Facts Are Interesting

Photo by Flickr user Andrew HuffKatharine Beals is 100% right about this problem with the vagueness of the Next Generation Science Standards:

Science is one of those fields that should be inherently interesting to nearly everyone. But what is it that makes someone want to study, say, biology or earth science? Is it so they can learn how to construct arguments about habitats, or is it so they can learn about the organisms that make up a habitat?  Is so they can learn how to evaluate competing design solutions for developing mineral resources, or is it so they can learn about minerals and how people use them?

Never once in my teaching career has a student raised their hand or stayed after class to ask me about “science as a process”. Invariably when they ask me a question what they want to know is a fact.

(Maybe at some point a kid asked me something like, “How do scientists know what Earth was like millions of years ago?”, but that is much more a question about specific facts than one about scientific inquiry in general.)

In other words, students – and scientists! – are mostly interested in science because they are fascinated by facts.  By deemphasizing facts – i.e., “content knowledge” – the NGSS therefore make science unnecessarily boring.

Consider the NGSS Kindergarten standards for “Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems”, which require students be able to “[u]se a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants or animals (including humans) and the places they live.”

Frankly, I’m not totally sure what that means; the NGSS throw around the word “model” a lot without ever really defining it properly. Still, it sounds kind of boring. Not unimportant exactly, just sort of uninteresting.

Would kindergarteners rather talk extensively about “modeling interdependent ecological relationships” or learn about, say, how archer fish hunt insects? Or how pilot fish feed on parasites in sharks’ teeth? Those things sound awesome!

Of course, being interesting isn’t the only thing that matters in educational content. It is important, though.

And it’s definitely true that something that’s cool about science is the way that disparate-seeming facts can be unified by elegant underlying principles. The NGSS, however, downplay – and in some cases outright neglect – the factual content necessary for understanding those principles.

By being so vague on content the Next Generation Science Standards both mischaracterize scientific thinking and make science sound unnecessarily dull.

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