A couple of weeks ago I spent my first day volunteering as a costumed museum interpreter, which is not something I ever saw myself doing. I’d worked with the site director and staff before, and figured that, as an out-of-work historian, I’d see if I could help them out in any way — doing a little research or leading a few tours, I thought, but when they found out that I build furniture with hand tools, the next thing I knew I was being fitted for 1870s clothes. And so there I was on a ninety-degree North Carolina June Saturday outside a nineteenth-century farmhouse demonstrating “traditional” woodworking.
I was looking today through the National Science Digital Library’s “science literacy maps,” which are a sort of graphic organizer for science concepts, showing what concepts are related to what other concepts. A valuable resource for teachers, certainly. Even more valuable, I thought, at first glance, are the lists of student misconceptions: the things students think they know about science and have trouble unlearning. But then I started wondering about the wisdom of framing that as “misconceptions” and, in fact, about the value of this idea of science “literacy” itself.
When I was learning to cook I liked to watch Jacques Pépin. In the early 1990s he recorded a series of short videos on basic cooking techniques that the local PBS station aired every year during its pledge drive. Poaching an egg, for example, or making mayonnaise, or trimming an artichoke, or making tomato flowers. When demonstrating a technique that required learned skill he slowed it down and patiently explained it so that the viewer could see and understand what he was doing. Then — and this was the part I especially liked — he would speed it back up so that you could see what the technique looked like in the hands of a professional. “In cooking school you would do it three, four hundred times,” he would say with a shrug, “and then it will look like this.” This looked like magic, but because I’d seen it step by step, his expectation that I would emulate him at home seemed perfectly reasonable.