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