We teach science completely wrong.
We teach science like it’s a narrative of resolved confusions. We spoil the magic and make reality sound dull. We sit students down in classrooms and tell them “this is what you have to believe”, and then we make them memorize dull equations.
This is the antithesis of science. Even though the equations are correct, the method is wrong. Science is not about accepting established knowledge. Science is about doubting tradition, overturning the status quo, and actually listening to reality.
This may seem idealist and naïve. Science is the art of letting reality speak for itself, but reality is vast and varied. No one person can possibly reconstruct millennia of human knowledge on their own, no matter how well we train them to seek the truth.
But the road to knowledge was paved with misunderstanding. Time and again, science shook our worldview by destroying assumptions we didn’t know we were making. Time and again, science forced us to reshape our intuition, too look at the world through a new lens.
We can destroy assumptions, reshape intuitions, and switch lenses all without teaching the equations that science discovered. We don’t need to tell anyone what to believe in order to teach them how to think.
Every science teacher knows that most students will not learn Maxwell’s equations of electricity. Some will fail, but many more will memorize the equations without knowing what they mean. Only a rare few students will glimpse the truth behind the equations they’re told they must believe… and that’s fine. We shouldn’t teach electricity to everybody. Science isn’t about telling students what to believe.
Science is about learning to shut your mouth and listen to the universe. It’s about separating truth from fiction. It’s about listening when evidence comes knocking. Those skills should be taught to everyone.
It’s OK if a student doesn’t like science. It’s fine if Maxwell’s equations are not for you. You don’t have to care how planes fly or why boats float.
But every student should learn how to discover the truth.
Every student should learn how to discover the truth.
If you want to teach science, teach thinking. Don’t make them learn the answers: put them in situations where they have to find the answers on their own. If you want to teach science, teach students how to avoid bias. Teach them how their brain can explain anything, and explanation does not equate to truth. Teach them how quickly their mind jumps to conclusions without their consent. Teach them how easy it is for a mind to compartmentalize. Teach them how to listen to those niggling doubts. Teach them how to let go of false beliefs. Teach them how to be wrong.
Learning that you are wrong should feel good – only after you learn your errors can you become less wrong.
Learning the truth cannot hurt – no matter how much you deny it, you are already enduring the truth.
Do not just recite these facts: demonstrate them. Put students in situations where their biases bite back. Put them in situations where the obvious answers are wrong and they have to learn how to let go. Put them in situations where their mind explains the inexplicable, then confront them with reality.
Teach them how to distrust the status quo, how to distrust the things they’re taught, and above all, teach them to distrust their own mind. Put them in situations where everything they’re told is wrong and all of their assumptions are false, where the only way out is to put your ear to the ground and listen to the whispers of the evidence.
And then when they start to see how coy nature can be, reach in and correct their intuitions. Every grand mystery of science, every surprising revelation, has ousted a bad intuition. Science progresses by putting scientists in situations where their intuitions fail them. We can speed that process up.
Now that we know which intuitions are false, we can break them early. We can construct exercises where intuition is self-defeating and repeat them until the intuition begins to change.
This will be enough for most students. When they leave the walls of our schools and go out to face their lives, solid intuition and the ability to hear the truth will serve them far better than any of Newton’s revelations. These students will have science within them, even if they do not know its results.
Teach like this, and there will be some few students who are curious, who take these lessons and apply them to the world around them, who ask why.
Education must not answer those whys. To answer would be to snuff out the curiosity, to sate it before it has a chance to grow. Science should not snuff out curiosity: science should feed it.
When these students ask after the workings of a lightbulb, the construction of a car, or the nature of a rainbow, it is not the place of school to give the answers. It is the place of schools to say “That is your mystery – figure it out”.
Armed with the tools of the ancients, they will be prepared to answer. It is true that one student cannot recreate the knowledge of a species, but these students are far more lucky. They’ve been trained to avoid the detours. When they start down the wrong path, they have teachers who point to an experiment that invalidates their whole line of reasoning. When they get stuck, they have teachers who point to an experiment that yields an insight. They don’t have to struggle blindly in the darkness.
But they do have to learn to navigate the darkness on their own.
There was a time where for every Maxwell you needed a thousand scientists who could recite his equations and interpret the results. That era died the day computers were born. We no longer need people who can recite Maxwell’s equations. We need people who can invent them.
Science is not for everyone. There are people who simply don’t posses curiosity for the fundamental nature of the universe, and that’s fine. It’s wonderful. The world needs people interested in different things, and science is only a thin slice of human endeavor.
But everyone needs to learn to listen to evidence, which is the voice of the truth. Everyone needs to be able to change their mind, in light of biases which cloud our judgement.
No one will ever be absolutely right, but everyone needs to know how to become less wrong.
Forcing people to memorize equations runs counter to the core of science. Don’t teach physics – teach rationality.
Some people will have no curiosity about how the rain works or what goes on inside the body. That’s fine: if you teach them how to think, they’ll know that their lack of knowledge doesn’t give them license to make up their own answers. They’ll know that despite there ignorance, there is an answer out there. Most importantly, they’ll know how to find the answer when their curiosity gets the better of them.
Such a world is far superior to a world where everyone half-believes the incomplete description of evolution that they’ve been forced to memorize. Such a world is far better than one where quantum physics is surrounded by a strange aura of fear and mystery. Such a world is superior to one where people glory in their ignorance, a world where “science doesn’t know everything” is an excuse to believe anything at all.
Many will not choose the sciences. They will be drawn to other paths. That is right and good. Not everybody should be a scientist.
By the same token, there will always be some people with the Curiosity. People who want to learn how the world works. People who wonder at the beauty of reality and struggle to hear its voice and listen to its answers.
These are the scientists. These are the children who are going to save the world, the students who will crack the mysteries of the universe. Nurture them.
When they wonder about rainbows, point them towards prisms. When they wonder about the nature of life, teach them how to use a microscope. Provide them with specimens.
But don’t hand them the answers. Never ever say “see, they’re made of cells!”
Don’t say “look, the heart pumps the blood”.
Don’t even confirm or deny their conclusions, when they draw them: just keep pointing them towards the next experiment that will show them something new.
You don’t hand them a microscope so that they can verify your words. You hand them a microscope so that they can discover reality for themselves.
We don’t need students who can verify what you tell them. We need students who can think up solutions on their own.
Only once they’ve proven they possess this capacity can we tell them all the answers. Once they’ve show themselves capable we can rush them to the forefront of our knowledge, if that is the path they choose. Only in the name of human progress should we spoil all the mysteries.
Because out there on the edge, where scientists face down the unknown, we don’t need people who can recite memorized equations. We need people who can step out into the darkness and, blinded by their ignorance, listen for the faintest whisper of the truth.
Those few are the exception. We should nurture them, but we must never forget that the majority of humanity does not seek that knowledge. Most people do not want to hold our knowledge of the universe.
But everybody should hold our tools.
We need to teach everybody to overcome their biases. We need to teach everybody to avoid the traps in the human psyche. Above all, we need to teach everybody to think.
To think, and then ask reality, and then listen.
That’s the most important thing of all.