Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Endangered: Science & Creative Thinking

Science Image

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending our regional science fair. This is the second year I have attended. Last year there were approximately 300 projects presented by students in grades 7-12; this year there were about 230. Some of the projects show a great deal of creativity, sometimes in terms of the question being asked, sometimes in the experimental design. It is exciting for me as a teacher to be surrounded with bright, motivated and enthusiastic students.

I've only been to two fairs, so calling my observations "a trend" is probably going a little too  far, but I did notice a few things that I found disturbing. Many student science projects that made it through the initial in-school fairs to get to the regional fair were more replications and demonstrations than actual original science. These sorts of projects were numerous, far outnumbering projects which incorporated original approaches to a problem. A couple of kids even proudly mentioned the websites from which their experiments originated. While they should be encouraged to give full disclosure (a point which I'll return to later), and while replication is an important aspect of scientific study, when I see an experiment that I've seen a dozen times before with no new questions or adaptations, I question the fact that it has made it to this level of competition.

For example, many students have made potato batteries. The experiment which used a variety of fruits & veggies, tried them in both parallel and series and used the energy to perform electrolysis took the idea further than the basic experiment. Unfortunately,  there were many similar ones that were stalled at the equivalent of the potato battery stage, yet made it into the regional fair. There were more of these this year than last, even though the total number of entries was significantly lower. The proportion of higher level prizes to entries was also lower, reflecting an overall drop in quality of the entries submitted.

To be fair, there were a number of truly inspiring projects which showed creativity, innovation, depth and impressive research skills, but these projects were fewer than last year, and stood out from the rest.

Not only are many of the projects generally lacking creativity, depth and innovation, some of the students do not seem to understand the scientific process. There were several projects in which the conclusions stated that their experiment "proved" or "disproved" their hypothesis. Some of the actual concepts and methods were flawed, misinterpreted or misunderstood. Since only a handful of projects were directly entered (from home-schoolers  and students whose schools do not participate in science fairs), and the rest went through the rigors of the in-class and then the school-wide fairs in order to make it this far, the fact that none of the teachers or judges who previously evaluated the project caught this is something I find rather disturbing.

Maybe this is just a fluke and next year will see more innovation and creativity (and scientific rigor). I fear though that this is a trend that will continue. In many ways, it can be argued that it started a while ago when standardized testing became so popular.

There is a trend present in all levels of education for students to ask "will it be on the test?" then ignore any discussions that do not gain a "yes" answer. Getting the "right" answer trumps exploration and discovery through experimenting and taking risks. Divergent education and thinking go hand in hand with creativity which drives innovation. Standardized tests, by their very definition, encourage students to memorize and accept rather than to truly understand.

Getting the "right" answer relies on taking others at their word rather than testing ideas. Back in the middle ages in Europe, the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers were accepted without question. It was only in the age of enlightenment, when Galileo and other scholars began to question and test ideas that science and innovation were reborn. By reverting back to a "get the right answer" mentality, we are reverting back to thinking patterns common in the dark ages.

A grade 8 student I know showed me his school science binder this year. The class studied the seasons. Now, at a grade 8 level, I would have expected to see details such as how the angle of the earth's rotation affects the seasons, seasonal variations, comparisons between various locations, climate (OK, perhaps not that one--we do live in Canada after all!), animal and plant adaptations & comparisons over varying zones, etc. What they actually did looked like something out of preschool. They had to determine which holidays and sports fell into which seasons. The entire term test went no further than this.

When science instruction is watered down this far, how can we possibly expect to move forward as a society? Which brings me to another point: the Harper gov't cuts to scientific research. When there is a pronounced disinterest by the government itself in pursuing science and innovation, what hope can we have that students will be drawn into these fields? But let's get back to the education discussion...

The effects have reached into post-secondary education as well. I have friends who teach or are professors at five different post-secondary institutions and they all report the same attitudes. Students tune out or leave lectures if they stray at all from the exact questions they will see on the test. Students use references such as Wikipedia for major papers, or copy papers directly from Wikipedia or other internet sites. Often this is easily checked by plugging in the first couple of sentences as part of a search term. Plagiarism is becoming the norm, and students aren't even trying to hide it. Moreover, they plagiarize even for smaller assignments that are not worth many marks. One friend reported being able to track the plagiarized bits in a paper because the student hadn't even bothered to change the font in the sections he lifted directly from the internet. Another friend was asked to "go easy" on the students because they didn't know better. So instead of losing their degree entirely and being expelled from the university, they simply failed the course. This professor learned to copy the university's policy on plagiarism for the first class of each term, read through it with his students and have them sign and return a copy. How on earth could students have graduated from highschool and not learned about the legal aspects of stealing/buying/copying someone else's work? Perhaps post-secondary institutions are not demanding enough of their entrants. It seems that every student now feels entitled to a post-secondary education. Many students might be happier and more suited to learning a trade or pursuing other non-academic vocations.

Perhaps I'm a bit naive. When I went to university, I found great pleasure in learning about and researching new topics. It was hard work, especially as I took on a double major which meant double the course load for much of my time there, but it was interesting and compelling. The piece of paper at the end was just another piece of red tape needed to gain employment; the substance and worth were in the process itself. Have we robbed the current generation of such pleasures? Maybe part of the difference is that I chose my majors not for the ultimate goal of making a great deal of money, but out of a true interest in the subject matter. (And before you jump to any conclusions of me being a pampered little rich kid, you need to know that I paid for every cent of my education through working three part-time jobs and taking on a huge student loan.)

Science education should be an extension of the natural curiosity and experimentation of young children. In fact, when allowed to play freely, particularly outdoors, children are natural scientists. To encourage children to continue their explorations throughout childhood and into adulthood is to develop creative, critical, scientific thinkers. Yet how often do we miss the opportunity to delve into further investigation with our children, and instead guide them away from their natural interests? Maybe it's too hot, cold, muddy, or doesn't fit into our schedule or agenda. But it should. To revert to rote teaching as a top-down activity is to stifle all that is good and natural about learning. Just ask any developmental psychologist and they will tell you--or look up the studies yourself. Yet the push in education is for all-day, indoor, top-down instruction even in kindergarten. Outdoor play and outdoor education are increasingly infrequent activities rather than the norm.

When teachers become guides and mentors, students thrive. When it becomes all about standardization, learning suffers. Creativity is squashed like a bug (which many kids can no longer recognize or name). Self-directed learning is an unknown entity. Choices become threatening and overwhelming to students who have been given little or no experience with making any decisions for themselves. Reflective thought, questioning and probing-these are all discouraged in the name of expediency. But when expediency has no true goal (consumerism aside), we simply end up running faster and faster and get nowhere. And that is precisely where our current system is heading.