Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why Americans Can't Think

I have been teaching high school science for nine years. Each year I have a surprising number of students who resist vigorously any request to think for themselves. Many students (in some classes, the overwhelming majority) expect to have information poured into their heads, without having to struggle with difficult concepts, synthesize information, apply concepts to novel situations, or solve challenging problems. Very few students will ask questions during class, outside of class or even through email. They often come to class with preconceived notions that are not true (e.g., the idea that we come from monkeys), which only makes it harder to understand the truth (e.g., that we share a common ancestor with monkeys). Some students believe that all knowledge is relative; therefore, evidence from controlled scientific experiments is no more valid to them than the information presented in an advertisement. Others believe that science is just another religion and they are free to believe in it or not. And some resist thinking about anything that is difficult to understand or that requires them to focus and concentrate.

Being able to think critically and independently is a skill that most people are not formally taught. It is a skill that is not easy to teach nor is it explicitly included as a discreet standard in the California state standards for high school education.

Some other factors contributing to the inability to think critically:


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Thanks for your ongoing efforts as a high school science teacher. That must be a challenging job, since we often read that most Americans show very little basic understanding of science. Roughly half opine that the sun moves around the earth, that evolution is only an idea, etc... ad nauseam.

Yet we're now in an era that increasingly calls upon scientific knowledge for important social decisions about genetic engineering, global warming, biodiversity, toxic chemicals, viral epidemics, and such. One way to sum that up for students is to have them understand that "Ignorance is toxic." What you don't know can and does hurt you.

Perhaps an enlightening lesson plan regarding the basic distinction between empirically tested knowledge and superstitious speculation would be to introduce a scientific problem to students along with 2 or 3 proposed solutions are interpretations, telling them that only one of those is scientifically correct. Students would have to think critically then about which method arrived at which result, and which interpretation leads to further our knowledge rather than hinder it.

Lessons like this might begin with rather obvious examples of toxic ignorance -- like witches' spells caused disease rather than microbes -- and progress to more sophisticated cases. This might engage students in a slightly more active process. It also implicitly teaches them the big story of historical struggle against false knowledge.
 
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