If you saw the notice on the original study, you knew this one was coming.
A team of researchers checked two things in college freshman: First, how much science they knew, sort of a trivia catalog; and second, how well they could use their reasoning powers.
The study showed Chinese students way ahead of U.S. students on simple knowledge of science facts. But the study showed little difference in powers of reasoning of the two groups.
Wait, don’t jump to conclusions. That’s what the creationists did. Check out Ed Yong’s post and analysis of the study, at Not Exactly Rocket Science (with ensuing good discussion).
If knowing a lot of science doesn’t improve logic, why bother to learn science? the creationists asked. Especially, why not teach creationism in biology, since teaching evolution seems to them rather authoritarian.
Could you make this stuff up?
Here’s the EurekAlert summary, and here’s a clip from the description:
The research appears in the January 30, 2009 issue of the journal Science.
Lei Bao, associate professor of physics at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said that the finding defies conventional wisdom, which holds that teaching science facts will improve students’ reasoning ability.
“Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed,” Bao said. “Because students need both knowledge and reasoning, we need to explore teaching methods that target both.”
Bao directs Ohio State’s Physics Education Research Group, which is developing new strategies for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For this study, he and his colleagues across the United States and in China decided to compare students from both countries, because the educational systems are so different.
In the United States, only one-third of students take a year-long physics course before they graduate from high school. The rest only study physics within general science courses. Curricula vary widely from school to school, and students can choose among elective courses.
In China, however, every student in every school follows exactly the same curriculum, which includes five years of continuous physics classes from grades 8 through 12. All students must perform well on a national exam if they hope to enter college, and the exam contains advanced physics problems.
“Each system has its strengths and weaknesses,” Bao said. “In China, schools emphasize a very extensive learning of STEM content knowledge, while in the United States, science courses are more flexible, with simpler content but with a high emphasis on scientific methods. We need to think of a new strategy, perhaps one that blends the best of both worlds.”
The students who participated in the study were all incoming freshmen who had just enrolled in a calculus-based introductory physics course. They took three multiple-choice tests: two which tested knowledge of physics concepts, and one which tested scientific reasoning.
Did you see anything there that suggested that NOT learning science facts is a good idea?
Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian used the study as a springboard to rail at evolution in biology curricula, and at the National Center for Science Education, calling the study (somewhat tongue in cheek, I think) “terribly dangerous.” No, that doesn’t make sense, but it gets stranger as he explains in comments that he’s not advocating creationism or intelligent design, either.
But nothing in the study suggests any serious problem with the teaching of evolution theory. Where did Tom get that idea?
Bao explained that STEM students need to excel at scientific reasoning in order to handle open-ended real-world tasks in their future careers in science and engineering.
Ohio State graduate student and study co-author Jing Han echoed that sentiment. “To do my own research, I need to be able to plan what I’m going to investigate and how to do it. I can’t just ask my professor or look up the answer in a book,” she said.
“These skills are especially important today, when we are determined to build a society with a sustainable edge in science and technology in a fast-evolving global environment,” Bao said.
He quickly added that reasoning is a good skill for everyone to possess — not just scientists and engineers.
“The general public also needs good reasoning skills in order to correctly interpret scientific findings and think rationally,” he said.
It’s a springboard to a new creationist meme, and here’s how it will come out of the mouths of creationists, speaking to school boards and writing letters to editorial pages: “Learning a lot of science doesn’t improve critical thinking skills, so let’s teach something other than evolution.”
That’s not what the study says.
First, the study says Chinese students know more science than U.S. students. This is worrisome for the U.S. While the study shows that entering freshmen are no better at critical thinking than U.S. students, the fact remains that more Chinese students graduate with science degrees. Then a lot of them come to the U.S. to get advanced degrees. Even the radical right wing National Center for Policy Analysis worries about the number of Chinese engineers and scientists U.S. colleges and universities graduate. We’re behind in this race for brains and skills.
Second, researchers showed that freshman science students need to improve their reasoning skills, in both China and the U.S. Look hard at any creationist claim — they won’t argue for more education to improve reasoning. We need to note what this finding is not: It’s not an indictment of science education. It’s not a call to stop or slow down science education. It defies “conventional wisdom,” but it’s not an endorsement of knocking down science education as a result.
Third, the study only identifies what might be a problem. High school graduates in their first year of studying science in Chinese and American universities are not very sophisticated in their science reasoning. Is this a problem? Is this a skill that should be learned in high school? Or, is it a skill that is better taught after the freshman year, at college? This study was a snapshot, not a longitudinal study. It did not purport to show when or how to best instruct on the reasoning processes necessary for a successful career in science.
In particular, this is not an indictment of biology education in the U.S., nor especially an indictment of education in evolution theory. It’s possible to suggest that Chinese students know more evolution than U.S. students. That’s a far sight from saying education in evolution theory doesn’t work.
- Article in Science, “Learning and Scientific Reasoning” (subscription required – but supporting materials to the study are available without subscription, here)
- 13-minute radio interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”: “Talk of the Nation, January 30, 2009 · Scientific reasoning is essential to a successful career in science. But research in the journal Science claims this skill can’t be learned through memorization of facts alone. Author Lei Bao explains the findings, and how teachers can apply them in the classroom.”
- Podcast from the Science Friday site, for download.
- NPR report: U.S. slipping in science education
- Story at Inside Higher EdAfter taking the Force Concept Inventory — which tests basic knowledge of mechanics — the Chinese students had an average score of nearly 86 percent, and the American students had an average score of around 49 percent. Although the Chinese students had a relatively narrow distribution of scores near the upper end of the grading spectrum, the American students had a greater distribution in the “medium score range” from 25 to 75 percent.Bao, said he believes this is reflective of the American system of secondary education, in which students have varying exposure to physics. The study notes that only a third of American students take a physics course in high school. In China, students take physics courses from the 8th through the 12th grades.
- Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, “Study: Chinese students know more science facts than U.S. counterparts”
- Lei Bao will present at the American Association of Physics Teachers Winter Meeting in Chicago, February 12-16, 2009; he is scheduled for several different sessions, on February 16, on topics surrounding this paper, at H-Skywalk 260, starting at 10:25 a.m.
- Blog article at Eideard
- D-Ed Reckoning article on the research
- Cranky Professor would rather teach reasoning to science literates