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BSIE 2010: Session 5

Paul Grobstein's picture

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



  Session 5

Science, empirical inquiry, loops, con.

Picking up  from yesterday

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? ... cdivo39

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 ... is organized and managed? ... Ashley


"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." ... Susan

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 ... 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 ... 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 .... Joyce

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 ... While the self proclaimed "science students" don't need the handle, it is beneficial for them as well. ... Susan

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. ... Brie

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? ... Wil

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)! ... Regina

Science/empirical knowledge as story, explanation, or ... construction?

Science (empirical knowledge of all sorts) results from summarizing past observations, creating expectations for future observations, and testing those (looping).   Hence, it is always subject to revision, is always somewhat uncertain.  All people need to recognize the uncertainty of empirical knowledge (both collective and individual), discomforting as it may be.  On the flip side, uncertainty creates the opportunity for everyone to participate in new future understandings. 

Add in the role of culture, of individual and shared creativity ...


The brain as a generator of empirical knowledge: diversity

  • Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
  • Francis Crick, 1995: The Astonishing Hypothesis: "a person's mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells ... and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them".
  • V.S.Ramachandran, 2003: " it never ceases to amaze me that all the richness of our mental life - all our feelings, our emotions, our thoughts, our ambitions, our love life, our religious sentiments and even what each of us regards as his own intimate private self - is simply the activity of these little specks of jelly in your head, in your brain. There is nothing else"
  • Paul Grobstein, contemporary: "Brain = behavior, there isn't anything else."

The "real" nervous system - different if behavior different?


Mattie Davis's picture

Session 5

 The idea that "Everything has a little bit of truth in it." is an interesting way of looking at things.  My first response is that this is probably not true.  When I consider that several observers can view the same traffic accident or other occurrence, yet have several distinct points of view of the very same same accident, I am not so sure that my first thought is accurate.  There is obvious merit to the notion that sometimes collective observations is preferential to individual observations, yet at the same time, one does not negate the other. 

Jessica Watkins's picture

Natural Storytellers

It's a beautiful thing, how the brain automatically turns to storytelling to explain the inexplicable.  Our natural reaction to things we don't understand is to reach out into the darkness and grope around until we finally pull out something that makes sense, even if it is man-made.  Tall tales, oral tradition, even science itself, are all examples of stories that have served their purpose well throughout the history of mankind--making us feel better about what we just can't grasp.  In fact, Susan describes story telling as her "hope tool" in the classroom.  We search in vain for "Truth" with a capital "T," and in doing so search for something to which we can give up our authority.  In reality, because eveything is a construct of the human mind, we are the final authority.  Reality is subjective because it is created by millions of subjective minds, each filled with unique personal experiences that shape decisions and actions.  If "Truth" is not attainable, but as many "truths" as people exist, should these not each be considered "Truth?"  Just because "Truth" varies by person does not mean it is not valid.  Hence, conversation and inquiry (particularly in the classroom, where truths constantly collide and change) are vital to understanding these individual truths and making sense of subjective reality.

This is especially important with young students, whose idea of reality is still very impressionable.  Our education system at the present time does not consist of enough inquiry-based conversation; rather, it relies on textbooks as the final authority on facts and what we consider to be "truth."  However, textbook truth and observed truths need not be in competition with each other; one is not more "truthful" than the other, and therefore they should serve as complimentary entities.  In fact, the only way either of these "truths" can become more "true" is if they modify each other and make room for the possibility that they are not the sole "truth."  This transfers some authority to students  by allowing their observed truths some merit, in addition to those found in textbooks.  With this authority comes confidence and a sense of responsibility as they share ideas with fellow classmates, leading to collaborative learning.


Geneva Tolliferreo's picture

1st Wednesday AM

Empirical Inquiry to Evolution – Our individual truth is based on our individual belief.  Our belief is based on our choices; we believe what we choose to believe.  In large part, our truth is what we choose to believe.  We choose our truth.  God gives us free will, freedom to choose, and THAT’S why freedom of choice is so precious; one of our most precious rights to be protected.  Even with Himself, God has given us the freedom to choose Him, or not.  Our relationship with Him, anyone else, any thing …is the truth of our choice.

Adjudication:  how do we define what, when are not sure of what is truth?

God and the theory of evolution are not equal in value and cannot share His Glory for His Universal


Students must believe they have a personal role in creating, developing, and influencing their own futures.

Everything cannot be, and is not, true; or false…Will.

How do we encourage students who feel they do not have a life where they influence their own future and that of others?  Purpose!  They need us to assist them in discovering their life’s purpose.

New observations may, or not, affect and/or effect our current summaries.

I am not sure that I agree with, “…there is no such thing as objectivity; there is always shared subjectivity”.  I do agree with there being no summary that challenges all observations.

Is finite infinite?

Contextual relativity (Contextuality).

Truth is context (perspective) dependent.


Susan Dorfman's picture

Comments on Revisiting Science in Culture

In my lifetime, the divide between those who are and those who are not comfortable with science seems to have been exacerbated with the pro abortion movement as I remember it developing as a young adult in the 60’s. The debate about abortion generated strongly held opinions that reflected religious and political belief systems countered by a new emerging freedom for woman as a result of the development of reliable contraception and the observations concerning health and safety needs of women seeking illegal abortions where there were no other options. This long lived debate about abortion seemed to be blended in with the emergence of a vocal political and religious right. Science education got caught up in this debate and became a political football.  For example, depending on the locale in the country, school systems were more or less restricted in their teaching of scientifically accepted evidence of evolution.

In Paul’s schematic of science, there exists the “crack,” that place where a wobble resulting from the diversity of background, culture, and personal creativity leads to the enormous range of solutions. The solutions depend on the constructs in which we develop them. Perhaps it is only through inquiry and inclusive conversation that we can minimize the effects of competing political, religious, and even economic influence on how science is taught.  


GShoshana's picture

This morning we shared the

This morning we shared the thoughts of some of the teachers about culture in the classroom and treating students as individuals.  This is important because it gave us the opportunity to share individual ideas and to learn from each other.

We, the teachers, need to create a good learning environment with open conversations where all ideas are welcome.  All students should be encouraged to be part of the open conversation; they should feel safe and comfortable expressing all their ideas.  The student needs to know that the teacher is not the final authority, we are all still learning and searching for answers together. If we teach something new and the student asks why they need to learn it, we will answer that this information will help them in the future and that the learning process is a collaborative thing between the student and teacher.

Regina Toscani's picture

"What is Truth?

It used to fill me with trepidation to think there is no “Truth”. Is it possible to make sense out of daily living, as well as understanding the world around me if there is nothing truly true?  Now, after several Summer Institutes I am able to accept this notion. However, I need the realization that this concept is not practical for everyday living. Einstein can declare that there is no such thing as gravity. That does not mean that I should step out of a third floor window to leave my house. I need to incorporate my own perceptions and belief systems, common sense and generally accepted “facts” to interact with the world.   My understanding of the world has grown due to  accepting this duality of "Truth".


Keith Sgrillo's picture

Culturally Constructed Applications

Today's conversation about the idea of "truths" brought to light the idea of when a truth may be applicable. What stood out for me was the idea that sets of observations can become truthfully useful depending on the existing situation.  What I think was nearly implied but not fully discussed was the role that culture plays on the construction of truth.  It appears to me that these are a part of a larger cycle, both playing on eachother.  In some instances we define observations as "truth" or being true in order to make it fit comfortably in our cultural reality.  This being said, I feel that culture defines truth for us in the same fashion.  When a new idea....or set of observations if you will...come about and society/cultural entities want to adopt them, culture is then defining what we see as true.  I think this is extremely important as an idea as we see the expanding diversity of our classrooms.  I feel that it is important that we learn to embrace this idea as we try to be more diverse in our own ideas and styles as teaching as well as simply just being human.

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?

RecycleJack Marine's picture

Science as Construction

Science is a story that is always on the Best Seller list! No longer can we look at anything scientific at face value, because everything is a continuous story. There can't be any conclusions because what you conclude can be interpreted in a lot of different ways that weren't looked at previously. Is the Earth flat? Is an egg oval shaped? Are shoes always for feet? Let's look at everything from other views. I don't know all of the science that I've been hired to teach to middle school students, but I'm trying to master the content enough to make it presentable to them. I don't profess to be the best science teacher they will ever have, but I will give them multiple opportunities to discover science through hands on exploration. Does all science have other conclusions? If you put Keith's cup of water into a freezer, you can't dispute that the liquid becomes a solid, or that that frozen solid is called ice. You can make many other observations about that cup of ice, but what other summary can you come to regarding what happened to the water- except in describing it through other disciplines like physics or engineering. So, isn't some science definite, and con't be described any further?



Ashley Dawkins's picture

Learning the Art of Conversation


There were many different topics discussed during this morning's session, all of which were rich and interesting. As a learn and grow in the art of conversation, there are a few areas that I know I must grow in, in order to get the most out of what others are saying. I have been working on the development of my listening skills. It can be challenging for me to listen and process what others say to get the full value of their words. When I hear something that I agree/disagree with I want to jump in and make a comment without fully listening to the rest of what is being said. I like and enjoy how others in the group can grasp the full/better meaning out of what others are saying. Maybe I am just interpreting differently, but I always feel like I am missing something.

Susan Dorfman's picture

Waiting in response to Listening

I don't think I will ever attain the level of a gifted conversationalist. I still feel as you do that I want to jump in to support or disagree with the speaker. Part of this comes from my undergrad education where I was one of 5 women out of 120 biology majors. Many of my professors, all male at that time, as well as many of the male students did not think women should be taking up space in the sciences, particularly biology, then a pre-med major. Part of this comes from my graduate training. As a pre-doc and post-doc student, our research team sessions were brutal. Every word was challenged, every thought was challenged. Many of the graduate level classes were conducted the same way. I had to develop a defense/offense technique to survive.

This is my third Institute and the continuation of developing the skills of respectful conversation that Paul models.

Paul Grobstein's picture

acquiring conversational skill

Pleased of course to be that of as a model.  But, for the sake of the record, the inclination to "jump in to support or disagree with the speaker" is one I still wrestle with and feel the need to myself get better at controlling.  Very glad Ashley flagged it.  Think its a quite general problem, one almost everyone needs to work on.  And do think it relates in part to cultural experience: to learning  in various contexts that "jumping in" is a part of being recognized, assessed as significant by others.  Among the things that can counterbalance such experiences is, as as Ashley says, realizing that one can often get more for oneself from other people by not jumping in so quickly.  And beginning to learn to enjoy the ebb and flow of ideas irrespective of who is voicing them, and coming to understand that the richness of the ebb and flow is often compromised by quick responses. 

RecycleJack Marine's picture

I dive in way too much...

Way too many times a day and especially my whole life as an adult my brain pushes me to barge in to someone's conversation. I know that what I have to say is not that important, but something in my unconscious propels me to interrupt the speaker! Sometimes I think before I speak, and sometimes I say something inappropriate too. I wish something in my conscious brain would send a signal to me with Ashley's words, "that one can often get more for oneself from other people by not jumping in so quickly."

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