FEd Summer 2001 Newsletter - K-8 Science Education through the Eyes of a Physicist

Summer 2001



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K-8 Science Education through the Eyes of a Physicist

Ted Schultz

As a theoretical physicist who now devotes full time to promoting the systemic reform of K-8 science education to a hands-on, inquiry-centered approach, and to involving scientists in this process, I have found the environment and challenges in the worlds of physics and education, and the effects they have on physicists and educators, to be entirely different. Any physicist working in both worlds, or wishing to make a transition from one to the other, will have to learn about the differences. The observations presented here are intended to help that process along.

A few definitions: By "physicist", I shall mean someone whose perspective comes from doing pure and applied physics research. Physicists may also be engaged in education and administration, from which they might develop quite different perspectives, but I shall not consider these. By "educator", I mean anyone involved professionally in the science education of children. This includes teachers, school administrators, school-system administrators, state and national figures of all kinds, national standards writers, instructional materials developers and publishers, cognitive science researchers, college of education faculties, and even some scientists. The list is almost endless.

1. Complexity and Size. The educational system is far more complex and, in effect, far larger than are physical systems, and in at least four ways:

First, although a physical system may have several organizational levels (e.g., elementary particles, nuclei, atoms, etc.), it is usually possible to focus on one or two in any single investigation and ignore the rest. By contrast, although the educational system may also have several organizational levels (classroom, school, school district, state, nation), each with a different set of players, these interact so strongly that it is difficult if not impossible to ignore all but one or two levels. Thus, while there may be many physical systems, there is really only one mammoth U.S. educational system, although many educators may be involved with only a small part of that system.

Second, while physical systems may be coupled to external systems (e.g. the sources of applied fields, heat, and pressure and any measuring apparatus), these external systems are relatively few and their effects can usually be determined and controlled with some precision. The educational system is coupled to numerous external systems that play such important roles that they really must be considered a part of the system itself (e.g. teacher training institutions and departments, science departments at colleges and universities, educational research organizations, educational testing organizations, educational materials developers and publishers, educational advocacy organizations devoted to a wide and often conflicting range of issues, funding organizations, and political figures and organizations).

Third, in physics, although systems may be extremely large (of order 1023 particles in typical condensed-matter systems), the number of truly different kinds of subsystems, and especially of those in a given system (e.g. kinds of atoms in a particular solid), is very small, and subsystems of like kind obey identical laws. By contrast, the U.S. elementary education system, because of its great heterogeneity, seems far larger. It has 51 "state" jurisdictions, 16,000 school districts, 100,000 elementary schools, 1,400,000 elementary school teachers (most of whom have had little education in science, almost none of which was the kind we would hope they'd emulate in their own teaching), and about 24,000,000 elementary school pupils, and in some important ways, all of these districts, schools, teachers, and pupils are different.

Finally, physical systems don't have stakeholders (until particles like electrons, atoms, or molecules develop wills of their own). However, in the educational system, there may be many conflicting stakeholders: pupils, parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, state departments of education, national administrators, advocates and lobbyists, higher-level educational institutions, teachers of education, educational researchers, and politicians at all levels. The contentions among these create problems for which physical systems, fortunately, have no analogue.

2. Measurability and Predictability. In physics, the fundamental quantities are all measurable, some with great precision. Furthermore, because the rules governing the behavior of various subsystems are usually known, the behavior of the systems is in some sense predictable, sometimes only in principle but sometimes with surprising precision. This ability of physicists to measure and predict breeds confidence that sometimes borders on arrogance (at least when viewed from the vantage point of a non-scientist).

In education, nothing comes close to being as measurable as things are in physics. The most interesting quantities, like the knowledge of science, ability to do science, long-term effects of education, ability of teachers to teach science, etc. can be "assessed" (the jargon word) only crudely, and since there are usually so many variables that can't be held fixed, reliable experiments are very hard to do. Furthermore, there are no sharp rules, much less laws, that characterize the behavior of any education subsystems or their interactions. Thus, the results of teaching in a certain way, of using certain instructional materials, or of instituting a certain educational program, are very hard to measure and are predictable only crudely, if at all. This inability in education to say with confidence that this is better than that, and certainly to say by how much, leads, I think, to insecurity and defensiveness..

These differences also produce notable differences between the way physicists and educators interact. Physicists are constantly disagreeing and questioning; tell some physicists you believe something and they immediately try to find a counterexample. The arguments get rather hot, but the end result is usually a defensible conclusion, or at least an agreed strategy for testing different contentions. Among educators, because defending conclusions is much more difficult, disagreement and questioning are often seen as more personal and threatening, so educators seek to avoid confrontation. Differences, if resolved at all, are often resolved by appeals to authority or political maneuvering on a scale that is quite foreign to physicists.

This difference in approaches may account for the phenomenon noted by the renowned physicist Melba Phillips: the difference between science and education is that in the former, problems that are solved stay solved. Thus, while there are fashions in physics, they are fashions of what is considered interesting, not of what is believed to be true. Our understanding of the physical world progresses in one direction; rarely do we revert to a position held and abandoned long before. In education, where what is "true" is much harder to agree on and even harder to measure, fashions in what is valued are more common, and old views do return.

3. Relevant Time Scales. In physics, the interesting results of an experiment usually occur within days, sometimes within microseconds; in education, the ultimate effects may not occur for many years. This difference makes meaningful experiments in education far more difficult. One wants to know the effect of instruction not only on the student's understanding of science and his/her development of scientific skills and habits of thinking each day and by the end of a module, but also on the student's choices and behaviors in middle school, high school, college, and beyond. These are all important effects, and all essentially unmeasurable.

4. Inanimates vs. Humans. Physicists deal with particles and fields; science educators deal with human beings. This difference affects not only the predictability of their systems but also the way they operate. For example, feelings play little if any role in what physicists do but a very important role in what science educators, especially teachers, do (and don't do). When I first entered the world of science education, I was astounded at the number of greeting cards, gifts, and celebrations of personal events (not to mention baby showers!). In the world of physicists, only weddings, deaths, the commemoration of major work anniversaries, and the winning of major prizes receive that kind of attention.

The different role of feelings is also reflected in their choice of words. For example, physicists "tell", and the reactions of the person being told are usually ignored. Educators "share", and the reactions of the person with whom one is sharing are sensitively felt.

5. Substance vs. Mode. For physicists, what they communicate is far more important than how they communicate it; for science educators, the balance is very different. The differences are seen both in the way the two groups communicate and the extent to which they evaluate their communication processes.

For physicists, their discoveries are almost all that matters. Papers are often badly written; talks at meetings are often compressions into 10 minutes from what should take 3 hours; and the pervasive attitude in oral presentations, which are almost never read from a prepared text, is "here it is, come and get it". Some real care may be taken by some physicists, some of the time (e.g. in writing review papers and books), but little is expended on how research results are first communicated.

For science educators, how they communicate (which is really a form of education) is extremely important. At a conference, reading a prepared paper, with its carefully crafted prose and many well-turned phrases, is common. Also, educators' concern about communication extends well beyond the preparation of presentations. At several kinds of events evaluation sheets are distributed, something that occasions no surprise. If evaluation sheets were handed out after a physics seminar or colloquium, it would shock the speakers and audience beyond belief.

6. Questions vs. Answers. For physicists, asking the right question is most important; for elementary-school teachers, having the right answer often is. This statement is of course an oversimplification, but there's more truth than might first appear.

For the research physicist, good questions are the crux of the enterprise; research is a continual quest. The answers, when found, are certainly interesting, especially when they allow the quest to go on, and they are what gets published. But it is the unknown, not the known, that is most intriguing.

For many science teachers, questions are threatening, especially if from students. It is answers that make teachers more comfortable and that they are used to dispensing. This is not to say that physicists, when asked a question by almost anyone, don't just dump a lot of facts; they usually do. Or that undergraduate science education is inquiry-centered; it usually isn't. But it's changing, because many physicists know that they do their best teaching when they are working together with their graduate students, near the frontier where they themselves don't know the answers.

This difference has important implications for the nature of experiments in inquiry-centered teaching and the nature of inquiry itself. Where possible, experiments should provide answers to unanswered questions, not simply confirmation of known results. Physicists know this, although they often ignore it in educating undergraduates. For traditional teachers, for whom experiments, when they occur, are often just demonstrations and are rarely to answer questions, this principle is novel, and was almost certainly not followed in their own science education. Thus, for physicists, inquiry is natural, at least when they are in their research mode. For many teachers, inquiry is unnatural. Given how hard it probably was for the physicist to learn to be a true inquirer, it is not surprising how difficult it is for a teacher who is learning to teach children in an inquiry-centered way.

7. Collaboration vs. Solo Performances. For physicists, research is most often collaborative, because that way it is synergistic; an obstacle that is difficult for one member of a team, may be easily hurdled by another. In a recent issue of The Physical Review B, 95% of the papers have more than one author, and the joint authors are usually close collaborators at a single research institution. But the collaboration among physicists is not just within the same discipline or at the same institution. Collaborations among physicists have led to both the automated electronic exchange of preprints and more recently to the invention of the World Wide Web.

For most teachers, teaching is usually a solo performance, because the time, flexibility, and administrative support needed to make real collaboration the norm are all scarce. Their schedules are tight and non-meshing; they often have neither Internet access nor even a telephone; and financial support for attending meetings or even observing other colleagues is usually not there. There is an increasing recognition of the need of teachers to collaborate but, to a large extent, teachers are isolated; what they give are solo performances. To me as a physicist, this was one of my biggest shocks when I first became exposed to the education world.

8. Collaboration among Students. Physicists know from much experience that effective collaboration while efficient is not easy to learn. To us, the idea of encouraging it among children is obvious and natural: the sooner we encourage it rather than inhibit it, the better.

In the traditional education of children, where it has been thought important to be able to evaluate each pupil individually, collaboration among children has often been discouraged, and sometimes even punished. This, fortunately, is changing.

9. World Stage vs. Single Classroom. Not unrelated to their very different opportunities to collaborate are the very different stages on which physicists and educators "perform." Physicists who are able to publish the results of their research perform on a world stage. What they publish in an American journal (or even more, the preprint they circulate electronically from a server in Los Alamos or Trieste) is read by other physicists in Moscow, Madras, Madrid, and Montevideo. It will be discussed at national conferences in a few months, and perhaps at international conferences not long after. Real collaborations will start among people who have never even met one another.

For the school teacher, a discovery may never go beyond his/her own classroom, certainly not beyond his/her school. If there are 10,000 teachers attending the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, there are at least 1.4 million teachers who are not there, most of whom are not even members of the NSTA and will never be at such a meeting.

10. Teamwork vs. Hierarchy. For physicists, the leader of a research group or team is often like a playing coach. It is in this position that he/she gets the best feel for what the research program is doing and the best opportunity to make his/her own scientific contribution. This cooperation is also a great leveler, strongly opposing any tendencies toward a hierarchical structure.

For teachers, to lead is to be out in front, set the agenda, determine what is taught and how, provide the necessary information and even materials. In this sense, some teachers do lead, but more often they are led, these decisions being made for them. The result is a hierarchical structure that pervades much of education and that can be very inhibiting to teachers' initiative and creativity.

11. Teachers' Professional Development - Physicists' and Teachers' Views. Physicists are, by the very nature of their jobs, undergoing continual "professional development," i.e. they are always learning new things - from their own investigations, from their study of others' work, and from others directly. But what about teachers?

The physicists' view of what elementary-school teachers are is usually based on a few images from their own youth or from their children's teachers of previous years. These images, snapshots in time, give no sense of how teachers grow over the years. In this view, teachers just are, they don't become.

The teacher's view is that his or her growth comes from experience, inservice courses, summer institutes, advanced credits, and trying hard to get better - a complex but often successful progression that, unfortunately, often ends in burnout. A teacher picks up many things from many places, and then proceeds pragmatically: try them, and if they work, use them. In this view, research journals, whether on cognitive development, how children learn, or the effects of different instructional strategies, are for the research community, not for the practicing day-to-day teacher.

In Conclusion. Physicists (and other scientists, engineers, and other technical professionals) can make important contributions to science education in many ways. But to do so, they must enter a very different culture. To make their involvement useful in any real sense, they must understand the underlying features of that culture and not assume those features are similar to those of their own culture. Educators will say that physicists will really understand this only when they have constructed their own understanding of the differences. The observations offered here are intended to aid in that constructivist process.

Ted Schultz was a theoretical condensed-matter physicist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center for 34 years, with sabbaticals at New York University and the University of Munich. He started a second career in science education in 1992. After working at the National Science Resources Center in Washington, DC, for three years, he helped create the website of Project RISE (Resources for Involving Scientists in Education) at the National Research Council (http://www.nas.edu/rise) and worked on, and now directs, the Teacher-Scientist Alliance program at the APS.