Transformation, Not Information

by Dale Easley

June 2nd, 2003

We live in the information age, a time of virtually limitless information. Yet that information is often used quite ineffectively. For example, we have huge amounts of information about the health effects of being overweight. Still, nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and 20% are classified as obese. Most of us know what we need to do to lose weight—eat less and exercise more. Yet I still have a roll around my middle. My computer, internet access, multiple diet books, support groups, and PDAs have not led to my weighing one pound less. In my dad's case, it took a heart attack to transform his thinking on diet. Will that be my case, too?

Obviously, what is needed is a transformation in our thinking, not information. Information can lead to a change in our habits, but only if the thinking has been transformed first. An example is the use of car seats for kids. 40 years ago I went flying forward into the floorboard of the car when my dad slammed on the brakes. But a change in our national thinking was required to lead to requirements for car seats for kids. This change in thinking was basically that the government should pass rules to make its citizens do thing that are good for them. Now you can't take your kid home from the hospital without a car seat. We take for granted that a role of the government is to protect us from hazards beyond our control, including hurricanes, floods, toys with small parts that choke a kid, chemicals in the air and water, etc.

In order for the transformation in our thinking to occur, we had to begin to see regularities in nature—patterns that could be observed and used for prediction. The classic case is Galileo sitting in church watching the wind blow the chandeliers. From that came the pendulum and clocks. But for these observations to be transformed into models for prediction required one other thing—mathematics. Mathematics is the tool, the language, that scientists use for creating their models of the world. Observation, measurement, hypothesis, governing equations, prediction. If a hurricane is seen as an act of God punishing sinful New Orleans, we'd better just hunker down and take what we deserve. But if a hurricane is an observable physical phenomenon with governing parameters that can be measured and used in predictive models, then we can predict its path tomorrow and plan for the next 20 years with levees and evacuation routes. The latter is the scientific approach.

The use of the scientific approach has led to major breakthroughs in technology, which in turn has led to further transformation in our thinking. The telescope helped move humans from the center of the world to a spot circling one star of millions. The microscope altered our thinking on disease. DNA analysis gave us insight into the language of life. Isotopic analysis helped us determine the age of the Earth. And sonar helped us see the ocean's bottom and develop the theory of plate tectonics.

Seeing the world differently—transforming thinking—is what science education should achieve. Good science education begins with helping students see patterns and develop models of those patterns. The world is not random, but neither is it fully determined. We observe that the child looks like the parent but not exactly. The resulting theory is evolution. We observe that large chunks of the Earth's surface move around and bump into each other, creating earthquakes and volcanoes. The resulting theory is plate tectonics. We combine these theories and develop models of where oil and gas are likely to accumulate. We then drill wells to test our models. Billions of dollars are at stake on their accuracy.

Most of the information we deliver in class will be forgotten before the semester is over. However, if the thinking has been transformed, the student may later go back and access the information whenever he or she needs it. If the thinking isn't transformed, we have wasted everyone's time. Unfortunately, delivery of information, memorization, and the ability to spit it back is far easier to test for. And no doubt, some of that information is necessary. However, it is NEVER sufficient.