March 20, 2023

Shame on National Geographic

Wesley Fryer shared information about a new contest for teachers and kids sponsored by The National Geographic on his blog, Encourage Hands-on Science Inquiry! Winners get a trip to Australia, my second home.

Cool, right?

Not so fast!

I read Wes’ post and then the National Geographic site. I have no idea what sort of “experiment” or “exploration” a kid might do to win this contest. I know of few teachers who can do justice to the spirit of the subject matter.

Perhaps the contest is really just a sweepstakes or a lottery.

The first rule of project-based or problem-based learning is that the learner must have a reasonable chance of getting their head around solving the problem, or taking a reasonable swipe at solving the problem. We frequently fail by asking students to solve problems too adult, abstract or large for them to tackle. The other common mistake is posing a problem that is overly vague. The National Geographic contest offers no clues for what a kid might do. This invariably advantages kids whose parents or teachers direct the activity.

How many teachers know what hands-on geography is? How many kids can figure this out alone? What has National Geographic done to help?

Is hands-on science/geography merely collecting stuff? Is it experimental? How does collecting American flora or fauna connect to “understanding” Australia?

If one of my graduate students authored this challenge, they would be at serious risk of failure.

Oh yeah, be sure to wash your hands with hand sanitizer. (That’s one of the few details offered by The National Geographic)

5 thoughts on “Shame on National Geographic

  1. Gary: I agree this would be a perfect opportunity for NG to provide teachers and parents with more guidance on what “hands on science” is. I also agree the encouragement to use a hand sanitizer at the bottom of the homepage is rather silly. It is still refreshing to see students being encouraged to actually DO science (rather than just memorize facts about real scientists who got to “do science” as adults in previous years) and are in the textbook.

    I think the best clue about what students are expected to do is at the bottom of the project homepage, above the hand sanitizer exhortation:

    “Be a hands-on explorer right where you live. Collect stones, shells, leaves, bugs, and look at them under a magnifying glass or microscope. Or try exploring a creek or pond to spot frogs, turtles, and fish.”

    A teacher or parent doesn’t have to be certified and “highly qualified” to teach science in the eyes of NCLB auditors to participate. Encouraging children to go outside, explore their environment, and learn more about things which interest them seems to be the basis of this contest. I really wonder how many kids will actually enter. Where I live, it seems like many families are so busy with after-school activities that kids don’t have much unstructured time in natural environments to just play and explore, which is the ethic this contest seems to encourage.

    I would like to see the NG Society provide more ideas and support for learners regarding “hands on exploration” and inquiry based science as well. Perhaps we can make that suggestion directly to them and they’ll listen. Hand sanitizer ads aside, I think the society is sincere in wanting to promote the types of ACTIVE science activities which can be both intrinsically rewarding as well as cultivate an interest in further scientific learning. We certainly need more kids, parents, and teachers excited about science and engaged in hands-on science in the U.S., in my view.

  2. So which one of you are going to do the solution-oriented outreach to NG that Wes suggests, in order to help NG improve the challenge?

    Seems like simply sending a link to this post could do the trick.

    If this post had hyper-linked to the NG page, I wonder if the NG folks follow trackbacks and monitor them? Probably not, but you never know.

    Nice critique, Gary, and nice return of serve, Wes 🙂

  3. Why must we make so much effort to find the silver-lining in everything?

    National Geographic has a squillion dollars to hire people who know better and yet continue to churn out confusing superficial “lesson plans.”

    Why do we rely on a business deal between NatGeo and a tourism board to remind us to go outside?

  4. Actually, I think it is pretty clear… just pretty bad. Let me paraphrase. Get a camera and go outside. Find something in nature that you find interesting. Wash your hands. Take a picture of it. Wash your hands. (Hint: Hey, you can actually just find a picture on-line if you want. No need for hand washing in this case.) Write about it in no more than 300 words. Be sure to write what you find interesting. Get mom or dad to do the writing if you really want to win. Even if you don’t learn anything, the consolation prize is that you get practice writing.

    Surely NG could get better counsel on such challenges?

  5. Seems like in light of the recent Club Libby Lu-Hannah Montana fake essay, they would have more fine print!

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