Tag Archives: science

What The Martian Teaches Us About Scientific Literacy

The Martian

If you have watched the recent blockbuster ‘The Martian’ by Ridley Scott you will know what I mean when I say that interdisciplinary education is crucial. In the movie, the NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) struggles to survive on Mars after having been unintentionally left behind by his crew. Mark has to figure out how to survive for the next years by growing his own food, producing water and protecting himself against the arid conditions on Mars until he can be rescued. I want to reflect on why an interdisciplinary education is important and how/why we should reform our school curriculum to emphasise the interconnectedness of disciplines instead of their distinctness.

In today’s world, the sciences are usually separated into biology, chemistry and physics. This division is a very reasonable one, given the vastness of our cumulative human knowledge, which has become unknowable for any human being over the last few hundred years. A student who wants to become a scientist doing cutting edge research will eventually have to narrow her focus, but that’s what university is for. In school, we want to teach students basic scientific literacy:

“Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions…” (Source)

I see scientific literacy as a set of basic rules about how the world works, a student can apply to a novel situation in order to derive insights, make predictions and better decisions. The ‘Martian’, although he had never grown potatoes before, now had to do so in an alien environment. His understanding of these basic rules (e.g. manure contains valuable nutrients, plants need earth-like atmospheric pressure, water can be extracted from the air) allowed him to plan his survival. Most of these basic rules are not confined to a single discipline, but span across.

15911816856_72ca90d313_kImagine teaching students about ‘balance’. In biology, you could talk about how prey and predators form a stable environment, how the extinction of a predator would lead to an overpopulation of prey animals and how that would throw the ecosystem off balance. You could also talk about homeostasis and how organisms keep their internal environment within certain parameters. In chemistry, students can learn about balancing chemical reactions and in physics about the balance of forces that keep the electrons in their orbits as well as earth around the sun. Many school already have such methods in place, but the concept of ‘balance’ could be extended to non-scientific fields as well – political balance between nuclear powers during the cold war, balance within a human relationship.

Restructuring the school curriculum to highlight basic rules is not necessarily more work for students, but initially more work for teachers. Instead of following the chapters in a book, teachers from the different sciences have to come together and discuss how they could coordinate their lessons around these concepts. Maybe even have a project week in which every school subject participates! Students would be able to see how the concept spans across the disciplines and get a deeper appreciation for the world they live in.

Summary
So, what’s the point I’m trying to make. Firstly, scientific literacy is hugely important for making better decisions in life. It involves tackling topics in an interdisciplinary way in order to extract generalised concepts. The student can gain a deeper understanding about how the world works and apply their knowledge to novel situations. Secondly, I want to stress the importance of building a deeper appreciation for what the sciences are. It’s not the working hours or the pay check that gets students motivated to become scientists, but the awe and wonder that science has to give.

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Homeschooling – A Good Alternative or Simply Crazy?

Abstract

Currently, 2.9% of all US students are not attending school, but rather educated at home and within their community – the homeschoolers. But is homeschooling a real alternative to the traditional school setting or just a movement that will fade with time? Research findings suggest that homeschooling is here to stay. Both academically and in other domains, homeschooled students seem to significantly outperform public school students. The more unstructured homeschooling variant called ‘unschooling’ on the other hand correlates with weaker academic performance.

 

Highlights

  • Homeschooled students significantly outperform public school students in nearly all subjects.
  • Unschooled students lag behind structured homeschoolers and possibly also public school students with regards to academics.
  • Homeschooled students appear to be happier with their jobs and their lives, participate more often in protests and go voting more frequently.

 

Introduction

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 15.49.10As a kid, you probably spent around one third of your waking time in school. That is about 15,000 hours (Source), which is a tremendous amount of time if you think about it! A teacher of yours may be the reason you decided to study a certain thing and many of your longstanding friends went to school with you. Now imagine spending those 15,000 at home and in your community rather than going to school. All those teachers who will never have an impact on you, all of your friends who you will never meet. Wouldn’t your social and academic skills suffer greatly?

Despite these potentially harmful outcomes a growing number of parents in the US and other western countries are educating their kids at home. There are many variants of homeschooling and what they all have in common is their attempt to to avoid school. I find homeschooling to be very exciting because of how radically different the lives of homeschoolers can be compared to public school students. Homeschooling is an exciting experiment that could teach us a lot about our own schools to what extent they contribute to our academic and social skills.

In this post, we’ll:

  1. give a general introduction to homeschooling, what homeschooling variants exist and who decides to homeschool their kids in the first place,
  2. look at scientific studies on how homeschoolers perform academically compared to public school students,
  3. look at how they differ from public school students in other aspects of life,
  4. and what these findings might imply for our education system.

Homeschooling is Nothing New – Historically Speaking

For most of human history, homeschooling was actually the rule, not the exception. Knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next, either by the family or the community (i.e. farmers boys became farmers). More theoretical knowledge such as the arts or natural sciences were reserved to the lucky few who were rich enough to pay for private tutoring. The institutionalisation of education only happened much later during the industrialization when more skilled and educated workers were needed. Suddenly, reading, writing and mathematics became a prerequisite for sustaining yourself and your family. School became the only place where you could acquire that knowledge and it often times became mandatory. That was a good thing because it allowed us to create more educated modern societies. Today, schools are nearly impossible to think away. After all, who would argue with 300+ years of gathered knowledge on how to teach and socialize youngsters in the best possible way? School is mandatory, so it must be good for you. And after all, it holds the promise to a better life if you perform well.

The truth is that school is not the only choice for education anymore. Information has become ubiquitous with the internet. You can tune in to the lectures of the very best teachers. School is not necessarily mandatory anymore and many universities are already accepting homeschooled students. And the argument that a critical part of our socialisation happens in school is just an assumption. Therefore, an increasing number of parents have decided to homeschool their children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics there were about 1.5 million students (2.9%) in the US being homeschooled in 2007, while there were only 850,000 students (1.7%) in 1999 (Source). The figure below depicts this trend quite nicely.

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Parents who homeschool their children are often seen as religious fundamentalists who don’t agree with the secular nature of public schools. Although this is still a major reason for why parents homeschool their kids, there are a number of other reasons for kids are being homeschooled. For example, parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education or want to protect their child from harmful experiences (i.e. bullying) (see below).Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 19.36.41

 

What types of homeschooling exist? There are endless variants, but they can roughly be put on a spectrum of how much structure is imposed over the students’ daily routine. On the one end of the spectrum lies the all-in one curriculum, where parents try to basically replicate school at home. Parents act as the instructors, buy the relevant books and follow a class schedule. On the other end of the spectrum lies the unschooling movement, which strips any form of structure from the students’ learning experience. Here is a quote by John Holt, an American educator and author who had a significant impact on the unschooling movement in the 1970s:

“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.” (Source).

Parents see themselves as facilitators rather than instructors who help children learn what they wish to learn.
Between all-in one curricula and homeschooling, there are endless variations of how homeschooling can be done. Is there an instructor? If yes, is it the parents or a tutor? How much freedom is given to the student with regards to what they learn? Does the student go to school for at least a few hours per week or is there no connection at all?

 

DOCUMENTARY ON UNSCHOOLING


RESEARCH ON HOMESCHOOLING

All of the data that I’ll be presenting refers to the US because there is virtually no research done on homeschooling in other countries. But even in the US there is surprisingly little research available. This is due to a lack of available data (Source). Homeschoolers have been fighting for minimal regulation of their childrens’ education since the 1960s. This includes opting out of general state and nation wide statistics that could have been valuable to assessing the success of homeschooling.  I can imagine that the homeschooling community feared that collected data could be used to reinforce regulation over their childrens’ education.The only available data that can be used to compare homeschoolers to public school students are standardized test scores (SAT) that both have to take for getting into universities.

I’ll present 2 studies that use standardized test scores to compare homeschoolers with public school students. The first one is the largest study on homeschooling and it was conducted by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which was founded in 1983 to “…defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms.” It goes without saying that the following results should be taken with a grain of salt due to their biased stance towards homeschooling. Furthermore, the following results are based on the HSLDA 2009 Progress Report, which is not a scientific paper. Therefore, I had very little insight into how the study was actually conducted and what results may have been left out!

Study 1
The study (Source) was conducted in 2007 and is based on 11,739 participants from all 50 US states.The result is quite startling:

“In the study, homeschoolers scored 34–39 percentile points higher than the norm on standardized achievement tests. The homeschool national average ranged from the 84th percentile for Language, Math, and Social Studies to the 89th percentile for Reading.”

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  1. Parent education hardly had an effect on the performance of homeschooled kids. Irrespective of whether one, both or none of the parents of the homeschooled student had a college degree, their kids always performed better than the average public school student.
  2. Teacher certification didn’t matter as well. Students with parents who didn’t have a teaching certification performed equally well to students with certified teacher parents.
  3. Family income hardly made a difference between homeschooled students, while it is very established that income plays a major role in academic performance (Source).
  4. Gender didn’t make any difference as opposed to in public schools (Source).

THAT’S AMAZING!!!
Let’s think about this for a second. Homeschoolers avoid the one place that is supposed to prepare us for standardized tests and they actually perform BETTER than public school students. Furthermore, the parents’ education, the families’ socioeconomic status, the students’ gender and having certified teacher parents had no effect on the academic success of the student.

The study also has two major drawbacks:

  1. Public school students took standardized tests on a mandatory basis, while homeschoolers volunteered. It may have been that homeschoolers scored so high relative to public school students because only parents who were pretty sure that their child would perform well actually signed them up.
  2. The study was conducted by the HSLDA, an institute that advocates homeschooling. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but their report is not as transparent as a published research paper and it may be that some significant aspects of the study were left out. In any case, we can’t check.

Study 2

The study (Source) had 4 advantages over the first one:

  1. The study was conducted by an independent researcher group from Canada.
  2. Both public and homeschoolers were recruited on a voluntary basis.
  3. Students from public schools were matched with homeschoolers based on (1) similar family income and (2) similar parental education, to ensure that the differences between those groups are not due to these factors.
  4. The researchers differentiated between structured homeschoolers who are more inclined to replicate school at home and unschoolers who don’t impose any structure over their children.

One major disadvantage is that the study only had 37 public and 37 homeschooling participants, which means that there is a large probability that the findings of the study are simply due to chance. Keep that in mind when considering the following results.

Results:

  1. Structured homeschooling students were at least one grade level ahead of public school students in 5 out of 7 test areas (word identification, phonic decoding, science, social science, humanities), almost half a year ahead in math, and slightly, but not significantly advanced in reading comprehension.
  2. Unstructured homeschoolers performed significantly worse than structured homeschoolers. In 5 of 7 areas, the differences were substantial, ranging from 1.32 grade levels for the math test to 4.2 grade levels for the word identification test.
  3. Unstructured homeschoolers perform worst than public school kids, but the difference is statistically not significant.

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 17.15.45

The authors argue that homeschooled students may benefit from multiple aspects. They usually have smaller classes, often even one-on-one classes. Therefore, the instructions they receive may be more tailored to them. They may also be spending more time in general on academics. With regards to the relatively bad performance of unstructured homeschoolers (unschoolers) one could argue that students need some kind of structure or guidance to learn effectively. Alternatively, it may also be that unschoolers never took standardized tests before and therefore lack test-testing abilities.

 

What About Non-Academic Effects?

Sadly, I was only able to find one survey study by the HSLDA that asked homeschoolers many years later about their day-to-day lives (Source). Here are the most striking results:

Homeschoolers are happier with their lives than public school student

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 18.12.04

 

Homeschoolers are happier with their jobs than public school students

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 18.12.25

 

Homeschoolers participate more in protests or boycotts and they vote more often than public school students

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 18.07.27

 

The large majority is very satisfied with having been homeschooled and would homeschool their own children as well.

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 13.33.30

 

Shouldn’t all of us Homeschool their children?!

The evidence that speaks FOR homeschooling is very appealing, no doubt. However, none of the studies had a level of scientific rigour and quality that could have made me into a blind homeschooling believer. I would feel very unsafe with making such an important decision based on these 2 studies. There is still a mountain of work to be done in order to establish homeschooling in the education landscape as a real alternative to public schools. Important questions might be: how much structure contributes to the advancement of the student and and what point does it become counterproductive? What factors are absolutely necessary for homeschooling to work? How can the quality of their education be measured in order to ensure equal access to jobs and higher education?

Although unschoolers performed bad relative to structured homeschoolers and public school students, it doesn’t mean that unschooling is generally a bad thing. Unschooling is a movement that resulted out of a growing dissatisfaction with the rigours and grade-focused school system. The philosophy that every child has an inborn curiosity is most certainly true and it is hardly disputable that many lose their curiosity due to the setup of the school. Unschooling is simply the extreme end of a ‘structure spectrum’. It will be up to researchers to figure out how much structure is beneficial and how much is counterproductive for the advancement of the student. Many schools are already experimenting with less structure by giving students more agency over what they learn and how they learn it (Source).

 

Conclusion

Before schools existed, students learned at home and within their community. The concept of schooling emerged in order to make information more accessible. Nowadays, information is ubiquitous and available in palatable forms such as online courses and study software. Students are performing better academically when staying outside of the one institution (school) that was specifically designed to advance them in this regard. Critics of homeschooling often argue that homeschoolers would not be socialized enough, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I would never have expected to find research studies that speak so clearly in favour of homeschooling. Given these results, I am very surprised that researchers are not taking this domain more serious by running more studies. There are hurdles, primarily the lack of data, but these can surely be overcome.

I think that we trust our school system too much and ourselves too little, which is why the homeschooling movement will most likely stay small for now. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore it. On the contrary, we should try to learn from it. If we could find out what makes homeschooling so great we could bring these aspects into the classroom. We already have a great education infrastructure with buildings, teachers and financial resources. We should try to manage all of our resources in a better way. That’s what we can do with the help of the homeschooling community. I am very curious to see how the homeschooling movement develops further. Maybe my kids won’t go to school, who knows!


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BENDING THE CURVE

Hello world!

It’s an exciting time to be living on this planet! So many things are changing at breathtaking speeds and this means two things: more unpredictability and more opportunities. Take a look at the average global temperature projections from the year 2000 to 2100.
First, the range of possible temperatures increases as the years progress. By the year 2100 we could be looking at anything between 3.8 – 8.0 degrees fahrenheit increase in temperature, which is an incredible amount of uncertainty. Second, out ability to influence the outcome is also increasing. Political reforms, new technologies, a new global consciousness within society – these are all factors that could slow down the rise in temperature – or not.


Scenario Temp Graph

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“The future is more unpredictable but also offers more opportunities than ever before. “

 

This does not only hold true for climate change, but also for the fight against poverty and disease, women’s rights, overpopulation and many other things. We are more in control of our future than ever before, which means we must also bear more responsibility than all of our ancestors.

slope-water-dam-made-stone-16786757

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But is there a lever that we can manipulate to solve all of these problems at the same time? I believe so. That lever is education. Think of change as trying to push one of these stones down the mountain side and causing an avalanche. Education is like letting it rain so that its easier to push stones. If the person pushing is better educated he or she will be more successful at achieving change. It is in education where our future societies are being taught everything they need to know to shape the future. If we improve education we can create better societies and ultimately a better future.

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About this blog

After finishing my Masters’ Degree in Neuro-Cognitive Psychology at the LMU (Munich) I decided to leave academics and dedicate one year to education. I will hopefully be working in the education sector, and learn as much as I can about the area in my free time.
I came across the word ‘uptrain’ in a recent article by the Huffington Post entitled ‘An A to Z of Noah Webster’s Finest Forgotten Words‘. Uptrain is described as “to educate” — literally ‘to train up.'” This is very fitting since we want to educate ourselves on how to educate others better.
This blog is for everyone who is interested in education. I’ll keep the language simple, give general introductions to more specialized topics (e.g. neuroscience), but I’ll also have more in depth sections to which you can jump and skip the intro if you feel comfortable with the topic. I’ll label it clear.

 The mission of this blog is to answer the following question:

“How can we improve education with the largest possible impact?”

Proper definitions for the words ‘education’, ‘improve’ and ‘impact’ are of course crucial and we will naturally deal with them later. But let me first say a few words about how I will go about to answer this question.

  1. Diverse content: Innovative education concepts, new government laws, latest research findings, news articles, blogs and personal experiences – whatever source of information fits – I’ll use it.
  2. Evidence based: I will backup my arguments with data and clearly label opinions as such. I want to produce good content (that’s the research scientist in me!). This is the only way I can make you trust me!
  3. Structured, labeled, summarized: I’ll label my posts with titles and sub-titles so that you know exactly what the post deals with. Summarizing or aggregating multiple posts into one is rarely done by other bloggers, but definitely worth it. I will do this from time to time.
  4. Creative presentation: I’ll present my content in ways that are entertaining and easy to understand. I have read enough horrible research papers that require 110% mental capacity. Extra effort will go into this.

 


 

Final words – I N T E R A C T :

stone age lever

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Education is a tough topic because of its complexity. It often requires highly inter and even transdisciplinary teams. Coming back to the analogy of moving stones down the mountain side – education is like a big boulder that can only be moved via team effort.
I need your participation to move those big stones. Yes, its tough, but they are also more likely to cause an avalanche!
Together, we can start to understand education better, see where it’s heading and how we can shape it! SUBSCRIBE via mail (on the top right) to get your weekly posts. FOLLOW this blog or just WRITE ME! I really like getting mail! Bombard me with (1) topics you find interesting (2) thoughts you have about my posts, (3) ideas you want to exchange, (4) further information on the posts’ topic, (5)

In the words of the great Nelson Mandela:
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”