested about 6,000 students majoring in science and engineering at seven universities (4 in the US and 3 in China). Here are the results:
The first test, the Force Concept Inventory, measures students’ basic knowledge of mechanics — the action of forces on objects. Most Chinese students scored close to 90 percent, while the American scores varied widely from 25-75 percent, with an average of 50.
The second test, the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment, measures students’ understanding of electric forces, circuits, and magnetism, which are often considered to be more abstract concepts and more difficult to learn than mechanics. Here Chinese students averaged close to 70 percent while American students averaged around 25 percent — a little better than if they had simply picked their multiple-choice answers randomly.
The third test, the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning, measures science skills beyond the facts. Students are asked to evaluate scientific hypotheses, and reason out solutions using skills such as proportional reasoning, control of variables, probability reasoning, correlation reasoning, and hypothetical-deductive reasoning. Both American and Chinese students averaged a 75 percent score.
What’s the difference between teaching someone that the Earth is round and that the Earth is flat if you don’t also explain how to find out by themselves using hypotheses and evidence?
The whole point of science is not to simply take things on faith, but rather to figure out how things work using evidence. Of course, nobody can verify everything scientific they learn, but they could if they so desired, and that’s the point.
Science is all about questions and how you answer them, not only about the answer themselves. I’m not sure how compatible that is with an education system that teaches students that having the “right answers” is the way to move forward. And by “answers” here, I mean all kinds of things: facts, numbers, techniques, equations, ways to look things up in databases/journals, etc — all very useful to a point, but if you don’t know the “why” behind these answers, you’re still missing the bigger picture.