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Mindset and breaking the cycle of “I’m not good at science”

October 19, 2011
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I can’t help but write about this incredible blog post I recently ready by Brian Frank: Mindset.

In case you don’t know, Brian is a first year Physics Professor and this year, he’s teaching a course in scientific inquiry for future elementary science teachers. Based on his previous posts, it sounds like this course has been a pretty difficult experience for many students, and for many this might be the very first time in their lives that they are engaging the process of actually “doing science”—observing phenomena, crafting and testing explanations against new evidence, and seeing how those explanations fail over and over.

But Brian’s latest post explores something slightly different—it’s the thread of “I can’t do science” that is a constant in almost any science course that isn’t populated completely by future science majors or the captains of the robotics and math teams.

Here’s where we start the cycle—in high school and junior high. I’ve known teachers who think it’s ok that students leave the classroom with a perception that they aren’t good at “subject X.” And at first, this seems fine, right? I mean I know I’m not good at basketball, and I figured that out pretty quickly (and only slightly humiliatingly) in middle school PE.

But Brian’s students make me think about this completely differently. What happens to those students we drive away from science in our classes? Do they go on to live happy lives as lawyers, artists and bankers, never to interact with science again? Or, and here’s a scarier thought—maybe they go on to become elementary school teachers?

I’ve had a conversations with a few wonderful elementary school teachers who have confessed their phobias about math and science to me. It always leaves me wondering how these teachers manage to keep from passing these phobias over to students. In most cases, the answer is they don’t. A University of Chicago Study concluded that “Having a highly math-anxious female teacher may push girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which in turn, affects girls’ math achievement.”

This is the problem with the “it’s ok if everyone doesn’t learn science” camp. If you read Brian’s students’ feedback, a lot of their negative experiences with science stem right back to their junior high and high school experiences. If we drive students out of science in Junior High or High School, and leave them with the impression that they “can’t do science,” we possibly aren’t just doing harm to this one student; if this student goes on to elementary school teaching we are doing harm to every student this teacher amy one day teach (even if this child doesn’t become a teacher, he or she could still confer this “can’t do science” attitude to his or her children). Perhaps more importantly we aren’t equipping this teacher with any understanding of what science is—since so much of high school science is taught as simply learning ideas in a book and solving problems at the end of the chapter. And don’t make me go all Thomas Friedman and talk about how the United States losing its edge in Science Education spells doom for our the economic competitiveness of our great nation.

I want to extend my deepest thanks to Brian for essentially rehabilitating his students who were served poorly in high school and junior high.

So yes, I will go on record saying that I believe every student can do science, especially at the exclusive independent school I teach at where every student must meet rigorous standards for entrance. Every student can ask questions about the world around them, and investigate those questions in a systematic way. I don’t think every kid can memorize every single formula in a physics textbook, or solve every problem at the end of the chapter, but I also don’t think that these are the best measures of scientific ability, either, and I hope that embedded in our science curriculum is some measure of what science is.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2011 6:09 am

    I would totally agree with this, and just add that the same can be said about mathematics. My problem is that the way that someone is identified as being “good at math” is extremely narrow – it means that they’ve successfully navigated an algebra/geometry/algebra 2/precalculus/calculus sequence of courses. Problems in the back of the book, basically. And breaking the cycle of “it’s OK if I’m not good at…” in mathematics is going to require equal effort to what you describe for science.

  2. October 20, 2011 11:23 am

    Hey Dr. John, I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I agree with being good in science is too narrow. I never thought I was any good in science because I couldn’t answer every question asked but when I came to college and was given more hands on experiences I realized I could “do science”. I too believe it is just how you are taught and the whole cookie cutter, “answer these book questions”, need to be changed in school so kids will not get a quick negative reaction of how well they are in a subject.

    • October 20, 2011 8:21 pm

      Nikita,
      Thanks so much. I’m glad to hear positive stories of students who have discovered their abilities in science. I only hope we can spread this experience to more people.

      • Nikita permalink
        October 27, 2011 9:35 pm

        Me too, I have a son and I decided a long time ago that I’m not going to expect too much from him but I will never let him think that he just isn’t good at a school subject or sport. Maybe he needs more help than others or a more positive, passionate teacher. In my opinion the cycle of not good enough needs to stop in school.

  3. October 20, 2011 12:19 pm

    I just don’t agree with much of what you say here, John. I think I’m one of the high school teachers you have disdain for!

    • October 20, 2011 1:30 pm

      Adrian,
      I don’t I express disdain in this post. And as much as possible, I try to avoid feeling disdain for others or their teaching. We are all different, and I believe a variety of teaching styles helps students. But I do believe, very strongly, especially in the environment that we teach in, that every student can learn, and should leave my class feeling like they can do science. This doesn’t mean they need to go off and work for the CDC or NASA, but that they see science as approachable, dynamic and relevant to their lives, and something they could explore further on their own. And in this post, I was trying to present just one more reason for why I feel strongly about this—namely, if we allow students to feel science isn’t for them, this is almost certainly a trait they will carry with them and pass on, either formally, as elementary and junior high teachers, or informally, as parents and mentors. And that is something I personally do not wish to be responsible for.

  4. October 20, 2011 2:54 pm

    All students can certainly learn *something* about ‘science’, but not everyone can REALLY understand (or REALLY ‘do) science – it’s just not possible, and that’s 100% OK! The real danger here for me is this; I believe that science teaching is in danger of being dumbed down to such a degree, that many students are being given the IMPRESSION that they can understand science when in fact nothing could be further from the truth! That is an equal disservice to them, and frankly quite dangerous. Too much of modern science education seems to be slanted toward the masses, where we are teaching to the lowest levels rather than the highest, and we’re ending up with a bunch of non-judgmental, politically correct nonsense that involves little or no hardcore, factual, fundamental knowledge and very little accountability. Frankly I despair at times.

    • October 20, 2011 8:20 pm

      This is a conversation we’ve had many times before, and I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I have heard too many stories of PhD scientists telling me they were told they couldn’t do science in high school, to feel that I have enough information or expertise about a students potential to make decisions about who can and cannot do science. And since often, real science has little to do with what goes on in high school science classrooms around the world (though hopefully this is not the case in my classroom), I feel even less willing to make these decisions.

      There are trends that back up my claims—human IQ scores are steadily rising with time—see the Fylnn effect. . And technology, while certainly not an educational panacea, is making many things easier to study and visualize, which is probably making science accessible to more and more students, in exactly the same way that calculus, a subject once reserved for advanced undergraduate study is now regularly taught to high school students. Heck, 1000 years ago, Algebra was reserved as too advanced for all but a learned handful of scholars, but thankfully, advances in notation, understanding, pedagogy and technology have made this subject a something 8th graders can master.

      • October 20, 2011 10:03 pm

        Well, of course there are all kinds of ways to make it APPEAR that more people can ‘get’ it like lowering the standards (see the last 10 years worth of AP Chemistry exams), covering much LESS content in science classes and using soft science ‘research’ and giving it the same credence as hard science research but whatever the method I don’t buy it.

        As for the PhD scientists who were told they couldn’t do science in their earlier years it obviously had none of the worrisome effect that you mentioned above since they made it anyway!

        • October 22, 2011 7:53 pm

          There’s a vast difference between teaching less content (assuming it allows for more depth of understanding) and “lowering the standards”.

          I’m not sure quite what you mean by “soft science ‘research'” vs. “hard science research,” but I think it’s worth mentioning that science is able to continue with or without a laboratory available.

          And as for the PhD students, just imagine how many more of them there could be if so many potential candidates hadn’t been scared away by the mindset of “not being able to do science” in junior high or high school. Science classes at those levels should not be based on filtering out students who “can” and “cannot” do or understand science, but rather the encouragement of all to develop investigative and processing skills for science.

    • October 22, 2011 7:46 pm

      While I agree that not all students at the junior or senior high level will be able to “understand” all of the science they are being taught, it is because much of it has complicated underlying mathematical and theoretical principles that have been developed by advancements in the scientific field. To expect them to completely understand the entirety of any scientific field would be ridiculous.

      The most egregious disservice being done is the claim that students can’t DO science – anyone and everyone can do science, no matter how advanced their knowledge of the science they are doing. The process with which science arrives at this “knowledge” is what every student should be a part of, and the scientific process (NOT the scientific method) is what all science classes should be emphasizing in the midst of the content. Processing and representing data, drawing conclusions, formulating questions, evaluating scientific claims, designing experiments, communicating results (I could go on…); these are certainly not “non-judgemental, politically correct nonsense”; they involve a great deal of high-level thinking; and best of all – ANYONE can take part in them. These are what students (and all citizens) need to understand, no matter their level of scientific expertise.

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