Facts vs. Skills and Content vs. Pedagogy Expertise: Tensions in Science Education

The challenges of the modern era are great. How can we restore our global economic might? How can we accept anthropogenic climate change as a problem and being to address it? Belief in one of the foundational theories of science (evolution) is low and trending lower, how do we restore trust in science? Despite the complexity of these challenges, many point to improving science education as a way to address them. So ,how should we teach science? Who should be teaching science?

Sophia A. Satina (1879-1975) and Albert Francis Blakeslee (1874-1954), shown with samples of mold from Flickr Commons, Smithsonian Collection, photographer: Fremont Davis

As a college science educator, a cognitive scientist, an unrepentant nerd, and the father of three budding scientists, I find myself considering these questions with two related pairs of tensions in mind. The first is the tension between facts and skills. Do we focus on learning science facts in a “traditional” classroom atmosphere? Or, do we shift to the skills one learns in science fair projects and the like, such as observation, critical thinking, communication? The second tension is about the people who do the teaching of science. Should they be science experts first and educators second? Or should they be trained as teachers first, gathering science content knowledge as needed?

Despite the many loud voices favoring one side of these tensions, I argue that they are fundamentally unresolvable, and that we should attempt to strike a balance in each; no “one true ring” will solve our science education problem.

LOIRP Moon, NASA on the Commons

The tension between facts and skills is nicely illustrated in a recent (ok, last month, meaning millions of internet years ago) blog post by PZ Myers, in which he writes a letter to a nine-year-old girl who recently visited a moon rock. Upon hearing that this moon rock was 3.75 billion years old, Emma B. asks the NASA docent, “Were you there?” Myers, who has long battled with young earth creationists (the story was shared by a triumphant Ken Ham), pleads with the girl to instead ask a scientifically keener question, one that she doesn’t know the answer to: “How do you know that?” Myers then proceeds to answer his own recommended question.

In the case of our present tension between facts and skills, “How do you know that?” is the fundamental question of science, and the first step in any definition of critical thinking skills. The associated questions of “how do we measure this?” and “how do you know our measurement is accurate?” are the ways that we move beyond the empiricism of our own eyes and into the modern scientific method. These are the critical thinking skills that my rising third grade sons are beginning to learn; they are the questions that will guide their science fair projects (please let there still be science fair projects when they get to high school!). The asking of these questions is critical, but how far does that get us towards better science education for Emma or perhaps towards a revelatory experience with His Noodly Appendage?

Touched by His Noodly Appendage

Touched by His Noodly Appendage (PAstafarian fine art, from Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

Unfortunately, for Myers, not very far. The first paragraph of his explanation reveals the trouble:

The technique scientists use is called radiometric dating. It uses the fact that some radioactive elements slowly fall apart, turning into other elements. For instance, a radioactive isotope of potassium will decay over time into an isotope of another element, argon.

Sorry to break it to you, PZ, but I think you have already lost her (the girl’s mother’s letter confirms it). Despite our insistence that students exhibit critical thinking skills with probing questions and keen observations, these skills are built on a foundation of factual knowledge. In this case, Emma first needs to know what an element is, then what a radioactive element is. My kids are almost eight, and despite hours of listening to They Might Be Giants, I am pretty sure they don’t really know what an element is. “Well, Emma, they are the fundamental building blocks of all matter” “How do you know that?” “If they are so fundamental, how can they fall apart?” It is not absolutely necessary that she understand what “radioactive” or “isotope” means, but if she doesn’t, specifying one type of element, or a unit of an element, could be confusing: “Why are these elements special? What makes them radioactive?” These questions have answers, but those answers quickly lead to other questions.

I don’t mean to pick on Myers, of whom I am generally a fan, or trash his letter, which is excellent. He realizes that he has to explain what “decay” means and his tone is caring, polite, and full of wonder. What Myers’ letter reminds me is of the importance of facts in learning science. As my colleague Daniel Willingham points out “Factual knowledge precedes skill.” Without a rock solid foundation of factual knowledge, we aren’t able to comprehend and integrate the answers we get from all these wonderful questions we ask.

Facts are critical, but if we never get the chance to apply these facts through projects, or witness them in action through experiences, they can come to seem sterile and distant. Our science teachers should certainly teach science facts, but they should also engage students through discovery learning. This need not be an either/or choice. Swinging too far towards facts can deaden science, but swinging too far towards projects can leave weeks for dropping egg contraptions from balconies, without ever learning the physics principles that make some crack and keep others whole. Of course, these tendencies need not be true for every fact and every project–many of my fellow nerds can reminisce of many happy hours spent with reference books, and discovery learning can lead us towards facts, instead of away from them.

Given that there is no easy recipe, who should be leading us on our quest for better science education? Do we have a personnel problem, as Arne Duncan and many in the current wave of school reform assert? Calls to improve science education often include calls for more science degrees for our teachers, with a goal to get more science content experts in the K-12 classroom. This is not new; former NSF director Rita Colwell instituted a program to get Ph.D.’s in classrooms in the late 90’s. The current UTeach program is based on this assumption. But Ariel Sackseloquent recent post about teaching teenagers attests to the relevance of insights into the teenage mind (and teenage lifestyle) in teaching teenagers. My high school physics teacher knew a lot about physics (he had a Ph.D.) but not as much about the minds and hearts of sixteen-year-old boys and girls. Despite my interest, I learned almost no physics.

Expert scientists, like Myers, with little experience teaching know-it-all nine-year-old girls, are doomed to be pointed away from their students, marveling at the wonders of science without realizing the cognitive and social constraints of their flock. But teachers who are only experts in the nine-year-old mind often don’t have enough deep factual knowledge themselves about what “radioactive“ “isotopes,” “elements”, and “decay” mean to adequately explain them to their students. They realize the importance of fun projects, but without adequate content knowledge, they don’t know which aspects of the recipe they can change.

In conclusion, there is no platonically perfect science curriculum, and there is no perfect science educator to deliver it. Skills and facts complement each other, and any curriculum which neglects either will suffer. We are not going to fix science education any more than we are going to cure cancer. Just like different cancers demand different treatments, teaching science to kindergarteners requires more expertise in five-year-olds than in chemistry, but teaching organic chemistry in college is different. Where should we go from here? As a first step, I think we should start giving our science educators more freedom to practice their craft and to learn how to settle these tensions in their own classrooms. The more we look to simple solutions to these tensions, the more we drive away potential teaching professionals, who are drawn to situations in which they are allowed to strike their own balance.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education, science. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Facts vs. Skills and Content vs. Pedagogy Expertise: Tensions in Science Education

  1. manderson says:

    I think you’ve gone right to the root nerve of an age old educational theory debate. Paolo Friere and John Dewey argued against rote learning and for an active, dialectical, student-centered approach, while E.D. Hirsch, Jr. argues against what he terms their “naturalist” perspectives and for the core root of facts necessary for domain specific knowledge. I’ve intuitively felt that both sides are “right,” and I think you balanced those perspectives well in this post.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Absolutely. I think your comment also speaks to the limits of any single coherent theoretical approach. In the classroom (at least in mine) I think these theories are better treated as principles and approaches, as tools in the toolbox of the science educator. As much as I feel that facts and content knowledge are under-emphasized in today’s K-12 classroom, I would be wary of swinging too far in that direction, away from project-based learning. I have read a little of Dewey from the perspective of a historian of psychology, trying to understand him and William James’ pragmatism, but I need to read more of his stuff on education. Ditto for Freire. Thanks for commenting.

  2. mcshanahan says:

    Thanks for your post – I think you got it exactly right in looking at PZ’s letter. I loved the intent of the letter but it is also a really good example of how hard it is to actually try to answer these questions with children.
    One part of my job is science teacher education and you’ve hit on one of the main issues that we often face. What exactly do science teachers need to learn – do they need to learn to teach well or do they need to learn a lot of science. And of course the answer, as you’ve shown, is some of both. In trying to solve this tension, one of the ideas that we often talk about is pedagogical content knowledge. The idea came from trying to explain what expertise really great science teachers seem to have. It’s not just that they know science content and it’s not just that they know kids well – it’s some kind of combination of the two. It’s a way of describing that combination of knowledge that includes – understanding science concepts deeply and also understanding what makes them difficult for students to understand, knowing the typical misconceptions related to certain science topics and the most effective ways to challenge them, having a vast array of examples and strategies that can be adapted for individual students who are struggling, knowing how to adapt an explanation of an abstract concept such as energy for different ages, etc. In reading your post, it seemed to me that it’s the sort of idea you were getting at.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. For me it is really interesting to have a fair amount of content knowledge in psychology, and in cognitive and perceptual psychology, as well as some knowledge in theories of pedagogy, and the cognitive science of learning, but that these domains of knowledge only help me but so much in teaching my courses. There are things like the interest level of the students, the time of day, the length of the class, the level of knowledge of the students, which can change from semester to semester, and from school to school. Some of the content that worked well in my course at a small liberal arts college in Oakland doesn’t work as well here at Randolph-Macon.
      I am slowly coming to the realization that teaching is not just learning the content, but trying to get inside the heads of your students, which is actually a really really hard thing to do, even though in college they are supposedly adults.

  3. Ben says:

    As a science educator, I have taken it upon myself to learn education; I already was pretty well educated in science. Education is a practice, a skill, like public speaking, writing, programming, calculating, computer use, or animal surgery. We don’t bother arguing about whether scientists should be able to pipette accurately. Some can, and they do bench work, some can’t – maybe they program computers.

    We shouldn’t argue about whether science educators should be able to teach. Before science educators are allowed in the classroom, they should learn how to teach – and not in the current PhD program strategy of aping bad examples and having teaching as the lowest priority. They should follow an appropriate training program to learn skills for the grades/levels they will instruct – that includes college and PhD students. At the same time, before they are allowed in the classroom, they should be able to understand and even re-generate, the curriculum they are expected to teach. Elementary students do pose a serious challenge. I think, frankly, they highlight my next point:

    The science curriculum needs to be redone – completely. We need to train to the test, and the test needs to be relevant to real science and real life: concepts and skills. This will require “teaching” less (actually, ‘presenting less’ – right now, we confuse teaching and presentation much of the time) and teaching it ‘better.’ But that is a rant for another day…

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Well said, Ben. Thanks for commenting. I agree that education is a practice, and I would agree that it is far more specific than we would like to acknowledge. There are some skills that transfer, but teaching kindergarteners is quite different than teaching college students. I think the problem with the “test” that you mention is that the kind of teaching you and I agree is best (facts and skills, specific to the set of students in front of you, focused on student, not only lecture) is also the hardest and most expensive to test. As a psychological scientist, I think there are reasonable tests for a great many things that others don’t think there are tests for (happiness, intelligence, etc). But the problem, for example with a system like IMPACT in DC) is that it needs to be relatively cheap, and generalizable to many schools, grades and subjects. This generality results in a loss of validity. Anyways, I am on board with assessing things that actually matter. Unfortunately, most of the time good tests require self-criticism and humility on the part of the the administrators of the test, which seems to be in short supply. Thanks again for dropping by. Cedar

  4. Pingback: Assume a spherical cow: The Common Core and recess | Cedar's Digest

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