Our exuberant school superintendent, James Williams, posed a challenging question to a group of his science, math and technology advisers the other day. "What skills do we want our students to have when they graduate from high school?" Quick to reply was Nobel laureate Herbert Hauptman: "The most important one is to teach kids how to think."
I couldn't agree more. In an age of media hype and spin doctors, what better goal for our schools than to help the next generation learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff? To learn how to use their minds well?
Shouldn't we encourage them to ask good questions, examine the evidence that supports the "truth" they are being taught and to evaluate the information they receive? These days, more than ever, critical thinking should be the overriding goal of all learning.
For the past 15 years, I have been working with the Buffalo Public Schools in support of its science program, first through the Buffalo Museum of Science and more recently through a nonprofit corporation called First Hand Learning. This experience has been an exciting intellectual journey. I have continually witnessed the power of science to transform and liberate the thought processes of students and teachers. In science there are no ultimate truths, just the continuing quest for truth, and this builds confidence in the power of the human mind.
One memorable moment took place on a brilliant sunny July morning at the Penn Dixie quarry when a group of teachers joined museum geologist Richard Laub at this Devonian-era site rich in specimens from 350 million years ago. There was Laub in his field gear, setting the stage for a morning of fossil collecting.
"There is no such thing as an unassailable fact in science," he began. "What we call facts are only way-stations in a continuing search for a deeper understanding of the world around us. Even Darwin's explanation of our origins may be further refined by scientists someday. So have at it. Who knows? You may find something here that adds new data to our understanding of the fossil record."
By engaging with science firsthand, these teachers fell in love with science. Although many had little science background, they soon developed their own teaching collections, mastered inquiry-based science kits and became mentors to their colleagues.
They taught workshops, co-taught seminars with scientists and even carried out "action research" in their classrooms to study student thinking. Not surprisingly, scores on the state science test climbed. When asked recently about the value of science, one teacher, who is now a principal, replied, "Science teaches you how to learn."
My brother was a born scientist, but I discovered the power of science later in life. There is no greater human liberation than the strength of mind that comes from scientific thinking. Science argues that truth about the world derives from direct experience, from examining the evidence, from assessing the validity of our observations through critical analysis and from subjecting our discoveries to the "peer review" of colleagues.
This is the power of mind that we should cultivate in school, not the memorization of facts. Education should promote scientific thinking because critical thought is the foundation upon which our democracy is built. Our survival as a free society depends on it.