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Bruno: Interest Matters More Than Empathy

image from www.usswisconsin.orgDeanna Kuhn has a piece up at Education Week about the potential value of incorporating more social science into our science standards.

I'm sympathetic to that, but disagree slightly about why. Kuhn's argument seems to be that social science contexts might be especially good for "hooking" students into science because "they address phenomena students likely already know something about". I think this is true to the extent that our goal is to teach content-independent inquiry skills.

The fact of the matter, however, is that most of what we should be aiming to teach kids isn't content-independent at all. Rather, we should mostly be trying to expand their content knowledge so that they can apply their inquiry skills to more diverse contexts - including, of course, social science contexts.

In a similar vein, I think Kuhn misses the mark with her explanation of a supposed lack of student engagement in science classes:

The question of why [to learn content] is in fact twofold: "Why would anyone want to know this?" and "Why would I want to know this?" Clearly, the answer to the first question must be positive if we are to get to the second question. Yet, this first question—the "so what?" question—is one students typically will be hard-pressed to answer...

Yet, it's the second question—"Why would I want to know this?"—that could well be the critical one. 

I think Kuhn is absolutely right that "Why would I want to know this?" is the important question for student engagement. However, I think she's wrong to suppose that a student would first have to understand why somebody else would want to know it.  Having taught several sciences to a variety of students, I can say that I virtually never get questions from students skeptical that somebody else would want to know about "the topic of the day".

I think that's because from a student's point of view the answer to "Why would I want to know this?" is usually "because it's interesting", and that's enough to imply an answer to "Why would anyone want to know this?" In other words, the issue is usually not whether students can't imagine themselves pursuing a topic professionally, especially since younger students will struggle to imagine their professional futures. Rather, what matters is mostly whether students are interested in the moment, and that's largely separate from whether they find the topic personally relevant.

So perhaps we should incorporate more of the social sciences into our content standards, but that's a question that depends much more on whether the science in question is intrinsically interesting to students or of broad value than on whether it's something to which they can personally relate. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Keeping students interested is ultimately the challenge at hand. I think Ms. Kuhn is partially correct. Students do need a reason to want to learn something. I agree with you, however, as to what that reason actually is. I remember being in school, and, selfish though this may sound, what motivated me personally what “how can I use this to get ahead of others?” Perhaps it’s not the most desirable of motivations, but I understood, pretty much as soon as I was in 9th grade, that I had to understand any talents I had and exploit them. It’s something I don’t think school likes to mention, because obviously it leaves some students with a feeling of superiority over others. But it’s how the world works, sad though that might be.

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