Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More on School Science

Laura asked about my last school post:

Not that you have to be an expert or anything, but you do have at least one child in college, so perhaps you could answer something for me: How much has what Cohen said about not having to take the typical high school survey courses been superseded by the growing influence of SAT subject tests (or SAT IIs) on college admissions, especially for private colleges? Our little “neighborhood” school, Columbia, requires five for homeschoolers. (Not that we’d be able to get in or pay for it, necessarily, but at least it’s close by and they have a core curriculum.) I know none of this is not quite applicable to Sean’s situation (ouch!), but I for one would love to sidestep this intimidating and onerous way of teaching science, and just have fun doing and learning.

I do have one child in college and two others who are in the process of applying, but my experience isn’t exactly representative. My kids have tended to gravitate towards Catholic liberal arts colleges that use a “Great Books” curriculum and don’t generally seem to require subject SATs. Now is this a limitation we have inadvertently imposed by our style of homeschooling? More proximately, have I done Sean a disservice by not prepping him from way back for a “high school” style curriculum? I have reflected upon this, and decided that it is irrelevant, for two reasons:

#1 — I think that an informal, “living” science background such as Laura described is more effective in preparing a person to think like a scientist. I researched this a lot when I first started homeschooling. Arthur Robinson, for example, who is a science professor who has devised a homeschooling curriculum, said that kids brought up on a conventional “school” science curriculum tend to have to unlearn a lot when they reach higher levels. (Science Taken Seriously is one article on his site, and there are a few others on the sidebar). He writes:

If Isaac Newton could not do mechanics without calculus, how can a teenage student do so? The answer is, of course, that he cannot. He can only pretend to do mechanics with the help of texts that contain artificial problems. If he ever has an opportunity to learn physics properly, he will then have to unlearn the incorrect procedures. This is debilitating and wasteful of his time.

Robinson thus goes on to say that the bulk of science in the earlier years (up to college) should be outside the formal academic curriculum, and consist of research, reading, observation and investigation of the natural world. In fact, I’ve hardly seen someone trained in science who thinks that the way science is currently taught is the best way. For what it’s worth, there is this Textbook League which is a bit polemical but has interesting reviews of standard high school and middle school science textbooks. Here are some articles about errors and myths taught in school, too.

So now to the second point, FWIW — I have not had personal experience here.

#2 –I think that preparation for subject SATs, should one have to have them for college admissions, can be taught in considerably less than 4 years of high school. One would have to study for them anyway, I imagine, so I would probably have the child simply study a bit during the course of the year, and then prepare more intensively during the days before he or she actually takes the test.

A sample question from the Biology subject test:

16. Which of the following most accurately
reveals common ancestry among many
different species of organisms?
(A) The amino acid sequence of their
cytochrome C
(B) Their ability to synthesize hemoglobin
(C) The percentage of their body weight that
is fat
(D) The percentage of their body surface that
is used in gas exchange
(E) The mechanism of their mode of

This is the kind of thing that people don’t tend to remember unless they are studying for an exam, or happen to be in a field that uses this kind of information regularly, or are interested in it for some hobby-type reason. I probably knew this once but have lost it in the mists of time since high school biology. It’s not the kind of thing a child retains just because he or she is exposed to a science textbook instead of “living” science. It’s not formative to a young person in the way investigative and cultural science is. For students in secondary school, I would have to call this “derived” knowledge — accepted on faith because someone told them it was true. Which is fine, but not really an educative force per se.

So I will probably continue to do some version of what my older children did — divide 2-3 years of textbook science into 4-5 years, for familiarity with standard high school science concepts, and spend the rest of the time reading classic science books like those on MacBeth’s Opinion, and investigating scientific concepts empirically like Theresa’s children do. I generally teach information-crunching skills to older high school age children so they CAN efficiently assimilate information for exams if they have to someday. But that’s not science — it’s something else — useful perhaps in today’s world, but not exactly what learning is about.

I am off now to locomote to the Post Office. I hope this helps a bit — a science post from a literature major!