More specialization: please and thank you!

A new report on education from the National Research Council “offers new framework to guide K-12 science education,” and advocates for a shift in the philosophical framework undergirding the US education system:

The new framework is designed to help students gradually deepen their knowledge of core ideas in four disciplinary areas over multiple years of school, rather than acquire shallow knowledge of many topics.  And it strongly emphasizes the practices of science – helping students learn to plan and carry out investigations, for example, and to engage in argumentation from evidence.

I agree that there are problems with science education in the U.S., problems that largely stem from under-educating our high schoolers. But I disagree that increased specialization is the answer. High school is meant to be an exploratory phase, as well as preparation for potentially entering the ‘real world’, i.e. the general workforce. Breadth is especially important here; I cannot count the number of times I was thankful in high school for being introduced to a subject about which I either had no knowledge or expressed no interest.

The broader issue at stake is not how scientifically literate our population is (though basic scientific literacy is by no means a trivial issue), but how our education system ought to be structured. Is it better to educate broadly early on, or should we be pushing our youth to specialize and study in depth to prepare them for an increasingly competitive and limited job market? How much knowledge is enough for a ‘basic’ education? And even more fundamentally, what makes an education valuable to the youth of today?

In a time of rapidly changing social, political, and economic landscapes, rethinking the role and organization of our public education system is going to require more than simply an emphasis on scientific literacy. What makes the scientists of past eras innovative and legendary is not just their scientific talents; it’s also that they were educated as whole people.



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