Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dumbed Down

Was a little bored of studying yesterday so got a bit distracted with watching some television. I was flicking through the channels when I came across “Mythbusters”. I have seen a good lot of their earlier seasons but I soon gave up on them. The so called “science” in their show was intolerable. For those of you don’t watch it or know of its existence, it is a show where a group of people test urban legends. Each week they have a bunch of legends/myths to test, they carry out “scientific” tests of these legends/myths and then declare them “busted”, “plausible” or “confirmed”.

Often on the show they jump to conclusions, preform flawed experiments and from them claim to derive meaningful results. Yes I know the show is designed to be entertaining but at the same time this show has a large catchment and so can influence a great number of people. Is this what people who work in science every day, want to be seen educating the general public about science?

This isn’t the only piece on television where the science takes a back seat on a science show. The British television show “Brainiac” is guilty of such acts. A lot of the science in the show is set at the level of a two year old. Why is it we are stuck with shows like this on television?

The once great documentary series Horizon has not escaped the dumbing down effect seen on scientific television shows. During the 80’s and early 90’s this show provided excellent documentaries on current events in science. Yet now we constantly get shows where the science takes the back seat as the presenter on the show has to pander to what they must perceive is a complete idiot who watches it. The entire science content of these one hour documentaries could be easily condensed into a 10 minute slot.

Yes I realise I am ranting a bit here but this is a serious matter. Is this the type of television that we want fostering a new generation of scientists? When I was growing up I watched Carl Sagan’s great television series Cosmos and every Christmas watched the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. The national geographic documentary series were a great source of wonder for me also. Shows like this inspired me to take up science.

I also recently began to see this trend in the printed media too. I enjoy a lot of reading, I mostly contain myself to science books across all the topics. In many books published today I see no theories explained in all their full glory and mathematical equations are avoided at all costs. I recently read a book which suggested to the reader to skip over the next chapter as it contained some mathematical equations and it would not hinder their enjoyment of any of the upcoming chapters. Has it really gotten to that stage where writers who wish to publish a popular scientific book have to try and remove any mathematical equations in them?

This apparent fear of adding complexity to scientific books I think stems from the growing culture of dumbing down on television. My fear is will this dumbing down extend to the education system. I was looking over the recent changes to the leaving certificate maths paper in Ireland. This new course dubbed “Project Maths” is nothing but a watered down version of what we have. I found myself rechecking the course title on the leaving cert paper as I was dismayed at how simplistic it is, I thought I had clicked on the junior cert paper by mistake.

Recent scandals in the media highlighting third-level grade inflation only adds to this view. This scandal may lead to several high profile companies moving elsewhere, as many critics see this happening under the guise of keeping these companies happy. Grades have been deliberately keep high so as to attract prospective employers here. Ireland is underperforming in many areas of science and maths subjects in schools. Changes such as Project Maths don’t help alleviate the situation. Unfortunately there is no easy solution to this problem. I think of first port of call to this problem is why are people so fearful of equations? Is it it’s inherently abstract nature or is it down to out-dated teaching methods?

A recent report into the countries’ maths teachers was startling. It reported that only 48% of our countries’ current maths teachers were qualified to teach the subject. How can a core subject like maths be left reach such a poor state? Ireland is not alone in this predicament. The main reason for this occurring in my opinion is that teachers who didn’t do maths as the primary trust of their teaching degree or post graduate qualification are not barred from teaching it at secondary school.

Whatever the cause and outcome of this dumbing down of science in the media the end result will not be good for not only the economy but also science in general.


Terence said...

cant believe that stat about maths teachers. my maths teacher put me off maths completely, i now realise it was because he didnt understand the subject properly himself. listening to my friends who study it i have got a new appreciation for the simplicity and elegance behind much of the stuff covered in the leaving cert - why do so many teachers struggle to get this across?

Daily Blaa said...

Hi Terence

The statistics for the level of teaching in Ireland is shocking. A lot of this is in no small part to budget cut backs and a drop in standards. The leaving cert now is nothing more than a memory test. No true understanding is required with the current syllabus. I was very lucky to have a maths teacher who had a passion for teaching and a great manner. Unfortunately he has become a principal in my former school. He is a big loss to the teaching there.

I think if students were taught as to how and why we use certain mathematical theorems it would give the students a better grasp of the maths. Instead they get this abstract idea which they can't relate to anything in the real world.

In my college work a lot of what we study in maths is related back to real world examples and applications. From this you gain a feel for the maths and in doing so enjoy doing it.

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