have universities degraded to teaching ‘only’ scientific knowledge?

The title for this post is taken from one of the search terms used by people visiting my ‘other’ blog (the one I share with Marcus & Fabiana), Talking Teaching. It caught my eye & I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings (which are re-posted here).

We’ll assume that this question is directed at Science Faculties 🙂 Using ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science. (If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say – oh, OK, I will say – that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience (eg homeopathy, ‘terapeutic touch’ etc) has no place in a university, & it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in various curricula eg in the US, UK & Australia. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, & close investigation – in one case, by a 9-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subjet? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?

I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ & not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts & expect to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences & a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowlege they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit theri new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.

What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that by simply presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking and answering questions in a scientific way. And in that sense, then I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’. Until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts and cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts (& teaching practical skills), conveyed very little of what science is actually all about. And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (here, here, & here, for example).

Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (& much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of uni, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments & must surely have talked about the hows and the whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour. However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, and they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy & the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, & students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first-year. In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously, & with it, the pressure to get it all across. And when you’re under that pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses what students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’ve generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.

Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller 3rd-year classes? And in fact I know lecturers who do just that.) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, & practicing a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I referred to show that it can be done, and done very successfully.

First up: there’s more to producing a scientifically-literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, & then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world. Of course, we also need a serious discussion at the curriculum level, about what constitutes ‘must-have’ knowledge’ and what can safely be omitted in favour of helping students gain those other skills. (This is something that’s just as important at the level of the senior secondary school curriculum!)

And secondly: giving students early practice at doing & thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study, maybe going on to become scientists themselves. (In NZ graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!)

I’m sure you can think of others 🙂

4 thoughts on “have universities degraded to teaching ‘only’ scientific knowledge?”

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I agree with a colleague who held that teaching biology was mostly telling stories. I was fortunate to have had an excellent course on the history of biology, and kept an interest going forward. I think it important to consider how we cane to know what we know, and why we thought knowing it is important.
    I have not known many colleagues who have shared my interest in history, so I wonder how many teachers can, in fact, do more than import facts without context. Do teachers know about the tetra-nucleotide hypothesis of DNA structure? What observations led to its proposal, and what the implications were for the function of DNA, for example.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    And I agree with you & your colleague – I tell a lot of stories in my lectures. I think that without that, students are missing out on a lot of contextual information that they need if they are really going to make sense of what they’re learning. Some of those stories are historical in nature eg how we got to where we are now in our understanding of DNA structure & function.
    I think you are right, though – that many teachers either aren’t aware of that rich history of science, or don’t make reference to it in their classes. (Having said that, I’m lucky enough to work with many who do!)

  • Your discussion reminds me that I have been meaning to read and review Dickerson’s book Present at the Flood, which is unusual for a “textbook” in telling the story about early molecular biology unfolded. (‘Unfolding’ is an unfortunately choice of words given it talks about protein structure.)
    The book includes a lot about the people involved, the blunders, etc., … but let’s keep something for my review!

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