Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts - Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)
By Peter A'Hearn
The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood.
The whole idea was pretty easy for anyone with a little background in geology to dismiss. Evidence cited included the author’s kid’s science fair project. The author was listed as having a Ph.D., but nowhere did it say in what field.
This might not seem too surprising given the times we live in, the times of “alternative facts.” But this was actually 15 years ago. As science teachers, we know that there have ALWAYS been alternative facts. They were sometimes just annoying but sometimes caused real conflict and the interruption of learning. It's starting to feel different now, it feels like people are asserting that there are no actual facts, everyone has the right to choose the facts that support their perspective. It could be about climate change, vaccination, evolution, or the safety of GMOs.
Without getting too philosophical, science depends on the idea that there is a real world that is knowable through experiment and analysis of data and doesn’t depend on perspective (I expect some comments on this). The great advances we have made in understanding and improving our world depend on there being a real world to understand. As science teachers, it is our job to teach students how to look at the evidence to see what is really there, and also to learn what knowledge scientists have gained from their studies.
We know that new ideas do not come easily, especially when they conflict with what we think we know about the world. Anyone who has worked hard to convince kids that objects fall at the same rate, only to see the test answers a few weeks later, knows how challenging it is to change people’s ideas. This can be much harder depending on the topic.
There are topics in science that students might feel are attacks on their identity. A student might feel that learning about Evolution threatens their religious identity. A student who has grown up in a household where keeping everything “natural” is an important value might resist learning about GMOs or vaccines. Students are part of cultural groups and being part of a group means sharing values and beliefs that might disagree with scientific findings.
Dr. Dan Kahan from Yale University had extensively studied what he calls “Motivated Reasoning.” It is a common assumption that people will change their minds if they are presented with more facts. Dr. Kahan’s research shows that when people face ideas that challenge their group identity, more facts just harden their positions. For example, a person who is deeply committed to free enterprise and opposed to government regulation can be presented with facts about climate change and will become more strongly confident in their position that climate change is not real (or not caused by humans). It is more important for people to maintain group identity than to have a “correct” scientific viewpoint. You can link to Dr. Kahan’s Cultural Cognition Project here: http://www.culturalcognition.net/.
So learning is always hard, and learning that threatens our identity is almost impossible. What is a teacher to do?
For one thing, don’t make learning about changing students beliefs. A student who thinks you are trying to change their beliefs will shut out the learning. An approach that worked well for me was to tell students up front, “I know this goes against what some of you believe. I’m not asking or expecting you to change your beliefs. I do need to you to understand what scientists think and what evidence led them to those conclusions.” This stance broke down lots of barriers. Many students who otherwise would not have listened became more open and curious.
This actually fits in with the approach that NGSS takes on learning science. The old California standards all began with “students know..” They were about science as facts to be internalized. Except that hard learning doesn’t work this way. If you want someone to change their thinking it takes the hard work at looking at evidence. This is what the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices are all about. How do ask questions about the world and how do we answer them?
Starting with phenomenon instead of starting with an abstract idea is a good way to approach a subject without automatically triggering resistance. A lesson that starts with some interesting bones found in the ground (especially if they are from around here) is less abstract and more approachable than a lesson that starts with “The Theory of Evolution.” This is in keeping with the NGSS approach of starting with real world phenomenon instead of starting with scientific concepts.
According to Dr. Kahan’s work, science knowledge doesn’t matter much in changing people’s minds. What is important is curiosity- people who are scientifically curious are able to accept new ideas. You have students who are curious about the world and love science but might be committed to ideas that are unscientific. Don’t shut them out.
The NGSS approach is all about curiosity. Start with the real world, ask good questions, and then learn how to use the intellectual tools of science to answer them. This is likely the only way to immunize our students against “alternative facts.”