Skip to main content
What Is Missing in Science Education?
Jan 1, 2015

Nowadays, despite the increasing amount of knowledge and the means to access it, younger generations are less and less passionate about the sciences and math. For many of them, mathematics is mainly a job for a computer or calculator, rather than a human effort to decipher the language in which the order of the universe is written. Science and technology are considered synonyms, at the expense of the former; and so, development is all about new electronic products and their economic and military uses. Compare this attitude to the original book written by Isaac Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, or to the "music of the spheres" idea shared by many thinkers before him; why did older generations hold science and meaning to be so precious (at least relatively), whereas new generations are obsessed with technology and power? Is there something wrong in our science education causing these younger generations to move away from the sciences instead of treasuring them?

In order to shed light on this matter, I would like to reference a part of the movie The Truman Show. In this movie, a man's life is continuously recorded and broadcast worldwide as a TV show. From babyhood on, his life is completely planned, and many of his major life events are designed by the makers of the show. However, all of this is unbeknownst to the main character, Truman. As he grows into his elementary school years, he develops a passion for exploring the world. But this would mean that he would have to leave the movie set, which by now covers a huge area and is deliberately surrounded by water, giving the impression that Truman is living on an island. So, in order to avoid his departure from the movie set and in order not to violate his freedom of choice at the same time, the moviemakers do two things. First, a set-up is made in which Truman's father drowns in the sea when he and Truman were caught in a storm while sailing. Thus, a negative psychological association is used in order to keep Truman away from the sea. In Truman's later years, the show's architects assign a geography teacher who consistently curtails Truman's passion for exploration. Anytime he expresses interest in exploring a place, his teacher tells him that it has already been done. The plan of the show's makers works; Truman buries his passion for exploration deep into his heart.

Before returning to our topic, I would also like to mention the main idea of a TEDx talk by Nate Staniforth. Nate is a performing magician from Iowa City, and he visits kids, some of them as young as kindergarteners, for a purpose he believes in: helping people experience awe. At the end of his talk, his advice to the audience is that when you see a trick, instead of quickly going on-line and learning how it is done, take your time and experience the awe for a while. If you don't, learning the reality behind the trick is going to instantly destroy the feelings of awe and amazement. This is similar to someone telling you a joke, and in the middle of it, another person who already knows the joke revealing the punch line, which ruins all the entertainment.

People are created with different levels of interest in math and science. For a small minority, these subjects are inherently attractive, but for quite a lot of people, they are no more than a school obligation. But these views can change. Sometimes, students develop at different paces, and after a few years of showing no interest, they start to have a passion for math or science. And sooner or later, when they have that passion, suddenly, the life stories of different scientists electrify their imagination. The path leading to an innovation or a theory energizes the blood in their veins. When they get to the moment at which the long-sought explanation is revealed, they feel as if they themselves have found it. And when they are presented with an experiment that includes new and surprising concepts, they imagine themselves at the outset of a great journey. Symphonies start playing their most exhilarating notes in their minds.

Then what happens? Well, we don't allow them time to experience this feeling of awe and amazement for long. Before they have the opportunity to use their imagination and intellect, we present them with an explanation and a mathematical formula that has been experimentally verified. And in doing this, the language of instruction involves authoritative phrases like, "this phenomenon is known as...," "the governing equation is...," "the explanation for the rate of change is controlled by..." For some of the students, these explanations seem more complicated than the phenomena themselves. For others, they mean that there is an explanation as to how something seemingly magical is happening. The more we stress explanations, the stronger the impression that "everything is known, and you can't touch this."

For many of them, the story ends here, which means by enriching science education and growing the list of explanations, we are actually channeling students away from science towards the things they can experiment and explore with: smart phones, computer games, etc.

However, this is not the whole story, because there are students, despite being few in number, who still enjoy learning these explanations. Although the original awe loses its strength upon learning the explanation, the existence of an answer, and humanity's ability to discover it, bring a new kind of awe. This is good, but what is the difference between these people who enjoy learning the explanations and those who don't?

I am going to use a metaphor to solve this puzzle. When we look upon the night sky, we see only points of light. However, today we know that some of these lights are actually galaxies, containing billions of stars. And we also know that there are other points of light that are invisible to the unaided human eye. How do we know this? We have telescopes that enhance our vision. They work as follows: the larger the mirror of the telescope, the higher the resolution (i.e., the zoom-in capability). With larger telescopes, we can see into galaxies that, from afar, seem like dots in the sky. Also, in order to see some distant bodies, telescopes need a very long exposure time to collect sufficient light from them. These two factors - a larger eye and a longer wait time - determine how deeply we can see into the universe.

Looking back to the issue of science education through these two factors, most students either don't have a wide enough intellectual perspective to grasp the beauties that are hidden in the big picture or they don't have enough patience to work on finding the phenomena that are invisible at first glance. But these deficiencies are not just on the student's side. It is also possible that the teachers themselves cannot see the big picture and the accompanying awe, which leaves the students helpless. Lastly, the curriculums may not be giving enough time for the students to digest the new material and feel the joy of discovery.

In his article, A Rationale for Fiction, which appeared in the 49th issue of The Fountain, Firat Kocol talks about classifying knowledge into two categories: transferable and nontransferable. For example, basic addition would be transferable, but feelings of surprise would be nontransferable. In real life, there is a varying mix of these two types of knowledge. In any event, Kocol claims that nontransferable knowledge can only be evoked in the audience through fiction, be it in the form of art, story, or music.

When we think in terms of science education, it is not difficult to see that all of our efforts are aimed at the transferable aspects of science. The nontransferable side of it, such as the feeling of awe, is ignored. Instead, the feelings of awe and amazement are considered as the job of the entertainment industry, powered by audio-visual technologies. After all, feelings are not scientific, anyway (or so the logic goes!). Hence, as science education has ignored the human soul, the human soul has started ignoring science.

Perhaps it is like Truman's psychological aversion to sea travel: when we see the feeling of awe drown in a sea of information, we turn away from it, and that information cannot become a part of us. But again: why awe? Why is this feeling of awe and amazement so important for us? Why, when it is absent, do we disconnect ourselves from a subject?

Awe is a reverential feeling we have when faced with something unpredictable. The unknown relationship between the start and the end bewilders our minds. In other words, awe is the attraction of the unknown, not that of the known. Therefore, a body of knowledge that appears to have an answer for all the questions in the mind of the student has no relation to awe! This is even truer if that body of knowledge claims to be unique, and shuts the door of unpredictability.

This is contrary to the image of science in our minds, isn't it? Why should a complete and consistent theory of everything be repulsive to the human mind, when that mind that has been working on that puzzle for thousands of years?

Luckily, a mathematician from the early 20th century stumbled upon something similar, and his answer, known as Gödel's incompleteness theorem, perplexed the community of mathematicians. Taking this theory as basis, we can say that it is impossible for a body of knowledge to have a complete and consistent explanation for everything. In other words, science cannot achieve what it wants to ultimately achieve. It's logical that this failure would trickle down to science education, too.

But how can students feel this fallacy when they are not even capable of understanding it? The answer lies in the nontransferable aspect of the taught material. Just like you don't need to know the molecular content of a food in order to feel that it is rotten, the inhibition of awe is enough for a student's mind to disregard a body of knowledge because it feels off.

Just like the existence of light in the outer world and the existence of eyes in our bodies necessitate each other, the existence of incompleteness and inconsistencies in the outer world necessitate the feeling of awe. The feeling of awe wants the door of unpredictability open.

This can lead to only one conclusion: that we must reincorporate awe into our science education, teaching students to feel amazement when faced with extraordinary, or even ordinary, events. If we don't do this, the status of math and the sciences will continue to deteriorate among newer generations.