As part of the Building Learning Communities 2018 conference in Boston, I was asked by Bob Greenberg who compiles the Brainwaves Anthology on You Tube, to speak briefly on a topic of my choice. The title of my little chat has a double meaning, which you'll discover if you click on the video.
A few weeks ago, I pointed out the inanity of a standardized test question that had been created out of a paragraph that I had written. The company creating the test had paid me for the rights to expose at least 100,000 kids to my words. There are many things wrong with submitting millions of children and thousands of teachers to the taking of the tests and, more importantly, the waste of instructional time spent prepping for the tests. One of the most significant outcomes of all this testing is the impact it has had on learning. All the joy is sucked out of classrooms, replaced by anxiety and stress.
But the origins of standardized testing is much more sinister than even the current outcomes. I just read a piece, “The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing,” by John Rosales, who writes for the NEA. Starting at the beginning of the 19th century, with its influx of immigrants, white Anglo-Saxon social scientists became concerned that their hegemony was being threatened. They wrote about the inferiorities of other races and designed tests, which evolved into SATs, ACT (American College Testing) PSATS, and Binet’s IQ tests to prove that blacks were not as intelligent as whites and allowed for the military to put black soldiers in segregated groups. And so it began and continues to this day.
Rosales cites Gil Troy’s article “The Racist Origins of the SAT,” slamming the originators of these tests: Binet, the Frenchman who created a test that evolved into the IQ test; Carl Brigham, who developed aptitude tests for the US army; and Lewis Terman from Standford, who adapted Binet’s test for the Stanford-Binet IQ test. “All-American decency and idealism coexisted uncomfortably with these scientists’ equally American racism and closemindedness.”
As a long-time associate of my alma mater, Columbia’s Teachers College, I have attended meetings and conferences with lots of hand-wringing on the “Achievement Gap.” Isn't it possible that test results demonstrating the under-achievement of African and Hispanic Americans is an artifact of racially biased tests that are still being used today? FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has won a lawsuit against the Texas TAAS test for its racist bias.
My new stand for education is to throw out all the testing and bring the joy of learning back to the classroom. I don’t have hard evidence about how this can be transformative but I just finished working with a group of boys (4th, 5th, and 6th graders) at an Xposure Foundation after school program. (Dog whistle—no tests.) Originally, I had planned on having the kids make videos of science tricks from my book We Dare You!. But then we decided to settle upon one interesting trick involving air pressure.
The trick in question is called “A Really BIG Sucker” and it asks the question, “What is the length of the longest straw you can suck through and still get something to drink?” I had a very intense first session with the kids, invoking Socrates by asking them question after question until they came to realize that it was the force of air pressure on the surface of their drink that pushed the drink up the straw. Suddenly, there was that wonderful light in their eyes. Instead of making a video of the trick, the boys were fascinated by the science! They began asking questions that led us to new experiments (ones I hadn't thought of) on subsequent days. They discovered that they could get a some fluid through an 8.5 -foot piece of aquarium tubing used as a straw. This led to experimenting with a 25-foot length of tubing, with the drinker in a stairwell, sucking from a glass of juice two stories down!
At our last meeting at the end of the school year, I gave each boy a copy of my new STEM Award book How Could We Harness a Hurricane?, which includes yet another discussion of the many powers of air pressure. It’s a challenging book, but I have no doubt it will be a highlight of their summer vacation. This is this kind of learning experience that changes lives. One boy said to me, "It's an honor to have met you." I feel it was my honor to have met them.
I’m not sure how you could measure their experience on a standardized test. But I saw no evidence of an achievement gap. There was no agenda here except inherent joy of learning.
Among the most distinctive noises of the forest is the sound of a woodpecker banging away at a tree trunk. Its tattoo rat-a-tat can be as fast as a pneumatic drill. Their headache-producing activity of pecking, rapid fire, into a tree makes them the easiest bird to recognize. No other creature acts that way. And if you need motivation to get off your couch and into nature, Sneed B. Collard III’s Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes & Bagging Bugs is an irresistible invitation to grab a camera and guide book and run into a forest, any forest, and listen for yourself. Woodpeckers are such strange birds they make you shake your head. Want to know more? Collard makes you wonder and laugh at the same time:
“Why? Why do woodpeckers peck into trees so much? Is it because they hate trees? Are they full of avian anger that they’re trying to work out? Are they bored because their parents took away their videos games? The answer—or answers—turn out to be simpler than that……..”
That is the kind of writing that make this book a page-turner.
It is also testimony to Collard’s love of shooting woodpeckers, with a camera, not a gun. So many of them have brilliant coloration, especially of their heads, perhaps to make sure we notice how they use them. A woodpecker’s beak is a chisel and its head has a special tendon harness to keep it from giving itself a concussion. They peck to find food under bark and to carve out a cavity in a tree for a nest. And sometimes they peck to make noise—they drum! They drum to let other males know where they are and they drum to attract females. Who knew? Scientists record the drumming and play it back to lure woodpeckers for study. Surprise, a woodpecker will attack the loudspeakers near the human observer. Their drumming is intellectual property!
Woodpeckers: Drilling Holes & Bagging Bugs is a beautifully designed book with heavy, glossy stock pages that show off the spectacular photos of these birds feeding their young, catching flies on the fly, and slurping sap loaded with ants. Collard and his son, Braden obviously spent a lot of time working to get difficult-to-capture action photos and they share some of their hard-won out-takes with us as well.
The process of discovery, of being a naturalist, is shared with the reader. It is not quick or easy but it’s well-worth the investment. Publication is May 2018.
A recent study found that developed countries with greater gender equality have a lower percentage of female STEM graduates. With the exception of the life sciences, there is a global under-representation of females in physical and computer sciences and engineering. It’s called the “gender-equality paradox” because “while boys’ and girls’ achievements in STEM subjects were broadly similar in all countries, science was more likely to be boys’ best subject….. Girls tend to be better in reading comprehension and end up seeking non-STEM careers.” They found that the “combination of personal academic strengths in reading, lower interest in science and broader financial security explains why so few women choose a STEM career in highly developed nations.”
So how did I wind up in science when I was a girl? Here’s the story I figured out about what happened: I recall being about 10 years old, listening to a friend of my father’s telling me about “when I was a boy…..” The specifics of his narrative are lost to me now, but I remember thinking while he was talking, “His childhood is not like the childhood I know. He’s not remembering it correctly.” I figured that I was an expert on that subject because I actually was a child at the time. In that moment, I made a covenant with myself that I would never forget what it is like to be a child. (Most good children’s book authors write for the child they were, as do I.) I had independent thoughts, which I kept to myself, including thinking I was smart. And I wondered how I would ever reach a point when people might listen to me when I shared my thoughts. After all, I was only a girl and had internalized the zeitgeist that boys were smarter than girls. Would my ideas ever be of any interest to anyone else?
I discovered science in the seventh grade. I was blown-away by its authority. The big ideas of science were backed by empirical evidence that any doubter could verify for herself by replicating procedures. I struggled to understand it on my own, reading The Universe and Dr. Einstein, by Lincoln Barnett when I was twelve. If I talked about science, I wasn’t sharing my ideas. I was speaking truth. Thus, the authority of science became mine. When I went to college, I was advised not to go into science because they didn’t want to waste that kind of education on a girl who would marry, have kids, and probably never use it. When I transferred to Barnard, a woman’s college, I became a Zoology major because I hadn’t taken the prerequisites for a physical science major. I once thought that if I had to do it over again I would become a physicist. But, be reassured, I have no regrets about my career choice.
If you’ve read this far, it’s obvious that at least you are interested in what I have to say.
The heavens and the sea have been there for all to observe for as long as there have been people. We could only imagine what each was really like because we were stuck on the surfaces of the earth and the sea. But in the last couple of centuries limitations began to be overcome, and now Jennifer Swanson has written a book about exploration under the sea and into space by people who actually GO there.
Swanson’s new Astronaut/Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact is a fascinating compare and contrast discussion of the challenges each environment offers the intrepid explorer so that interested kids can start thinking about preparing to join future expeditions now.
Both environments are hostile, indeed deadly to humans. Both require suits that bring along air, insulation from temperatures outside of human tolerance, and protection from extreme pressure changes. Space, as a vacuum, could cause an unprotected human to explode and the deep sea can crush and force unwanted gases into the blood. Each environment can only be entered with extremely complicated highly-engineered craft, where daily life—eating, sleeping, even going to the bathroom-- requires new skills. The amount of education and training needed to become an astronaut or an aquanaut is formidable.
But the lure of the unknown produces many wannabes. Aquanauts have discovered living things in boiling sulfurous hot-spots and frigid waters at black, sunless depths. It is amazing that any kind of creature can live there and thrive. The photos in the book give you a glimpse of some of these fantastic creatures. Their existence also hints at the possibility of life on some members of our solar system with their environments hostile to us but perhaps not to some other forms of life.
And for those who think developing the technology to go to places where they would never want to live is a waste of money, there is another side. Jennifer Swanson shows how many improvements in modern life from breathing equipment for firefighters to nanotech swimsuits are the outcomes of the science and engineering of space and sea.
One thing I love about this book is that every once and a while, Jennifer Swanson includes a simple activity that illustrates a scientific principle or challenge a reader needs to understand some of the knowledge and skills such exploration requires. This integration of hands-on activities at a point where it connects to exposition is the way I think all science books should be written.
Astronaut/Aquanaut is a challenging book to read. There is a great deal of information packed into each page. Yet it is compelling. I believe that there are plenty of intelligent, ambitious kids out there who dream of exploration and will savor every word of this book.
*Award-winning author of more than 90 nonfiction books for children, mostly in science.