Summary of Leon Lederman talk from Erik Turkman's e-mail to the PWR instructor list, dated 4/21/03

Hi All,

I wanted to pass on a few notes about what, to me at least, was a very inspiring lecture, recently presented by the Future of Learning series. Nobel Laureate in physics, Leon Lederman, spoke last Thursday night [4/17] in Wallenberg Hall, addressing the topic of the future of U.S. science education at the high school level. As I am teaching a PWR3 course this quarter based on writing about science (physics in particular), I was eager to hear what Lederman had to say. The following is a summary of his argument, which was a carefully constructed, rhetorically aware presentation. His basic argument was for a new structure of science education, one which is commonly referred to as the “Physics First” movement. He also touched on some larger educational reforms, especially in funding, that he thinks need to be taken in the immediate future.

Leon Lederman Talk: Thursday, April 17, 2003
Wallenberg Hall, Stanford University
Future of Learning Series

Summary of Lederman’s Argument:

Because of an increasingly technological world and science-dependent global economy, science education should be at the forefront of high school education, and the scientific subjects taught, and their order, should be physics, chemistry, then biology, using physics as a foundation for the other sciences.

Other claims:

1) Science teachers within the same school should meet regularly to design a coordinated curriculum, ensuring that assignments in different classes (e.g. physics and chemistry) build on top of each other, using common concepts.

2) Teaching as a profession needs significant and sustained investment of resources from the federal government, making teaching both an economically viable and well-respected profession. Definite action needs to be taken to reverse the current trend towards more educational cuts.

3) Serious teacher training will be needed to further this movement, but Lederman did not propose methods for doing this.

Overview of current and proposed models for science education:

Standard Model of Science Education
Lederman called this a “19th Century” concept of science education. This is what is currently used in most high schools across the U.S.

10th Grade: Biology
11th Grade: Chemistry
12th Grade: Physics (for academically and mathematically advanced students only)

Physics First Model of Science Education
This is the position Lederman supports. A few hundred high schools are beginning to use this model.

9th Grade: Conceptual Physics: physics taught without much math (especially an understanding of atoms)
10th Grade: Chemistry (building on top of the atomic structure of elements and their molecular interactions)
11th Grade: Biology
12th Grade: Physics revisited and expanded with mathematical concepts

Overview of talk and commentary:

Lederman, as a speaker, was witty, engaging, and passionate about his topic. His presentation was a terrific model of rhetoric in action. While not only effectively using the elements of persuasion, midway through his presentation, he even stopped to do an analysis of the rhetoric surrounding the ongoing education debate. He identified a few common analogies (especially the various “war on …” analogies), and examined what he perceived to be shortcomings of the current democratic approach to designing educational systems. He claimed that, because most people in this country have spent at least 12 years involved in formal education, everyone, from parents to politicians, thinks themselves qualified to say what education “should” be like. Lederman suggested, half jokingly, that a system ruled by a “benevolent dictator” might work better, a system within which decisions could be rapidly made and quickly carried out. His opinion is that one of the major problems with education reform in the U.S. is that because everyone has an opinion, and they voice those opinions, nothing productive actually gets done. In fact, things only get worse, reducing compromises to the lowest common denominator.

While he was clearly passionate about his topic, and made convincing ethical and logical arguments for the physics first movement, he did not address broader goals of education or topics outside science. For example, one of the biggest contemporary educational problems, and we see evidence of this in our own profession, is the problem of basic literacy. Approaching science education, especially from a conceptual position as Lederman suggests, demands facility with language and abstract thinking skills first.

While I found the presentation itself interesting and engaging, it got me thinking about the relative role of rhetoric in high school education, or more precisely, the lack thereof. Does anyone know if there anything akin to a “rhetoric first” movement in high school education? I know that in classical times, rhetoric was a major component of the trivium (along with grammar and logic), but that seems to have gone the way of the Dodo. Every once in a while when I tutor high school kids, I give them a brief introduction to rhetoric, and they are invariably amazed at the potential applications it opens up and furious that they don’t get that material in their classes at school. They always ask, “Why don’t they teach me this in school?” Sadly, I have to respond with, “I don’t know.” I wasn’t taught rhetoric in high school, nor physics, but I wish I had been.

I believe someone from SCIL was videotaping Lederman’s lecture. If you are interested, you might be able to watch a recording of the presentation.