Field of Science

Bride of the Educating at the High School:College Interface

Having returned from the Great White North (which was beautifully green) and gotten back to my general level of being behind, I thought it was time to fulfill my promise.

First, my goal of discussing the nature of science was an abject failure. Actually it was a failure to launch as opposed to a failure in practice. In large part this is because I didn't have the time to carefully put together this component, since the students are spending ~ 2 hours setting up an experiment and   analyzing the results, I have less than 2 hours to do any additional instruction (factor in the time that I give the students and myself a break about halfway through to enjoy some great snacks put out by the cooks). I also have to make sure I cover the material included on the exam (not that it matters a whole lot in my experience). So there really is limited time to deal with such a broad topic/issue unless its tied well into one of the former aspects of the class. Since I didn't take a great deal of time trying to do this, clearly I was unable to incorporate this discussion.

Second, one thing I did for most of the sessions was write the words "skepticism" and "trust" on the board before the students arrived. Once class began I asked whether each term had positive connotations or negative connotations. In the four or five sessions I did this, only one group thought "skepticism" was a positive term (although my skepticism leads me to consider that they figured out the "right" answer and may have been sucking up). All the others gave me the answer of "skepticism" is a negative thing and "trust" is a positive thing.

Think about that for a couple of minutes....

This actually depresses the shit out of me.

When looking at 60 of the most intelligent and educationally advanced individuals (from their peer group of high school students using some admittedly subjective criteria), almost all of them lack an appreciation for one of the greatest tools in their intellectual toolbox. I have heard many people stress the importance of teaching/training our students to be critical thinkers. If this cohort of students lack an understanding of the importance of skepticism, then what about those students not going on the college?

I see results like this and have a hard time not wallowing in the sense that our society is fucked. Maybe the gloom-and-doom is overstated and things aren't any worse than they were 100 years ago, hell maybe things are much better since we teach much more information in K-12 compared to 100 years ago. But I would argue that the forces arrayed against the individual are much worse now than ever before. Two words: Fox News. Media no longer provides information, media now basically tell us what to think (its the modern version of the church). Media today is like the automobile of the 1950s, it is an integral part of our lives that we have become dependent upon.

How does one survive in the echo-chamber that represents modern media if we are trained to cherish the trusting side of our nature and disparage the skeptical side?


Anonymous said...

Good points. I think most kids today are educated using either one of two philosophies: 1) Find the right answer. A favorite of those who believe in the church of standardized tests. 2) There are no wrong answers. A favorite of the neo-hippies who are vaguely aware that there may, in fact, be wrong answers but don't know anything about their subject matter or education, and think that providing anything resembling negative feedback is harmful to the growth of the student.

However, education IS the wrong answers. It is seeking them out in yourself, your peers and your teachers. It is struggling with material. While Fox News is certainly a symptom of our society's unwillingness to challenge facts spoon-fed by the media, I would say the cause lies more in our society's laziness and undervaluing of education in general, which I think can certainly be bipartisan. After all, people who watch CNN also buy jerseys of professional athletes who make millions of dollars a year, while teaching of k-12 students is a career often pursued by those who aren't competent enough to make real money in their field of interest. Not all teachers are like this, but it is the sad truth and will remain that way until Republicans take the money they funnel towards big scary guns and Democrats take the money they funnel towards innefectual entitlement programs and actually use it to make the position of teacher more lucrative and appealing to our countries best and brightest.

Lab Rat said...

"although my skepticism leads me to consider that they figured out the "right" answer and may have been sucking up"

Yep, I was one of those students. The one that figures the teacher will be more impressed by a "different" answer than a true one.

However in defense of the students, one of the reasons the idea of trust over skepticism is depressing is because we're thinking here in terms of big ideas. Science, Religion, Thoughts. But in terms of everyday interactions, that way of thinking makes more sense. You simply *have* to trust people, the people you love, the people you work with, the people you interact with on a daily basis. Being skeptical of the motives of the person delivering your mail makes for a very paranoid existence. Trust also has more connotations, beyond science and into emotions and relationships, where it is a very valuable thing to feel.

And impressing the teacher aside, I do personally believe that trust is a positive trait. Abusing trust is the negative one.

(And every generation thinks society is f*ked. From ancient greeks to middle ages through the 60s and onwards) :D

Caleb said...

You bring up some interesting points. Do you believe that mainstream media today is a symptom of our general lack of curiosity or rather that the cause of it/a contributing factor? I think that we have been conditioned for immediate gratification over the course of the last 70 years or so, and as a result, being spoon fed information seems more "natural" to us. When some of that information is patently false, we have a problem.

In all honesty, I do not know how I would have answered. In a educational setting (or any other for that matter), I believe that both skepticism and trust are important. I cannot be skeptical of every theory, equation, etc. that professors throw at me. I must "trust" that they are providing me with the most current, accurate, and accepted information. At the same time, all results must be viewed with skepticism to reach truth. Its an interesting conundrum.


James Andrix said...

On the subject of Doom: It has always been a minority pushing science along.

Clem Weidenbenner said...

Gotta go with Lab Rat on this one. I see where you want to go on this, and with your explanation you make a point. But I have to think that if I had walked into your lab and saw those words and then heard your question I'd likely have gone with the "wrong" set.

I also like Caleb's point that its hard to be skeptical of everything that comes our way. Information technology is great in that we can share information across the planet almost instantly, but this also allows so much information to come at us that its tough to process it all in real time. We're becoming a sound bite society. Fox is a perfect example, and I tend to ignore them because of it. They've lost my trust. They make me skeptical. But at the beginning of a relationship you're usually better served to trust first. Like the old saw - trust your neighbor, but cut the cards.

Even among our peers its tough to be critical of every aspect of what we see in the literature. [too easy to fall into the trap of 'Its been refereed, so it *must* be right'] Even accomplished scientists have to constantly be vigilant against letting their own biases influence their science.

So critical thinking skills aren't present at a high level in these students... that just gives you an opportunity. Oh, and that segment that isn't going to college... they may miss the opportunity to become skeptics in a classroom setting. But the University of Hard Knocks may train some of them. And the others will watch Fox News.

The Lorax said...

Lab Rat - I completely disagree with you. Its the everyday interactions that matter.

Im willing to bet in you email inbox over the last week was at least LOTTO winning notification, a Nigerian prince, or Christian widow that you to get money. Did you know that gay marriage will actually ruin my heterosexual marriage? For only 3 easy payments of $19.99 I can get the Wondercrap, which will make my life so much easier.

I am not oblivious to the fact we are trusting creatures and need to be to form cohesive societies. That does not concern me. What concerns/depresses me is that skepticism is considered a negative trait in our society (at least the US). I personally, think this goes hand-in-hand with the current mind set that being educated is a bad thing. Its better to think with your gut than your brain. Not seeing things in black and white is a sign of weakness.

Sure we agree that trust is a positive trait. Since I cannot control every other person I encounter, it is on me to make sure others are not abusing trust and that is why skepticism is a positive thing too. If if 85 year old loses her savings because of the "Nigerian prince," most of us feel sorry for her, but most of us also also "what was she thinking?!?!"

The Lorax said...

Caleb - I mean media in the broadest sense. I grew up with 3 TV stations, not counting PBS. Households had phones, but individuals didnt. Computers consisted of Pong. Now we 158 channels of crap, facebook, blogs, twitter, cell phones, IMs, text messages. It is easy and gratifying to surround yourself with an echo chamber and avoid/omit contrary views, you can stop thinking altogether and just be sheeple.

I think the issue with these students having an implicit negative reaction to the term skepticism is cultural. A person is usually called skeptical in exacerbation by someone in authority parent teacher etc. For me, having been involved in a number of K-12 science education issues, I am told repeatedly about how we need to teach "critical thinking". I agree, but we cannot be teaching critical thinking if one of the strongest tools of critical thinking is considered a bad thing to use.

Caleb said...

I also grew up with 3 TV channels, no computer until HS, and no cell phone until my senior year of HS. Add to the mix the fact that I spent the majority of my impressionable years in the rather homogeneous small towns of northern Minnesota. This situation breeds an "echo chamber" just as effectively as selective exposure to the multitude of media forms today. (Sorry if this was exactly what you were trying to say in your reply). Overall, I think that the main problem is that we are afraid to expose ourselves to different views. It is much harder to be skeptical when only presented with/ exposed to a single party of thought.


The Lorax said...

Caleb Thanks for touching on the small town mentality. It is clearly an issue as you suggest. However, I would posit that the small town mentality may not by as severe an echo chamber. Yes the viewpoints are limited (by population size) but most if not all interactions were face-to-face. That brings a level of culpability to the table not found on the internet or when cable allows "news" to be presented in your personally mindset. With so many readily accessible sources of "information" it is possible to completely exclude yourself from additional opinions. In a small town, you may only be exposed to one opinion, but teenagers are rebellious assholes. I see the difference being what is thrust upon you (small town) versus what you surround yourself with.

Anonymous said...

Did you ask your students whether other words had a positive or negative connotation, or just these two words? What was the context-philosophy discussion, lecture on scientific method, first minute of the day of class?

I think both words are generally positive; it all depends on the context. I suspect at least some of your students are simply conflating skepticism with cynicism, which most people would agree is a negative trait. Likewise, it is necessary to have certain amount trust to function in a society, but gullibility puts you at risk.