EdFix Episode 32: A Scientist's Take on Education Research

Dr. Holden Thorp believes that education research is as crucial as research in the “hard” sciences—a surprising perspective coming from the Editor-In-Chief of the Science family of journals, a chemist by training, and former Chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill. He warns that scientists' tendencies to emphasize facts and memorization has led to a lack of appreciation for the critical role of pedagogy and a public misunderstanding of how knowledge is produced. These oversights have real-world implications, from the politicization of curricula in AP courses to the spread of misinformation about climate change and public health. Drawing on his extensive experience in science and education, Dr. Thorp shares his insights into what the scientific community can do to get its house in order.



We need to be united - that research in the humanities, social sciences and the sciences are all important, and one is not more important than the other.

Welcome to EdFix, your source for insights about the promise and practice of education. I'm Michael Feuer, your host, and today I have a very special treat in store. It's going to be a conversation with a friend and colleague, Dr. Holden Thorp. Holden is the editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals.

Before coming to Science Magazine and the Journals way back in 2019, Holden was the Provost at the Washington University in St. Louis for about six years, where he continues to hold the Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professorship in chemistry and medicine. Holden spent, in earlier parts of his career, a good amount of time at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he actually served as the Chancellor from 2008 to 2013.

Holden is a very familiar name in the world of science. He is an accomplished chemist, has studied things such as the electron transfer reactions of nucleic acids. His developed technology with respect to DNA chips and has co-founded a company called Viamet Pharmaceuticals. An accomplished author, writer, researcher, and now I dare say one of the most vocal and influential science writers and editorialists that we have.

Holden was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is a very distinguished accomplishment, is a member of the National Academy of Inventors and also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Well, Holden, welcome to EdFix. What a pleasure.

Thanks, Michael. It's great to be here.

Well, let me get right to it. As a scientist working, not necessarily in the social sciences but near, what's your sense of the reputation of education research and its significance?

Well, unfortunately the reputation is not what education research deserves because there is a lot of skepticism among the scientific community about research and education. I disagree intensely because I got to learn, for several reasons, why pedagogy and epistemology and all these things are important and how scientists have a tendency to pretend like they don't need to know all that.

The most important way that I learned that is that I got to take care of two great education research programs. One was when I was the chancellor of the University of North Carolina. We have an excellent education school there and my colleagues in education taught me all kinds of things that most scientists haven't taken the time to learn. And then when I was at Washington University, there, it's even more focused on research because there's not a school of education, but there's a Department of Education in Arts and Sciences that focuses on research much more than teacher training or anything else.
And then I also had an experience that always surprises people, but my first administrative job at the University of North Carolina was running something called the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. There's a very unusual story as to why the University of North Carolina has a science museum, but it's because in the early days of planetariums, it wasn't so obvious that planetariums would be at freestanding science museums. And so there was one given to the University of North Carolina and it was always this outlier.

And the chancellor, James Moeser, asked me to go over there and figure out what to do with the whole thing. We had to make it successful because trips to that planetarium were something that every school kid in North Carolina did. And so politically, there was no choice but to make it as good as we could. And I went to it completely cold, as far as elementary education is concerned, but I hired some serious elementary education people to work with me. And every time I tried to just cram more science into either our camps or the shows, they were constantly reminding me that you can't just do it that way.

At one point, when I objected to too much time for dodgeball during our camp programs, a very experienced elementary education person looked at me and said, "They're in the third grade." Scientists though, even with their own kids. And actually one thing I noticed was that it was always the scientists who would come and say that our programs didn't have enough didactic material in them. And that is something that anybody who understands the basics of pedagogy and child psychology and all that, would know is not a good way to do stuff.

I've been fortunate that I've got to connect with a lot of outstanding education researchers and people who have benefited from education research, and I'm happy to be here to promote the idea that more scientists should take the time to inform themselves about this.

I just want to press on this point that comes out of your experience with the planetarium. In the world of education generally and in science education, maybe particularly, there has been a move toward more of what we'd call experiential learning and of engaging young people into a love of science, not through lecturing and having them memorize a lot of scientific information, but that the experiential part of it is a way to really nurture what is viewed by some scholars as quite natural instincts in young people for discovery, for experimentation, and for learning by doing. From your stance, watching what's going on, for example in Science Magazine, I'm just curious what you think the status of all that is.

There has been an overemphasis on memorizing scientific facts and even, excuse me, at the higher levels on mastering material that one could teach themselves if they wanted to. And what's been sacrificed in lieu of that is a love of science because grinding through didactic material and plugging and chugging and formulas, isn't what scientists actually do.

So if you want to be a scientist, then you really don't know what that is. I didn't have a clue what research really was until I decided that my medical school application would look better if I put undergraduate research on it. Then I went and found out what research actually was and I decided not to be a physician.
 So that's part of it for sure, but there's really an even more important part, which is this act of pumping material into young people's minds, precludes explaining to not just the future scientists of the world, but the public in general, that science is a process and it's a social activity.

So for example, evolution didn't become knowledge the day that the origin of species showed up in the English bookstores. Evolution became knowledge over the following 100 years or more as people worked out the molecular basis of evolution and as people debated what the fine details of it and lots of other people did experiments that validated that evolution was a guiding principle in biology.

That's how something becomes knowledge. It doesn't become knowledge because one person pushes a button and sends a paper to our journal. It becomes knowledge because of a social process. And that social process is so mysterious to the outside world and a lot of the problems that we have now with people not accepting the reality of COVID, COVID vaccines, climate change, this is all because of this misunderstanding of what the scientific process really is.

Science, whatever we say about science is what we know right now and what makes it exciting and fun and what makes my job the best job in the world is the fact that we get to change it. And when we change it, not only is it not a bad thing, it's the best thing because if we aren't changing it, then we're not really doing science. We're just memorizing a bunch of stuff out of a book or reading things out of a journal. And the fact that we take young children who have a wide-eyed fascination with the world and poison them by bludgeoning them with formulas and facts that seem arbitrary to them, not only hurts their love of science and selects for people who can get past that, but it also deprives us of the ability to explain to the public what science really is and there are serious social consequences of that.

What can we be doing to curb some of the harsh rhetoric that attends any conversations about issues such as the pandemic or climate or evolution or reproductive rights, and to encourage people to appreciate the way in which, as you put it, research becomes knowledge?

Well, the first thing is to start at home because there are a lot of things that the scientific enterprise is doing to make matters worse. The first is that we are bought into this loan genius model of science, and we have just the hardest time departing from that. We tell ourselves stories about the scientific figures that we've celebrated. We have a hard time contemplating the fact that they're not perfect people.

Charles Darwin was a sexist and a racist. You're not canceling evolution by talking about that fact. But scientists have a very hard time, for example, talking about the complexity of these scientific figures because we've bought into this lone genius concept. And we need to dismantle that in a big way, and we don't do it. We look for the scientific figures that we can lionize and canonize and instead of recognizing that this is a collective activity that we're in.

The other thing is a lot of scientists love to be the ones with the answer. And so we go on TV and say, this is what's happening, when we know good and well that we could easily do an experiment or make an observation that would change it. And I think that is a significant challenge in the way that we communicate.

And then I think the biggest is that scientific research has been elevated irrationally over the other pieces of science, over communication, over education, over science policy, over informal science education, which we've been talking about, which is incredibly important, and even over industrial research.

So it's very common when I was a provost in particular, to have graduate students come to my office torn up because they're advisor had told them that since they had decided not to become an academic researcher, that they were no longer as interesting to them as their colleagues who hadn't made that decision. That's shameful.

It's a very, very unattractive feature of academia, and we're paying the price for it because we've devalued our teachers, our museum folks, our science policy people, and our communicators. I mean, there's a famous story which I think is probably true, that Carl Sagan didn't get in the National Academy of Science because his scientific colleagues thought it was unseemly that he was on TV trying to teach people stuff. And that made him a less serious figure in their view.

This kind of attitude is something we should be embarrassed about because look at the pandemic. We nailed the reductionist part of the whole thing. We got the vaccine in record time. It works great. I had COVID a week ago for the second time. I barely tested positive. Two days later, my test was negative. I felt fine. Guess what? Hybrid immunity actually works. Five shots, plus having had COVID once before, I was in good shape. We got all that figured out. But guess what? It didn't benefit people nearly as much as it would have if we had gotten some of these other things done properly, including communicating about this. We need champions for science that we celebrate.

I mean, to me, one of the people who has the potential to help us with this more than anyone else, is Dolly Parton. She's pro-science. She has people on the right and left who follow her. She's incredibly good at engaging with people and communicating. She says things that are pretty progressive and her fans on the right, don't give up on her. And I nominated Dolly Parton to give a plenary lecture at the AAAS meeting, and the committee that considered her, rejected that idea out of hand and that's not good because we need Dolly Parton and we need Tony Fauci and we need other people who are good communicators, better than we are, to devote themselves to this.

So of course, there's all kinds of bad things that are done by Joe Rogan and Donald Trump and Jim Jordan and all these people who are trying to spread misinformation, and members of our own scientific community who conspire with them. But first things first, we got to get our own house in order, and we're nowhere close.

But recently, there was another example of the politics of education, which has to do with the extent to which elected officials can try and succeed in interfering with the development of curricula in areas that are really not their expertise at all, but that they're approaching because of ideology or partisan politics. And this of course, came up with the recent kerfuffle over the AP revision in the curriculum. You wrote about this. Share with us a little bit, your sense of what was going on there and what your sense is of maybe what comes next.

Right. We're talking about AP African American Studies, and I mean, again, if I hadn't become an administrator, I probably wouldn't have learned that much about this, or at least, I would've had to make a special effort to do so and that's one problem with this. But as a Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Provost and a Chancellor, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the difference between American history and African American history and African American studies. These are all different things. And the College Board, which we can get into them and their testing and all that stuff too if you want, but let's take it for the moment that it's a good thing to have AP courses and AP tests.

They made a good decision, I think, to decide to have an AP African-American Studies course, but they didn't call it African American history. They called it African American Studies. And when it was known as Black studies, it was born in activism. Black studies is a activist driven subject. It was born out of student pressure on administrators to do a better job of inclusion and equity when it comes to Black students. And it was born out of Black faculty who felt that their activism was inseparable from their scholarship.

Okay, great. Let's teach that to seniors in high school. I'm definitely for that and certainly for teaching it in college. But of course, what happened was, when the College Board went down this road and put the right class together, conservative states, and of course Florida, which is trying to be the, I don't know what you want to call it, the place where woke goes to die, according to the governor, decided that all this activism stuff starting in around 1970 when the writings of James Baldwin and Malcolm X were assimilated, and where Kimberlé Crenshaw and others started putting together the ideas that led to critical race theory, that this is not something that was welcome in the classrooms in the state of Florida. And eventually, that certainly spread to Texas and other places.

And the College Board decided to take a lot of that material out of the course and make it optional. So that optional means it's material that can be considered in Massachusetts, but not in Florida. And the College Board tried to come up with some not very believable rationalizations as to why they did this, and I think it would've been better for the college board to say, okay, look, we're going to do the class that we think is right, that's consistent with the sociology and history of Black studies.

And if Texas and Florida don't want to take it, then too bad because eventually you hope the students and parents of those states will pressure their governments to take a more progressive view of the world. And at least, you have a course that is consistent with this discipline, that where it is being taught is what the students are getting.

But of course, the College Board, the cynical interpretation would be they want the test fees from every state. The slightly less cynical interpretation would be that they don't want to anger the state governments in these states for other reasons. But for whatever reason, they took a lot of the material and made it optional. And so if you just follow the required material, you get to the Civil Rights Movement, you get to 1970, and then you jump to Barack Obama, Mae Jemison and Colin Powell and 50 years of activism and the theoretical underpinnings of it are only there if you decide to go into the optional material.

As you wrote in one of your recent logs, this politicization of something like the African studies curriculum has implications that go beyond that specific set of issues. And as you put it, if politicians can paint academics as master indoctrinations around Black history, they can do the same thing with issues such as climate change, evolution, and public health. I'm just wondering whether your colleagues in the, shall we say, hard science community have reacted to this, and are you finding a robust surround of like-minded scientists, who are as worried about this stuff as you are?

Well, first of all, let me say, watering down Black studies is bad in its own. So that was an argument to appeal to people who may not be focused on that particular question. This gets us back to where we started this conversation in a way, and that is to say that the ability to pick and choose topics in this realm is no different from the ability to pick and choose topics in science.

And if we break away from each other on that, then we're giving the people who want to undermine us a way to get the camel's nose into the tent. And so we need to be united. The research in the humanities, social sciences and the sciences are all important, and one is not more important than the other. Because if you give on that, you're giving people the opportunity to start to chip away at the general edifice of knowledge, and that's not a good thing.

But if you look at what is being done here with Black studies, for example, I mean now the Florida Bill, there's a Florida Bill that doesn't just outlaw Critical Race Theory. It outlaws all of Critical Theory, everything Critical Theory. Okay, well, essentially all of research in the humanities is Critical Theory, one kind or another. So what they're basically saying is that there's no research left to be done in the humanities, that you get to 1970 and we've stopped. We've gotten enough textual analysis of Shakespeare sonnets and English literature, so let's just stop.

So now we're going to say to the humanities, well, you get to teach the canon, but you don't get to do cutting edge research in Critical Theory and anything else you find to be important. That's like saying to science, you don't get to study CRISPR. And so we have to lock arms and resist this. Researching the humanities is important, and researching science is important, and they all lead to knowledge eventually. And if we stop trying to produce knowledge, we're in big trouble.

Hearing about the importance of the humanities and the social sciences as being so central to knowledge production and the human condition, coming from a chemist is very soothing. You've mentioned in passing, some things about your own past that got you to where you are today. But I just think for our listeners, it would be nice to hear just a few more sentences about what memories from childhood you can connect to where your career is and how it evolved. If you want to share a little bit of that with us.

Yeah. Well, I grew up in the theater. My mom ran the community theater in my hometown for 50 years. I was a bad actor, and so that meant I had to learn how to fix everything at the theater and also to contemplate in more detail in some ways than even the people in the plays, what the meaning of drama is and literature and all of that. So that has a huge effect on me. One of the things I learned to do during that time was to be a musician, because it turns out the musicians get to go home after rehearsal and the lighting guy has to stay and climb on ladders and stuff like that. So once I got to the point where I could play in the pit, my life got a little easier. But I also ended up learning a lot about music then.

And I didn't really think about science until I had a really great high school chemistry teacher who took an interest in me. And I didn't think about this at the time, but I was in North Carolina, and my year was the year that started with busing after Brown versus the Board. So I was the first class to graduate from public high school in North Carolina with a full 12 years from that. And the high school that I went to was this strange, but in my opinion, very good mix of people from the wealthier part of town and people from the more strained parts of town economically, and of course, racially mixed as well. And that made for an important experience for me that unfortunately is no longer there.

My former high school has undergone this resegregation thing, and it's mostly a Black high school now. So that had a big effect, that's apropos of things we've been discussing today. And then many of those things that were outside the disciplinary part of chemistry prepared me well for the tasks that I've had later on. So I feel very privileged to be the Editor of Science because it helps that I know a little chemistry, but the fact that I'm a musician, grew up in the theater and did administration where I had to work with all these other disciplines, those have all had profound impacts on me, and I feel like I get to use almost all of it now, which is really fun.

I just want to say what a pleasure it's been. Thank you very, very much for joining us today on EdFix. I would encourage our listeners to google Holden Thorp and follow the ongoing flow of knowledge, and as I said, passion for improving the condition of education, science education, public trust in science. These are the things that are going to make our democracy survive.

If you enjoyed this episode, which I know you did, you can subscribe to EdFix on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, iHeartRadio, Player FM, or wherever you like to listen to your podcasts. We have a website called edfixpodcast.com. Special thanks to our all time communications guru Touran Waters. In the meantime, Holden Thorp, thank you ever so much.

Michael. Thanks. It's great to be on with you. And thank you for all you're doing.

My pleasure.


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