Science is No Heap of Stones

I remember a rather passionate discussion I had with my mother (a former school teacher) early in my career about curriculum design. The question: are there certain specific facts that every student needs to know? She felt passionately that, yes, every student should know about certain things. Her example was that everyone needs to know about William Shakespeare. I maintained that if someone knew about Anton Chekhov, Moliere, and Tang Xianzu but not Shakespeare, why wouldn’t they be considered well educated?

That conversation ultimately ended at an impasse. But I have often reflected on that discussion over the years. I think for a very long time our education system has been focused on this notion that we need to teach students facts. Prior to our shift to the Information Age, there was some practicality to that. A well stocked home library probably consisted of a set of encyclopedias, an almanac, an atlas, and a handful of topical reference books. If you wanted to know something more, you had to make a trip to the local library. 

We are now in the age of Google and Apple, where information can be accessed from your phone, your watch, or even your family room by saying “Hey Alexa” (or whatever name your home assistant goes by). What that means is that the facts are at our fingertips. But what do we do with them once our computers give us the answer? This is the place where learning skills come into play: critical thinking, evaluating, problem solving, brainstorming, innovating, etc.

As a science educator, I look around and see so many people disconnected from science, scientific thinking, questioning, and in depth understanding. Scientists have long understood that science is more than just facts.

“Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.”

French Philosopher Poincaré 1905

As we settled into the information age, education professionals recognized the need to reevaluate how we teach. One outcome of that is The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They are a guide for how to prepare our students to thrive and be successful in today’s world and what it may be as they become adults. The National Research Council provides the following vision for the NGSS:

Learning science depends not only on the accumulation of facts and concepts but also on the development of an identity as a competent learner of science with motivation and interest to learn more. […] Such identity formation is valuable not only for the small number of students who, over the course of a lifetime, will come to view themselves as scientists or engineers, but also for the great majority of students who do not follow these professional paths. Science learning in school leads to citizens with the confidence, ability, and inclination to continue learning about issues, scientific and otherwise, that affect their lives and communities.

National Research Council [NRC] 2012, Chapter 11

So what does it look like to teach science to all students, even those uninclined to pursue science professionally, with a focus on skills instead of facts? Start by comparing two educational standards – one from NGSS and the other from the California State Science Standards (which immediately preceded NGSS).

The mineral fluorite

California State Science Standards:

4th Grade: 4b. Students know how to identify common rock forming minerals (including quartz, calcite, feldspar, mica, and hornblende) and ore minerals by using a table of diagnostic properties.

The mineral pyrite

Next Generation Science Standards:

PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter
Measurements of a variety of properties can be used to identify materials.

What’s the difference?

The first focuses on the facts about minerals and only the properties relevant to identifying those minerals.

The second teaches students that a variety of materials (rocks, liquids, powders, anything) can be identified by their properties. This builds a student’s foundational knowledge and if they become interested in geology they can use it to learn about types of minerals, but if they become a materials engineer they can use it to choose the best building materials, and if they become a chef they could use it to tell the difference between baking soda and cream of tartar.

Facts are still important. How would you teach about the properties of matter without using something as an example? But ultimately the skill of evaluating material properties can be applied to any situation regardless of whether it was originally taught with a focus on minerals or kitchen ingredients. Environmental Volunteers’ curriculum spends a lot of time working on those skills: interpreting scientific data, articulating what you have learned and supporting it with evidence, critical thinking, problem solving, and more. We don’t have time to teach all the facts, but we can help make sure our students know what to do with any fact they may learn throughout their lives.