Does Teaching More Science Content Produce Better Scientists?

By 09/27/2009

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In the latest issue of American Educator magazine, biologist Paul Gross tries to make sense of the findings of a study comparing the scientific knowledge and skills of top American and Chinese students.

For the study (which was published in Science earlier this year), researchers administered tests to freshmen in college—not just any freshmen, but science and engineering majors enrolled in calculus-based physics. The study found that Chinese students outperformed American students on tests of content knowledge, but that the groups scored identically on a test of scientific reasoning.

Because the students in China had been exposed to much more intensive content learning than the students in the U.S., the authors of the study concluded that more study of content does not affect scientific reasoning ability.

Gross does not buy this interpretation of the results, and he offers some other possible explanations for the findings.

One possibility is that the authors of the study made a mistake when they determined that scientific reasoning is not explicitly taught in either country. How have these researchers missed the popularity of inquiry-based learning in American classrooms? Moreover, why do the researchers believe that Chinese classes that emphasize “conceptual physics understanding and problem-solving skills” do not explicitly teach scientific reasoning?

It could also be important that the test of scientific reasoning used by the researchers was designed to not require content knowledge. Students who know a lot of physics are likely to be better at reasoning about physics than students who do not know a lot of physics, but they may not be better at a test of scientific reasoning that is specifically designed to be general, not physics-specific.

A final possibility, Gross writes, is that the two groups of students–Chinese and American students majoring in science and engineering—have achieved about the same level of general reasoning ability or are of about equal intelligence. Their scores on a test of generic scientific reasoning may be about the same because what the test measures is something like intelligence; the test does not really measure the ability of students who know physics to reason scientifically about physics.

Gross makes a good case that this study does not demonstrate what the authors believe it demonstrates: that teaching more science content leads only to more content knowledge, not to higher-level science competence.  However, “whichever conclusion(s) may be correct,” Gross writes, “what we can say with confidence is that these Chinese students learned enough physics in school. The U.S. students—who, having opted already for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors in college, are among our best science students—have not learned enough.”

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  • Jeffrey W. Holcombe says:

    The results of the study should be disturbing to anyone concerned with continued American leadership in science. Not only did the Chinese students do better than the American students on content mastery, they also demonstrated that they are at least on an equal footing when it comes to reasoning and interpretation. If these are the two top measures of scientific literacy that predict future accomplishment, then the Chinese are already ahead.

    I think that another factor, not measured by this study but critical to the progress of science and technology, is an atmosphere that encourages challenge of authority and prevailing ideas. America still leads on that front, but our colleagues on China are quickly adjusting.

    A new university in Beijing has as its stated mission a goal of independent thought while fostering a diversity of competing approaches. While this violation of hierarchy and disrespect for authority remains repressed in most facets of Chinese society, especially in journalism, in science China has committed to a refreshing openness. That the policy is working can be seen in the increasing numbers of top shelf American scholars who are Chinese nationals returning to China, lured by promises of secure research support and academic freedom.

    So while Prof. Gross is right on all counts, missing is attention to the last barrier preventing Chinese science from thriving and soon replacing America as the dominating engine of innovation and discovery. They have already demonstrated a willingness to set and meet high standards of accomplishment and diligence, while America slides into a nihilistic policy of content rejection and grade inflation to ease the path of the less committed into programs of feel-good science. It is no surprise that the editors of the journal Science, embracing as they do the evisceration of content-based science education – as embodied in their Program 2061 – support the least likely explanation of the current study’s results.

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