Should students behave like mini scientists?

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.

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14 thoughts on “Should students behave like mini scientists?

  1. chrismwparsons says:

    Yes to all this, but also the following: Scientists, Historians and (some) Mathematicians, do what they do in order to find out stuff about the world, that is then available to the rest of us as useful ‘knowledge’ irrespective of whether we then move on to make use of the skills which would allow them to discover further facts.

    • chrismwparsons says:

      … sorry – my point above is that, aside from growing new scientists, or inculcating in everybody the strategy of looking at life’s problems in a scientific way, there is the task of passing-on to people the artefacts of general knowledge that have previously been discovered.

      • Yes – this is an important point. You do not have to be a scientist to appreciate, benefit from and make use of the knowledge that scientists have discovered.

  2. Kelly Draper says:

    If we get students to plan their own experiments, asking themselves questions like “is this a fair test?” and “what sort of variables do I have, what kind of graph will that make?” rather than telling them in a recipe card, is *that* treating them as mini-scientists or something else?

    And if we don’t do conferences or literature reviews or other things real scientists do, does that make what they have been doing illegitimate? We have to go all in or get the fudge out?

    The way I was taught was: I was given experiment recipe cards and told what the results meant. I didn’t feel comfortable designing experiments until the second year of A Level.
    The way I am expected to teach (at an IB MYP school), is to scaffold experimental design to the extent that they can design one experiment and carry it out independently every year of their schooling.

    Intuitively, that sounds like the greatest plan for teaching them how science works: how can you control variables if someone has always done that for you? How can you understand the difference between accuracy and precision without having to justify your procedure in a lab report?
    But… it’s not working out like that. I don’t know if it’s because there is unfamiliar content with these experimental skills and the cognitive load is too high or if this stuff only “clicks” in A level because parts of the brain come on line. But it’s frustrating!

    My boss really believes in the mini-scientist thing (she’s an arts specialist), so I can’t have a chat with her about what’s going on with my students and how to make the most of our time together.

    • One student designed experiment per year does sound reasonable but I’m not surprised you’re struggling to make it work. Sounds like you’re in a bind. Can you give your boss some reading?

      • Kelly Draper says:

        To be able to get them to the stage where they are able to independently carry out one experiment per year, I have some sort of aspect of experimental design in almost every experiment they do.

        For example, with your marble chips example, they would be figuring out what the independent and dependent variables were, if you see what I mean. It would never just be about surface area.

        My younger students find it particularly hard to learn content alongside how science works.

        A bind is right. I wish I could show my boss some reading material! I think this discussion would be too much of an identity-threat, though.

  3. Stan says:

    It does take an amazing hubris to claim you can have high school students thinking like mini-scientists or mathematicians. Real scientists and mathematicians will spend a further 3 or more years at university in order to become novices in their chosen field.

    If someone asks you to do this with a 13 year old you should ask for similar conditions – at least 2 three hour labs a week. 20 hours of lecture time in the specific area and the expectation of 20-30 hours of study by the students dedicated to the specific subject.

    The odd thing is the people turning out real mathematicians and scientists don’t tend to be shy about saying what they want high school teachers to teach. Look at to see an example from Canada. What they ask for is proficiency in basic math skills and knowledge.

    In all the talk about preparing kids for 21st work there is little said about preparing them for first year university. You would think that would be an obvious and much easier target to aim for.

  4. I think the parallel between school science and professional science is that you have to learn about your field first – the start of my PhD was spent in the library. It’s reasonable for children to learn about what science has learned so far, but to understand the underlying principles of what science is they have to do it. Science isn’t ultimately about attending conferences or using Bunsen burners (or gene sequencers, or particles accelerators, or whatever) but about objectivity and replicability. It is essential that young scientists (and we can all work as scientists) test what they are told by their own experiment.
    Of course the problem is that if they do ever discover something new, we’ll tell them that the experiment ‘went wrong’!

    • Stan says:

      “to understand … they have to do it”. I wonder how many people who say this think it should apply to sex ed classes before a passing grade is given?

      Sure they may understand it better then but I don’t think that is what people have in mind in sex ed class. For math and physics go and look at all the problems involving trains and rockets or such and ask if the students need to actually physically implement the problem in order to understand it.

  5. Ann in L.A. says:

    Ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny.

    Pretending to be evolving scientists does not make one grow up into a scientist.

  6. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Three points:

    1. I think students should occasionally be involved with practical work in science, but the problem with most practical work in science is that students often do not know enough of the scientific background in the areas in which they are experimenting to actually see what is going on. I think that in most countries’ education systems there is a much greater role for scientific demonstrations, led by the teacher, in which students are told what they are seeing.

    2. I harbour a (probably deluded) hope that our science curriculum might also include details of the sociology of science, about how science gets done, including the importance of peer-review, refutation and replication.

    3. As for the debate about what should be in the curriculum, I think in any school subject, students should be learning both what the subject has found out, and how the subject has found that out. I do not think the latter element should ever be given more than 20% of the available time, and personally I would hope it’s less than 10%. However, it’s important to realize that as soon as people are arguing about what students should be learning, then you are into values, and empirical work is of limited value. Much of the debate is not about which methods are most effective for teaching students particular skills. It is an argument about what students should be learning. In this kind of debate, I find it helpful to distinguish four things:
    a) curriculum philosophy (what students should learn)
    b) epistemology (what it means to know)
    c) psychology (what happens when learning takes place)
    d) pedagogy (how to get learning to happen)

    Although these labels aren’t perfect, I think the elements are important, because a lot of debate in education is confusing because these things get mixed up. A good example would be “constructivism” where a theory about what happens when learning takes place is often used to entail a particular approach to teaching.

  7. Your Literature Review comments made me smile. The unlamented GCSE Investigative Skills Assessment in its final guise required the students to conduct a mini lit review to find at least two sources for the design of their experiment. The result was teachers going onto forums to ask where on earth appropriate sources could be found, because as you say they didn’t exist.

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