Saturday, December 7, 2013

Teaching the process of science: What gets in the way?

Ask scientists what's wrong with the way we teach science, and high up on the list is that we teach facts derived from science, but we often fail to teach the process of science itself.

Why do we fail in this way? At higher levels, we blame the lower levels -- elementary, middle school and high school teachers who only understand facts but not the methodology. At lower levels, the higher levels are blamed -- college and university professors who write textbooks and lab guides that don't convey the excitement of scientific discovery.

So what's the real story? I don't know for sure, but I have a hunch, and I think it has to do with a fear of the softer, less analytical side of the scientific method.

Most introductory science courses will discuss the scientific method including the elements described in this figure (above) -- which is similar to thousands of other "scientific method" figures. We start with a hypothesis, test it with experiments, get some results, and report the conclusions.

What's missing here is obvious to anyone engaged in scientific work...there is no mention of where the hypotheses come from. Some courses and texts may mention observation, but how does observation produce a hypothesis? Where do we see the importance of WONDER?

When searching for alternative diagrams of the scientific method, I found a well-developed blog post that discusses the wonder and failure inherent in the scientific method. Here's a link to that author's blog and the author's wonderful diagram is below.

What's wrong with putting this diagram in every textbook? Well, nothing. It would be an exciting change. Why don't we?

Observation is allowed, of course. But inspiration, confusion, fiddling -- these smack of uncertainty and failure. As noticed by many great thinkers including Kuhn, when a domain of intellectual achievement finds itself at the top of the pile in terms of status and power, people involved in that domain naturally do not want to lose their status and power.

My sense is that discussion of the uncertainty and failure so clearly inherent in the scientific process feels like it could lead to losing status and power, so it is not done. But this feeling is false, as demonstrated by demagogues and cults that repress questioning and eventually are overthrown by the reality of human wholeness. How strong is a God or a Structure that can't be questioned?

The strength that comes from transparently revealing the soft underbelly of any group of people or field of work is far more solidifying, enlivening, and powerful than any method of repression. What if our textbooks featured the failure and confusion in science? What if elementary science students made up their own, new questions? What if awards were given in science fairs for the most inspiring representations of the scientific process, regardless of the results? What if every chapter of every science textbook ended with the phrase " least that's how we think it works, but we're probably wrong?"

It seems to me that in this kind of world, science would have real staying power. And, perhaps more importantly, a shot at reaching everyone.

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