“One science question”

Both RPM and Chad beat me to posting this survey [edited to add: and Janet too! Freakin’ quick triggers…] which I’ve had in my drafts box for almost 2 weeks now. So, before absolutely everyone else beats me to it, I thought I’d pose the questions to y’all, and see how you would answer the question, “What is one science question every high school graduate should be able to answer?”

Here were the questions offered by the experts:

1. What percentage of the earth is covered by water?

2. What sorts of signals does the brain use to communicate sensations, thoughts and actions?

3. Did dinosaurs and humans ever exist at the same time?

4. What is Darwin’s theory of the origin of species?

5. Why does a year consist of 365 days, and a day of 24 hours?

6. Why is the sky blue?

7. What causes a rainbow?

8. What is it that makes diseases caused by viruses and bacteria hard to treat?

9. How old are the oldest fossils on earth?

10. Why do we put salt on sidewalks when it snows?

Extra credit: What makes the seasons change?

As others have pointed out, several of these seem pretty dang trivial. I mean, the percentage of earth that’s covered by water? Is an approximation good enough, or do we need to cite the 71% they say is the correct answer? Similarly for question #9 about the oldest fossils–I’d settle for the average Joe suggesting “a billion years old” or “a couple billion years;” at least it shows they know we have fossils that were formed, in geologic time, not all that long after the formation of the earth. And honestly, I think their answer to #8 really sucks.

I understand the impetus for stories and surveys like this–“ooh, look at all the hard stuff we expect our kids to know and be tested on, but we adults can’t answer anymore!” Or, just to show that as a population, indeed, we suck at knowing scientific facts. And you’ll get no disagreement from me on that point–but is knowing the “facts” the most important part? I don’t think so.

For me, it’s kind of like that old “give a man a fish” proverb. Give someone a limited set of facts, they may “get” the problem they’re working on–but that may not teach them about anything beyond that little knowledge box. Teach them how to use the tools to solve their problem (or at least, how scientists go about finding things out), and you’ve given them a lifetime of fish, to mix a metaphor or three.

Still, that requires providing a decent amount of base knowledge, and building understanding on top of “facts” like the ones mentioned on the list. So–what would y’all recommend as the bare minimum–the science question every high school grad should be able to answer? And how do you get there, especially if it’s something that doesn’t have a rigorous, concrete answer (such as RPM’s questions of “what is a theory? what is a hypothesis?” etc.)

49 Replies to ““One science question””

  1. Mr Gee used to come into the class, point at you and say:

    “Oi, You! What’s an Amp/Joule/etc?”

    You’d get shit if you didn’t know, or came up with some load of garbage about it “being a unit of electrical current/energy/whatever”.

    It worked: I still know.


  2. “What is the scientific method?”

    If the general public truly understood this, intelligent design would not be taken seriously by anyone.

  3. I agree with your comments here. Indeed, the fact that these are listed as things kids should know feeds a very destructive notion of what science education is– that is, memorizing a lot of facts. At Vanderbilt, we get a lot of good undergraduate students, meaning they all scored well on the SATs and got good grades in school. However, many of them come into my intro astronomy class thinking that they will be able to really well because they can memorize all the terms out of the textbook and the answers to the questions at the back of each chapter– and it generally doesn’t work.

    Science *isn’t* a collection of facts. High-school science education is woeful in this country, but we aren’t doing it any favors by listing a collection of facts we think kids should know. Indeed, that only feeds the woefullness that still exists for the “high-end” kids whose education was better than many.

    Yes, you need a base of knowledge to be able to go forward, yes, we all need to stand on the shoulders of giants… but facts are things that can be looked up if they aren’t memorized. Understanding how to use and process those facts isn’t something that can just be looked up.

    Now, to be fair, not all of these questions are factually based– but they are generally more fiddly than a general understanding of science. As an astronomer, I like the year/day length question, as it does get at orbits. Some of the other questions aren’t bad. But you’re right– anything between 2/3 and 3/4 should be a fine answer for the percentage of the Earth covered by oceans, and “billions of years” should be fine for the oldest fossils.

  4. A decent, general understanding of the principles of science won’t come with a couple of high school classes. It comes from years of education and paying attention to things outside the class. I got a pretty good education about a lot of things by reading magazines, books, newspapers, cereal boxes and everything else I could get my hands on.

    Understanding requires a store of knowledge. Everyone seems to be badmouthing these questions because ithey are just a list of facts, or “trivia.” But if you don’t have at least a passing acquaintance with these fairly simple facts, how likely are you to be able to speak intelligently about fundamental concepts in science or any other area? These facts, or some variation of them, are things everyone should pick up as they go through school. As such they are not an unreasonable measure of general knowlege.

    But why ignore history and other disciplines? Here are some other possibilities:

    — Name at least two countries that fought on each side of the conflict in WW II (the “Allies” and the “Axis”).

    — Give the date of the beginning of the American Civil War within 10 years. A bonus question for the truly stupid: Who won the American Civil War?

    — Give a general definition of an economic depression. And a bonus: Give the commonly-accepted date of the beginning of the Great Depression of the 20th Century within 10 years (I even give a hint).

    — What are the first ten amendments to the US Constitution called?

    — How many branches of government are there in the United States, and what are they?

    Here is one I think every American should be able to answer: What are the five enumerated rights in the First Amendment to the US Consititution?

  5. I think high school graduates should be familiar with Carl Sagan’s boloney detection kit.

    I love their answer to the extra credit question:

    “At certain times of year the top half of the earth leans to the sun…”

    So my next question would be, “For extra, extra credit, which half of the earth is the top half?”

    Their answer to number 5 is a bit off. The length of a day is about four minutes longer than Earth’s rotation period because the planet revolves about one degree around the sun (1/365th of its orbit) every 24 hours. I wouldn’t consider this too technical for high school students.

    Gah, guess I’m in a really pedantic mood this morning.

  6. One question seems pretty inadequate. How about one question per major domain of science (although, obviously, you can argue about which ones are really “major”…)

    I’ve tried to pick questions that tie into major themes or unifying concepts of the science in question, not just surface details. That’s why basically all of them are “how” or “why” questions: understanding the mechanisms is more important than just being able to describe the results. (All are intended as essay questions. Multiple choice is quick to grade and may be OK for demonstrating fact memorization, but can’t demonstrate understanding.)

    Astronomy: What causes the phases of the Moon? (requires knowledge of the movements of the earth-moon-sun system; What causes tides? would work too)

    Physics: Why does a gun recoil when it is fired? (action and reaction, conservation of momentum, how the same forces act on the small bullet and the large gun. How does a rocket work? would be good too.)

    Chemistry: Why is fire hot? (Requires knowledge of chemical reactions, the role of energy and how it can be released by reactions, and depending on how detailed the answer is, what it means for something to be hot.)

    Geology: Why does the east coast of South America look so much like the west coast of Africa? (The question seems trivial, but the answer requires knowledge of plate tectonics and at least some of the age of the earth. Why are there so many volcanoes around the Pacific? or What formed the Himalayas? would work too.)

    Biology: Why do ostriches have wings even though they can’t fly? (Or substitute any other vestigial organ. The point is that the answer involves common descent with modification. I think the fact of such descent is even more important than the mechanisms by which it happens.)

    Medicine: Why don’t people get smallpox anymore? (Ok, I admit it, this one has an agenda. Understanding the answer will necessarily mean an appreciation of the usefulness of vaccination and herd immunity. Why is AIDS so dangerous and hard to treat? would also explore the importance of the immune system and how it works.)

    Psychology: How does advertising work? (Discusses some of the ways to convince people other than with facts, what a subconscious attitude is, and in general how human unreason can be taken advantage of. This sort of has an agenda too, getting the student to be more aware of the potential failings and vulnerabilities of his/her own mind.)

  7. Oops! How did I forget history?

    History: What caused the Crusades? (Greed, religious bigotry, and ruthless and/or stupid leaders, mostly. Which just happen to be the cause of a whole lot of other wars throughout history and today. I don’t know if history really has a unifying concept the way biology does, but the way whole countries get led into wars and other calamities by dishonest or stupid leaders has got to be up there. That makes this another agenda/consciousness-raising question, I guess. Picked the Crusades as exemplar because lots of people have an emotional tie to one side or the other, even 1000 years after they were fought.)

  8. I find Mark Paris’ questions disturbingly American-centric. I can’t answer half of them – I was never required to learn them! Please try to remember that there is more to the world than the chunk of land you’re standing on!

    How would you feel if you were asked the years, plus or minus 10, of three European countries’s civil wars? (you can pick the countries). For bonus points, repeat for every other continent.

    Hope that helps,

    Grey Wolf

  9. A lot of good questions, but it’s like giving a phd qualifying exam for a high school graduation exit exam. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but realistically it will take a long, long time before we get to the point that a typical high school gradudate could give a reasonable answer to some of these questions.

  10. Is the answer given by the NYT to number 10, about salt on sidewalks, even _true_? It sounds like doubletalk to me: “increases the number of molecules on the sidewalk surface.” But no _mechanism_ is mentioned: why should an increased number of molecules “make it harder for the water to freeze”? (Not to mention melting ice that is already formed!) Thoughts: (1) Salt doesn’t have to be “on the sidwalk surface” to melt ice: a chunk of salt sitting right on top of the ice will melt down in. It’s about the interaction between salt and ice, not about “sidewalk surfaces” (which appears to mean “the concrete surface” in this doubletalk answer). (2) Very large numbers of molecules are already in contact with the ice: O2, N2, for example. But they don’t melt the ice. You could spread olive oil over ice and it wouldn’t melt. It’s got to be molecules that are soluble in water and lower its freezing point dramatically–doesn’t it? Heck, you could spread WATER over ice and have “increased numbers of molecules” down there, but it wouldn’t clear the front walk. I’m an engineer, not a physicist (pace McCoy), but the NYT answer to No. 10 seems like nonsense to me. It’s at least opaque, at least to me. Even if it’s a partial truth that can be made quasi-correct if one surrounds it with ancillary qualifications and extra information, it’s a real gibberish explanation because “an increased number of molecules” (of whatever kind) does not convey any sense of mechanism.

    Or maybe I’m full of it. If so, m’aidez.


  11. Gray Wolf, I live in the United States and most of the high school students here do, too, so it makes sense to me that a set of questions for American students concerning history and government would include some specific to this country. I do specifically say that the last question is one that all Americans should be able to answer. I also mention WW II, which, as I recall, was pretty much a world-wide event. What’s disturbing about that?

    I assume that a similar set of questions for high school students in other countries would concentrate on their histories and governments. Science questions would, of course, not vary by country, since we all share the same physics.

  12. Good questions Chris. I agree the questions should tie directly into broader concepts or processes.

    I’m a bit disturbed you think they’re too hard, Mark. Admittedly I had a far more privileged than average education (and in the UK at that), but I could have answered all those questions easily to a satisfactory level of detail and accuracy after finishing school, and I didn’t even take any science A-Levels. Certainly they’re the sort of thing we should be aiming at.

  13. I still don’t understand question #5. The number of days in a year is a function of number of rotations per revolution; these are “real” things. But why are there 24 hours in a day, and not 30 or 20 or 72? That’s entirely arbitrary. The length of a day has nothing to do with how we have decided to subdivide time, which is cultural and not physical.

    As to question #8, I would have said the difficulty isn’t so much that bacteria and viruses evolve, as that what kills them also tends to kill us. The challenge isn’t killing viruses and bacteria, the challenge is killing them without doing ourselves undue harm.

    It’s never easy to decide how questions like this should be interpreted…

  14. This reminds me of an old-time electrical engineer I met back around 1970. He told me his brother-in-law had a PhD in Electronic Engineering. “Every time he comes to the house,” he said, “I ask him a question like ‘How much current will a 20 guage wire carry?’ And, he never knows.”

  15. “Gray Wolf, I live in the United States and most of the high school students here do, too, so it makes sense to me that a set of questions for American students concerning history and government would include some specific to this country.”

    1) That’s *Grey* Wolf. Gray is a color. Grey is a colour.
    2) The topic is: questions to be put to “every high school graduate”, not American ones. As I said, there is more to the world than America. And yes, you did ask one world-type question, but that’s it. I think far more important your independence war (due to the Constitution, otherwise it is just another civil war), just as I find important the French Revolution. But everything else is very American centric, hardly the kind of question you want to ask to *every* high school graduate.

    My own history question? Dates of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. You’re not going to find more earth-shaking times than those, no matter how important your local crisis look to you (and with all due respect, the american civil war was a fairly local problem).

    Please note that the American self-centered view is a pet peeve of mine. I understand *why* you are self-centered, but just because it is natural it doesn’t make it right. A big part of your country’s education problem is your isolationism. Most of your population simply doesn’t care, or know, about the world outside your borders. That is a dangerous thing – as evident from the creationist problem, amongst others.

    Hope that helps,

    Grey Wolf

  16. Ginger Yellow, maybe my opinion of public education in the US is wrong, but I suspect that only a few good students could answer even the original set of questions. I don’t think it’s because more students couldn’t, I think it’s because we do not expect them to, so we do not teach them to. Of course in many parts of the US we have a historic social and cultural problem that has still not been fully remedied, and this problem spills over into public education.

  17. 3. Did dinosaurs and humans ever exist at the same time?

    Recently, grrlscientist posted an article about Dinosaurs In The News . It contains many pictures of dinosaurs, and links to news articles about dinosaurs. Therefore, I contend that dinosaurs and humans presently exist at the same time.

  18. Larry,

    I too had trouble with that answer about ice and salt. What *I* learnt at school is that by adding salt to ice, you increase the melting point a few degrees (it also increases the boiling point). So instead of (pure) water freezing at 0C, (salty) water freezes at -4C. Of course, if it is -10C it’s no help, but in most places, freezing temperatures are just under 0C, so it does help.

    Like the “lies to children” I was taught about rainbows and so on, I’m sure that there is more to it than that, though, so hopefully a real chemist will be able to explain the bit about increasing the surface area.

    Hope that helps,

    Grey Wolf

  19. Larry, you’re right–increasing the number of molecules is a stupid answer. As their second sentence correctly says, salt lowers the freezing point of water, which makes it melt. Water’s freezing point drops when it’s full of electrolytes (sea water freezes at -4°C), not when there’s lots of other molecules around it.

  20. Mark, I think asking for all five rights in the First Amendment is too much. I know #1 pretty well, and I couldn’t answer that question when I first read it. (I always just considered freedom of assembly, petition, and the press as part of freedom of speech.) I think it would be quite reasonable to expect American grads to be able to list two of the five. That’s not too much to expect, and Americans should know the two basics, freedom of speech and religion.

  21. A decent, general understanding of the principles of science won’t come with a couple of high school classes. It comes from years of education and paying attention to things outside the class.

    Yipes — I hope that’s not strictly true, or else we’re all doomed.

    I’m not asking for high school graduates to be practicing scienctists. But I would like them to have a better idea what science is about — that it’s not a body of knowledge (that might as well be the “revealed” knowledge of some other forms of the human endeavor) that one memorizes, produced by a “priesthood” of science. I would like them to have some idea about how science progresses. I would like them to have some idea of the scientific mode of thinking.

    If we can’t do that kind of thing in a few high school classes and a couple of general-level college classes, then really there is almost no point in teaching science to those who won’t be scientists…. But, I disagree that it takes as much as you say to understand what science is. I *have* to believe that a good general education science class can make some progress in helping non-scientists understand what science is, or the despair and hopelessness of the situation would be just too much….

  22. Rob – Well, maybe things aren’t quite that bad. The particular “general principles” I was thinking of might have been in another blog here at scienceblogs. But in general I think most people take quite a while to really internalize the principles of science. We have a lot of recent graduates with technical degrees (not all in science, unless you consider programming to be science, but at least from well-known technical schools), and I am not impressed with how much they understand when they start work. I’m a slow learner, so my observation probably applied to myself as well. I think the most we can hope for with the great bulk of high school students is a reasonable foundation of facts with a smattering of understanding and a push in the right direction. Maybe a few very good teachers can reach more, but I doubt that we have that many good science teachers. Of course, science is not all there is. A lot of people in the US also have an abominable understanding of their own government, not to mention a breathtaking ignorance of most other aspects of modern life.

  23. Well, to be fair, I couldn’t have answered original questions 6 or 9 when I left school, and I don’t know if my answer for 6 would be entirely accurate even now.

  24. On the 24 hour question, the remarkable thing is that even though the number is completely arbitrary, we’ve been stuck with it ever since the Babylonians came up with it 4000 years ago.

  25. I would want them to know:
    Where do you go to get the current scientific consensus answer for any question?

    All the other stuff is memorization. My wife had a student bring in (seriously) an article from the weekly world news for a current events article.

    The problem is, I don’t necessarily know the answer either. 8^)

  26. Ginger Yellow – “accurate” is a matter of interpretation. I know the answer (Rayleigh scattering of sunlight off air molecules is more efficient at shorter wavelengths, and this scattering is fairly isotropic, yielding more scattered blue light than other wavelengths appearing to come from every point in the sky almost equally. But not entirely equally. But why is the sky blue sometimes but not others, even when there are no visible clouds? Why is the sky somtimes brown, even without clouds? Or white?) but exactly how deep do you have to go to answer a question like this accurately? Do you need to talk about the mechanisms by which light scatters? About why shorter wavelengths are scattered more in some cases but not in others? Or is the rote recitation sufficient? Or something in between?

    I missed the fossil age question by a fair amount.

  27. Well I got all of the answers right though some of mine differed a bit from the given ones. Like the reason the sky’s blue, I gave the precise answer of Rayleigh’s scattering and such instead of more vague reasoning.

    The oldest fossil one gave me a pause. I was wondering whether they meant actual organism specimen fossils or were they including chemical signatures of biological processes which can be detected in the oldest rocks. In the end I said 3.4 billion years which isn’t too far off.

  28. Since only a minority of high school students who take science courses go on to practice science in some form, the primary function of high school science courses should be to convey not facts–they can be looked up if one needs them–but the methods of science. Yet, 99% of the instruction that takes place at the pre-college level focuses on learning facts. Science is not facts but its processes, methods, and analysis. And that’s what’s sorely lacking in most educated people like our dear president, not to make this personal. Thus when I see polls like this, I want to retch. Knowing the answers says nothing about one’s grasp of science.

  29. Mark Paris,
    Calling “Grey Wolf” “Gray Wolf” after he accused you of American-centrism is the funniest thing I have read on the web in a week. I hope you were making a funny.

  30. As others have said, understanding science is a lot more than just knowing facts. Just remembering facts is little different from what a photocopier can do.

    I was in at the beginning of the Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of Namibia (second academic member of staff). Largely because of the legacy of apartheid, students came in very poorly prepared, especially in mathematics and science (a former Education Minister said, of Blacks, ‘One potato, two potatoes. What more do they need to know?’)

    Even with a pre-university year we knew that students would leave with less information than is normal. However, after leaving university ex-students can always look up information (if they know how), but if they’re not thinking for themselves they never will. We made a deliberate decision to encourage them to ask questions and not take things for granted, and made sure they knew how to get information (and encouraged them to question its validity). Before I left several students had gone on to higher degrees in other countries and seemed to be coping quite well.

    I think questions asking for demonstrations of understanding rather than specific knowledge are more appropriate, although even here you have to be careful. One suitable question, for example, asks if, when evaluating a drug, you should give it to all 1000 subjects or just to 500 with the other 500 getting a placebo. The correct answer is of course the second (to eliminate the placebo effect) but at a meeting I remember a member of the audience saying she delved into the answers more deeply and found many people who gave the correct answer said it was because, if in fact the drug was harmful, that way you’d only kill 500 people not 1000.

    Anyway, it’s interesting (and revealing) to hear what people think are essential things to know.

  31. Dogscratcher, I did not mistype the name intentionally, and I certainly would have typed “Grey Wolf” if I had been paying attention. I would point out that I am an American; why is it funny that I would use American English instead of British English? I don’t expect people of other nationalities to speak or write like Americans. I doubt that I would have considered it worth mention if I called myself “Gray Wolf” and some British person had written “Grey Wolf.” Now if I called myself Gray Hood and he called me Grey Bonnet, I might have said something.

  32. Mark:
    “why is it funny that I would use American English instead of British English?”

    Because “Grey Wolf” is his name (nom de net anyway), not a description of him. I’m sorry, I thought you were being clever by doing that of which you were accused: being american-centric. My gammy.

  33. Yes, learning the meaning of theories took me the longest too. Perhaps since I take much longer internalising procedures than facts. But I distinctly remember that the basic areas already formalised theories was first a barrier as such. When I thought the message was that everything must be formalised which was a second barrier until I got comfortable with more descriptive areas again.

    I guess my message is that the usual learning route is set up as the “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” proverb.

    And I like to think that teaching them how to use the tools to solve their problem is to give them a lifetime of caviar.

  34. Umm, at least the usual learning route at my university. It may also depend on the type of books used, how much effect formal theories have on your perception of the methods of science.

  35. Grey Wolf, I’m sorry I wrote your name wrong. Please excuse that. I’m also sorry that I missed your response and only saw dogscratcher’s. And, to dogscratcher (if that is, indeed, your real name), I am so sorry that I disappointed you. I will strive to make no more careless mistakes.

    I wonder why it’s so terrible when Americans show their culture but only natural when everyone else on Earth does so. Perhaps I am too sensitive. Is it OK if we Americans use standard American English when we give our high school students their questions?

    I asked two world questions: Countries on which side in WW II, and start of the Great Depression, which, you might be surprised to learn, was not only an American phenomenon. It just happens to be called that in the US.

    Also, the history of an individual country is often more important to those in that country than to others, and it is more important for those citizens to know that history than for them to know the history of other countries. Not always, but often. You perhaps underestimate the importance of the American Civil War to the current state of America. I will not go into all the reasons, but suffice it that it established the supremacy of the federal government, the subordination of states and states’ rights, and ended slaver at least in law. There are many, many effects of the American Civil War that are still felt today, although many Americans do not recognize it. I think it is vitally important to America that its citizens understand their Constitution. Perhaps it is equally important for British citizens to understand their own form of government. Thus I think it reasonable to include questions specific to each country in the things that high school students know. We could, of course, agree to leave those out of this discussion, in which case I think we need to look at events everywhere rather than just Europe and America to find those cultural questions.

  36. The answer to the salt and ice question (increasing the number of molecules) is poorly worded, but is on the right track. Adding a solute dilutes the solvent, which previously existed as a pure substance. In doing so, the entropy of the liquid phase is increased (the entropy of the solid phase is also changed, as well as the heat of fusion). The result of this is that a transition to the higher entropy liquid phase is favored until the temperature lowers to the point where the liquid phase entropy is no longer high enough for melting to be favorable. This results in a lower melting point.

  37. Give a man a fish, and he will eat for one day.

    Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.

    Sell a man a fish, but make sure he can’t catch them, and he will be paying you for fish for a lifetime.

  38. To be honest reading the questions the answers and the comments (avoiding the American/British snarkiness), I would probably ask some completely different questions.

    Just one question, how about something like…
    What do you find between molecules?
    Give the kids a piece of wire, a battery and a flashlight bulb and say ‘Let there be light!’

    Not my questions though. Both of these come from the rather disturbing, but interesting Annenburg series ‘A Private Universe’ (http://www.learner.org/resources/series28.html.

    “With its famous opening scene at a Harvard graduation, this classic of education research brings into sharp focus the dilemma facing all educators: Why don’t even the brightest students truly grasp basic science concepts? This award-winning program traces the problem through interviews with Harvard graduates and their professors, as well as with a bright ninth-grader who has some confused ideas about the orbits of the planets. Equally useful for education methods classes, teacher workshops, and presentations to the public, A Private Universe is an essential resource for science and methodology teachers.”

    The series is an oldie, 1987, but most of the topics are relevant.

    Even better would be a much longer question. Explain a few of the sources, differences in use and problems between fossil fuels and something replenishable like methane or ethanol. Ask the students to explain what information is still needed to make a determination of which fuel is better and how they would try to get that information.

    My final type of question would be:
    Using science, how do you solve the worlds problems?

    Why? Easy. First, looking at the answers, you can determine what misconceptions those answering the question have about science and can adapt the teaching system accordingly. Second, you can identify those issues that really concern high school students (what they perceive to be the worlds problems).

    /snark Third, maybe, someday, some high school student will give the five line answer that really does solve all the problems leaving everyone thinking why didn’t I think of that? /snark

  39. Mark Paris:

    I wonder why it’s so terrible when Americans show their culture but only natural when everyone else on Earth does so.

    What is so terrible about a culture that creates the circumstances whereby its president decides to invade Iraq before understanding the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite? This combination of insularity, an inflated sense of moral superiority and the world’s largest military makes the rest of the world very nervous.

    If America wishes to be a major player on the world stage, it should take on the responsibility of being an informed player. This means not only having an informed leadership, but also an electorate that is sufficiently well-informed as to keep the leadership accountable.

    Also, the history of an individual country is often more important to those in that country than to others, and it is more important for those citizens to know that history than for them to know the history of other countries.

    That is understandable, but can become dangerous when it becomes too cherry-picked and white-washed. I often get the impression that your educational system emphasises America’s anti-colonial origins, but de-emphasises its widespread colonial adventures and annexations. While teaching about the successes may help engender national identity, it is teaching about the failures that allows a nation to learn from its mistakes.

  40. I don’t know if anyone else has pointed it out, but if we were to ignore time and allow our bodies to set a clock based off a natural circadian rhythm, biological rhythm, we would run on a 25 hour day. I also disagree with the whole teaching facts not understanding that occurs in the classroom. That’s one of the reasons that I want to teach high school science. Unfortunately, my state, OK, has chosen to use end of instruction tests to satisfy No Child Left Behind. As a result, teachers tend to teach to the test. At least some of the test questions require understanding facts and being able to interpret data based on that understanding.

  41. “I wonder why it’s so terrible when Americans show their culture but only natural when everyone else on Earth does so.”

    I’d be very surprised if you could guess my nationality from my opinions expressed in this thread (Hint: I’m not british, I only *write* british). In a global setting like that of the Internet, I strive to keep my comments as broadly applying as possible (when I’m not berating Americans for being Americans, that is). In particular, thinking questions anyone should be able to answer I wouldn’t gravitate towards my own country’s history.

    When thinking up questions, I did think about asking about the fall of the Roman Empire, or maybe something about the greeks, until I realised it was the same navel-gazing excercise you were doing, since I don’t see why Chinese would need to know the answer to either. That is why I eventuallly went for the two most Earth shaking events in history I know of.

    There is more to History than the last 3 centuries of American existance. There is more to history than the European rise as the centre of culture and world expansion. Like it or not, we are a global village and these questions should reflect it and allow for it.

    And please, don’t worry about the Grey/Gray thing. It has happened a lot to me, though, so it is a bother when it happens, because Grey is not a colour, it’s just the “first name” of the nom de net I have used for years. When people change it, I can’t search for it, and that is always a bother in long threads.

    Hope that helps,

    Grey Wolf, proud user of a single, constant nom de net for years

  42. “Who won the American Civil War?”

    Are you referring to the ‘War of Northern Aggression’?

    If so the issue isn’t decided yet!

    As for what is the single most important questions for students to be able to answer, I agree with previous posters that it has to concern the scientific method.

  43. GT(N)T, you said, “If so the issue isn’t decided yet!” There are some people for whom the question has not been decided. That’s why it’s still important for Americans.

    Grey(!) Wolf, I have had my name spelled Parris, Parrish, Harris and maybe even some other variations. I notice it, but I seldom complain, unless it’s some kind of official document.

    Let’s make all the questions strictly about science. Social or cultural questions are too dependent on perception and location.

    Mark Paris, proud user of my own personal name for many years.

  44. “Let’s make all the questions strictly about science. Social or cultural questions are too dependent on perception and location.”


    dogscratcher, proud itcher of canines for many years.

  45. Hmmm . . . 71% water coverage? Perhaps a good extra-credit question would be “What fraction of the earth will be covered with water in 2050?”

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