Today, we ask why American math and science scores
are slipping. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
The big news in March, 1998,
was that the best American high school seniors are
at the bottom in math and science among industrial
nations. So I decided to go to the horse's mouth
and ask my sophomore thermodynamics class where
they thought the problem lay.
They had a lot to say about today's malaise. They
generally gave four reasons. First, socioeconomic
factors: they were well aware of the way poverty or
broken families can hurt learning. I certainly
agreed with that one, but it's an old problem. It
probably doesn't explain the more recent
The second factor was, as one student put it, the
fading need to know. Students gain an increasing
sense that they no longer need to know anything --
that computer technologies will henceforth know for
them. We've failed to differentiate what we really
do need to know from what the machine can do for
Third, no academic pressure. Most students said
they'd felt under little pressure in high school.
That caught me by surprise. Many students felt
their teachers weren't lit by the vitality of math
and science, but were just turning the crank.
The fourth reason was related: standardized tests.
Schools that depend on showing good performance by
their students will quit teaching the subject and
teach for the tests instead. That reminded me of
something a colleague once said to me when I was
teaching in England. He asked, "How do you ever
expect your students to develop any confidence in
their ability to learn when you test them all the
Let's look more closely at that one: When learning
proceeds up to a test, the test circumscribes
learning. It puts boundaries on it. Learning
shrinks to fit the testing process. In the British
system, you might face tests only once a year.
Meanwhile, you must constantly forge your own
contexts to retain what you've learned.
To what my students told me, I would add a fifth
enemy of learning. That's the tight organization of
knowledge into specifiable units:
This is how to integrate log(x).
Kinetic energy is mass times half the velocity
The Gulf Current flows here.
. . .
Science and math are no fun until you see into the
abstractions that lie behind them. You reach a
point were you are liberated -- free to let facts
simply fall into place around the conceptual core
that gives them their unity and makes sense of
For America to find her way out of her educational
hole, you and I will have to find the heart of math
and science again. We teachers have to see the
beauty in the intellectual processes behind math
and science. Only then can we reach our students.
Only then will the damage be undone. Trying to
accomplish that with standardized testing and
neatly defined learning units is precisely
analogous to the man who tried to heat his living
room by holding a match under the thermostat.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds