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Getting Science Education Right

To the Editors:

I was glad to read “The 95 Percent Solution” (November–December). I offer kudos to John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking for an insightful, accurate and long overdue piece on the importance of free-choice science learning. I roundly support their findings and recommendations and proffer that a good part of mainstream academia’s reluctance to accept them could be based on good old-fashioned empire protectionism, or maintenance of the status quo.

I feel their findings could be applied equally to Canadians. And there needs to be more discussion about the lack of vehicles or tools for validating and legitimizing learning outside of a formal academic setting. There is far too much emphasis in our society on formal credentials and acquisition of academic lettering, rather than focusing on acquired knowledge and abilities—regardless of how and where obtained.

As the authors note, research by Mami Berendsen of the NASA Night Sky Network found that some “amateur” astronomers possess more knowledge than university undergraduates do. But in the absence of lettering such as B.Sc. (a bachelor of science degree) to validate and support their understanding, people engaged in science in formalized settings can be stymied in advancing further. This needs to change.

Winston Stairs
Oshawa, Ontario

To the Editors:

We were disappointed by the interpretation of data and the recommendations in “The 95 Percent Solution.” We respect the excellent National Academies of Sciences 2009 report “Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits,” by Philip Bell, et al. It explains the importance of informal science education. But the excellence and importance of formal science education are totally lost in Falk and Dierking’s presentation. It is as though the authors suggest we roll over and give up because some science instruction in some schools has received bad test scores.

If the athletics and physical education professionals received a similar set of recommendations—just have students go to ball games, watch television or take a field trip and let others have all the fun (and spare us the time and expense of their direct participation)—they’d deem it totally inappropriate. The same should be true for science education. A laissez-faire approach hasn’t worked well with science education.

Noted science educator Mary Budd Rowe once asked a relevant question that went, roughly, like this: Are you a crapshooter or a bowler? Crapshooters believe they have no control over their future and can’t improve their odds. But bowlers know they can improve their game with practice. When it comes to education, we’re with the bowlers. We believe that Falk and Dierking should revisit the data and reformulate recommendations that would help the in-school science education community improve its game.

M. Patricia Morse
University of Washington

David Kennedy
Olympia, WA

Drs. Falk and Dierking respond:

We are delighted that our article generated considerable discussion and we appreciate all of the comments, positive and negative. We want to clarify two points. First, we never claimed that free-choice or informal learning accounts for 95 percent of all science learning or that schooling contributes little to the public’s understanding of science. We did argue that lifelong, out-of-school experiences contribute far more to that understanding than traditionally has been acknowledged. Second, current data do not allow direct comparisons of the efficacy of learning in and out of school, but it is clear that both make important contributions. The data do suggest that out-of-school experiences might be particularly important for underserved youth and for adults. Ultimately this need not be an either-or proposition. Learning is cumulative and distributed. No one learns anything in only one place or at one time. We suggest that policymakers require schools, free-choice learning settings and higher education institutions to collaborate as equal partners and create lifelong science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. That would be a useful alternative to educational policies that focus solely on in-school science education. Such an approach would leverage what we know about the interconnectedness of learning across a lifespan. It would also, of course, have serious implications for how we invest our finite educational dollars.

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