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Wil Franklin's picture

Lessons Learned

Science as story telling is a complex metaphor that I have been exploring for many years. Implicit in this conceit is the assumption that stories come from human brains that have no way of knowing what “reality” is. As corporal beings stuck perceiving and understanding only that which our nervous system allows, how possibly could we ever know truth.  If we take this premise seriously, then science is not about finding or discovering truth, rather it is about constructing understandings about that which we can observe, reflect upon and talk about with others. In this sense, science as story telling is about the empirical world. We’ve all heard that science is a process. But a process that produces what? … that behaves how? If science is only story telling in the sense that it is a human activity that functions to generate new understandings, then what makes one story better than another? As a science educator, this is the question that haunts every day of my teaching life. How do I make students better story tellers? And, if the stories of science are not about truth, how then do I grade them? It is in the context of these haunting questions that I reflect upon the Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education Summer Institute, 2010. For three weeks a diverse group of K-16 educators participated in co-constructed conversational exploration of topics around the human brain, science and the implications for education.

As an educator I am guided by one overarching goal – to empower my students. To give my students tools, skills and habits of mind that will allow them to be better problem-solvers and in turn productive, positive members of our society. As a biology instructor, this translates into helping students become better constructors of understandings about complex living systems. It is NOT to bestow some pre-ordained set of science facts upon them. First, students will become better scientists if they become aware of the tentative nature of knowledge. Second, so called facts change so rapidly that it would seem to be a disservice if I only taught them to consume facts, rather than how to generate them. If on the other hand, I can help students see facts as more or less useful constructs that solve certain problems or answer certain questions, then perhaps they will be more willing to think about all understanding as more or less useful for particular purposes.

Given this personal agenda as an educator, I found the summer institute to be full of experiences that made me think anew about science as story telling.

Conversation is a part of scientific story telling that I did not fully appreciate until the Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education institute. In previous years of teaching I have placed a lot of emphasis on helping students be “empirical story tellers”. That is, I have several introductory activities and assignments built around defining and deconstructing the meaning empiricism. I have found this to help students produce more focused and succinct lab reports.  What I now want to include is the defining and deconstruction of conversation/dialogue.  A subtle, but important component of empirical conversations is the use of math as highly formalized language. Math is not the only language of science, but is a key component.  Having tried out the careful development of dialogue in the three week summer institute, what I saw was conversation as a mechanism for making use of diverse points of view and the diverse set of understandings that all individuals bring to class.  In the science as story telling paradigm, one recognizes and embraces that all individuals have their own starting assumptions, working mental models and general belief systems that affect how and what they can make sense of. Dialogue (as defined here generally as a communal, goal oriented process) works to slow the classroom activities down with everyone sharing ideas related to the task at hand. Conversation in this sense is a kind of consensus building around a communal story that can serve to help individuals with their own personal understandings. Perhaps most importantly, from an educator’s point of view, conversation allows less useful “misunderstandings” to be diagnosed and addressed. The idea of “misunderstandings” is problematic for the science as story telling paradigm and is another issue that I grappled with during the summer institute.

The idea of misunderstanding, I think, stands in direct conflict with the idea of science as story telling and strikes at the heart of my ongoing questions about adjudicating between stories in science.  At one point in the institute I was working with some participants on designing an experiment to test a question about what factors affect heart rate. We were discussing several factors that had not been previously considered by some of the members of the group. To me this was useful, at least to them. The idea that oxygen moving throughout the body might not only be altered by rate, but also volume, seemed helpful. However, a “non-conventional” term was being used to discuss the idea and the facilitator of the activity said, “well that’s not right, it’s actually …..” Later, the interaction came up in reference to circulating throughout a classroom to clear up “misunderstandings”.   For me this experience brought into focus the question of what makes a good story in science. Several members of our group began to develop a new understanding due to our conversation, so how is that a misunderstanding. What did it miss? I guess it missed the “official” agreed upon construct of cardiac output being affected by rate and volume, but what about the individual learner’s understanding. When the facilitator interrupted to “correct” us, the conversation stopped and we did not return to how volume and rate are related. The interaction turned out to be a “missed-opportunity” for constructing new understanding, rather than a “misunderstanding”.

Looking at the idea of misunderstanding in this light, I can now look back at how conversations can be useful to an educator. Rather than diagnosing “misunderstandings”, dialogue can highlight different understandings. Then, engaging in further dialogue the use of each understanding can be assessed in the context of the problem at hand. The flat earth theory and the round earth theory is a classic example of finding use in differing understandings. For all practical purposes, most of us act as if the earth is flat. The theory has everyday use. We don’t walk up one side of the earth then down another side, rather our brains assume a flat surface stretching out in front of us. Only navigators of the sea and sky and astrophysicists really have reason to need a round earth theory.

And this brings me to what I will take away from the Brain, Science and Inquiry-Based Education institute of 2010. To help my students become better science story tellers, I will try to pose all of our activities in the context of a clear problem or question. Then with time and space for dialogue we, as a group with a common goal, will discuss the problem as well as the criteria by which to judge our collective understandings. After spending initial class meetings discussing empiricism and conversation much of the responsibility for judging the stories constructed by students will be in their own hands, including the use and effect of math in the stories. My hope is that careful attention to judging stories in the context of the initial problems will help individuals construct more useful as well as articulate stories. And at all cost, I do not want to miss an opportunity for individual understanding or interfere with the development of a useful communal story.

 

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