Wednesday, January 26, 2011

How Would Carl Sagan Do in Your Classroom? Call for Authentic Learning for 21st Century

Recently, I began reading Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  At the beginning he writes of his school experiences. When I began reading that part of the book, I expected a tribute to some teacher who inspired him to the great heights he reached in science achievement. Instead he writes:

 “I wish I could tell you about inspirational teachers in science from my elementary or junior high or high school days. But as I think back on it, there were none. There was rote memorization about the Periodic Table of Elements, levers and inclined planes, green plant photosynthesis, and the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal. But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody once believed. In high school laboratory courses, there was an answer we were supposed to get. We were marked off if we didn’t get it. There was no encouragement to pursue our own interests or hunches or conceptual mistakes.”

After reading Sagan’s comments about his experiences in school, I couldn’t help by ask a few questions:

  • Have high schools changed in any way so that a student’s experience of science, or math, or social studies is much different from what Sagan describes?
  • Are our high schools still stuck in time warps where memorization is the rule of the day, instead of students being actively engaged in the content?
  • Do we engage student interests in the curriculum we teach? Or are we so hampered by the mania of test scores, there isn’t time for this?
  • If they are fundamentally the same, how can we say we are preparing students for the 21st century?

Sagan goes on to say he didn’t have a teacher that inspired him to explore his passion for astronomy. Instead, he maintained his interest in science through all his school years by reading on his own, books and magazines on science fact and fiction. He pursued his insatiable  desire for learning science on his own. Sadly, he learned in spite of teachers more interested in having him memorize the Periodic Table of Elements and the physics of levers and mathematics of inclined planes.

This is not meant to be an indictment of science teachers. There’s enough blame for inauthentic teaching and reliance of rote memorization to cover all subject areas. It’s true. We are always going to have those students who learn in spite of what we do instructionally in the classroom. But I can’t help but wonder how many Carl Sagans have been turned off to science by the regimen of rote memorization and inauthentic learning experiences forced upon them over the years. Or, how many Shakepeares have turned away from writing because of having to write five paragraph essays. If we are truly sincere about education reform and moving teaching and learning into the 21st century, then no where should we find a budding scientist or writer suffering under the weight of inauthentic classroom experiences.


  1. I was fortunate to grow up with a partial farm background, and went to a high school where the biology teacher took classes outside to do studies of birds, streams, tree identification, etc.

    I took my own students outside when I taught middle school life science. I was alone in doing that among the life science staff. It is my belief that children generally don't get a real chance to know the world up close before or while they get the school view of science, math, etc.

    The academic view of subjects is designed to enhance understandings children have from real life. When farm kids went to school, they learned how to do arithmetic which helped them prepare to run their farms. So, too did reading and writing broaden their skills in ways which enhanced their real lives.

    Things have changed outside school. Most students lack a serious connection to the world of soil, crops, trees, grass, beaches, streams, rivers, frogs, worms; on and on. Science in school doesn't have a context. It is almost totally "academic."

    Eager readers also come to school primed to make the most of studying English, social studies and such.

    When all of a child's reality is academic, there's no significant context. Housebound, TV watching, non reading children really are at a disadvantage. And being on an adult-directed sports activity doesn't provide the context for play/activity.

    Schools cannot do everything, but the families of today are too often not providing the real life context that academics enhance. Education may need changes, but adding more responsibility for replacement of a child's real life experience is not going to do it, any more than adding more tests to the child's schedule.

    Sometimes I wonder if 21st century education could really learn something from 19th and early 20th century *life*, not just expanding the academic elements from that period.

  2. I have to agree with you. Life was sometimes much simpler then, and so was learning. We've complicated education with tests and accountability to the point that there is sometimes little room to take those students down to the nearby pond. I was fortunate to have a sixth grade teacher who guided me in my own fascination with science, especially astronomy and biology. While I didn't even become a science teacher, I did become an English teacher in part because of her. She introduced me to "Old Yeller" and writing stories. I may not have turned out to be a published author, I was inspired to teach other students English in the same manner, through authentic reading and writing.