When I first met the physics professor, it was explained to him that I was a science teacher. This prompted something of a reaction. As an aside to the real purpose of the meeting, he proceeded to tell me how school science teaching should be improved. He explained, as if he was the first person to ever think of the idea, that students should learn through doing experiments and that they would remember concepts much better if they discovered them for themselves. He related an anecdote of a hands-on lesson he taught to secondary school teachers who visited his lab at the university. I couldn’t be bothered to argue back. We had other matters to address, limited time available and anyway, where do you start with such ignorance? But I think I missed an opportunity.
It can be baffling.
Science professors are often at the forefront of campaigns against pseudoscience. They will warn us against alternative medicines, promote vaccination and tirelessly point to the evidence that climate change is real. But when it comes to education itself, they often believe the woolliest load of old bunk. Why?
Firstly, I don’t think many of them realise that there is evidence about the most effective approaches to teaching and learning. I think they assume that it’s all a matter of opinion and, to be fair, hard evidence is the Cinderella of our education faculties.
Secondly, they suffer from a number of biases. The curse of knowledge means that they underestimate the vast amounts of specialist knowledge they possess and therefore downplay the role of education in imparting that knowledge. There is also evidence that people often remember concepts and ideas without remembering how and when they learnt them. Again, this could lead to scientists underestimating the role of schooling in this process. Perhaps they think they just quickly picked-up concepts as and when they needed them or independently from books.
It is also the case that professional scientists are likely to be outliers. They will have a high level of general intelligence and a high level of intrinsic motivation. An investigation that they imagine will be motivating for school children may be nothing of the sort. It is true that students generally like doing experiments, but it is not the case that this is always because of the science – sometimes students are motivated about playing with the equipment or having a break from reading and writing.
If you meet a profsplaining scientist, call them out. I did this with Brian Cox. I copped a bit of flak but I reckon it was worth it. If your scientist waxes lyrical about inquiry learning then point to the negative correlational evidence from PISA. If they show an interest in investigating further then send them to Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006), which does a good job of covering a lot of ground. Stay classy but stand your ground.
It would be great if we could persuade scientists to apply the same standards to educational ideas as they do to their own fields of expertise.