Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Its only a theory, but I don't think we can speak intelligently about science.

In consideration of the design of effective learner-centered environments I find myself reflecting on my own experiences as a science teacher. Science teachers often encounter misconceptions of small and large magnitude. Diagnostic teaching hopes to use preconceptions as a point of departure for learning in which teachers can address and challenge the ideas students bring with them (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). In science, however, misconceptions can cause a serious impediment to acquiring new knowledge.

A few typical examples of student misunderstandings in science include inaccurate use of the word, “theory,” and an inaccurate grasp of how scientific consensus is reached. These are skills which I consider to be a basic component of scientific literacy and are essential for citizens to understand and evaluate scientific claims they may encounter throughout their lives. The word theory is used synonymously with “guess” in casual conversation, and by scientists as they are depicted in movies and television. Equating theory with guess is detrimental in that it undermines the predictive power of a theory, as assessed by copious data. A theory is a strong scientific statement and represents widely accepted knowledge among experts in the field. Consensus in scientific fields is developed by a system of peer review and evaluation of new procedures and conclusions proposed by researchers. Scientists seek to push a hypothesis to determine its validity, possibly to elevate it to the status of theory. Peer-reviewed science has been criticized for being undemocratic, and in truth, it is. Scientific ideas are not judged by the number of people who like or support an idea. One carefully conducted experiment can discredit years (or even millennia) of dearly held beliefs, if it is found to be well-conducted and logical in its conclusions.

While the misconceptions listed above may seem philosophically complex to those without scientific training, it is for this very reason that I advocate a comprehensive K-12 science curriculum which builds a knowledge base of the process of science. A comprehensive science curriculum would allow secondary students to bring the prior knowledge required to assemble a logical philosophy of science for themselves.

In my first classroom experience, I was a substitute teacher in Brooklyn. I was called to a magnet school for math and science in my neighborhood and told that I would fill-in for the one science teacher in the building that day. I was not given plans, or activities, or even worksheets. I was told which rooms to be in at any given time and that was it. My first interaction with fourth graders became an exercise in Socratic teaching. I asked, “What have you been learning with your science teacher?” I was told: “I’m a scientist!” “Science is fun!” and “Everybody can be a scientist!” among other things. I discovered that the science curriculum at a science magnet school was apparently designed to reduce anxiety about science, rather than to promote understanding of science. I also discovered that fourth graders are curious about a lot of things. They bubbled over with questions about earthquakes, where electricity comes from, why clouds don’t fall out of the sky, and the nature of Spiderman’s powers. I resolved to become a science teacher that day.

Children posses innate curiosity about their world. Science offers satisfying and exciting answers to many questions which begin with the word, “why.” This curiosity should be harnessed in a comprehensive curriculum, taught by primary teachers, properly trained, which promotes the development of scientific skills and literacy which can be transferred to later grades and be used as a basis for a deep, meaningful understanding of the nature of science.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online: http://www.nap.edu/html/howpeople1/

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