Sunday, July 27, 2008

Right-brained science: explaining your answer in pictures

This weekend's New York Times EducationLife section reports on:

...a continuing collaborative project called Picturing to Learn, supported by a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant and also involving Duke University and Roxbury Community College in Boston. The project is an effort to improve basic science education.
Picturing to Learn explains its core premises as follows:
1. From a student’s perspective: undergraduate students can clarify their own understanding of scientific concepts and processes by creating drawings that explain these concepts to non-experts.
2. From a teacher’s perspective: drawings can be useful as:
• assessment tools, allowing instructors to identify students' scientific understanding and pinpoint their misconceptions
• educational tools, to help inform instructors’ lecture preparation.
The article cites principal investigator Felice Frankel, "a science photographer who teaches at Harvard," as arguing that "having students draw... forces them to prove they understand the concepts."

As an example of this, the article cites:
Donald R. Sadoway, who teaches introductory chemistry at M.I.T., [and] collaborates with Ms. Frankel. He assigned his 600 students to answer a question about the boiling points of calcium oxide and calcium sulfide by drawing a picture for a high school student. The crux was to see if they understood which forces holding molecules together are stronger. A typical answer showed atoms holding hands while others tugged at them.
“M.I.T. students are usually good at math,” he says, “but sometimes you discover they’ve memorized the equations and use the right buzzwords. You don’t know if they’re just not a good writer or if they’ve bungled the whole concept. If you make them do a picture, you can zero in on things that words might conceal.”
As its $500,000 in public funding indicates, Picture to Learn  is jumping on an educational bandwagon that already favors the concrete and visual over the abstract and verbal--as a quick tour through Reform Math makes evident.

In the driver's seat is a sort of right-brained totalitarianism whose potential effects on left-brained science students are chilling:

What about people who are good writers and aren't good illustrators?

Why couldn't someone explain which forces are stronger--or any other number of scientific concepts--using words?

Why force all students to learn the material, and justify their answers, using a particular modality (whichever one happens to be most fashionable among education experts)?

What business does how you learned something, as opposed to whether your learned it, have in teacher assessments?

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