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BSIE 2010: Session 3

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education
K-12 Summer Institute 2010



  Session 3

Science, empirical inquiry, loops

Picking up  from yesterday

I see an immediate need to involve more creativity and inquiry into my lessons ... Ashley

There were students in my class with significant cognitive delays who demonstrated an amazing level of content understanding when given the opportunity to explain in their own way. I fell in love with these classes that challenged me each day to REACH their minds ... Joyce

we rarely reflect on the environment that best suits us for teachers ... Keith

during the word association today I was pleasantly surprised that many of the words that were offered were actually quite diverse ... Building off of this it would also be interesting to see how the students would respond to these word associations. Perhaps educators could learn a lot about how to alter their own classrooms with immediate unconscious student feedback? ... jpfeiffer

I hope that if my students were asked to participate in an exercise where they say the first 3 words that come to mind for education, schools and teachers, the words they would choose would reflect a positive association not just for science but for the more general categories as well ... Susan

It was very suprising to see the differences in how people responded to the words"education, school, students" and to the words "inquiry, science, conversation".  The unconscious responses for the first 3 words seemed to be more negative than the last 3 words ... To become a more effective teacher  I do believe that my unconscious thoughts need to be more in synch with my conscious mind ... Regina Toscani

From Keith: where DO those thoughts come from that don't seem to be what I think? ... Paul

I think "conversation" might have been the most important category on the board ...How are ideas supposed to be furthered if they are not articulated?  Sometimes the risk of being "wrong," whether it come from a cultural, emotional or physical barrier, is too strong to overcome the importance of a thought--this is exactly the problem affecting our schools ... Are tolerance, patience and understanding the miracle attributes needed to make our education system reach its full potential? ... Teal

By inquiring, we can look at other perspectives and find new ways of thinking and conversing, which is essentially the scientific process that molds inquiry-based education ... Recycle Jack Marine

I thought to pass along thoughts from my 10-year-old daughter, June, shared spontaneously during a walk in the park yesterday ...

"I don't like science and math.  I like fantasy.  Because I don't like things where there is already an answer.  I mean, I can be logical but I like to use logic in ways that relate to words. I liked science in preschool when it was about mixing chemicals together and seeing what would happen.  Now they call it "hands-on science," but that just means you get to hold a rock and look at it, then write down facts about it."

So, I write to affirm that what you are doing these three weeks is really important!  And to appreciate your doing it and being there to do it, in June's name ... Alice Lesnick

Science as Story Telling and Story Revision updated

Linear science Seriously loopy science

Science as rooted and tested by empirical observations rather than authority

Science is about the natural world

Science as body of facts established by specialized fact-generating people and process

Science is about objectivity

Science puts aside values/aesthetics

Science is about Truth, the provable, the universal

Science as successive approximations to Truth



Science is about discovery of what is

Science provides authority, certainty

Science/empirical inquiry as rooted in and tested by empirical observations rather than authority

Science/ei is about the inanimate, the animate, and the human

Science/ei as ongoing process of getting it less wrong locally, potentially usable by and contributed to by everyone

Science/ei is rooted in subjectivity, aspires to shared subjectivity

Science/ei uses values/aesthetics and contributes to them

Science/ei is about doubt, skepticism, the possible, the shared

Science/ei cannot establish Truth or proximity to it, as ongoing making of observations, intepreting/summarizing, making new observations, making new summaries, a continual looping between one's understanding and the world, as well as among different understandings in different people

Science/ei is about creation of what might be

Science/ei denies all authority, including its own, is about the generative capabilities inherent in uncertainty


The crack
  • Multiple stories for a given set of observations
    • 3,5,7, .... ?
  • Stories always context-dependent
    • 1+1=2 or 1+1=10?
  • Is where culture, individual creativity as well as reflective thought (formalization, deduction, induction, synthesis, abduction) play an important role
  • Observations in turn depend on stories so story choice influences future science
  • Science is as much about creation as about discovery

All empirically based knowledge is tentative, subject to revision based on new observations and/or new stories (looping)

The quality of empirically based knowledge at any given time is related to the number of observations summarized, the number of different ways of accounting for those observations (stories) that have been considered, and the imagination of those generating stories. "Objectivity"is "shared subjectivity."

Empirically based knowledge is useful in contexts similar to those that have contributed to past observations, and useful in motivating new stories, questions, and observations

Empirically based knowledge should always be treated as a foundation from which new knowledge can be created, rather than as an end in itself.

Science education, education in general?, should help to develop skills in knowledge creation rather than focus on assimilation of existing knowledge.

From this conversation:

Science, empirically based understanding, is summaries of past observations with expectations for future observations, a starting point rather than a final word.  Scientific "truth" is always subject to revision, either based on new observations or on new stories or both.  And always has an element of uncertainty to it.  Acknowledging uncertainty in existing understanding gives everybody the the ability to play a role increating new understandings. 


Trying It Out ...

Which of the following two stories do you prefer?

  1. The earth is flat
  2. The earth is round

Because of ...

  • personal observations?
  • observations made by others (personally verified or not)?
  • social stories (heard from others)?
  • usefulness?

Relevant observations:

Is one or the other story true? Have there been others? Will there be?

Which of the following two stories do you prefer?

  1. The sun goes around the earth
  2. The earth goes around the sun

Because of ...

  • personal observations?
  • observations made by others (personally verified or not)?
  • social stories (heard from others)?
  • other?

Relevant observations:

Is one or the other story true? Have there been others? Will there be others?

Scientific stories are frequently efforts to summarize the widest possible range of observations, always motivate new observations and hence new stories, should never be understood as "authoritative" or "believed in", do not compete with or invalidate other stories. Key issues about scientific stories
  • What observations do they summarize?
  • What new observations do they motivate?

Which of the following stories do you prefer?

  1. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of a previous and ongoing process of evolution consisting of random change and natural selection (differential reproductive success).
  2. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of repeated creative acts of a supernatural being with a plan and intent?
  3. Existing life forms (including humans) are as they are because of an initial creative act with a supernatural being with a plan and intent?
  4. Other?

Because of ...

  • personal observations?
  • observations made by others (personally verified or not)?
  • social stories (heard from others)?
  • other?
  • is one or another story "true"? Have there been others? Will there be? Will this story continue to evolve? (NYTimes Science Times, 26 June 2007)

Relevant observations:

What issues does this morning's discussion raise in your mind?  Put your thoughts in the forum area below.

For further exploring ...



Jessica Watkins's picture

Opinions as Evolutionary Adaptations

Wouldn't it be nice if we could blame our sometimes strange opinions on evolution?  If we could point the finger of blame at our cavemen forefathers and cry "natural selection!" in defense of whateverthought happens to pop out of our mouth at an inopportune moment?  Perhaps we can.

When you think about it, not having an opinion is extremely maladaptive.  A deer looking into the glowing headlights of an oncoming car will surely end up hurt if it doesn't decide to move one way or the other.  Constantly oscillating between thoughts of murdering and forgiving an evil, incestuous uncle leads not only to insanity, but death--Hamlet would know.  Our ancestors did not survive natural selection's choosy hand by being indecisive.  If a saber tooth tiger was about to attack, they would hurl their spears or run.  Man has survived up until now because of its ability to protect itself and carry on its lineage.

So personal, subjective opinion is a good thing.  In the context of learning and education, it is vital for students to be able to process what they're learning in a way that brings new perspective to the classroom.  By virtue of the fact that each individual person's mind has been shaped differently by past experience, it is impossible for any two people to think the exact same thought.  Therefore, it is impossible for any student's opinion not to be important enough to add to an ongoing discussion in hopes of collecting subjective views to form a greater objective "truth."  Science is as far from the "Truth" as possible because it is made up of an array of subjective opinions.  It is a human activity, constructed and conducted by humans in an effort to understand the universe.  Because humans are constantly asking questions and seeking answers, science is an ongoing process.  As long as humans are alive, they will be conducting scientific research (albeit sometimes unknowingly) and forming those vital opinions that are necessary for survival.

cdivo39's picture


Many thoughts raced through my mind during our conversation about Science in all of it's glory.  How we should look at it in a subjective way as an observation and also as a process of creating a new understanding.  I never looked upon science as being 'creative' but it is in that it allows us to create, view, write, and experience various observations and summary's.  Can we now agree or say that creativity encompasses all scientific thought and to an extent cultural understanding?  Are we all that creative?

Mattie Davis's picture

Tuesday-Session 1

I thought it very interesting to discuss how limiting the  old way of thinking of what Science is (experimenting, forming hypotheses, and then drawing conclusions) as compared to a more open-ended viewpoint.  Exact truths about what is being observed at a given moment is not always exactly the same for all observers.  Students,  as well as adults, have a need to know that individual observations are unique to each individual, based on that individual's own unique experiences.

Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

1st Tuesday AM

Former Secretary of State Schultz was featured in an interview with a PBS Host last evening on PBS News.  Interestingly enough he spoke on the merits of conversation and its importance and impact of the United States on the world.  During his term with President Regan he found that positive conversation nurtured better international relationships than the 'no/limited conversation' approach of President Carter.

Alice Lesnick's Jane summed this institute and Science for me.  Although, I prefer imagination rather than fantasy.  I t also means getting more right and positive, and less wrong and negative.

Babies' first experiences in the world include, but are not limited to, the cold, being hit on the butt, forcepts, and often other actions as their instruction to our world.  Whether or not their initial crying is ancestral I do not know.  So, reading the article, 'Minds' of Babies' will be interesting.

Note:  Science can not establish Truth, mabey only facts.

Note:  Humans have constructed Math to prove itself?  God created Eve for Adam, because it is not good for man to be alone.  Thus, via marriage, two shall become one.  This is why 1+1=2; one man +one woman=two people as 1 couple (1 set of 2).

Susan Dorfman's picture

Facts and just the facts- the irony of the morning conversation

This morning, we talked about the truth in science with a lower case t. Our classrooms will be environments for learning if we open the conversation to include our students and use all their comments to construct of a summary of our observations. The facts as stated in textbooks are the more global summaries of the observations of many, but no more valid than the summaries we construct in class with our students. Together, we will compare our summaries with the global summaries to find the truth at that time.

How ironic that later today I will be tutoring a student preparing to take an standardized entrance exam for graduate school. The test is all about facts and applying facts. There is only one answer.

Regina Toscani's picture

session 3 - Science and Inquiry

Science is:
1) Constantly changing
2) Our need to understand the world
3) Intrinsic to humans (We naturally search for meaning)
4) Part of our daily life
5) Both objective and subjective
What happens to the person whose “summaries of observations” is significantly different than the majority of others? In our society that person gets a “label” (diagnosis)!

cdivo39's picture

Science/Culture/Empirical thinking

It's interesting to note that we have discovered that Science cannot establish truth only observations and summarys of things to date.  Can we also say that of culture?  Can we argue that we cannot establish any truth in culture, only observations? Are there any truths in empirical thinking at all?

Ashley Dawkins's picture

Too lazy? / Mathematical Truths

The Motivation Factor

Thinking back to my teaching experiences one major theme sticks out in my mind: laziness. Many of my students constantly fought me to try to get out of working. With the amount of time and effort they spent trying to get out of working, they could have been honor students if it was directed toward completing assignments and learning. I did not give in to their requests and I believe they became better students because I did not.

The reason why I bring the idea of laziness up is because inquiry requires you to work. How can we encourage our students to explore, learn and break bad habits? Motivating students can be an exhausting process, but I am determined to keep trying. How will this change the way my classroom (whether in the cyber world or not) is organized and managed? I am not sure...

Using Mathematical Truths

I have been giving thought to how math is a man made construct that has definite "Truths" because the science I am most interested heavily uses math; physics. Physics uses math to calculate many things. The math equations are models of physics concepts...something seems a little funny about this relationship. It seems to be a working relationship, but it is nevertheless funny. There is something about it that does not make sense.

joycetheriot's picture

Storytelling Science?

Scientists start their thinking process while standing on the scaffolding constructed by previous developments. They take in the value of the explanations, analyze the mathematical precision of the thousands of sets of data and then seek to develop alternative ideas. Many scientists look to investigate published ideas, analyze in oder to find other explanations that will do better.

I always use the word “explanation” when I discuss science concepts. I’m wary that the word “story” might be perceived as "lie". Even hearing the word “story” instead of “explanation” adversely affects me.  I realize that the word is meant to provoke a thought process but I feel that it’s harmful to use with high school students. They already want to dispute anything that’s taught in what is considered to be a course that requires work and call it worthless information.

When I explore past “explanations” such as American Indian folklore, I notice that their account of meteorological events are a series of stories that describe a method for the community to determine what threatening weather may come their way. They are actual stories that people will remember to tell them to their children to help the community survive.

Creating “stories” may be used in current science education but what is most important is to covey  is that science is not a finished product, there are many alternate versions that we should consider and value.


Susan Dorfman's picture

Science as Story Telling

I was struck by the observation that science as story telling might be "harmful to use with high school students." I can understand this but have had a very different experience with middle school students. For them, it seemed to take the "scary" out of science. The use of story telling has made the approach to science more familiar to those students who do not see themselves as "science students." The term gives them a handle on how to approach learning the material that is the generally accepted summary appearing in textbooks and reviewed by the teacher. They feel less intimidated when they can approach the material as they would a novel in English class or a story in history class. We develop the stories together in class. While the self proclaimed "science students" don't need the handle, it is beneficial for them as well.

I have tried the story telling approach with high school seniors also. They seemed to accept the narrative approach and joined in. It did help to improve the essays they write to the questions I pose in tests and for at-home assignments.

Brie Stark's picture

I honestly believe that most

I honestly believe that most think 'science' is supposed to be a concrete, one-answer discipline.  When I'm asked by other students what I major in and I tell them about my courses, the most common remark afterwards is, 'you must be good at getting answers.'  That's not at all what science is, and I didn't realize how big of a stigmatism science held until I began working with Paul and Wil.  The fact that science is just as much a working story as is history, english or philosophy needs to be brought into the light at a younger age.  I honestly believe that the fact that science is 'taught' to be concrete at an early age discourages many individuals who are not confident in themselves to achieve only one answer and may instead prefer discussing many conclusions.  I think it's a concept that should be discussed at all periods of life, and I think it's important to understand and accept science as a story comparable to a journey: it's the journey that matters, not the end.

Wil Franklin's picture

Concrete, truth and Truth?

First, great to have you involved.

Second, I'm unsure of the idea that science does not give us anything concrete.  Yes, I surely agree that science does not reveal Truth or even truth, but what does?  Yes, concrete is only concrete in regards to a specific spatially and temporally defined scale.  But, if everything is filtered through human perception and transformed by our nervous system and finally translated into spoken or written communication, then I, like Joyce am a little concerned that we become too cavalier about science as storytelling.  So, I just would like some clarification.  How should we solve problems?  What should we base action upon?  What counts as an answer to a question?

Keith Sgrillo's picture

Paying Attention to Subconscious Thought

This institute has shed some light on the inner self as it were.  I often find that there are many contradictions in what my brain initially "says" and what I feel I actually believe.  Whether it be positive, negative, or benign, I often find there is a conflict in what my initial reaction is to things and what "I" truly believe (of course the idea of "Truly Believing" usually comes after reflection of the former).  I think it is this contradiction and inner conflict that truly helps me to learn and make sense of my world.  But it also serves as a filter for the things I allow to come out of my mouth or the actions I take.  I do believe, as it was said earlier, that it is a form of protection.  But from what I am being protected is the question.  Am I being protected from potential harmful, material world things.  Or am I being protected from my own feelings of disappointment, guilt, and/or frustration?  I assume it may be any, all, or a combination of those things.  But I am further perplexed as I try to figure out where those initial, subconscious reactions came from.  I know one can make the argument that they were both implicit and explicit cultural inputs, social, educational, as well as genetic.  But for me, it is a matter of trying to identify which of those contributed to those reactions so that I can better make sense and...who knows...maybe even control them and change them at some point. 



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