Science at home — and first things first

Valerie Strauss, in her blog The Answer Sheet, has posted a story entitled “Parents want to help kids learn science — but many have no idea how.”  The story is actually written by Shelley Pasnik of EDC, based on a new report by that organization and SRI: “What parents talk about when they talk about learning: A national survey about young children and science”  (you can get the full study here).   It is full of interest, and I’d be curious to know what catches your eye if you have time to read Pasnik’s article, or the executive summary (“Overview”) of the study, or the study as a whole.

A quick tour of the findings (my paraphrasing):

• Most parents think it’s important for their kids to learn — though science wasn’t on the top of the list: “social skills, literacy and math” were. (Interesting, in comparison with studies like this one by Pew which found that the majority included science as a key “skill/knowledge” for students’ success (the range depended on the amount of education the respondents had — for those with less education, the proportion was 50%;  for those with at least some college, the number rose to 63%).

• Most parents say they help their kids with school work — and they are confident about helping with  “social skills, literacy and math.”  While they often do sciencey things around the house, though, at least half say they’re not sure what to do, or are not confident about science. They aren’t sure what kids need to know, and would appreciate some help with that,  and suggestions of things to do.

• Most report “using science media weekly or more” — but are not confident that these have helped their kids learn science.   The authors suggest that “Parents may be missing opportunities to deepen the impacts of these experiences.”

I was intrigued that the researchers did not define science for the survey participants.  They did ask them to talk about what they meant by science, and they summarize the responses thus (page 9):

Parents talked about their children’s curiosity and questioning, particularly during everyday routines such as taking the bus, walking to school, or going to the doctor. Children ask their parents about everything they see—the sky, birds, trees, seasonal changes, the moon, the sun. Some parents’ top-of-mind descriptions involved children doing science in relation to special projects, such as making “volcanoes,” mixing colors, making “slime,” or trying something out to “see what happens,” such as planting a seed and watching what comes up or leaving food out to see if mold grows on it.

Some parents responded that nothing came to mind about science, that they did not like science, that their children were too young to do science, or that they did not know if what their children did would be considered science. In these instances parents talked about science as difficult or confusing.

It comes as no surprise that many parents feel unequal to helping their young children learn science, because of their lack of knowledge, or their worry that they are not able to explain to their kids in a way they can understand.  From the point of view of school success, young children thus move from homes that may be supportive but lack confidence when it comes to science, to elementary schools in which their teachers also lack confidence, and perhaps knowledge, about science as well.  Elementary teachers’ under-preparation for teaching science is widely documented, as in this paper in which the issue is taken for granted as a problem needing to be addressed, both in terms of content, and in terms of an understanding of the nature of science and science pedagogy.

The EDC study suggests that parents understand that science is part of their kids’ world — that is, their everyday lives:

Only 6% of parents reported that their children did not engage in science-related activities, because of age or interest, and only a few parents (4%) did not know what science-related activities their child liked to do.

One source of anxiety, though, is not feeling confident that what they can do with their kids “counts” as science — and here one sees a possible confounding of  science as a human activity, and science as an academic subject.  Parents, when they are thinking about helping their kids with learning, are likely to be wanting to help their kids do well in school.

The study offers “5 essential messages” that address the needs and desires expressed by the parents whose opinions they examined (pg 52).

Parents don’t have to be scientists or know the “right answer” to help their children learn science…Parents are crucial to young children’s science learning and science exploration can start with wondering aloud and be reinforced with materials tailor-made for families….Science is for home, school and all the places in between….Science is watchable, readable, playable and doable…What parents need to engage in everyday science with their young children doesn’t need to be a secret.


For me, the key is that parents and teachers share an understanding of the roots of science as an emotion, as an orientation, as one way that anyone can inquire about their world — and that if you want to be a practitioner, there are things to learn, methods to practice, stories to hear, authorities to consult, lives to emulate or learn from.

One of the commenters on Strauss’s blog posted a quote from E.O. Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist,which struck home for me — Thank you, Malcolm Kirkpatrick!

“Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusas, rays, and sea monsters, nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I believe, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder….Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” (p. 11-12).

“Adults forget the depths of languor into which the adolescent mind descends with ease. They are prone to undervalue the mental growth that occurs during daydreaming and aimless wandering. When I focused on the ponds and stream lying before me, I abandoned all sense of time.”(p. 86-87).

NOTE:  Opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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Truth decay and STEM education

Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution)… the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics can generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

Wording like this  (sometimes called “the Santorum language,” originating from the quondam Senator from Pennsylvania) has been part of legislation proposed annually in many states (and adopted in several).  The goal, sometimes stated explicitly, is  to provide a justification for the introduction of “alternatives” to such well-established but uncomfortable ideas as evolution and climate change. (See here for the 2017 scorecard of what I will call science control legislation, prepared by the National Center for Science Education).

Such language, which on the surface just is encouraging students to make up their own minds, and “think critically,” reflects the current high level of relativism being propagated and exploited to serve a variety of political and social agendas. The proponents of such legislation can have no idea what it means to “understand the full range of scientific views” on a topic such as evolutionary biology or climate change, much less for K-12 students to make their own informed choices about which views  they will espouse. The purpose, rather, is to convey a notion that science is primarily a matter of opinion, untrammeled by the constraints of theoretical coherence or empirical findings.

This is one manifestation of what an interesting study by RAND corporation calls “truth decay.”  The report examines how several powerful cultural developments have combined to render constructive social discourse and critique more and more difficult — amounting to what Al Gore some years ago called “the assault on reason.” The authors address 4 features (they call them trends) defining this decay (pg xi):
1. Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data;
2. A blurring of the line between opinion and fact;
3. The increasing relative volume, and resulting influence of, opinion and personal experience over fact;
4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

The report suggests that this syndrome of trends is being driven by multiple causes.

  1. Characteristics of cognitive processing — for example, “cognitive bias,” and other ways in which we hear or communicate selectively, in ways that support our identities, our loyalties, our fears, or other aspects of our personalities or histories;
  2. Changes in the information system — including the rise of social media, the proliferation of media information sources, and the rapid, broad transmission of misinformation and disinformation.
  3. Competing demands on the educational system that list its ability to keep pace with changes in the information system;
  4. Polarization — sociodemographic, political, and economic.

Some of these are not new (as a lengthy historical chapter discusses), but the current deterioration of shared bases for discussion and debate is as severe as it is, because  all 4 “drivers” are active at the same time, and in ways that mutually reinforce each other.

I read the sections relating to #3 with particular interest.  The authors concede that schools can’t be expected to fix the current dysfunction — but they certainly believe that schools share some fault. For one thing, the Common Core makes some positive moves towards the teaching of critical thinking, but

these changes… have not occurred at the same time or at the same speed as many of the changes in the information system.. It is this lag, and this gap between the challenge and student preparation that we argue has been a driver of  Truth Decay because… it contributes to the creation of an electorate that is susceptible to bias, information, and misinformation, and is also liable to perpetuate this information and the challenges that come along with Truth Decay.

The authors clearly feel that if Education Reform had proceeded more rapidly and completely, we would not be in the pickle we are in.  More civics education and more teaching of critical thinking are the ticket, and as soon as possible!    They advocate teaching Civics and Critical Thinking as subjects in themselves but also acknowledge that critical thinking at least can be integrated in the way that subject matter is taught:

According to one study, students who are trained to conduct higher-level critical thinking tasks as part of the course curriculum learn material more deeply and completely and are better able to engage with it and apply it than those who are trained only to memorize and supply basic facts and responses.

Of course, there lurks beneath some of the language here the common canards that “traditional education” as the authors imagine it was 100 years ago still obtains in most schools, and that if only schools would be more modern they’d be a major part of the solution to the problem of critical thinking and Truth Decay.  As for science, education in the “scientific method” is the prescription offered here; there is little evidence in the document that the authors have any acquaintance with research about science education or the standards juggernaut that has roiled and re-shaped the accepted ideas of what good science education should be…

The study is useful, and its framework of “trends” and “drivers” I have found helpful and can make use of.  On the other hand, as far as I am concerned, a more urgent problem is the widespread ignorance, motivated reasoning, and polarization of the adults currently making legislation, setting standards, and trying to make policy in the absence of critical thinking, a knowledge of civics, and an understanding about how science asks questions of nature, and sets about getting (and interrrogating) some answers.  As exemplified in some of the legislation perennially introduced to make science less uncomfortable, and to restrain the wildness of curiosity and the freedom of inquiry.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. They are not necessarily shared by MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.



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Curriculum a panacea — again?

In my career at TERC, I have been a curriculum developer more than anything else. I love that work, because it’s about the science, and about doing  my best to help teachers bring exciting and absorbing phenomena to their students — and become excited and absorbed themselves as they work with the material.  Because I have done some science, taught some science, and had the pleasure of observing many science classrooms, when I design curriculum I am intensely aware that [a] it needs to work “out of the box,” — so the teacher feels that our materials are an opportunity, not a problem, and so we communicate what our team has tried to do, and [b] good teachers must and will bring their “read” of their kids and their own experience to bear, so that the experience engages the students with something of value.  Curriculum development+implementation is a dynamic collaboration among designers, teachers, and students — one of the more complex phenomena in the universe.  Dewey’s Child and Curriculum gets it right:

The fundamental factors in the educative process are an immature, underdeveloped being; and certain social aims, meanings, values incarnate in the matured experience of the adult. The educative process is the due interaction of these forces. Such a conception of each in relation to the other as facilitates completest and freest interaction is the essence of educational theory (Dewey, The Child and the Curriculum.  Middle Works vol 2: 273)

I came into this work in the 1980s, during a second wave of major investment by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in STEM curriculum (see here for an interesting timeline of science ed events over the past 60 years or so), when the panic-ripples instilled by A Nation at Risk were only just beginning to spread disturbance throughout the education enterprise.  Very soon, the intense focus turned to accountability, standards, systemic change, and (increasingly) the modern version of “reform.” After a few years of that, the message seemed to be that we had all the good curriculum we needed (hadn’t the NSF spent jillions on it since Sputnik?).  Then the Web arrived, and we all knew that Technology (of some kind) was going to fix what was broke.

Some people, including a lot of teachers, noted that science keeps marching on, so that materials from 10 years ago might remain beautiful of their kind, but still needed updating or reframing. (I am writing personally here, and science is my sphere, not STEM, so ‘science’ it will be hereinafter, and readers with other foci can translate for their own areas of interest.)  Many of the same people noted that if we were going to continue to help students get a feel for science as a creative enterprise, teacher methods need to reflect the question-driven, reflective, and discourse-rich inquiry of science as she is done.   Curriculum materials can help there, too.

It is with mixed feelings, therefore, that I learn that the Gates Foundation, as an important shaper of the “reform” idea now in the ascendent. As one story has it,

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach…The organization’s efforts will center on three areas, [a spokesperson] said. One is making “high-quality” materials more widely available. That means funding groups that develop curriculums and then make them publicly available, offering alternatives to the big textbook companies.   Another is steering decision-makers (read: school board members and school leaders) to select materials seen as high-quality, which the foundation will do by funding rating systems and research on teaching materials. And the third is helping teachers successfully use those materials, which Gates will do by funding organizations like TNTP that provide teacher training.

As commenters on this development note, it’s not all that easy to identify what we mean by “high quality” —  because of the dynamic nature of the classroom and the students in it, because of dramatic and often unpredictable availability of appropriate resources for science, and because teachers are different, too, in ways that are fundamental to the process of education (see here for Peter Greene’s  recent passionate reflections on this point).

The research that the Gates Foundation and its allies relies upon (importantly a recent literature review by Dr. David Steiner), sets curriculum in a central role in the design of education — and therefore as a key strategic focus for “reform” efforts that have so far produced mixed results at best.

What we teach isn’t some sidebar issue in American education: it is American education. The track record of top-performing countries, early evidence of positive effects from the faithful implementation of high-quality curricula here in the United States, and the persistent evidence that our classrooms are underchallenging our students at every level compel us to put the materials that we use to teach at the core of serious education reform.

While Dr. Steiner, and the Gates Foundation, recognize that “curriculum” is something that teachers enact, I have often had the feeling, reading through dozens of stories and think-tank reports, that “curriculum” somehow is being invested with mystic powers to effect “reform” — for example, from a story cited above:

Another analysis [BD note:  in a series entitled “Economic Studies”] found that simply allocating extra money (around $100 per student) for textbooks…can bump up elementary school test scores (though there was no noticeable impact in middle or high school).

None of the stories and advocacy pieces reflect an acquaintance with research over the past 50 years on textbook/curricula (not the same things!!) design and implementation, school culture and its effects on the classroom, the impacts of policy churn, teacher PD strategies,  and feast-famine funding cycles on classroom enactments.   Must we pretend that people only started thinking seriously about education in the past few years?

Moreover, it has been noted by commentators across the political spectrum that the metrics that will be used to identify “high quality” materials and “high quality” implementations are probably pretty poor.  As Joy Pullman of the Federalist (not a source I usually consult) writes :

The metrics for success that make the most sense to Bill Gates do not actually ensure success for children.

— the metrics being “bumps in test scores” (the linked report by Jay Greene is an interesting read).  The technocratic framing for tinkering with educational systems remains dominant (despite occasional cries of “mea culpa” from former advocates of same, see Rick Hess’s recent blog post here) .

Judging educational efficacy is just tough, no doubt about it.  Douglas Simpson and Michael Jackson write:

the curriculum is best taught, if Dewey is correct, when we view it as something that is gradually learned as novices and experts create stimulating and interactive environments that engage each student with others. The environments will need to be highly varied and variable, not created by distant spe- cialists. The outcomes of such learning will be various, too, but they will include the development of educated adults who think and act on the best available and warranted knowledge. (pg 27)

What role does curriculum play in your work?  Where are the gaps you see in educational materials?  How do you judge “quality”?  In your work on educational change, did you have to change your view of the role or importance of curriculum?

Curriculum is not “the heart” of education, but it’s close to it!

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 

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SEL#the last: The way we do things now

Once you define social and emotional capacities as “skills and competencies,” as we saw in the previous post, then you can think about metrics.  Over the past 50 years or so, we have exercised tremendous ingenuity in the whole process of “operationalization” of concepts (constructs) in ed research and assessment.  All this sophistication is being brought to bear on SEL.  Among the values of this way of thinking are such scientific virtues as validity and reliability/replicability, but also such bureacratic virtues as ease of administration and of scoring and analysis.   It takes time, expertise, and (frankly) money to develop analytic measures of this kind, and as any reader of this blog knows, it also takes more than one bite at the apple — successive iterations and refinements, and sometimes false starts. It’s no surprise that The Market has stepped in energetically.  Of course, we need metrics and tools!  You know you’ve been longing for just this kind of help!  A teacher writes for Panorama Education:

Despite the fact that there’s so much consensus about the importance of SEL, there haven’t been good ways to measure these skills and continue to be limited resources for teachers and administrators about how to teach SEL skills, emotions, behaviors and mindsets. When I was in the classroom, I would have been incredibly excited about having a usable survey tool to measure my student’s SEL skills and behaviors, and even more excited about a set of resources that would have helped me develop my ability to teach social-emotional skills, mindsets and behaviors to my students.

Audrey Watters describes the trend:

These novel apps, bearing names like ClassDojo and Hero K12, promised to help by collecting students’ behavioral data and encouraging teachers to project the stats onto their classroom’s interactive whiteboard in order to keep students “on task.” It is, they claim, all part of a push to create a “positive classroom culture.”

Panorama is one of several companies that  want to help:

SEL skills are critical to school, career, and life success. Panorama helps you understand and support each student with skills like growth mindset, self-efficacy, social awareness, and self-management.

Now, as I think about persistence, respect, self-monitoring, and confidence, I would expect that the goal would be to help teachers observe and reflect about these characteristics, and talk with their students about them at a level that the kids can meet.  My first thought would not be about data collection, for example using a survey asking 3rd graders (say) to answer a survey complex series of Likert-scaled questions.  This, however, is the approach taken by several enterprises (both commercial and not-for-profit) in the development of SEL tools for what we may call “diagnosis.”

There are systems that place their focus on behavior management.  The idea is that a school-wide “solution” will create a uniform set of standards, “incentives,” and interventions throughout a school.  The best way to do that, obviously, is to install a software system that supports school-wide data collection and program implementation.  Here is stating the need:

without a digital School Wide Positive Behavior Reinforcement program in place, schools struggle to collaborate across grade levels and departments, offering little to no consistency for students. The behaviors that teachers identify and reinforce are usually varied, and students have different standards they need to meet depending on whose class they are in. Often times, these benchmarks don’t line up with administrative initiatives and school standards—they are chosen because they are important for that individual classroom teacher.

ClassDojo focuses more specifically on classroom climate — for example, if you want your kids to “learn empathy,” ClassDojo has developed a suite of tools that “aligns with teachers’ vision of the classroom as a friendly learning environment where character matters and positive thinking can lead to powerful results.”   According to one report from 2016, “Last year, 65% of U.S. K-8 schools had at least one teacher using ClassDojo. This year, the company’s reach surpassed 90%.”

It branched into video content last year, with a five-part series on “growth mind-set,” an idea pioneered by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. Then, this past fall, the company introduced its “empathy” video series.

The videos are intended to be starters for conversation in the class, and I expect that many teachers make good use of them.  The range of tools and services available for purchase or subscription to support SEL in one of its many varieties — and many are designed to collect lots of data about students, sometimes primarily for teachers’ use, sometimes for the school or district — and what about all that data?

I invite you to follow some of these links and make up your own mind about this trend.  I am uncomfortable, and my discomfort has three different sources.  In each case, the concern or objection can possibly be addressed or mitigated — there are always examples of researchers, developers, adminstrators, policy makers, who understand the issues, and have found a way to a positive, respectful, and promising implementation of  some innovated technique or tool. Yet it is only too common for an analogue of Gresham’s Law to prevail — good versions of the innovation driven out by the bad.

In this case, the first two sources of discomfort are intensified or amplified by the third. The first source of my discomfort  is the “new behaviorism” mindset  that writers like Audrey Watters address.  Children (and other humans) are seen as fit subjects for shaping and molding towards some desired product — though the nature of the target keeps moving, and is often dictated by short-term imperatives of the market or of politics (as in Frederick Hess’s “policy churn”).

The second source of concern is precisely that policy makers or entrepreneurs, seeing the need or opportunity for SEL, define SEL (or its components), the “need” or “problem” , and the solutions to the problem,  in ways that are as convenient as possible for adminstration and evaluation, and for “getting to scale”  — embodied, for example, in the quickly multiplying  SEL technologies, “systems,” and programs for sale or trial. This is a point that Peter Greene makes in his energetic manner — and his recent post on this topic has found a growing response in ed blog readership.

Finally, as I alluded to in the first post of this series, the educational “system” is now becoming highly integrated across commercial, policy, and public sectors — not necessarily to deliver long-recognized resources and services to children and teachers, but  so as to rapidly propagate new policy ideas and associated products and services.   The system has been called “fast psycho policy.” Ben Willams writes, in a very challenging essay on this phenomenon in education (using ClassDojo as a case in point)

As an educational intermediary, a curator of educational discourse, and a provider of free services that deploys strategies of user engagement to gain users through network effects, ClassDojo needs therefore to be studied and understood as the assembled product of a complex web of people and organizations that designed and maintain it; technical components; business plans; expert discourses, and the technical, social and economic concerns that frame them.

This “fast-policy” system is embedded in the increasing penetration of “platforms” as the dominant infrastructure for our culture, and ‘curators of public discourse’ as argued by Tarleton Gillespie.

When we say we’re “in education,” what is it we actually in?  How can we keep open a wider range of answers to that question than the ones created by the dominant framing of social processes — including education — in our time?







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SEL #4: The “competency” frame

I have been fascinated to see how, as  “social and emotional learning”  (SEL) has gained currency as a focus of school policy, it as been translated into the native language of modern educational policy, that of standards and accountability.  This language has various dialects, and the one that seems to be increasingly in use is that of “competencies”  and skills.

A good example of this marriage of SEL and  “competency” is the recent report from Aspen Institute’s “National Commission on Social and Emotional Learning.” (The commission is one that Aspen  created;  the co-chairs are Linda Darling-Hammond, Gov. John Engler, and Tim Shriver of CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.)  The report tells us (pg. 10) that

Decades of research in human development, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and educational practice and policy have illuminated that major domains of human development—social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, academic—are deeply intertwined in the brain and in behavior. Moreover, all are central to learning and success.

Not only that, but

 “robust and irrefutable” research has confirmed that “these skills and competencies emerge, grow, and change over time from infancy, throughout childhood and adolescence, and even into adulthood.


To facilitate student success, adults must understand the broader environmental and social context in which students learn. They must also create and assess learning conditions that give students the opportunity to activate, demonstrate, and grow the social, emotional, and academic competencies they bring to the classroom.

Now, what is a “competency” in this era?  A widely-circulated list of core characteristics of a “competency,”  developed by iNACOL, reads thus:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery;
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students;
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students;
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

There’s work going on in many states to incorporate these values into their standards.   The State of Maine has developed “developmental frameworks” that are commended by CASEL, and one can see why.  Indeed, these frameworks do a pretty good job of integrating  SEL with other habits and processes of learning, working, and collaboration.  Yet a sample (from the guidelines on “clear and effective expression”) may suggest questions about how such descriptors could be operationalized as “explicit, measurable, transferrable learning objectives”  :

Recognizes how body language, tone, and delivery affect audiences differently, when modeled and identified by others.  Reflects on own level of engagement and emotional response, with feedback.  Relies on observations and feedback from others to adjust body language, eye contact, pace, and volume of speech or technique in writing.  Notices overt body language, tone, and expression of others.   Follows expectations in attempt to convey purpose, using basic conventions.   Tinkers with new forms of expression and techniques.

Illinois has also developed an elaborated set of SEL “learning standards.”  These are laid out as learning progressions keyed to 5 points in the K-12 timeline:  early and late elementary, middle school, and early and late high school.  The progression for “Use communication and social skills to interact effectively with others includes the following:

2C.1a (early elem.) “Identify ways to work and play well with others.”  
2C.2a (late elem) “Describe approaches for making and keeping friends.”  
2C.3a (middle/jr high) “Analyze waysto establish positive relationships with others.”  
2C.4a (early HS) “Evaluate the effects of requesting support from and providing support to others.”
2C.5a (late HS) “Evaluate the application of communication and social skills in daily interactions with others.”
The school authorities seem to have some sense of  how hard such “standards” would be to measure, much less incorporate into the curriculum (though I guess they’re moving ahead with them).  They provide, among other “learning supports,” a “compendium” of SEL measures that have been developed by psychologists and other researchers over the years, with the hope that they will be useful to researchers, educators, and others who are seeking to engage with SEL.  The list focuses entirely on the young end of the range (preK-early elementary, in most cases), and most of the measures are not surprisingly very labor-intensive, and pretty technical — requiring a fair amount of training and practice before they could be used well.

So how does this all fit into the other challenges, initiatives, disruptions, and innovations that schools are supposed to be taking on?  EduTopia, in highlighting 10 of  CASEL’s guidelines for a SEL program in schools (here), makes clear the size of the challenge for a school or district, including program design and integration with the rest of the curriculum;  addressing school climate issues;  building cooperative home-school relations oriented to the SEL program; and teacher professional development.  After all, as the Aspen Commission points out, teachers can’t instill social/emotional competencies that they don’t have themselves.  (Herein, it seems to me, is a rather large can of worms.)

On top of it all, as CASEL points out, financial sustainability is an issue for a SEL program (just as finances are an Achilles’ heel for many ed-tech innovations).

As I will discuss in my next post, the multiple challenges — how to measure, how to deliver, how to integrate, how to sustain SEL as a separate strand of school policy and practice, as a remediation for recent dehumanizing trends in ed policy — are being seen as fertile ground for entrepreneurs, and of course some of these are convinced that techology will of course be a central ingredient.


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SEL #3: Some review studies

With the new year under way, I return to my series on Social and Emotional Learning, which is featuring widely in the edublogosphere as well as in policy.
It might be good to start off by reminding the unwary reader that, though I will try always to fairly characterize and describe the ideas in my sources, my core interest is in the framing that is discernible in the documents. This is because, as I am NOT the first to observe, our era of “evidence based” policy and practice is only partially related to evidence. It is also an era of ideological or philosophical struggle, whose ebbs and flows shape the experiences of teachers, students, parents, and citizens. willy-nilly. It is also an era of extremely refined propaganda, aimed at influencing attitudes and behaviors in the ideological tug-of-war.
In my first entry in this series, I attempted a first formulation of some of this framing:

The point is that, as with ed tech products, a reasonably interesting research result is…quickly over-applied, parametrized (hence creating “data” that can be used in lots of different ways, including ‘accountability’), and then commodified, so that a conventional wisdom is created and then catered to by many different actors in the Market (which more and more subsumes the educational “system” now ascendent).

Let’s look at some more research. We start with  “A review of the literature on social and emotional learning for students ages 3–8: Characteristics of effective social and emotional learning programs.”   This is the first in a series of studies by the US Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Ed Laboratory, which will occupy this post and the next. ( The 4-part series is available here.)

The authors acknowledge that there are various definitions of the term, but settle on five key “competencies”: “self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decisionmaking.”  These in turn are seen as part of a broader system that includes executive functioning and self-regulation:

… students are exposed to social and academic information that they must interpret, analyze, and respond to in acceptable ways… Therefore, they need to develop self-regulation and executive functioning in addition to social and emotional skills. Executive functioning and self-regulation are the mental processes that enable students to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully … Both self-regulation and executive functioning influence social and emotional learning … Accordingly, effective SEL programs, particularly in preschool, include approaches to enhance self-regulation and executive functioning.

A different resumé of the literature, from the Wallace Foundation (see here for the report), organizes

SEL skills into three domains: cognitive regulation (including attention control, inhibitory control, working memory/planning, cognitive flexibility), emotional processes (including emotion knowledge/expression, emotion/behavior regulation, empathy/perspective-taking), and social/interpersonal skills (including understanding social cues, conflict resolution, prosocial behavior)

Why, asks the RAND study on “Social and Emotional learning interventions under the ESSA,” should teachers, schools, and communities undertake SEL interventions?  Well, three major reasons are:

First, research suggests that an emphasis on SEL can enhance, rather than detract from, schools’ core missions of promoting academic achievement and attainment…. Second, evidence suggests that explicit SEL interventions are effective in helping students develop social and emotional competencies and improve other aspects of students’ lives above and beyond the effects of academic achievement… Finally, in recent years, most states have revised their academic standards or adopted new ones [that]  have broadened the range of competencies that students are expected to demonstrate—for example, by increasing the emphasis on communication, collaboration, and persistence.

The “interventions” suggested (I quote the RAND report, which makes a typical list)  include direct instruction on these competencies, as well as

general teaching practices that support classroom environments characterized by shared expectations, positive relationships, and other features that promote SEL (e.g., use of  group work to facilitate collaboration)…integration of SEL instruction into the academic curriculum (e.g., engaging students in complex mathematics problem-solving activities to help promote persistence in addition to mathematics learning) efforts to create a schoolwide climate and conditions that foster SEL, including new disciplinary approaches and a common vision.

Now, I can’t help but feel that something is odd when “facilitating group work” or “engaging students in compex problem-solving activities,” not to mention a safe and secure school environment, are treated as “interventions” otherwise not to be found in school life, and even given the “learning progressions” treatment (though in the IES “Review” linked above, this is called “vertical integration”). Why the “recent policy interest?    I suspect that these ingredients of a rich and constructive learning experience are not news to most teachers, most adminstrators, most parents, most students.  Makes no sense, unless “recent policy interest” means a discovery that the pendulum has swung rather too far in the direction of standardized testing of concepts and skills in a narrow range of subjects.  This is Peter Greene’s take, in a post from last December:

I pin the return of SEL on the rise of test-centered learning, on a rising tide of people looking around and saying, “Oh, yeah– I suppose there is more to learning to be a grown-up human than just bubbling answers on a Big Standardized Test.”

Yet I am reminded of Twain’s (?) comment that history doesn’t repeat itself but rather rhymes.  The recognition that There is More to Learning than academics is now necessarily expressed in a policy vocabulary that reflects what Jal Mehta in Teachers College Record called “the penetration of technocratic logic into the educational field.”

Hence, SEL is operationalized as competencies, which can be parametrized for measurement, data collection, and commodification — and the next few posts will address each of these in turn.

For homework, check out Audrey Watters’s 10th entry in her review of “top-ed tech stories” for 2017:  “Education technology and the new behaviorism.”

NOTE:  The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.

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The year in review, as seen by…

I am taking a short break from my Social-Emotional Learning series, to bring to your attention several year-end lists which you might find provocative, informative, or both. In any case, I can attest that following even a portion of the links embedded in some of these will provide hours of fun.
If you have comments on anything you find, or your own list of year-end links, comments, or hopes, add them here!

1. Hackeducation.  Audrey Watters has once again written a series of in-depth essays on top stories in educational technology.  If you have not yet read her blog, you are in for a treat — here is the latest one, on the business of ed tech “trends.”  She has in the past talked about the self-creating nature of “trends,” as in her 2016 piece entitled “The best way to predict the future is to issue a press release.”  Her topics this year include the business of ed tech;  brains, behavior and social-emotional learning; robots and education, robots and the job market, skills training and the future of work;  for-profit higher ed; platforms; free speech and ed tech; and more.  These essays come out over the course of weeks, and you can easily spend days reading them and the many many links to stories and studies that are embedded in each essay.  And there’s more, as she always has a separate page of supplemental material, revealing the staggering amount of searching, reading, reflecting, choosing and writing that goes into what actually appears in her essays and weekly updates.

2. Nancy Bailey’s education website.  Bailey didn’t  quite create a”best of” or “year in review,” but rather a list of “101 (And MORE) Wishes For Students in 2018—In 5 Words or Less.”  (Here’s the link).  I include it here, because the wishes (including the additions made by commenters) represent reflections from and upon current events in education and society, from the point of view of teacher, student, parent.

3. Curmudgucation.  First, check out Peter Greene’s ICYMI (In case you missed it) year-end review edition. He writes, “Ring in the new year with the best of the things you might have missed this year (or just forgotten about). I have slanted this collection toward pieces outside the blogosphere, because you should be reading and sharing my blogroll.”

Second, check out his “What to watch in 2018.”  The topics range from “What does ESSA really mean?” to “Have we seen the worst of the teacher pipeline problem?” to “As always, will anyone address the fundamental issues involved in the ed debates?”  These are not so much “best of” or “year in review” items, as abiding questions, put briefly and with attitude, as in the latter case:

So much of the debating misses the underlying points. For instance, the debates about public schools versus corporate, privatized education are not about which methods are best for meeting the country’s educational goals– they are about what the country’s education al goals should be. And the focus on “college and career readiness” has not been about how to best fulfill education’s promise, but about changing– lessening– what that promise should be. And much of the ed reform movement is inextricably bound up in a belief that democracy sucks and we should get rid of it.    But coverage never looks at those foundational issues. Or as I often put it when I am waggling my fist at the computer screen where someone has suggested, vis-à-vis the ed debates, “Aren’t we all after the same thing?”– no, no we’re not. But we never talk about that.

4. Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day.  Larry Ferlazzo, high school teacher and indefatigable resource finder and question asker, posted “A look back:  2017’s best posts from this blog.”  Ferlazzo’s posts cover a very wide range of topics, from A Look Back: New Study Finds VAM Is Biased Against Teachers Of “At Risk” Students,  to A Look Back: Here’s A Reflection Exercise I Did With My Student Teacher,   to   A Look Back: “What ‘Scarcity’ Does To The Mind & Why Social Emotional Learning Isn’t Enough” .   I am always humbled when I come across Larry’s posts, either on his site(s) or aggregated as part of NEPC’s “blog post of the day” section.

The nice thing about all these blogs is that each blogger draws on many others, and it’s encouraging sometimes to follow unwonted links, just to get a sense of the large community of committed, inquisitive, collaborative educators out there.  Enjoy!

P.S.  In the replies, help your colleagues by posting links to your own favorite edublogs, or “year in review” posts!

NOTE:  Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.


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Social and Emotional Learning #2: Something new under the sun?

In our amnesiac society, it is not surprising that inventive, inquisitive, and engaged people might re-invent the wheel. (Realistically, most things are new to us — that is, while someone may know a lot about a lot of things, there’s still plenty that will come freshly to them, and retain the power of surprise and intrigue.)  This is why “novelty sells” at least as effectively as “sex sells” in the market place. Novelty, I suspect, is among the most important “value propositions”  typically offered  for an educational idea, or policy, or product.  (It is of course entirely conventional, these days, to talk about education in business terms, as the relentless revolution continues its transformation of social norms.)

So as I have been reading about social-emotional learning, I have been struck by claims that SEL represents a new discovery, and therefore an imperative new addition to our educational toolbox.  I wonder if I am being marketed at.

For example, a recent report from the Learning Policy Institute introduces itself thus:

Long-standing demands from business and industry have recently converged with advances in the science of learning to establish the critical importance of social and emotional, as well as academic, development for school and life success.1 Variously called “soft skills,” noncognitive or co-cognitive factors, or 21st-century competencies, these skills, mindsets, and habits help people succeed in a social world, enabling them to accomplish their goals. Young people’s abilities to manage their attention and feelings, collaborate well with others, show perseverance, build strong relationships, and learn from challenging experiences are the building blocks for future success.

So the needs of business and industry are now sanctioned by scientific advances, to convince a hitherto unsuspecting populace that “academics” are not enough for “school and life success”  (although academic success is made more likely by these “soft skills” so we can look for test scores to reflect the quality of softness imparted in a particular school).

I would not bristle at statements like these, except for two things:

[1] The statement is linked fairly quickly to the accountablity frame which is required of anyone who wishes to be taken as a Serious Person in educational policy these days — as in the Executive Summary:

 How might schools be encouraged to help students develop socially and emotionally, and to foster positive school environments, in the context of new accountability? This paper provides a framework for considering how measures of SEL and school climate may be incorporated in an accountability and continuous improvement system.

I should point out that the first recommendation of the report is that

 States should not use measures of individual students’ social and emotionalcompetencies for accountability purposes,

but the sentence ends:

 at least for now.

[2] The novelty and novel urgency of this advance in human understanding is quickly linked as well to the commercial machinery of the Education Industry — not by the authors of this study,  yet one can see the “hooks” where commerce will attach.  For example, the report recommends that

States could consider including measures of school climate, supports for SEL, and related outcomes in their federal and state accountability systems….States could provide districts with well-validated tools for measuring SEL and school climate. State agencies and districts should provide schools with resources and technical assistance for school improvement as they encourage social and emotional learning.

“Meaures,”  “supports,” “tools,” “resources,” and “technical assistance” need not be commerical projects and services — but what’s a school district to do, faced with a new wave of expectations, backed by a whole new category of experts?

An interesting parallel development has been under way for a long time with respect to children’s recess.  Various strands of “reform” ideology conspired to convince administrators across the country that the Standards and Accountability strategy might, regrettably but inevitably require the elimination of recess.  In 2010, Nicholas Thacher wrote in EdWeek

The suburban New England town in which I run a small elementary school has just been obliged to eliminate morning recess for its public school children….Our excellent superintendent had the unenviable task of moving from one acrimonious evening meeting to another in the opening weeks of our school year, trying to explain why, since standardized-test scores haven’t met the designated benchmarks, the schools have been mandated to eliminate morning recess and force the children to spend their midmorning time swotting up on their academic skills….The thinking is that more minutes in the classroom will enable the youngsters to sharpen their minds and raise their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS tests.

The ill effects, or plain dumbness, of this tactic has led to the reinstatement of mandated recess in several states — but often it is cast as “physical education” time, rather than free time, which can be spent in games, or day-dreaming, or conversation, or what you will. If it’s “physical education,” then it can be parametrized, regulated, and productized.   This is now the American Way of education: If you want to get people’s attention about something,  it needs to get expressed in the languages of regulation and of economics  This is now the lingua franca of policy, just as Latin once was (and English now is) the customary language of science (new species descriptions of plants, algae, and fungi must use either of the two, so botanical Latin is still a thing). But, much as I loved learning Latin, I also learned early on that things get lost — and imposed —  in translation, sometimes very important things.

I think that remembering (the core of culture), is as important a “critical thinking” skill as any (and it doesn’t make it on the usual lists of such skills, such as here or here. After all, isn’t time one of the Four Dimensions through which we move, as we “wander in the wilderness of this world”?  It is a small but important act of freedom, as well as the door to discovery,  to recognize the history of things, people, ideas, and not let everything get swept down the memory hole.

So just for fun, you might like to celebrate the New Year (which I hope will be joyous for all who read this!) by visiting John Locke’s Thoughts concerning Education (1693) (you can get a free ebook here), which has a good deal to say about SEL, Enlightenment-style.  Locke was not a parent, but he clearly had known actual children and, like a good empirical philospher and physician, had learned some things from his experience.  While I would not call his a book of pedagogy, and it is bound by many assumptions about class and gender, yet it is remarkably humane and balanced for all that — and his prose is always a pleasure to read.

His treatise starts with a premise (all pronouns are sic):

A Sound Mind in a sound Body, is a short, but full description of a Happy State in this World: He that has these Two, has little more to wish for; and he that wants either of them, is but little the better for any thing else.

and then spends roughly the first quarter of the book on health as well as social and emotional learning  (which he treats under the terms “civility” and “breeding,”  whose outcome is “wisdom” — and these crop up again and again all through the book.  Locke takes it for granted that one is dealing with a whole personality, physical, psychological, and intellectual — but he realizes that his reader may be laboring under the delusion that “education” is principally a matter of academics, and preparation for adult life, and he is at pains to argue for the broader view.  I resist the temptation to quote pages;  here are three little samples:

He that at any Rate procures his Child a good Mind, well principled, temper’d to Vertue and Usefulness, and adorned with Civility and good Breeding, makes a better purchase for him, than if he laid out the Money for an addition of more Earth to his former Acres. ….

Wisdom I take in the popular acceptation, for a man’s managing his business ably and with foresight in this world. This is the product of a good natural temper, application of mind, and experience together…

Reading and writing and learning I allow to be necessary, but yet not the chief business. I imagine you would think him a very foolish fellow, that should not value a virtuous or a wise man infinitely before a great scholar. Not but that I think learning a great help to both in well-dispos’d minds; but yet it must be confess’d also, that in others not so dispos’d, it helps them only to be the more foolish, or worse men.

What, after all, are the aims of education?

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Social-emotional learning: Preamble

“Character” has always been one concern of education, at least of K-12 education (after that, it’s called “ethics,” or “morals,” maybe). Sometimes, conventional wisdom suggests that it’s really the parent’s responsibility, and not, say, the physics teacher’s. Sometimes, character formation is assumed to be part of the school’s responsibility. Now is one of those times.

Starting in the Romantic period, the development of your character was an unfolding of in-born potential, the gradual discovery of one’s true being.  There might well be all kinds of environmental influences that shape your unfolding character, for good or ill, but the basic endowments were, as you might say, the core truth, and environmental influences could not efface that endowment.  Lots of folk psychology was built around this — “The apple doesn’t fall from the tree!”  “Blood will out!”  The current popularity of “evolutionary psychology” is one modern variant of this deterministic point of view.

In other cultural climates, the child is more or less fully malleable, and while he or she is under the overpowering influence of home and other institutions (religious and secular community, and of course school), the responsibility for the child’s character is theirs: “As the twig is bent, so will the tree grow”; “Spare the rod and spoil the child”; “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.”   So if your child “turns out bad,” yours may well be the blame;  if well, the credit.

In between these two extremes, which sometimes, I suspect, are held simultaneously by the same person, so complex is the task of accounting for human behavior, there is the 18th century view (which has a Stoic savor) that your character is something you create (cf.  Goffman’s “presentation of self”).  Joseph Ellis (in His Excellency George Washington) speaks of about how George Washington’s “Rules of Civility” “reflected an earlier era’s conviction that character was not just who you were but also what others thought you were,” and Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy famously demanded that Eliza Bennett read his refutation of her charges against him, because “my character requires it.”

From the same era, Kant writes (in his essay on education) that  “Character consists in the firm purpose to accomplish something, and then also in the actual accomplishing of it.”  Thus, even if you have  inherited certain capacities and limitations, your character is nevertheless the result of your own agency (or lack thereof), and though family, school, and community play important roles, in the end all this can be transcended (or fulfilled)  by your forming and accomplishing a firm purpose.   (Kant elsewhere in his essay talks about how character consists in following maxims — guidelines or heuristics for moral and ethical behavior. The child follows those given her by her elders, the adult follows those provided by society.)  More generally, one has the task of shaping a consistent persona, founded on some few key principles (maxims!), and then, having chosen one’s best, to live up to that persona.  (“Character” is a Greek word, related to the verb charássein, “to engrave” :  you might say, playing with the etymology,  that your character is thus a work of art.)

Well, in our post-Enlightenment times, the age-old debate appears in new clothing — a recent entry is “grit,” most associated with the work of Angela Duckworth.  Mike Rose, writing a guest post in The Answer Sheet, gives a brief fair resumé of Duckworth’s research:

These findings suggest that over 90 percent of her populations’ achievements are accounted for by other personal, familial, environmental, and cultural factors, but, still, her findings are important and make a contribution to the academic study of personality—and support a commonsense belief that hard work over time pays off.

He goes on to register dismay at  the ways that grit has been over-praised and, of course, commercialized.  Moreover, some want to load it onto the accountability juggernaut (despite Duckworth’s pleas for it not to be used that way, here appearing on Larry Cuban’s blog with useful links to other sources).

Rose points out another lamentable development, in which systemic structures of inequality make use of a long-admired virtue — persistence, now renamed ‘grit’ — in a rhetoric of superiority and avoidance of social responsibility:

of course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students. Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids. As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face. Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot.

As Ethan Ris writes in another guest post on the Answer Sheet (Valerie Strauss has paid sustained attention to this topic), there are nuances and complexities in the narrative about grit:

Both sides of the debate miss the fact that historically, the grit discourse is driven primarily not by concerns about disadvantaged students but by the anxiety of middle and upper-class parents about the character of their own children. The critics, however, are right that poor children are the inevitable losers of this game.

Grit quickly entered the modern “ed industry” process.  You see the idea hyped as something of a panacea (Edutopia:  “True Grit: the best measure of success”).  Then there is the search for a metric, a way to quantify this characteristic.  As George Anders wrote on EdSurge earlier this year,

 When school systems want to track the role of grit, or help instill it, however, everything gets trickier.Something as simple as testing students for grit…isn’t simple at all. The famous marshmallow test, developed in the late 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, is a clever way of assessing young children’s self-control, as seen by how long they can resist the temptation to grab a nearby snack. But the marshmallow test or its variants don’t scale; they are too intrusive and too time-consuming to be usable in a school district with many thousands of students.

So the search is on for “quick, unobtrusive, scalable—and reliable—tests for grit among K-12 students.”

By this time, the range of commercial enterprises has taken up the hue and cry, while research creeps along behind — books are written for teachers and parents (just do a search), big companies pay attention (on Pearson’s blog, we learn that we need to upgrade our grit to GRIT),     and the other products gush forth, all “based on research,” — e.g. “the New Science of GRIT.”  See examples here and here.

The point is that, as with ed tech products, a reasonably interesting research result is, in our desperate times, quickly over-applied, parametrized (hence creating “data” that can be used in lots of different ways, including ‘accountability’), and then commodified, so that a conventional wisdom is created and then catered to by many different actors in the Market (which more and more subsumes the educational “system” now ascendent).

A similar cycle can be seen at work on related interesting ideas such as the “growth mindset,” and  “social-emotional learning,” a more inclusive term whose growing popularity signals a deep concern that the recent waves of “reform” in education are overlooking some vital human elements.  I have been reading some recent studies on social-emotional learning (inevitably and ominously “SEL”), and my next few posts will arise from that reading.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone, and not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 






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The manufacture of disbelief and the challenge of science education

STEM teachers out there are probably very well aware of the current sustained attempts across the country to undermine the credibility of science. The “wedge issues” tend to be those that relate to issues of identity and cultural complacency — evolution, climate change, biomedical advances, and so on — the list is familiar enough.  There are other things at issue, such as air and water quality regulations, occupational safety, and so on.

Now, one of the things that’s going on is a debate, sometimes explicit, and sometimes not, about what counts as knowledge.  I am not a philosopher, but I think I understand that most kinds of knowledge about the world require us to make inferences from evidence.  In doing so, we have to have some confidence in our inferences, and some way of knowing that we have come to a satisfactory conclusion (at least provisionally) that accounts for (most of, a lot of) the data.  But what counts as “satisfactory”?

William James, in A pluralistic universe, urged us to accept that philosophizing and other kinds of knowing are conducted by people (surprise!), who have temperaments, limitations,  and particular interests or concerns.   One’s “philosophical style” will to some degree (often a large one) have a bearing on what counts as a satisfying solution to  a problem of knowledge.  So it is no surprise that if a person has a lens that is deeply affected by such personal interests as political or economic advantage that they will prefer not to yield to external standards that conflict with their constructed reality.  Upton Sinclair famously wrote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The practices of science (and related fields), rooted as they are in social exchange, are some corrective to the tendency to view the world completely on one’s own terms.  Isaac Asimov’s famous short essay, “The relativity of wrong,” demolishes the fallacy that “everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.”   As he says,

when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

He goes on to trace in his limpid style a couple of examples that illustrate how the give and take of scientists — with each other and with Nature — move towards “more true.”

Such reflections as these seem particularly important in considering the implications of current political and policy discussions whose tendency is in effect to argue that every assertion is so colored by individual perspective that we cannot really tell what is likely to actually be the case. This then allows a remarkable license, by which “every one can do what seems right in their eyes,” with no external reference needed or desired.  One of the effects of this is to free those who are so inclined to refuse to consider the consequences of their actions, to “externalize” costs or likely futures, and thus pretend that they do not exist.

STEM teachers are in many ways the first bulwark against this particular guise of chaos — I could imagine many good teachers I have known making an argument much like Asimov’s, to help show how even if final truths are rarely to be found, still, there are truer and less true things to be known and built upon.

What set me to grinding this favorite axe of mine was a recent short documentary in the New York Times about the teaching or non-teaching of evolution in the schools.  As a follower of sites like the National Center for Science Education will be aware (see just the most recent story, “A new antiscience bill in Florida”), the effort continues to liberate students and other humans from the constraints of scholarship or the nature of things, and simulate “free inquiry” in the absence of knowledge or method.


NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation. 







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