Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning Environments

Science, as a subject, can be understood in two ways; either as a set of facts about the natural world and how it works, or as a way of acquiring knowledge and looking at events in the world. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) present evidence of learning environments that successfully engender conceptual understanding of problem solving in physics and environmental science. These same environments, however, seem to lack the balance of conceptual understanding with factual acquisition. Having, at least, some basic factual knowledge about the world allows for a deeper appreciation and enjoyment of many aspects of daily life that are simply lost on individuals without such knowledge.

Due to increased technical specialization and the vast amounts of scientific claims in modern life it is essential that scientific literacy is maintained and developed as a goal of education. Every citizen in a democracy must have some ability to evaluate claims made by technocrats and other authorities which may impact his life. To effectively develop scientific literacy, educators must help their students develop an understanding of the manner in which scientists work and develop theories, as well as build a foundation content knowledge which will allow for fluency in scientific discussions.

The model learning environments presented by Bransford, et al (1999) focus almost exclusively on the understanding of scientific process skills, while allowing students to confuse details and facts. The Haitian students profiled in their study of water quality confused the characteristics of good drinking water with the characteristics of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Their methodology may have been sound, but this is exactly the kind of half-understanding that allows people to be misled by unscrupulous individuals such as advertisers, politicians, and pundits. Regular claims about the dietary benefits or pitfalls of various foods are made tenuously based on a target audiences’ limited understanding of the scientific facts behind those claims. As another example, debates about global warming are thoroughly confounded by the colloquial dismissal of “global warming” on any unseasonably cold day.

It is not enough to build abstract logic skills in a vacuum without reference to the natural world they represent. Further, descriptive science can be fulfilling in its own right. I remember learning about trees and insects and seeing the world around me as a much richer place to be in. When I walk outside, I notice the leaves and bark around me and begin to catalog the insects that fly and craw about. Based on my knowledge and experience a narrative of the environment opens up to me. I’m more aware of the world around me, and more thoughtful of it. By having a vocabulary to look at the world I conceptualize claims about the environment in a more personal manner. Hearing statistics about the diversity in an acre of Amazon rainforest has my thoughts rushing to large insect collections I have seen or afternoons I have spent by creeks and ponds, patiently collecting specimens of my own. While I have never been to the Amazon I have a frame of reference which allows me to make abstractions more concrete.

If science is to be an effective tool for understanding of the world it must couple this intimate, factual knowledge with the conceptual framework of scientific methods at every step. Science education cannot treat facts and methods as separate subjects which can be taught successively or individually. Students must practice science as scientists do, by using the methods of science to test and refine the ideas and preconceptions, the facts, they acquire.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

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