What Seth Godin doesn't understand about science education

Seth Godin — entrepreneurial guru and all around clever doer — recently shared his thoughts on how science should be taught.

Now, Godin is typically brilliant — his On Being interview, "The Art of Noticing, Then Creating" is an especially great meditation on the process of innovation, and is entirely worth your time! 

But these thoughts? I'd say they're good, but also problematic, and in a very interesting way. Showing how might, I think, point us beyond the simplistic science reform movement that's currently ascendant, and toward a genuinely new sort of science education, one that regularly cultivates adults who think like scientists.

Read his whole post — it's super short. To keep this short, I'll just excerpt the part I disagree with. (How terribly unfair of me!)

Godin writes:

Start with the method. Unlike just about everything else we teach, science is not based on human culture or history. If one wants to study literature or geography or the Kings and Queens of England, it begins with knowing all that came before, the work, the names, the lists, the battles. Science, on the other hand, is above culture. Gravity would have existed even if Isaac Newton hadn't invented it. After two weeks of science class, students should know how to think like a scientist.

Much of this is gold. Kids absolutely should learn to think like scientists. And science really is above culture — getting at the world outside our heads is much of the fun of science! (Aliens civilizations, if they exist, can puzzle out the exact same laws of chemistry that we've discovered.) 

There are, however, two important problems with what Godin writes.

Problem number one: though Godin is entirely correct when he says that "science is above culture", he forgets that hearing the stories of great discoveries can spark interest, and help us think for ourselves.

Stories are brain candy. They can help us enter into the romance of the real world.

Isaac Newton, actually, is a great example! Hearing about the nutty professor who, on his own time, derived the laws undergirding the motion of the planets, then losing his notes, then re-deriving them and as a byproduct discovering the mathematics of all gravity — this can be an easy way to catch the interest of science.

And, indeed, we do catch interest. There are a few people for whom a lust of physics springs naturally. But for most of us, it needs to be cultivated. And the stories of discovery are a great way to do that.

Stories shouldn't, by the way, take the place of scientific thinking — rather, they can help us get deeply into scientific thinking. 

For example, it's famously difficult to think about natural selection — evolution is a deeply counterintuitive notion. It practically breaks all the rules of our folk physics. But hearing the story of Charlie Darwin, and really getting behind him — feeling his loneliness aboard the Beagle, feeling his bamboozlement at the odd patterns of finch variation in the Galapagos — can launch us into struggling for the answers ourselves.

Stories — that is, "culture" — can scaffold our thinking.

The physicist Michael Polanyi argued that science is not really a method — it's a detailed culture that we get inducted into by other scientists. (He wrote in the 1940s, when America was throwing money at science, but was unable to produce much without importing scientists from Eastern Europe, who were schooled in a long tradition of careful lab work.) 

Well, we can (in part) get inducted into the community of science by learning great scientists of the past.

It's important to not push this too far — kids need hands-on and brains-on experience with the real world (see below) — but culture can help cultivate real scientists.

Problem number two: "method" is bunk. Or, at best, it's an unhelpful characterization.

At least, most methods are. Let's overstate this a bit: there is no “scientific method”.  

It’s now generally considered foolishness in science education circles to insist strongly that kids follow the “HYPOTHESIS—PREDICTION—ETC.” cycle.

Real thinking — and here I know Godin agrees! — is messy. It emerges on its own haphazardly. You engage something in nature. You get your hands dirty, your shirt stained. And then you ponder, and try stuff out.

Well, perhaps you could say that what I'm describing is a method. I could roll with that, I suppose. But the word "method" is still unhelpful: it brings to mind an emotionless, Vulcan-like, "System 2" process. Real pondering is a much hotter, human, intuitive thing. 


So what's needed for a real science education — an education that cultivates real scientists?

1. Regular engagement with real stuff, not (God help us!) assigned textbook reading. Kids should dissect toasters. They should observe the actions of animals and plants. Cook food daily. Visit, and re-visit, a single ecosystem. Peer at a particular square foot of ground under a microscope

This takes time. It also takes tools, like being taught to draw what's in front of your face.

2. A culture that prizes asking questions, and hunting for answers. A tribe of people committed to thinking together, challenging each other's notions

3. Teachers — aka Learners in Chief! — who fall in love with what they're studying, and help connect the kids to their love. (Say, by using Imaginative Education.)

4. A curriculum that doesn't, at the end of the day, differentiate between "science" and "philosophy" and "math" and "history" and "literature" and "religion" and "spelling" and anything else. 

There's one world, and our subjects are lenses for viewing it. (I've most controversially argued that in a series of posts about teaching creation and evolution.)

If we do these things, I'll suggest, we can create schools that cultivate real scientists — adults who think expansively and cautiously, who look for evidence before belief, who remain open to opposing explanations, who are willing to play with crazy notions — whatever profession the kids end up in. 

At the end of the day, I don't think Godin and I are far apart on this. Certainly our ultimate goals are exactly the same!

And when Godin writes this —

Science makes sense, it's not magic. One of the challenges of teaching science in high school is that there seems to be so much to cover, it's tempting to cram all the formulas, names and theories in front of students. Just as there's no room to argue about when they fought the War of 1812, we often present science as a bag of magical facts, not the result of a method, a method students can implement.

I can only respond, yes, yes, YES! 

But: I'll take his "not magic" and raise it — it's magical, too! As the Flemish physicist Simon Stevin wrote: 

The magic is not magical.

This, in a nutshell, is the promise of science — and of all learning: things make sense.

When we get beyond our usual boredom of the world around us, we realize that we're surrounded by mystery. Everything — clouds, vacuum cleaners, cats — appears to be miraculous. 

And then we launch ourselves into understanding it, and discover, bit by bit, that it consists of parts, and those parts fit together perfectly, gaplessly.

But this doesn't reduce its wonder — rather, it increases it!

I used to say things like "the goal of education is to re-enchant the Universe". I still think there's something right about that. But now I say this: the goal of schools isn't so much to re-enchant the universe as to show that it already is enchanted.

Any science education that can help do that is something that I — and, I think, all of us — can get behind.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA