Science is Taught Backwards In Schools

May 28, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

I started thinking about the the “reductionist attitude” in presenting science when I read Erich’s Post To deal with “arrogant” scientists we need to move beyond reductionism and break the “Galilean Spell” (from May 7, 2008). Curricula seem to begin with biology, work through chemistry, and finally introduce physics. If English were taught categorically as science is now, students would go through phases in this order:

  • Elementary English: Analysis of Literature (done orally)
  • Intermediate English: Sentence structure, paragraphs, and essays (done graphically)
  • Advanced English: Introduction to the Alphabet and Spelling Lessons

The alphabet of science is made up of basic natural “laws” as discovered by Newton, Maxwell, Mendeleev, Heisenberg, and so on. Sentences and paragraphs are like molecules and chemical syntheses. And finally you have enough structure to begin to see how biology works from cells (essays) through organisms (stories) and populations (novels).

Building from Atoms to Ecosystems

One could be taught holistic science, building to the grand ideas from the simple ones. By constructing the ideas instead of breaking them down, the interrelationship and the interactions of the parts can be seen, as well as the nature and function of the parts themselves. A whole is never the sum of the parts; it is the sum of the interactions between the parts set on a foundation of the parts themselves. This becomes obvious when building, but is obscured when deconstructing.

No wonder Americans doubt the “theory of evolution”. Schools try to teach this advanced and universal concept without any foundation. By the time the basic laws of nature (whose interaction supports this conclusion) are introduced, the theory has been mentally discarded.

Why is it done this way? Any child can see biological units (plants, animals, etc) and their behavior with a minimum of math or equipment. It is harder to demonstrate the shape of the electron orbital field around an atom that causes molecules to have the shapes and behaviors that are observed. Linnaean taxonomy is a simple and satisfying system to teach. All a child has to do is to memorize lists; easy on the teachers. But it reflects and subtly enforces the 1700’s creationist view of the ecosphere: That things are and will remain as they always were; as God intended. This is safe, compared to the currently controversial teachings of late 19th century biology, as understood after a certain geologist with a degree in Divinity wrote a popular book about biology.

Without physics and chemistry it is hard to explain why the diversity and complexity of a population necessarily will increase, unless it dies. Without the more basic sciences, it is nearly impossible to explain how the discoveries of higher level sciences are even made. It can seem that unifying ideas, like evolution or the constant rate of radioactive decay, were “just made up”.

And because of the order of teaching, fewer students reach the later, more essential studies. They may give up on science when they cannot make sense of biology, and never learn how those conclusions (natural laws, “theories”) came about.

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Category: American Culture, Education, Evolution, ignorance, Science

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A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    I never thought about this before, but Dan's right. I suspect that the reason science is taught "backwards" is because that is historically how science developed over the centuries. Although the study of all of the sciences date to ancient times, major developments in biology happened in the 17th & 18th century, then chemistry flowered in the 19th century, and then modern physics exploded (sorry, pun intended) in the 20th century. Schools follow this sequence even though, as Dan argues, this sequence might not be the best way to effectively present the subject matter. OTOH, given the poor state of science education in earlier grades, we might well question whether the sequence of study would make any difference; i.e., whether teaching physics first, then chemistry, then biology would be any more effective. I guess the bottom line is that if changing the sequence has the potential to achieve real benefits, then the experiment is at least worth trying.

  2. davea0511 says:

    I think you'll find that most who start college whose knowledge of chemistry and physics grow from nearly nothing to a respectable academic level still retain their opinions regarding evolution throughout the whole learning process. Those who start with a disbelief in evolution will find problems with it, whether based on entropy, probability mathematics, or reaction kinetics. Those who start with a belief in evolution will dismiss away as inconsequential cognitive exercises to be solved at some future time, while insisting that anti-evolution detractors are uneducated or irrational animals from the dark ages.

    Neither do I think it's possible to keep the basic concept of evolution a secret until after they learn the science behind it.

    I also think "doubting evolution" is a very broad phrase that's interpreted so differently that it's difficult to make any determinate regarding it. For example, today I think you'll find many if not most Christians (at least younger Christians) believe in a mixture of evolution and intelligent design. Do they then "doubt evolution"? They don't think so, but since the atheist evolutionist claims that ID is incompatible with evolution they'd say such individuals "doubt evolution".

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm not sure I have an opinion about the proper "order" for teaching the sciences. While first-graders, my daughters went into the woods and explored the plants, bugs and small animals. In third grade, my eldest daughter was learning about electricity and some chemistry. It seems as though the forest and bugs will hold the attention of the little kiddos easier, while they would be more interested in electricity when a bit older. But maybe there are some elementary teachers who can make physics and chemistry interesting to tiny children. I just don't know.

    When I was in grade school (Catholic co-ed school in the 1960's), I don't remember getting any science at all. I picked up some on my own by browsing the World Book Encyclopedia. It's startling to think back and recall this lack of science. I remember being told that I'll learn about science "in high school." Instead of science, I got big doses of "Religion Class."

    There is a public grade school in my neighborhood (here's more on that school). They have a beautiful new science lab, but no science teacher. One of my neighbors (who used to volunteer there as a tutor) asked me whether I would volunteer to teach science, even though I'm not a teacher or a scientist. Some things, like widespread science neglect, don't change.

  4. Jace says:

    very true, it would make sense that it is being taught backwards if you think about biology vs biochemistry and so on with chemistry and physics. It would be a lot easier to learn it backwards where as biology gets involve with atoms which are being taught in chemistry….

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