In the education world, a battle has long raged between knowledge and skill. Are facts most important? Or should the ability to apply those facts take precedence? The answer, of course, is yes and yes. Yet that doesn't keep the battle from raging on.
The latest combatant in this battle is esteemed scientist Paul Gross. In a blog posting yesterday, he shared a curious reaction to a recent national test of US students’ ability to perform hands-on tasks in science. The test found that US students "were able to accurately report what was happening in scenarios with limited data, but were challenged by manipulating multiple variables and making decisions as part of running an experiment, according to the findings." While most could draw the right conclusions, few could explain them well.
For Gross, both the test and the widespread dismay at its results reflect the delusion "that scientific reasoning is separable from the content of science, or worse, that the content of science is some form of skill, parallel to, but not to be confused with, knowledge and experience."
The test does no such thing. The test's stated aim is to gauge "students' ability to combine their scientific knowledge and investigative skills in a real-world situation."
People on both sides of the Great Battle between Knowledge and Skills are sustaining the false distinction between the two. It is true that some advocates of hands-on learning have turned "facts" into a sort of curse word. Yet Gross's disdain for "hands-on tasks" is just as palpable. If you ask him, the claim that too much science in our schools boils down to "rote memory and how to follow instructions” is nothing but a "canard." Tell that to the many students who have lived through rote learning.
Unfortunately, bad science teaching comes in many flavors. To be sure, too many teachers of science lack the science background to foster their students’ knowledge of science. But rote learning in US schools is not some kind of myth concocted by the boosters of hands-on. Data from NAEP confirm that a large share of US students are seldom or never asked to discuss, explain or write about what they are learning. It won’t do to turn a blind eye on this problem.
Gross is right when he argues that “All good science teaching and learning, in school and the early college years, is about concepts, and about their application in situations beyond the original locus of elaboration.” We should certainly celebrate the teachers who teach this way. But all too many teachers cannot, because they lack the background, the support, the time or the resources to do so.