Scientific illiteracy is rampant in our culture. People buy shampoos and nail polish with vitamins, as if nutrients could be useful to non-living body structures. Healthcare devices (magnetic bracelets, detoxifying footbaths) and procedures (Reiki, naturopathy) have many followers. GMO foods are dangerous. Vaccines cause autism. Climate change is a hoax. Gluten is a toxin to be avoided. All these ideas and more lack authentic scientific support, but people blindly accept science information that they read, watch on television infomercials, or find on social media, not realizing that it is often a mixture of fact and fancy. Chris McGowan, a retired scientist and science teacher, believes that students “are being turned off science in school” and that the way science is taught must be changed if they are going to become scientifically literate adults.
McGowan presents a brilliant analysis of the problems he sees in science teaching today and a recommendation of how things need to be turned around. He doesn't mince words, and much of what he has to say will not be popular and will rattle a lot of cages. He is blunt and provocative, supporting his position with well-reasoned explanations and practical examples from his extensive career.
Most science teachers today are encouraged or required to use content and techniques prescribed by documents packed with long, vague, and often irrelevant statements that leave them shaking their heads. McGowan shows that much modern science instruction is based on directives that are not created by scientists or even by the science teachers who impact students every day. He presents a straightforward, detailed, and blistering analysis of the sources that he sees as driving curricula—the nearly 400-page book, A Framework for K-12 Science Education and the 102-page (plus 343 pages of ancillary materials) NGSS document. He clearly uncovers the source of the problems by identifying the creators of the Framework and NGSS as largely what he refers to as “educationalists” (psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, linguists, and those whose specialty is educational theory and administration), but not scientists or science teachers. He makes powerful comparisons between what the educationalists write about and what scientists actually do, noting the presence of numerous “glaring factual errors in science” in the Framework. He states that the hallmark of the educationalists is “incomprehensible nonsense,” and he illustrates this with a substantial assortment of convoluted, pedantic, and headache-inducing passages taken directly from the Framework and the NGSS.
Originally impressed by the NGSS goal for students to achieve science literacy, McGowan relates how dissection of the document led to his belief that “implementation of the new standards will turn students away from science.” He declares that the best way to teach science is to engage students by using hands-on practical experiences. Acknowledging that school districts across the country will be creating new science curricula, he recommends that small groups of experienced science teachers join with “professional scientists as resource people” to generate these curricula. Curriculum consultants, educational specialists, and faculty members from college education departments, who have no scientific background, would be excluded. A small group of people who write clearly and concisely would assume the task of creating the final document. The curriculum would be designed so that class time for hands-on science would increase yearly up to grade seven, and from that point on, students would spend most of their time actually doing experiments. He provides numerous suggestions and examples for how this can be accomplished. His final chapter presents a detailed discussion of the “really important issues,” such as climate change, energy, and population. He notes that resolving these problems will require citizens with strong science backgrounds based on teaching that provides students first-hand experience, where they do science and don't just read about it.
Saving Science Class is a captivating book that should be on the reading list of all K-12 science teachers. A painstakingly researched volume, it contains detailed analyses, extensive examples, and thorough documentation of what is wrong with the way much science is taught today. McGowan explains that it isn't because of poor teaching, but because of endless directives from people who don't teach science every day. He writes from the perspective of a science teacher, rather than that of the educationalists who are dictating how teachers should teach. Some readers, perhaps many, are certain to disagree with his positions, but his deep scrutiny of what is transpiring, peppered with numerous personal stories from his own teaching career, provide much food for thought and discussion by science teachers, and could possibly lead to better, teacher-directed learning. He concludes that school science is in a dysfunctional state and that change is needed. He maintains that what is taught “has to be determined by those who are accomplished in the subject, not by scientifically illiterate educationalists.”