Monday, September 5, 2011

Science And Religion And Education, Oh My!

These three things are more frightening than lions and tigers and bears.

At South Dakota Politics, Dr. Blanchard has written a provocative post about science having the authority that religion formerly along with the schisms that still plague the faithful.
Science enjoys the kind of unique authority in modern civilization that religion once enjoyed. It is the one source of wisdom that is all but immune to challenge. To be openly "anti-science" is to be discredited in modern eyes.
Blanchard goes on to quote Steven Hayward who writes,
But rather than stopping with the simple observation that ideology or politics drives acceptance or rejection of certain domains of science, it is worth pressing on to ask why liberals dislike some kind of science, and conservatives other kinds. Liberals in the case of childhood vaccinations and GM organisms dislike certain forms of authority
If I can carry the religious analogy a step further, modern personal technology like mp3 players, tablets, laptops, and smart phones function as the paten and chalice.

Public schools are legally mandated to worship at the alter of science.  NCLB demands no less:
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, calls for the use of "scientifically based research" as the foundation for many education programs and for classroom instruction.
 A lengthy New York Times article "In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores" shows that schools, like the larger culture, struggles with the limits of science and technology.  The article profiles the Kyrene School District's efforts to "offer what some see as a utopian vision of education’s future."  The schools "[c]lassrooms are decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject."

The school seeks to change the nature of education.
The digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer, wandering among students who learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.
The problem here is that some of the results have more to do with "the substance of things unseen, the evidence of things hoped for" rather than scientific fact.
But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.
This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.
Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.
“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”
Despite that admission, Vander Ark illustrates both the faith of a believer and the depth of the schism.  The Times continues,
And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”
Critics counter that, absent clear proof, schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills — like using PowerPoint and multimedia tools — at the expense of math, reading and writing fundamentals. They say the technology advocates have it backward when they press to upgrade first and ask questions later.
I will offer a few observations that may or may not serve as theses to nail to the school house door.

1. American society has become so tech centric that schools need to have tech in place and teachers need to use it in order for their classes to be taken seriously.

2. John Naisbitt was correct in the 1980s and 1990s when he asserted that society was becoming high tech and high touch. Literature teachers in particular must help students learn to "balance material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature."

3. Schools will always be behind the curve when it comes to the latest technology; therefore, they must do more to teach about the principles of using technology than the specifics of currently fashionable programs and platforms.

4. There is nothing new under the sun.  Some of us of a certain age remember filmstrips and mimeograph machines.  A power point and a film strip do not differ that greatly.  When done well, both help students learn; when done poorly, both put students to sleep.  Likewise, worksheets are worksheets.  It doesn't matter if they were mimeographed or photocopied.  Photocopies do lack that ink odor that may or may not have destroyed many fourth graders' brain cells from the 1950s through the mid-1980s.

5. All of this is a long way of saying that schools are rightfully prevented from teaching a specific religion.  Likewise, they should not be mandated to use a specific scientific method or technological tool.  All require a bit of faith and a skilled practitioner.

1 comment:

David Newquist said...

To say that the concern over vaccines and GM crops is a liberal one is simply wrong. There are many who place themselves on the conservative side of the political spectrum who have those concerns. In fact, they are concerns within the scientific community. Those concerns led to a reevaluation of vaccines that has more precisely defined some dangers. (I have two children who can't be given pertussis vaccines, and one had to suffer through a siege of whooping cough.) In the matter of genetically modifying crops, scientists who are not affiliated with organizations that develop and promote them openly say that they need to be viewed with great caution because so little is known about what properties they might inject into the food chain. We know at this point that they accelerate the evolution of the pest species they are meant to resist. And there are potential dangers in that which could seriously jeopardize the production of food.

As for the NCLB tests: the law calls for scientific tests, but the tests administered do not follow the scientific protocols for scientific testing and evaluation. Just as the GM crops are promoted by corporations that are not going to let some gaps in science stand in the way of marketing them, most of the standardized tests employed by states in meeting the MCLB mandate are produced by corporations that sell tests for profit, not to meet scientific rigors in testing and evaluation.

As one who has been deeply involved in evaluating student writing (as a 20-year director of the Dakota Writing Project), I can attest that there is neither time nor money to implement the procedures that produce definitively accurate and reliable assessments of student writing at various levels and of what produces successful writing.

Much of what we do in testing comes from the pseudo-sciences, not actual science.