Notes from An Addiction to Education at All Levels

alberts note

by Bruce Alberts, 2016

active, inquiry-based science learning

engaging with budding scientists

I learned that one should always make students struggle with a problem that was solved by a scientific discovery, coming up with their own possible answers, before telling them the answer that science provides. Classroom research with long-term follow up reveals that students are likely to retain the understandings that they obtain in this way a year later; in contrast, scientific facts that are merely told to students and memorized for an exam tend to be quickly forgotten. This principle forms the basis for the truism that, for science teaching, "less is more"—in opposition to the all-to-common insistence on maximum "coverage" of each subject.

Life is nothing like a quiz show, and it is a monumental mistake to allow students to conclude that being educated means knowing all of the right answers.

Science education is much more important for societies than even most scientists think. This is because, to quote that text, "Scientific habits of mind can help people in every walk of life to deal sensibly with problems that often involve evidence, quantitative considerations, logical arguments, and uncertainty; without the ability to think critically and independently, citizens are easy prey to dogmatists, flimflam artists, and purveyors of simple solutions to complex problems."

The entire world badly needs much more of the creativity, rationality, openness, and tolerance that are inherent to science—what India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had so aptly termed a "scientific temper". As Nehru wrote in his 1946 book, The Discovery of India: "the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory, the hard discipline of the mind—all this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems."

It has become clear to me that a continuous input of energy and attention from local scientists will forever be essential, if school districts and nations are to shape science education in effective ways. Otherwise, as for chemical systems, education sys- tems tend to regress to the free energy minimum—which is either teaching no science at all or, in my opinion equally terrible, teaching science as a set of words and phrases for students to memorize and spit back on simple tests.

All of us who teach science at the college level need to face the hard fact that our teaching sets the standard for science education at all lower levels.