18 August 2008

Thoughts on the Planet Debate

Posted by Ryan Anderson

You should all go check out Emily Lakdawalla’s post about the Great Planet Debate. I agree with everything she said, including how silly the debate can get, and especially the following bit about priorities in science education:

I think the weakest argument I heard today was that Pluto should be a planet because if we redefine “planet” in such a way that there are now only eight of them, that means schoolkids will be taught less than they were taught when there were nine planets, because they only get taught about “planets” and not the other stuff. I have two problems with this argument. First, we cannot let public policy dictate the conduct of science. Many educators will agree; one commented during today’s meeting that the scientists need to just define the word based on science and let the educators sort out how to teach it to kids, and the audience applauded her.

Second, there are often concerns about only stuff that’s defined in educational standards getting taught to kids. The fallacy here is that most members of the public are under the incorrect impression that educational standards are a list of facts. They are not. Content standards (that is, facts) are an important component of educational standards, but there are also standards about how science should be taught, how teachers should be taught, how science programs should be structured, and how students’ learning should be measured. The overarching idea is that science should be taught as a method of understanding the universe and our place in it, not a list of facts received from experts.