Culture vs. science education

Peter Wood has a tour de force editorial today in the Chronicle, titled “How Culture Keeps Our Students Out of Science”. Snippet:

Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market’s demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off — often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren’t very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, “Why bother?”

[…] A century ago, Max Weber wrote of “Science as a Vocation,” and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.

At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn — and worse, fail to develop as “whole persons” — if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren’t among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who “feel good” about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.

Wood goes on to trace the failings of postmodernism and relativism for preparing our kids for science and math. Go read the whole thing. I believe he is dead-on, and the article is full of money quotes such as:

Talk to recent college graduates and you are likely to hear something like: “Asian students are just better at science and math.” That is a verbal shrug, not a lament. The reward of 16 years of diversiphilic indoctrination turns out to be a comfort zone of rationalizations.

Wood does make a serious omission in his article, and that is the effect of popular culture on students. This is something I have blogged about over and over again. Kids are immersed in a culture that trains them for laziness and entertainment and deprives them of opportunities for hard, sustained efforts of the mind that are eventually rewarded. They are constantly bombarded by messages that say math and science are uncool, too hard, lame, etc. and nobody is systematically fighting that cultural flow. Elementary school teachers have a chance to inculcate the math and science “bug” in young kids and train them up with good basic skills, but many fail to do so because they themselves are ill-prepared in, and ill-disposed towards, science and math. (Note that this is not all elementary teachers — but certainly too many of them.)


Filed under Early education, Education, High school, Higher ed, Math, Student culture, Teaching

7 responses to “Culture vs. science education

  1. It’s not just that science is hard…it’s also that it contradicts the religious worldview as understood by too many. We left the Bible Belt about seven months ago largely because even in the public schools kids are encouraged to test facts against scripture rather than scripture against facts. Science is seen as the tool of Satan. The culture down there is an absolute mess, and our kids will have no chance of competing in the world when they’re are so ill prepared for reality.

  2. elementaryteacher

    OK, I’m going to talk about your reference that elementary teachers are poorly prepared in math. I agree that this is true for over fifty percent of elementary teachers.

    I struggled through Algebra II just to get it on my transcript so I’d never have to take a math course again. Even later when I had a several-year career as a stock broker, I did manage to become very competent in that sort of business math (mostly percentages having to do with margin calls). Then I switched careers, and went in to teaching. My undergraduate degree was in History, so when I switched careers, I got a Masters in Secondary Education with a certification to teach Secondary Social Studies.

    I was certified in Colorado in 1989, which required ALL teachers, of ANY subject certification to pass a math test. Most teachers had to take an Algebra review course (me included) and luckily I passed. But they don’t give you your score, as I recall it was pass/fail (with 70 percent or higher passing) . There was lots of griping about this, but the university insisted it was because school districts might call upon ANY teacher to teach a math course. Even though I passed, I still had a severe case of “math anxiety.”

    There are few jobs in Social Studies, and most of the positions are unfortunately tied to being the football coach! (I’m not kidding.)

    A friend of mine, no stronger in math than I was, and also certified in Secondary Social Studies, eventually got a job with a private school, and guess what his job was–teaching math. I think he did become competent in it, but it may have taken some time.

    I moved overseas and taught Kindergarten for three years in a new American school, and then moved to Grade 3. My biggest worry was that I would not be able to competently teach Grade 3 math, or do Grade 3 story problems in front of the kids! After teaching it for a year, I became competent (at least at that level). After several years, I found that teaching Grade 3 math had enabled me to see math in a new way, and I started to like math. I think I have actually become a very good teacher of math (at my level, anyway).

    But I’ve seen that a LOT of the people who choose to go in to elementary education had done it partly because they are choosing a “math-avoidance” career. I did the same in choosing a Social Studies certification.

    When you have “math-avoidance” elementary teachers teaching math, is it any wonder that they usually skip all the story problems, and teach by correcting student books, and just returning them, but not being willing to go over the missed problems on the board (for fear of making mistakes themselves in front of the class)? This is very clearly one of the problems that needs rectifying somehow, if we are to raise our nation’s math scores.

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  3. elementaryteacher

    Regarding science, I was always interested in science since I was about six years old. However, that interest was highly discouraged (unsuccessfully) by my mother, as she felt it was an “unladylike” thing to be interested in. In high school, I was punished when she found a science book hidden under my mattress (about the discovery of penicillin)! I would have become a scientist, but what changed my mind was when I got lost in Algebra.

    I had a fantastic chemistry teacher in high school who was a former lab chemist, but did find the math so intimidating that I never went on to physics, even though the topics are of great interest to me.

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  4. elementaryteacher

    I read the entire 66-page math report you linked to. It seems the crux of the report is saying that elementary teachers need to be competent in higher math like Algebra II. Yet in the 66 pages it did not say WHY, and was not convincing to me. I think it is not convincing either to the STATES who are setting the standards.

    This report railed against educational institutions, but those institutions are merely making courses which follow the standards of their own states. If they wish to raise elementary teacher standards, the STATES have to mandate how much math is necessary, and the educational institutions will follow with the courses.

    However, I disagree about the algebra stuff (unless the teacher is for Grade 6 and up). I see far too many elementary teachers who are not competent in PRE-ALGEBRA math, which is a major reason why their STUDENTS are not becoming competent or comfortable with pre-Algebra math. I think this is a LOT more important to remedy first!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  5. @Eileen: I qualified my criticism about elementary teachers with you specifically in mind. When my kids get to elementary schools (which is real soon now) I hope they have a teacher who is as enthusiastic about math as you are. Sadly, though, many of the el.ed. majors I’ve taught or seen are majoring in it because they figure it’s an easy major and career — how hard can it be to babysit a bunch of kids, right? Those people scare me. It’s not everybody, maybe not even a majority, but it’s way too many.

  6. Pingback:   Business,Uncategorized,science | Program steers students to science — Recycle Email

  7. psikeyhackr

    {{{ elementary teachers need to be competent in higher math like Algebra II }}}

    Algebra II is higher math!?!?!?


    I see why there is a problem.

    I got interested in science as a result of reading science fiction books. My grade school teachers could not teach math worth a damn. They memorized, they did not think. All they could do was make us memorize. The sci-fi gave me a far more universal perspective and provided me with the words to research in the encyclopedia that further explained the concepts in the SF books.

    I was reading about supernovae and the evolution of stars when the teachers did not even explain that the seasons were caused by the tilt of the planet.

    We had algebra books in 8th grade but they didn’t let us use them.