There were two events that conspired this past week to lead me to the topic of education–and particularly science education. The first was the unlikely event in which I actually watched television. Although we do have a small screen telly at home, it is rarely used. The US Public Broadcasting Station hosts a favorite from back in my childhood on Sunday evenings–Masterpiece Theatre, which includes a lot of great British BBC drama (from Henry’s much revered Downton Abbey–apparently airing new episodes come January, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and so much more).
Well all that, for the rather long-winded way of saying that this is pretty much it for any watching television, and even then it’s usually at a more convenient time on the computer. So it was rather coincidental that I happened upon Farid Zakaria’s program GPS on CNN. The topic was education in the US–specifically in the STEM arena, with an interesting comparison to education in two other countries: S. Korea and Finland. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
The second event was my guest appearance as a scientist to promote the idea of science-as-a-career at my son’s elementary school (5th and 6th grades). Despite the fact that my kids like to portray me as a tough old codger who scares children, I
know hope they don’t really believe that. After all, for years they always requested me to handle the entertainment and fun-and-games side of their home-made birthday parties. So I must have some ability to talk to children.
Some insight from these two coincidental events: Zakaria portrayed an extremely hard to picture situation in Korea, with students learning 18 hours a day in the maths and sciences in order to get ahead and hopefully gain acceptance to university. In fact, remarkably, he explained that a whole slew of evening preparation courses to advance in math and science have opened in Korea and that there is a terrible problem: the youth stay at these learning centers and study until midnight. The problems with this system were becoming so severe that the government actually passed a law making it illegal to have these tutoring centers open after 10 p.m. In order to enforce this law, crews were hired to go around the city and report any illicit studying after the 10 p.m. deadline.
So while western cities have tremendous gang, drug, alcohol and prostitution issues at night, Seoul has the huge problem of overly motivated high school students who just want to keep studying and refuse to get a good night’s sleep.
Zakaria then moved on to the situation in Finland–the idea being that both S. Korea and Finland are at the very top of countries with regards to education in math and the sciences (at least based on a wide variety of standard tests). In Finland, however, the situation is very different. The youth in Finland do not have more contact hours in school, or a tendency to go to tutoring schools after regular school hours. In Finland, apparently, the education system is a success due to outstanding teachers. These teachers–even for elementary school–need a Masters degree. And getting into teaching in university is hugely competitive, with only the top 20% being accepted. Teachers are treated like royalty–being a teacher is akin to being a university professor or medical doctor, as far as status, and teachers are very well paid.
In comparison, while teachers can certainly earn a decent living in the US, Zakaria noted that the average lawyer’s starting salary is $116,000 more than the average teacher’s starting salary in the US. I don’t even want to compare to the average college football coach (we’ve had that discussion before…).
The teachers in Finland, apparently, do not spend any formal time preparing students for standard exams; in fact the teachers–being the brightest of the bright–are given free latitude to teach however they like. And they seem to do an excellent job instilling concepts and promoting creative thinking, rather than simply expecting students to cram material and memorize, or simply technically cram algebra and calculus.
When I visited my son’s school this week, his teacher–who is an outstanding teacher–asked me to talk a little about the scientific method, and what a career is like as a scientist. To discuss the scientific method, I adapted some slides that I found on the interwebz to suit my own purposes, and talked about the example of baking a loaf of bread, and testing the hypothesis that the more sugar added, the more the bread would rise.
It was a great opportunity to take the students through all the considerations of controls, dependent and independent variables, and look at data and interpret them, and revise our hypothesis. The children were terrific–as I had anticipated–and we had great discussions and even talked about separating cause and effect. One could clearly see the training in scientific reasoning that they had acquired from the teacher.
Superb questions were asked, and even later, when I discussed science as a career, one child asked whether scientists have messy benches. Fortunately I could take them to an earlier blog of mine here on OT showing 2 opposing styles of researchers in my lab (both productive!). They liked that!
Finally, I also had the opportunity to show them Stephen Curry’s trailer from “I’m a Scientist.” That was also a big hit!
Putting everything in perspective, I have come to the albeit anecdotal conclusion that science and scientific thinking probably doesn’t differ much from learning a language or learning to play a musical instrument. Starting young, rational or skeptical thinking can easily be developed–and that’s the most important and critical element for a scientist. All of the other information overload can be obtained later.
It’s the thought that counts.