Science will never “stick” this way

I am happy to see the Chronicle of Higher Education tackle science training for non-scientists. This article references some well known scholars (Miller, Kahan) and even one of my favorite geologists (Ed Nuhfer). These are people who think deeply about scientific literacy, pedagogy, or both. Scientific literacy is important for scientists, for politicians, for everyday decision-making. Personally, I think critical thinking ability is more important than knowing the facts of science, and is a vital skill that is under-taught to everyone, including scientists. See, for example, a critical thinking MOOC I worked on with my colleague Stephen Thomas and many others. So, good for the Chronicle for bringing the importance of scientific literacy to light.

However, the article is rife with misconceptions about effective teaching. Note the first photograph of a lecturer in the front of a classroom – not necessarily the most effective pedagogical approach, although certainly the most common in undergraduate science courses. Note, too, the second photograph of a typical lecture hall – difficult to do much more than lecture in one of these very common spaces. Group work is possible in these lecture halls, but unwieldy and difficult without a “bevy of teaching assistants who roam around ready to clear up misconceptions“. My institution certainly won’t pay for one teaching assistant in my lecture hall, let alone many. Most difficult for me, the article describes a workshop in which faculty and graduate students trade teaching tips. Sadly, the one tip offered “Write exam questions after each class to better align teaching with assessment” flies in the face of what we know about good pedagogical design. Assessments should be tightly aligned with goals for student learning, not with what happens to be taught in the classroom. Figure out what you want students to learn, figure out how you will know if students have learned, and only then should you figure out how you will teach for effective learning. That’s good practice. Just ask Wiggins and McTighe of Backward Design fame. Other instructional design theories exist beyond Backward Design, of course, but none seem evident in this article.

Science instruction at the college level will probably only become effective when: 1) Large research institutions start to value instruction as much as they do research. This seems unlikely given the push for more and more grant-getting on the part of faculty; and/or 2) Students demand courses that are designed for effective learning as documented by educational research – courses that are more interactive, smaller, and/or take advantage of cutting-edge instructional technologies; and/or 3) Faculty demand training in pedagogy as part of their own professional development. Teachers in the elementary and secondary classroom routinely undergo proscribed professional development. Why don’t college faculty get trained to teach as a matter of normal practice?