The Teaching Catch 22

Science is like a Twitter account: once you think you are all updated with the latest news, 20 new sources of information come flying your way that make you re-think what you just read.

What we know about science is always changing—there are always new discoveries being made, theories being challenged, and experiments being done that change the way that we see our world. My question then is, if science, by nature, is always changing, why are we teaching the same facts year after year in schools?

At the very beginning of my student teaching, my cooperating teacher gave me two little green books that outlined the curriculum in biology and chemistry, citing where I should be in which week of the year, the objectives that the students should know by then, et cetera. As a nascent teacher, I thought these books were greater than sliced bread; now that I had everything outlined, all I had to do was teach it.

Yet after some time, those little green books became the bane of my existence. Units fell one after the other: photosynthesis, cellular respiration, mitosis, meiosis, DNA, bang, bang, bang. I felt that I was drilling information into my students’ heads that they “should know for the test.” There was no time for labs, or asking questions, or even to stop and think. At one point, I looked at my cooperating teacher and said, “This isn’t science.”

The science that I learned to love was one where people asked questions and tried to answer them. Why is the sky blue? What makes the earth turn? Why do I get that tingly sensation in my feet when I’ve been sitting cross-legged too long? Science is about the process of figuring it out, critical thinking, synthesizing facts, and analyzing data. Not regurgitating facts on a test.

But this is what the curriculum for science in many schools has become; instead of teaching what science is, we are teaching what science has done. As a result, fewer people are interested in becoming scientists.

I spent the past year in a graduate class poring over articles and books that wondered, why? Why are so few people becoming scientists in a world where we need them now more than ever? I, however, am not surprised.

I substituted for a short while after my student teaching, and I found that in many of the elementary schools, they are so focused on drilling readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic, that science and social studies vie for the last period of the day. In every class that I substituted in, however, most teachers opted to leave a worksheet on Christopher Columbus as opposed to the order of the planets. Thus, most students do not really get introduced to science until 6th grade, when it is one of the five main classes they have each day.

If I was not introduced to science before 6th grade, and then in 6th grade, science class only consisted of a bunch of facts to memorize and then forget, I wouldn’t want to study it either.

The curriculum we have now was made for another generation: before, the sole purpose of school was to teach students the facts that they needed to know about their modern world because they were unlikely to find them anywhere else—books were scarce at the beginning of the 20th century, and tall tales got taller by the generation. Today though, students don’t need to learn the facts—they have access to them within 5 seconds on all of their portable devices.

So I would like to propose a change. What if we instead taught students how to think, how to sort out the good information from the bad, how to design an experiment, and most importantly, how to apply science to their daily lives? At the end of the day, I want my science class to be relevant to their own lives so that in the future when a bill is proposed on a concept in science, they can take a moment to think about all of the opinions that people have on it, and then decide what is best for their country.

Yet, whenever I think about this, or even try it, I find myself in a Catch 22. As it is right now, we are screwed if we teach out students how to think, for then they learn none of the facts, fail their standardized tests, and then don’t pass high school. On the other hand, we are screwed if we teach the students the facts, because then we send a whole generation of automatons into the world.

I want to give my students the best possible science education that I can give, so that they can become informed citizens, ready to make their own decisions. Yet I only think that this can happen if the current curriculum receives a major face-lift.