Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Why is most high school science so dry and uninteresting? Why do students lose interest in science? Why is science achievement in North America (in the US especially) so poor? Even when the courses are rigorous, why do students retain so little and feel such scant excitement?

Well, first, I'm not sure that most higher level science requires as much mathematics as is commonly assumed. I think that especially in nations where mathematics achievement is relatively poor, taking a mathematical approach to middle- and high-school science is not such a great strategy. The approach seems to be to mention a concept, teach the higher mathematical model that formalizes it, and then to attempt to consolidate the learning of the concepts by providing kill & drill paper-and-pencil practice with the formulae.

I'm thinking of my Grade 10 Chemistry course which focused chiefly on molar equations, balancing valences, and calculations based on Boyle's Law. I did well in it, as I'm good at math and logic, but for the majority of my classmates the math acted as an obstacle to the understanding of chemistry. I assumed that was the way it had to be. I went on to study chemistry at university and found the subject very interesting at that level. I assumed that the slog through high school level stuff was just the necessary prerequisite learning.

But then recently, Noah (9) has asked me to put together a chemistry "program" of sorts, as he has developed rather an interest in the subject. We started with "The Mystery of the Periodic Table" by Benjamin Wiker, an entertaining narrative about the history of chemistry and of the discovery of the elements. From there we went on to explore conceptualizations of atoms and to study of the Bohr atomic model and how it informs our understanding of chemical bonding. Larry Gonick's "Cartoon Guide to Chemistry" has provided some ancillary information and entertainment. Then we got our hands on a semi-space-filling molecular model kit and had an amazing time building molecules of all sorts (ethanol looks like a puppy dog!). From there the concept of valences was naturally explored. And then we watched a set of four lectures from a college course entitled "The Joy of Science", intended for non-science majors, which explores chemistry history and concepts in a fair bit of depth, and to a chemistry curriculum for youngsters (Real Science 4 Kids Chemistry I) which again puts concepts ahead of higher math, exploring all the basic chemistry concepts from subatomic particles to covalent bonding to polarity, pH and various reactions, polymerization, basic techniques for chemical analysis, and on to biochemistry, the form and function of DNA and DNA polymerase, etc.. He's learning some of the stuff that I only got into at the university level and, like me, finding it thrilling. But the difference is that he hasn't had to spend hours calculating the number of moles of CO2 contained in a balloon that expands by 3.2 L when heated by 14 degrees C at atmospheric pressure to get to the interesting stuff. Why shouldn't all children get to build ethanol doggies? Why does this nifty pastime have to wait until after the mastery of Boyle's Law arithmetic?

I think that if science was taught by people who really loved it as a subject area, who were passionate about the effective and inspiring teaching of it, who loved the concepts and the theory and the beauty of cogent unifying theories, rather than who simply have somewhat of an aptitude for the mechanics of it, we would get science teaching that excited students at all levels rather than filtering out those without the tolerance for big doses of the mathematical mechanics. One of the things that struck me when reading Liping Ma's wonderful book "Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics" was how passionate Asian elementary school mathematics teachers were about their subject matter and pedagogy -- how it is standard practice for them to meet regularly to share teaching strategies, to garner advice on conceptual challenges particular students were facing, to trade tricks, to share their passion and experience with other teachers. Can you imagine a Canadian public school teacher saying to his colleagues "hey, let's meet once a week to talk about how we're doing at teaching math to our students and to trade ideas"? The sort of teacher who would suggest that here would be exceptionally passionate and considered an oddball -- yet the practice is de rigeur in China.

Here in the west, we seem to think that a systematic science education should start with the smallest, most tedious details, and build gradually outwards and upwards to the more interesting and more elegant parts. In fact, scientific exploration tends to proceed in exactly the opposite manner, starting with observations about interesting stuff, and only gradually finding its way into the kernel of fundamental mathematical relationships. Why should we expect our 12-year-olds to maintain their interest any other way?

I think that in North America there is too much focus on rigor at the expense of passion. Teachers' creativity and passion are discouraged by the top-down approach to curriculum design and by systemic problems that disempower teachers. And that focus on rigor at the expense of creativity and passion trickles directly down to students. I'm really happy that my own kids are free of all that.


  1. I wonder, though. Is it the lack of passion in the teachers? Or the fact that they are forced to "teach to the test", to stick to a curriculum that they didn't have a hand in developing? Anyways, as a scientist myself I am thrilled for your son.

  2. I completely agree, MT, with your speculation. That's sort of what I was trying to get at with "Teachers' creativity and passion are discouraged by the top-down approach to curriculum design and by systemic problems that disempower teachers." Not that teachers in aren't passionate about their subject areas, but that passion is squelched rather than nurtured. By "systemic problems" I was thinking of standardized tests, grades and the like.


  3. Have you ever taken Geology?

  4. No, never took geology, though oddly enough just this morning I was looking at a one-day "geology of the West Kootenay" course offered by our local education extension agency in October and thinking "hmmm...."

    Why do you ask?



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