Saturday, October 6, 2007

How to Improve Science Education

A professor recently told my class, upon seeing her students’ faces contorted in confusion over the concept of low-angle reverse faults, that it had taken geologists decades to understand the complex tectonic processes that lead to such unusual formations (such faults result in older rock overlying younger rock, which is counter to common sense). I was struck by the honesty and empathy inherent in this statement. Students are typically bombarded with highly conceptual theories that are feats of human imagination and deductive power, and expected to digest and understand these ideas within minutes, days, or weeks at most. Rarely does a professor pause to reassure his puzzled pupils that it is OK not to immediately grasp differential integration or chromosomal variation. Surely professors realize that few students are capable of immediate understanding and retention of difficult material, and surely they do not forget their own undergraduate days, when they, too, struggled with the very same things. But for some reason they all-too-often neglect to address these simple facts, allowing the students to believe they are stupid if they fail to get it. This leads to extreme frustration at best and abandonment of the subject at worst. Were teachers better at conveying empathy and being patient with students, U.S. science education would likely not be in the dangerously frail position it is now.

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