Friday, July 18, 2014

Are We Teaching Math and Science too Early in our schools?

 When did you fall in love with science? Did you find a science passion from a teacher in your early years of school?

Personally I found my passion when I was a child thanks to my mother. She taught me to observe butterflies, and we spent hours watching, reporting and measuring changes of caterpillars, butterflies and eggs.

My teachers didn’t do too much to light my fire about science in fact, they never talked about science, so my only one deeper knowledge came watching the TV show Cosmos. Nobody can deny the value of science for education, economics and countries progress, or how much education is working to engage children in math and science, and how difficult is find the right way to do it, but certainly education must find new strategies, and this example comes from UK.

The British newspaper The Guardian published few days ago a note about a new model to teach science titled Maths and science 'should be studied up to age 18', which has opened a huge, debate about when and who should teach science in UK classrooms.  The title is “Maths and science “should be studied up to age 18” explaining briefly recommendations of a committee of education experts of the UK National Academy of science.

These recommendations are particularly important coming from UK. since they have a high level on teaching, research, development and inversion in science with Oxford, and Cambridge Universities as example of their quality.

The main argument of the report Vision for science and mathematics education is based on the fact that analytical and problem-solving skills acquired by studying mathematics and science should be introduced by an inspirational curricula at the heart of the laboratories and places where this knowledge is generated, where researchers and theorist work every day.

The main debate is focused on a question, who should teach science?

This reminds me Carl Sagan, when he wrote in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995) that science was not inspiring for him during his first years at school, but he found that passion when he began to be in touch with people doing science.

My story is similar. I didn’t find passion for science until I began to study my PhD, maybe because all those hours watching butterflies had sense between persons trying to understand everything about the brain.

I am sure many of us share similar stories. What can we learn from a checking list written on a book? What can a teacher see wrong only following the book? Should students believe with faith what books say? Books never talks about deadlines, or a short budget; books never fail trying to convince to others that our research is viable, needed and possible; books never talks about how to convince to other researchers and participants that our method is correct.

Learning science from a book is like learning how to write with a teacher that does not read our ideas. Teachers are not scientist!, but don’t take it wrong!, teachers have a very different, important and amazing work: teach to learn, and in some cases, teaching to motivate and keep us in the classrooms, and if we have any doubt of their work, let’s see the number of students who left classrooms every year, adding more and more pressure to unemployment and violence at any country.

A good teacher will inspire, a good teacher is an example of life. A good scientist will show us a different world, a world of service, a world where our ideas are useful.

The cited report includes critical analyses about how students see science, for example “84% agree that science is a such a big part of our lives that we should all take interest”. Science is not a note on an exam; science is not a label on a product. Science changes and save lives!

“72% of students agree that is important to know about science in their daily lives”. Isn’t our goal? People would take better medical and daily decisions, or maybe I should say: people would know the right to take decisions.

“55% did not feel informed”. No matter how much work scientists can do writing notes every day about science, public doesn’t feel engage with them, part of it because in general, people do not see themselves as scientists and this is something that a person with an obsession about any field can spread.

“21% of the people in the UK workforce need scientific knowledge and training to do their current jobs”. Science must leave the comfortable and warm space of universities and colleges; science must be in streets and in every home, because it allows countries to grow.

Can we create scientific literacy nations? Can we develop knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity? No doubt!, there is enough history and strategies to reach that goal. Some countries have been more successful than others, and as UK is showing, even those with high level of science development can auto evaluate their skills and make them better.

Human beings are curios by nature, and scientists are like children repeating questions. We shouldn’t stop children’ questions, we need to engage creativity in classrooms because is an important part of the process of finding new ideas and solving challenges.  We need that in schools as preparation to define a problem, find the right method and innovate to find solution to our every day problems.

I hope many countries can analyze carefully the report, because probably many new scientists will find a path with this model, especially because focus on grasp concepts at an earlier age and then move on to the complicated things in a higher level of science can be a good strategy, instead trying to teach everything in the first years. In addition learning from modeling and not only with a book can be more inspiring.

If you could change the way science is taught in your country, who would be teach science? Who can share more passion, a teacher or a scientist when we have a question about the universe or biology?


  1. I think there should be separate schools that focus in only science for promising kids and I believe education in science MUST start very early. Throughout the years, if the kid doesn't show any progress or interest, he can go to a "normal" school. Also, during the years in a "normal" school, someone might show exceptional ability or interest in science. They should be transferred to those "science" schools.

    1. Does not can be seen as segregation? as students for science and students for the rest? Kind of the Russian system?. That perspective means you are not capable to learn something, but what about the value of a different program? I do believe in environmental stimulation.
      If that the case, probably we wouldn't have persons like Carl Sagan...

  2. If the students enter the school by taking a test in all disciplines and scoring over a certain point, then it is fair. I believe it is really fair. Students in science will learn more science, and the students in social studies etc. will learn more about those fields. In the current education system in many countries, the students are forced to take classes that they have no interest or ability in. For example, a student who can not even do simple math, has to take courses. But, in my "ideal" system, if someone cannot do math, he will never take any quantitative course. So, everyone will be educated according to their skills and interests.

    1. I agree with you, in part, because I believe schools should help you to find your skills. I have said in other blogs that educational systems shouldn't request to be perfect on everything, and let you excel your skills. However, i believe the right environment can give you a better chance. My usual example is: Maybe you and I are wonderful pianist, we can play in a very good high level, but, we never have had a piano near. How do you know what you can do or not if you don't have the right stimulation?.

      But, on the other hand, as you say: "many students spend time and money on areas "not important" to them. Part of that is a more complex situation: First of all, we must understand our system are at least 1 generation behind. Why? Because plans and programs are designed by older people than the real students. Second: we need to think about education linked with environments. Humans is the only one specie on the planet that send children to artificial environments to learn how to survive. We never have seen a penguin living in the Arctic, sending a baby penguin to learn how to swim in Hawaii.
      And the other topic is society, must give options to children beyond classrooms to apply their knowledge.
      So, I can say you are right, but let's see the bigger landscape...