Questioning Science Education

Starting with four basic questions (that you may be surprised to find you can’t answer), Jonathan Drori looks at the gaps in our knowledge — and specifically, what we don’t know about science that we might think we do.


So goes the blurb for the one of the latest talks on TED.  Drori asks four basic questions:
1. Where does the “stuff” in trees come from?
2. Can you light a torch bulb with a bulb, battery and a single piece of wire?
3. Why is it hotter in Summer than in Winter?
4. What is the shape of the planets’ orbits?

How many can you answer correctly?

Drori then refers to a couple of videos he was involved in producing a few years ago where graduates of MIT were recorded giving their answers to some of these questions, and surprise surprise, almost all were unable to answer any question correctly. There is a nice moment when one young woman, on finding that she is incapable of puting the electric circuit together, justifies her lack of knowledge by saying “I’m not an electrical engineer, I’m a mechanical engineer”.
Drori wasn’t able to use the clips in his presentation due to a technical hiccup, but I am assuming that these are the videos he is referring to. The first is entitled “Can we believe our eyes?”, while the second is “Lessons from thin air”.

I referred to these videos in a post last year, and mentioned that the answers given by graduates were very similar to those given by six year olds. What I didn’t realise is that, according to Drori, research shows that concepts like Magnetism and Gravity are better understood by children before they go to school than afterwards!

This is stunning, and a little difficult to believe. I would like to find out where he got his information here, but then again, just because it goes against common sense isn’t reason enough to disregard it.

Another question asked in the “Can we believe our eyes?” video goes something like this;
Imagine you are facing a mirror. If you want to see more of your body should you move towards the mirror, away from the mirror, or does it not make any difference?
The point being made here is that ‘hands-on’ experience is not necessarily very educational. They even received incorrect answers from the barbers who work with mirrors every day. It reminded me of the recent fascinating discovery that cattle and wild deer tend to align their bodies in a North-South direction when standing in a field (link). How could we not have noticed that before?

I guess if we are not directly interested in something (almost at an emotional level) then we are rather unlikely to notice or form a deep understanding of it, and the traditional teaching approach of simply repeating the class lesson is of little use in changing that.

I know myself that I learned bugger-all physics in six years of secondary school or four years of college. I did however learn more in one year of teaching Leaving Cert Physics than I did in all the others combined. This was obviously because I was no longer ‘learning’ to pass an exam, but rather I was learning to survive in a classroom where I knew  I would be taking questions from students who were expecting nothing less than an A1 in their Leaving Cert. I had taught in a previous school but had spent too many lessons ‘winging it’ and getting caught out, so for me this was a fresh start and therefore there was certainly an emotional motivation.

Which is why, if I find out that my students know less about magnetism and gravity now than they did before I taught them, I may just have to find a cold, dark room and lock myself in it for a long time.


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