How Would Carl Sagan Do in Your Classroom? Call for Authentic Learning for 21st Century

Recently, I began reading Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  At the beginning he writes of his school experiences. When I began reading that part of the book, I expected a tribute to some teacher who inspired him to the great heights he reached in science achievement. Instead he writes:

 “I wish I could tell you about inspirational teachers in science from my elementary or junior high or high school days. But as I think back on it, there were none. There was rote memorization about the Periodic Table of Elements, levers and inclined planes, green plant photosynthesis, and the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal. But there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody once believed. In high school laboratory courses, there was an answer we were supposed to get. We were marked off if we didn’t get it. There was no encouragement to pursue our own interests or hunches or conceptual mistakes.”

After reading Sagan’s comments about his experiences in school, I couldn’t help by ask a few questions:

  • Have high schools changed in any way so that a student’s experience of science, or math, or social studies is much different from what Sagan describes?
  • Are our high schools still stuck in time warps where memorization is the rule of the day, instead of students being actively engaged in the content?
  • Do we engage student interests in the curriculum we teach? Or are we so hampered by the mania of test scores, there isn’t time for this?
  • If they are fundamentally the same, how can we say we are preparing students for the 21st century?

Sagan goes on to say he didn’t have a teacher that inspired him to explore his passion for astronomy. Instead, he maintained his interest in science through all his school years by reading on his own, books and magazines on science fact and fiction. He pursued his insatiable  desire for learning science on his own. Sadly, he learned in spite of teachers more interested in having him memorize the Periodic Table of Elements and the physics of levers and mathematics of inclined planes.

This is not meant to be an indictment of science teachers. There’s enough blame for inauthentic teaching and reliance of rote memorization to cover all subject areas. It’s true. We are always going to have those students who learn in spite of what we do instructionally in the classroom. But I can’t help but wonder how many Carl Sagans have been turned off to science by the regimen of rote memorization and inauthentic learning experiences forced upon them over the years. Or, how many Shakepeares have turned away from writing because of having to write five paragraph essays. If we are truly sincere about education reform and moving teaching and learning into the 21st century, then no where should we find a budding scientist or writer suffering under the weight of inauthentic classroom experiences.

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