Should students behave like mini scientists?Posted: August 7, 2016
In my last post, I sought to outline some of the reasons given to persuade us to abandon traditional teaching methods. In a comment on this post, someone called Jonathan noted that I had missed out a key argument: the way that we learn a field should replicate the way that field is practised.
This is a very common argument. It confuses pedagogy – the way we teach a body of knowledge – with epistemology – the way that a field gains new knowledge. It manifests in schools in the form of asking history students to analyse sources or science students to conduct investigations. In this piece, for instance, Jo Boaler seeks to contrast the way that a maths PhD student practises her subject with the way that maths is traditionally taught.
It is basically a non sequitur. Why should these two very different modes be the same? Paul Kirschner has written a chapter on science teaching that takes this argument apart and Dan Willingham has a chapter in ‘Why don’t students like school?’ that deals with the same issue.
I want to reflect on a slightly different point. Even if it were desirable to conflate learning with doing in this way then I think that the conclusions that are commonly drawn profoundly misunderstand what professional scientists, mathematicians and historians actually do.
For instance, what role for conferences? If I am a scientist who makes a discovery, I don’t set up a lab and ask my peers to come along and investigate the same phenomenon for themselves. This might be great for replications but it would be a little inefficient. Instead, what tends to happen is that I go to a conference, stand in a lecture theatre, present my data and arguments and then take questions (not statements, people!) at the end. This has similarities with traditional forms of pedagogy. In other words, scientists seem happy enough to explain things to each other without feeling devalued as scientists.
And it’s not all about the experiments. I’m now over a year into a part-time PhD. I’ve conducted two experiments so far. Before I could even start I had to go through the arduous process of obtaining ethics approval. I’ve also been working on my literature review as well as some coursework units in statistics.
If we want to replicate the experiment part then what about the rest of it? What would a literature review even look like in a high school science class?
For instance, imagine the students are investigating how the size of marble chips affects the rate of reaction with hydrochloric acid. This is a classic investigation because it demonstrates both the need for a fair test and the effect of surface area.
Yet I’m not sure that this experiment was ever conducted as an original piece of research. I suspect it was developed for its pedagogical value. What literature could a student review, understand and write-up that didn’t simply tell her what was going to happen?
Instead, I think we dwell upon a romantic view of the fields that we are attempting to replicate and this advances us little.
I certainly do believe that structured and guided experiments have a role in science education. And the same may be true of the equivalent activities in history and maths class. Experiments can be memorable and can demonstrate key points. They also have affective value – I’ve taught a few excitable students, fresh to high school whose first question is, “when are we going to get the Bunsen burners out?” If needs be, I am happy enough to sacrifice some pedagogical efficiency for the sake of variety and enjoyment.
But we should not kid ourselves that we have a room full of mini scientists. In fact, maintaining this fiction is probably the easiest way to suck any joy out of the task.