In this post we reprint an essay written with two of our colleagues at Michigan State Univerity, Norman Lownds and Kenneth Poff. The essay recently appeared in SACNAS News, a publication of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

Thinking Tools, Science Curricula and Cultural Learning: Does the Disconnect Promote Poor Performance by Minorities in STEM Subjects?

It is common knowledge that Latino and Native American students tend to do poorly on standardized tests of mathematics and science achievement, and minorities in general are substantially underrepresented in science-related fields. Nobody knows why or what to do about it. We think we may have stumbled upon clues as to both causes and cures, so let us take you on our serendipitous journey to insight.

cover of Sparks of GeniusTen years ago, two of us (R. Root-Bernstein and M. Root-Bernstein) wrote a book called Sparks of Genius (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). The book proposes that there are thirteen non-verbal, non-mathematical "thinking tools" that creative people in all disciplines, including the STEM subjects, use for problem solving. These tools are observing, imaging, abstracting, pattern recognition, pattern forming, analogizing, body thinking, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transformational thinking, and synthetic thinking. In our modern society, we often tell students to observe, abstract out important information, and find patterns in classroom material, but we rarely teach them how to do it. We expect them to imagine in their minds what they've seen, and to manipulate it, but we don't explain how to learn or practice these skills. We all have had the experience that when something doesn't make sense, we get a headache or an uncomfortable feeling in our gut, yet we never teach our students to pay attention to how they feel as a clue to a problem-or its solution. We may tell them to make models, and we may have models sitting around our classrooms, but we don't teach modeling. Sparks of Genius was an attempt to get at the mysterious, personal, idiosyncratic, and often sensual ways of thinking that provide us with ideas worth exploring and communicating.

Research for that book made clear that successful scientists such as Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, and Barbara McClintock (among many others!) all seemed to realize the importance of such embodied, pre-logical thinking. Each of these scientists stated that no scientist thinks in formulae, but rather in physical feelings and sensual images that are used to empathize with the subject of study in order to play around with how it might behave under different imaginary conditions. The resulting insights are necessarily non-symbolic, embodied, subjective, personal, and intuitive, and must therefore be transformed into publicly communicable forms such as mathematics, words, or diagrams, only in an explicitly secondary process. The translation process from personal ideation to public formulations is never discussed in our STEM curricula, let alone taught through formal lessons. These oversights hobble the intellectual potential of our students and metaphorically "put the cart before the horse." All too often, we teach our students communication skills but not how to have ideas worth communicating.

textbooksSome years later, the other two of us (Lownds and Poff) decided to see how many of these "thinking tools" are actually embedded in science teaching and textbooks. After all, if the very best scientists use the entire range of "thinking tools," then we would hope that students of science are formally drilled in their use. So Lownds, Poff, and some colleagues analyzed two of the most widely-used college biology textbooks.

The results were discouraging. Only six of the tools were regularly mentioned or used in illustrations in the texts: observing, abstracting, imaging, recognizing patterns, dimensional thinking, and synthesizing. These were also the only tools practiced in the problems and exercises at the ends of chapters, though the vast majority of practice questions involved pure memorization. Transforming and modeling were rarely employed or described in either of the textbooks and never illustrated or practiced, while body thinking, empathizing, playing and transforming were never even mentioned.

So much for the methods and insights of Einstein, Feynman and McClintock!

Spurred on by the realization that the best practices of the best scientists are being ignored in our textbooks and curricula, three of us (Lownds, R. Root-Bernstein, and M. Root-Bernstein) have recently created a group to perform a formal study of the "thinking tools" in science education. Our group currently consists of ourselves and thirteen honors undergraduates at Michigan State University. We are looking at enough science textbooks over the next year to yield a statistically valid sketch of how "thinking tools" are actually employed in some representative science curricula.

Navajo knowledgeAll of which brings us to the low success rates of Latino and Native American students in STEM subjects. As part of their research, Lownds and Poff have gathered anecdotal evidence that Native American and Latino students are more likely than Anglos to be enculturated to think synthetically, empathetically and with whole body feelings. For many native peoples, every thing, whether living or not, is imbued with a natural spirit that can only be understood when the individual is in harmony (through empathy, emotion and bodily sensations) with the rest of society and with all of creation. While such thinking should be an advantage in understanding complex, holistic systems such as embryology and ecology, it is largely antithetical to the reductionist-mechanist philosophy that currently dominates the sciences and their teaching.

We believe that it is important to undertake formal studies to determine whether different cultural belief systems promote or discourage forms of thinking that determine success in science. Such studies are particularly important in light of our contention that the most creative science is done by people who explicitly utilize the sets of thinking tools rejected by the reductionist-mechanist philosophy, but which are ingrained in the cultural thinking of many minority students.

Wouldn't it be ironic if it turns out that minority students are actually better prepared to think creatively in science despite their apparent handicaps at thinking the way science curricula expect them to think? In the end, it may not be our students who need to adapt to our curricula, but our curricula that need to change to incorporate creative thinkers. Latino and Native American students may be two groups that benefit the most.

Dr. Norman Lownds, Associate Professor, Department of Horticulture and Curator of the 4-H Gardens, Michigan State University;
Dr. Kenneth Poff, Professor emeritus, Department of Horticulture, Michigan State University;
Dr. Michele Root-Bernstein, Adjunct Faculty, Department of Theater and Dance, Michigan State University;
Dr. Robert Root-Bernstein, Professor of Physiology, Michigan State University;

Thinking Tools, Science Curricula, and Cultural Learning: Does the Disconnect Promote Poor Performance by Minorities in STEM Subjects? SACNAS News, 12:2 (Winter/Spring 2010).

Reprinted by permission of Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

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