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6 minutes reading time (1121 words)

Progress in Science Leads to Still More Questions

"Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate
questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep
you from learning whatever you want or need to know." Neil
Postman and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive

Recently I viewed Stuart Firestein’s TED Talk, The Pursuit of Ignorance (Feinstein, February, 2013). Firestein is a cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University whose speciality is how the brain processes smells.

In addition to this research, Firestein teachers courses in artificial intelligence (AI), and a course on Ignorance. While at first I thought Ignorance is a rather peculiar topic for a course, eventually I understood his message and I want to share it with you.

Firestein begins with an amusing comment about the textbook used in his brain science course. Here is a graphic he used to help describe the course:


Firestein notes that the book weighs more than two human brains! He also notes that:

So I began to realize, by the end of this course,that the students maybe were getting the ideathat we must know everything there is to know about the brain.That's clearly not true.And they must also have this idea, I suppose,that what scientists do is collect data and collect factsand stick them in these big books.And that's not really the case either.

Firestein then uses this situation to describe what is missing in much of science education teaching and learning. He quotes W.B. Yates:

Education is not filling buckets. It is lighting fires. (William Butler Yates; Irish poet and winner of Nobel Prize in literature; 1865-1939.)

Arguments about bucket filling versus learning for thinking and understanding continue to this day. Gradually, many leading educators have come to understand the importance of students learning to ask question (problem posing) and learning to be critical thinkers who build on valid, credible work of themselves and others (Moursund & Sylwester, 10/9/2015).

While we have learned much about science in the past few thousand years, each new discovery opens up far more questions than it answers. Firestein illustrates this observation by quotations from several scientists who have thought carefully about this situation.

Every answer given on principle of experience begets a fresh question. (Immanual Kant; German philosopher; 1724-1804.)

Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science. (James Clerk Maxwell; Scottish mathematical physicist working in electromagnetism; 1831-1879.)

One never notices what has been done, but only what remains to be done. (Marie Curie; winner of two Nobel Prizes; 1867-1934.)

In an honest search for knowledge, you often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period. (Erwin Schrodinger; German scientist; 1887-1948.

The point Firestein is making is that science is absolutely not the cut and dried discipline that most kids are taught in schools. It is a vibrant, growing field in which profound results continue to be discovered, and these lead to us having still more unanswered questions.

What’s Wrong with Our Current Science Education System?

Firestein makes two important points in about what he believes is wrong with our current science education system. First, it may destroy interest in science. Quoting Firestein:

So in second grade, all the kids are interested in science, the girls and the boys.They like to take stuff apart. They have great curiosity.They like to investigate things. They go to science museums.They like to play around. They're in second grade.They're interested.But by 11th or 12th grade, fewer than 10 percent of them have any interest in science whatsoever,let alone a desire to go into science as a career.So we have this remarkably efficient systemfor beating any interest in science out of everybody's head.

Next, Firestein talks about the flaws of our evaluation system. He notes its emphasis on (success in) “weeding out” students.

Well, we hear a lot about testing and evaluation,and we have to think carefully when we're testingwhether we're evaluating or whether we're weeding,whether we're weeding people out,whether we're making some cut.Evaluation is one thing. You hear a lot about evaluationin the literature these days, in the educational literature,but evaluation really amounts to feedback and it amountsto an opportunity for trial and error.It amounts to a chance to work over a longer period of timewith this kind of feedback.That's different than weeding, and usually, I have to tell you,when people talk about evaluation, evaluating students,evaluating teachers, evaluating schools,evaluating programs, that they're really talking about weeding.And that's a bad thing, because then you will get what you select for,which is what we've gotten so far.

Final Remarks

We live at a time of rapid improvement in the tools of science research, and in the resulting science and technology-based discoveries and innovations. The rate of progress and the changes they are producing are unprecedented in the history of mankind. The challenges to our precollege and higher science education systems are huge. Firestein is particularly unhappy about how our precollege science education system “turns off” so many students.

Most students are "turned on" by the science and technology-based aids to entertainment and other tools that they perceive as helping to improve their everyday lives. Currently, for most students, this does not carry over to pursuing science and technology-related college degrees and careers. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out in the future.

What You Can Do

You might begin by examining your own interests in the sciences and what you do to keep up with major progress occurring in these areas of human intellectual endeavor. If you are a teacher and/or a parent, think about what you do to encourage your students and children to actively participate in the rapid progress that is occurring in science and technology. This progress is affecting the current and potential quality of life of people throughout the world. I thoroughly enjoy participating in this “keeping up” and dissemination process.

You can also add your thoughts on scence education. Scroll down past the References and Resources section until you come to a row of yellow happy and not so happy faces. Enter your comment below these faces.

References and Resources

Firestein, S. (February, 2013). The pursuit of ignorance. TED Talks (Video, 18:33.) Retrieved 2/13/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2/12/2016). Improving worldwide quality of life. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/13/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2/8/2016). Very long-range strategic planning. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/13/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science for educators and parents. IAE-pedia. Web: PDF: Microsoft Word:

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R. (December, 2015, and continuing.) Joy of learning: A sequence of IAE Newsletters. Retrieved 2/13/2016 from

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R., eds. (10/9/2015). Validity and credibility of information. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download a free Microsoft Word file from Download a free PDF file from

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Friday, 03 December 2021

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