Developing a coherent understanding of a scientific idea is neither trivial nor easy and it is counter-productive to pretend that it is.
For some time now the idea of “active learning” (as if there is any other kind) has become a mantra in the science education community (see Active Learning Day in America: link). Yet the situation is demonstrably more complex, and depends upon what exactly is to be learned, something rarely stated explicitly in many published papers on active learning (an exception can be found here with respect to understanding evolutionary mechanisms : link). The best of such work generally relies on results from multiple-choice “concept tests” that provide, at best, a limited (low resolution) characterization of what students know. Moreover it is clear that, much like in other areas, research into the impact of active learning strategies is rarely reproduced (see: link, link & link).
As is clear from the level of aberrant and non-sensical talk about the implications of “science” currently on display in both public and private spheres (link : link), the task of effective science education and rigorous scientific (data-based) decision making is not a simple one. As noted by many there is little about modern science that is intuitively obvious and most is deeply counterintuitive or actively disconcerting (see link). In the absence of a firm religious or philosophical perspective, scientific conclusions about the size and age of the Universe, the various processes driving evolution, and the often grotesque outcomes they can produce can be deeply troubling; one can easily embrace a solipsistic, ego-centric and/or fatalistic belief/behavioral system.
There are two videos of Richard Feynman that capture much of what is involved in, and required for understanding a scientific idea and its implications. The first involves the basis scientific process, where the path to a scientific understanding of a phenomena begins with a guess, but these are a special kind of guess, namely a guess that implies unambiguous (and often quantitative) predictions of what future (or retrospective) observations will reveal (video: link). This scientific discipline (link) implies the willingness to accept that scientifically-meaningful ideas need to have explicit, definable, and observable implications, while those that do not are non-scientific and need to be discarded. As witness the stubborn adherence to demonstrably untrue ideas (such as where past Presidents were born or how many people attended an event or voted legally), which mark superstitious and non-scientific worldviews. Embracing a scientific perspective is not easy, nor is letting go of a favorite idea (or prejudice). The difficulty of thinking and acting scientifically needs to be kept in the mind of instructors; it is one of the reasons that peer review continues to be important – it reminds us that we are part of a community committed to the rules of scientific inquiry and its empirical foundations and that we are accountable to that community.
The second Feynman video (video : link) captures his description of what it means to understand a particular phenomenon scientifically, in this particular case, why magnets attract one another. The take home message is that many (perhaps most) scientific ideas require a substantial amount of well-understood background information before one can even begin a scientifically meaningful consideration of the topic. Yet all too often such background information is not considered by those who develop (and deliver) courses and curricula. To use an example from my own work (in collaboration with Melanie Cooper @MSU), it is very rare to find course and curricular materials (textbooks and such) that explicitly recognize (or illustrate) the underlying assumptions involved in a scientific explanation. Often the “central dogma” of molecular biology is taught as if it were simply a description of molecular processes, rather than explicitly recognizing that information flows from DNA outward (link)(and into DNA through mutation and selection). Similarly it is rare to see stated explicitly that random collisions with other molecules supply the energy needed for chemical reactions to proceed or to break intermolecular interactions, or that the energy released upon complex formation is transferred to other molecules in the system (see : link), even though these events control essentially all aspects of the systems active in organisms, from gene expression to consciousness.
The basic conclusion is that achieving a working understanding of a scientific ideas is hard, and that, while it requires an engaging and challenging teacher and a supportive and interactive community, it is also critical that students be presented with conceptually coherent content that acknowledges and presents all of the ideas needed to actually understand the concepts and observations upon which a scientific understanding is based (see “now for the hard part” : link). Bottom line, there is no simple or painless path to understanding science – it involves a serious commitment on the part of the course designer as well as the student, the instructor, and the institution (see : link).
This brings us back to the popularity of the “active learning” movement, which all too often ignores course content and the establishment of meaningful learning outcomes. Why then has it attracted such attention? My own guess it that is provides a simple solution that circumvents the need for instructors (and course designers) to significantly modify the materials that they present to students. The current system rarely rewards or provides incentives for faculty to carefully consider the content that they are presenting to students, asking whether it is relevant or sufficient for students’ to achieve a working understanding of the subject presented, an understanding that enables the student to accurately interpret and then generate reasoned and evidence-based (plausible) responses.
Such a reflective reconsideration of a topic will often result in dramatic changes in course (and curricular) emphasis; traditional materials may be omitted or relegated to more specialized courses. Such changes can provoke a negative response from other faculty, based of often inherited (an uncritically accepted) ideas about course “coverage”, as opposed to desired and realistic student learning outcomes. Given the resistance of science faculty (particularly at institutions devoted to scientific research) to investing time in educational projects (often a reasonable strategy, given institutional reward systems), there is a seductive lure to easy fixes. One such fix is to leave the content unaltered and to “adopt a pose” in the classroom.
All of which brings me to the main problem – the frequency with which superficial (low cost, but often ineffectual) strategies can act to inhibit and distract from significant, but difficult reforms. One cannot help but be reminded of other quick fixes for complex problems. The most recent being the idea, promulgated by Amy Cuddy (Harvard: link) and others, that adopting a “power pose” can overcome various forms of experienced- and socioeconomic-based prejudices and injustices, as if over-coming a person’sexperiences and situation is simply a matter of will. The message is that those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame, because the way to succeed is (basically) so damn simple. So imagine one’s surprise (or not) when one discovers that the underlying biological claims associated with “power posing” are not true (or at least cannot be replicated, even by the co-authors of the original work (see Power Poser: When big ideas go bad: link). Seems as if the lesson that needs to be learned, both in science education and more generally, is that claims that seem too easy or universal are unlikely to be true. It is worth remembering that even the most effective modern (and traditional) medicines, all have potentially dangerous side effects. Why, because they lead to significant changes to the system and such modifications can discomfort the comfortable. This stands in stark contrast to non-scientific approaches; homeopathic “remedies” come to mind, which rely on placebo effects (which is not to say that taking ineffective remedies does not itself involve risks.)
As in the case of effective medical treatments, the development and delivery of engaging and meaningful science education reform often requires challenging current assumptions and strategies that are often based in outdated traditions, and are influenced more by the constraints of class size and the logistics of testing than they are by the importance of achieving demonstrable enhancements of students’ working understanding of complex ideas.