Education 62.03

Introduction to the Experimental Version

During the Fall 1998 semester, the first offering of Education 62.03 is being made with a trial curriculum. Based on the experience this term, including input from students, it is likely that various improvements will be made for later offerings of the course. This semester is an experiment, hopefully a valuable one for both students and instructor. This page offers an overview of the rationale and approach in the course.

Education 62.03 has two partners: Education 63.3 and the Lincoln Center Institute program for teacher education. In Education 63.3 students will participate in fieldwork in an urban middle school and learn about basic teaching methods and the needs of students of middle school age. In the Lincoln Center Institute program, students will have an opportunity to meet a teaching artist, gain insight into the techniques and values of the fine arts, and visit two off-campus sites where they can experience artistic work firsthand. Education 62.03 will create a bridge between these two partners and its own primary concern: education in science and mathematics.

There is a perennial tension in education and in teacher education particularly between practical concerns and the need for deeper reflection on values and curricula. It is all too easy to prepare teachers with the narrow techniques of classroom teaching, but fail to prepare them to question accepted practices, critique curricular values, and innovate on behalf of their students' lives and futures. It is widely recognized in the field of Education today that our schools are becoming mere training camps for the post-industrial workers of the future. Students in the schools are being prepared to solve other people's problems and do other people's work. Less and less attention is paid to how education will enable them to shape the quality of their own lives, to use what they have learned for their own purposes and not just for the profits of others. In science and mathematics education in particular, there has been an excessively 'instrumental' attitude to curriculum and teaching: teach technical information and glorify it with the names of 'concepts'. The curriculum delivers information, mostly rather useless information in the lives of most students; it does not promote critical thinking, it does not pay attention to issues of values, it does not help students grow as people.

Middle school education has developed a particular philosophy, distinct from that of elementary and (upper) secondary education. It is primarily a 'developmental' model of education: that students of middle school age have special needs because they are in transition from childhood to adulthood and in our society this transition is made extremely difficult. Middle school teachers are there to help, and middle school education should primarily be about learning how to grow up, not about accumulating more information about more subjects. There are many points in the middle school philosophy that can be criticized, particularly assumptions borrowed from theories in developmental psychology that imagine that development is mainly an internal, rather than an interactive and 'ecological' process, or the unwillingness to place blame on adult society for making growing up tougher than it needs to be. But one feature of the middle school philosophy poses a refreshing challenge to instrumentalist education: the focus on the student as a real human being with a real life. Curriculum and teaching in secondary education almost totally ignores the reality of students as people; it is about subject matter. Science and mathematics curricula are about teaching science and mathematics (presumably), but for the most part they are not about teaching people.

There is a special weakness to our educational hierarchy that runs from Kindergarten to Doctoral Studies: power accumulates at the top, and curriculum at each lower level and grade tends to be written to prepare students to learn the content at the next higher grade -- but without any concern for students' growth as human beings. Middle school science and mathematics education tries to rebel against this rather inhuman approach by saying that curriculum in science and mathematics should not be just about content, should not be just preparation for more advanced science and mathematics courses in high school. It should be about finding ways that scientific and mathematical activity in human life can form the basis for students' learning how to grow into better human beings.

How can science and mathematics teachers learn to think about curriculum and teaching in this new way? Education 62.03 offers some possible answers. In this course we will focus on issues of values: what do science and mathematics, not as bodies of knowledge, but as forms of human activity, have to teach us all about 'a life worth living'? about what constitutes quality and value in human experience and human life? And how can we teach students, using scientific and mathematical activities, examples, experiences, history, puzzles, discoveries, creativity, etc., something about life, something about what being human can mean, something about their own potential, something that will help them decide what kind of people they want to be, what kind of lives they want to lead, what kind of world they want to make to live in?

To develop middle school science and mathematics education in this way, we have to look again at scientific and mathematical activity, in a new way. We have to look at them as if they were also a part of the Humanities and the Arts, not as disciplines diametrically opposed to them. For the Humanities and the Arts have always claimed to have their primary value not in practical, instrumental usefulness, but in helping us find the best ways of being human. (Of course they too can degenerate in schools and universities into just more collections of specialized information.) We have to ask about the creative life of people who use mathematics and do science, who use scientific methods and create mathematics. We have to ask about the esthetics of science and mathematics, about creativity in science and mathematics. We have to ask about quality and values in scientific and mathematical judgment. What models of human maturity can be projected from human experience in scientific and mathematical activity? What can we learn about what it means to be a thoughtful and creative human being?

In addition to looking in this new way at science and mathematics as human activities, we also need to look at teaching and learning from the same point of view. Is 'beautiful' teaching more effective than 'ugly' teaching at inspiring students to want to learn more? What shapes students' 'taste' in scientific and mathematical matters? how can we help them learn to appreciate new aspects and topics? What role does our teaching play in the formation of their self-images, their self-confidence, their sense of identity? What does it mean for a student to become emotionally engaged in learning about science and mathematics as parts of their lives, in the same way they might become engaged with powerful music or drama? or inspiring stories about other aspects of human life? Why should science and mathematics, alone of all subjects, be taught to everyone as if they were supposed to be boring? or could only be genuinely interesting to a tiny minority of human beings? that is surely a recipe for educational failure, and perhaps for failure of some important parts of many students to grow into all that they could be.

Education 62.03 is two hours a week of thinking and talking about how science and mathematics teaching can help people grow as human beings, and beginning to learn how to do something about it.

Professor J L Lemke