Thursday, January 14, 2010

Snow Days and Global Warming

For the past week my school has been closed due to the snows that have made our roads unsafe for bus traffic. This happens sometimes, and it starts the annual computing of when the last day of school will be. It also started a rather telling conversation about global warming.

At the monthly pancake breakfast this past weekend a number of folks dug out of the snow and made it in for coffee, conversations, and too much to eat. More than once some neighbor made a comment about the weather and global warming. “So much for global warming,” or “Where’s Al Gore when we need him?” or “If the world’s heating up, why are my walks still frozen over?”

While some of these are made in jest, many reflect a belief that global warming is a myth and that trying to do anything about it is a political not scientific question. What worries me the most about the glib fashion in which a one-week cold snap is used to discard several decades of research is how it reflects our poor understanding of science.

Of course, some of this is to be expected as political posturing generated by faux news reports and partisan debates. But I wonder if it does not also reflect how poorly we teach science—something that will not change under the current policy environment.

This summer I was vacationing at the beach with my family and my mother and I went to the rental agency to reserve a place for the following year. Mom casually commented how comfortable it had been for the week in August, ‘not as hot as usual,’ was the remark. ‘Yep,’ the young man making our reservation said, ‘just one more reason I don’t believe in that global warming stuff.’

Actually, whether or not he believes in global warming simply does not matter, at least in terms of the climate. But it does raise serious questions for education and public policy. What his comment reflects is a sense that science is something to ‘believe’ in. And that one event, a week of snow or of rainy weather, is enough evidence upon which to dismiss years of research and observation. What could be further from an understanding of how science works?

But maybe we should expect as much given the way schools are expected to teach science. Look over any state set of science ‘standards’ and you will find a laundry list of facts to be memorized. For example, in my state of Ohio the science standards include almost 700 discrete facts and topics. The tests children face to see if they have ‘learned’ science are multiple choice, standardized batteries of disconnected facts ranging from earth, to physical, to biological sciences. It would be possible, I believe, for a student never to carry on a sustained field observation, conduct a genuine experimental activity, or visit a functioning lab and still pass these tests.

Nothing on the horizon in the way of public policy seems destined to change this state of affairs. The federal Race To The Top funds, requiring more freedom for charter school authorizers and tying teacher evaluation to test scores, will not do a thing to improve the teaching of science. Volumes of new standards keep rolling out, apparently created by panelists of science folks more interested in protecting their fields than having students think about or do science.

It could be different, and if we are to prepare our children to face the scientific challenges that await them, we need it to be. We could focus our science teaching on developing the skills of scientific thought, reflected in performance assessments that demonstrate real achievement. We could prepare teachers that are not simply well versed in a single field of science but who know how to create experiences in science for their students. We could create science standards that are fewer in number, generative in character, and that lead to students doing genuine scientific inquiry.

In "The Disciplined Mind" Howard Gardner reminded us of how hard it is for us to learn concepts in science as they run against what we think is true. Start with something as simple as disabusing young children of the notion that the sun ‘rises’ as opposed to the earth moving around our star. Remember the film, “A Private Universe” where Harvard grads, in science no less, could not explain correctly why we have seasons? We have beliefs about the way the physical world works, many of them wrong. They cannot be changed by exhortation or lecture, they require experiences that literally reframe the way we see; so we can see like a scientist sees. Science could be taught this way in our schools, but only if we set up the practices and policies that make it possible.

It is no surprise that the science around global warming is being debated as whether or not it is something to believe in; and that weekend snowstorms are comparable to years of scientific observation and research. Herein lies a danger. While science does not have a corner on truth or even all the right answers, we ignore scientific thinking at our peril.

Twenty-five years ago Ted Sizer argued that “the existence of powerful means of psychological and political influence through the organized media and of an intellectually complex culture and economy amply justifies, and indeed compels, (the school’s) focus on the effective use of one’s mind” (Horace’s Compromise, p. 85). The debate about global warming shows at what cost we ignored that advice.