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Science Education - New Directions, Continued

Paul Grobstein's picture
During the summer of 2008, Paul Grobstein, Wil Franklin, Luisana Taveras, a rising sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, and Julia Lewis, a rising senior majoring in Chemistry and Bryn Mawr College, will be thinking about science education and trying out ideas in a summer institute program with K-12 teachers. These forums are a place for ongoing thinking by the four of them, and any one else interested. To contribute your thoughts, use the forum entry form at the bottom of this and other forum pages. Postings will be checked to prevent spam and so may be delayed in appearing. An updated list of all forums in this series is available here.
Some New Directions, Continued

Our third conversation provided a general perspective on how can we get students (and teachers) more effectively engaged with science. This week a little more theory, and some samples of things moving in this direction? What seems to work, not work with the examples? What can we learn from both? About, among other things, intersections between teaching in the humanities and the sciences (see also comments on Open-ended Inquiry in Science Education (and Education in General) and on Inquiry and Historical Research in the Literature Classroom).

More theory


LuisanaT's picture

Points to Grobstein

I like the addition you’ve made, at least in comparison to what I remember after taking your Bio 103 last year, to your lecture on the Ant model. Taking your course and experiencing this part of the presentation once before, I definitely did not remember anything else besides the visualizations (and, unconsciously, its implications) of randomness becoming order. I would like to encourage you Grobstein to continue and to further emphasize the students’ (and the teacher’s) hypothetical situations like stories and metaphors that can apply to, in this case, the reason why the ant is traveling aimlessly throughout the discussion because it functions well for student learning.
Paul Grobstein's picture

The open-ended, transactional classroom extended ...

Very rich conversation yesterday, on two different but related fronts. Reminders/subsequent thoughts for myself and any one else interested ...

The transactional classroom

The on-line forums I use in my courses (much like this one) help to get students involved in shaping a course but have some problems (that also turns up in discussion based courses). One is that participants tend to write what they think and/or for the teacher, without reference to other participants' comments. And hence often write things that are repetitive, not interesting to other participants. Some ways to deal with this (in both forums and face to face classrooms)

  • Encourage participants to write/talk about not about what they know but about what they have newly discovered, what they have recently been surprised by.
  • Encourage participants to not only post/voice their own thoughts but to also comment on the posting/contribution of at least one other participant. And to do so "without sounding like an English professor", ie not to say what is wrong/they disagree with but rather to find/sum up an interesting point and pose a new question/direction for further exploration based on it.

The general idea here is to emphasize similar roles of both teacher and student in the transactional class setting, and similar objectives as well: to find new understandings in oneself and others, use them as a platform for further questions/understandings, evaluate new understandings by not their "truth" but rather there ability to open up new productive lines of inquiry.

Metaphor = Story = Inquiry

Both Willingham and Tobin moved our discussion along substantially, despite the fact that neither is about "science education" per se. As Luisana says, a metaphor (Tobin) is a story, ie a way to make sense of observations that is challengeable. And indeed, as per Willingham, stories are "treated differently from other kinds of information" by the brain, and are more engaging.

One might leave it at that, with the recomendation that science (and other teachers) should use more stories in the classroom, but I think there is something much deeper going on here. The reason why stories are more engaging, why they are "easier to remember" and "easier to comprehend" is that they are in fact an essential component of how brains are organized to make sense of things (see Parallel Changes in Thinking About the Brain and Education). We make observations, create stories to summarize that information, and then use the stories to generate new questions and observations that in turn lead to revisions of the stories. To put it differently, stories shouldn't be thought of as a pedagogical trick, a way to engage students so that serious learning and learning can be done, they should be recognized as an essential component of the inquiry process itself, not ony the classroom but in general.

Asking students to assimilate information without story (be it the names of parts of the brain, important dates in history, or literary genres) doesn't, as we all actually know, work very well. We can all memorize to one degree or another but its hard and doesn't stick. For good reason. What the brain is actually designed by evolution to do is to relate information (observations) to stories, to notice connections of information to existing stories and to use observations to challenge existing stories and create new ones.

The upshot, it seems to me, is that we all need to stop trying to teach "information", background or otherwise. Whatever we're teaching, we need to start with stories that people have, provide observations/information that challenge those stories, and encourage students to develop new stories that accomodate the new and relevant observations. In so doing, I think we will not only more effectively get across to students whatever stories we have in our own minds but contribute to the continuing development of their abilities to themselves tell and revise stories based on new observations/information. And we might even find we're able to enjoy the challenges students present to our own stories and the resulting observations and stories students provide that productively challenge our own.

From this perspective, the important point about stories isn't that they "appeal" to students. Its that they provide a way give coherence to information/observations, to connect them to something, to become personally engaged with them. And, at least as importantly if not more so, they provide something challengeable, something that students can become involved not only with "mastering" but with revising. Stories create conflict, in a way that information/observations don't by themselves. And it is out of those conflicts, between observations and stories and among stories themselves, that new understandings (stories, motivation for new questions/observations) arise.

The bottom line?

My guess is that whatever we're teaching, and to whomever, we'll do best, both for our students and for ourselves if we keep in mind that our fundamental task is to help them (and ourselves) become better inquirers, "to try something different, to do something differently ... to see what happens." And then to make up a challengeable story about that.

ptong's picture

Picture books and visualization

Upon reading "Ask the Cognitive Scientist: The Privileged Status of Story" I thought about my elementary school days and wondered what captivated me during story time. One thing I distinctly remember were the vivid colors on each page. I was always spellbound by the images printed in the books. To me the pictures were what told the story. As I grew older picture were replaced by more words, but because of earlier exposure to so many picture books, I started to visualize the stories in my head while reading.

When we watch a movie that is based on a book, many of us come out of the theater thinking "Was that better than the book?" or "How much of the movie was true to the novel?" We ask ourselves these questions because we already have a mental image of what we thought the movie should be based on the book we read.

What I'm getting at is imagination might be an important factor to being successful in the sciences. Even though science, for the most part in grade school, is memorization, imagination is an extremely useful tool. By exposing younger students to more visual aids they can develop their mental-visual skills. It will prepare them for high school when they learn microbiology and other concepts which they can't see with the naked-eye. I see how it can frustrating to learn something you can't see, but this imagination technique might be useful.

Paul Grobstein's picture

words, pictures, imagination in education

Very interesting issue, the relation between pictures and words as ways of making sense of the world. See here, for example, and a distinction between narrative (words) and non-narrative (pictures?) stories here. And yep, "imagination might be an important factor in being successful in the sciences". Think one could say "is" rather than "might", and extend the argument to other realms as well, as per below. Maybe, for many people, imagination is better engaged with/through pictures?
LuisanaT's picture

Why did I learn how to read and write in the first place?

A good way for teachers to (actually) introduce reading and writing to students is by conveying the importance of human communication over time. Writing preserves one’s thoughts and experiences and being able to read it helps take a look into past stories and learn more about life/people/oneself/etc. Because pieces of writing can always be re/read at a given time, someone can always be motivated to react like write something in response to it. Teachers should place more explicit emphasis on the value in exploring other’s written understandings (reading) and reflecting on it/critiquing it (writing) to make students concious of the reason why they are learning how to read and write from the very beginning.
Paul Grobstein's picture

Writing and why

Yep, writing is important, and your message is particularly true in science, given a particular tendency to neglect it there. For more on the underlying logic see The Objectivity/Subjectivity Spectrum. As per Tobin though there is an equal need to clarify exactly why one is writing in contexts where more writing is normally done.
jrlewis's picture

Why Get a Masters Degree?

In terms of education reform and teaching science according to the philosophy developed here, on Serendip, it is relevant to discuss teacher qualifications and training. Science is a combination of curiousity, imagination, and skepticism that should be taught as a process of open-ended transactional inquiry. According to Eleanor Duckworth "the critical experiments themselves cannot impose their own meanings. One has to have done a major part of the work already, one has to have developed a network of ideas in which to imbed the experiments."

Teaching is the creation of an environment amenable to student learning. The teacher is responsible for facilitating learning through students' discovery, experience, and observation. They use their own experience, knowledge, and understanding to aid their students.

The teacher may rely on academic, industrial, or other advanced forms of scientific activity. Despite the fact that most institutions do not share our philosophy of science, participating in the scientific community and advanced scientific activity provides a depth of understanding that is impossible to achieve elsewhere. As a teacher's depth of knowledge increases, their judgment becomes better and better. The more mature judgement the teacher possess, the better they are able to assist their students.

jrlewis's picture

Another potential argument

Another potential argument for favoring teachers with more experience participating in the scientific community is that they are privileged to tell students about science. They are able to provide a preview of coming attractions to scientific activities. These people are best equipped to encourage students to pursue formal science further.

However, it is debatable whether or not we want to encourage so many students to be scientists. While it may appear to be a measure of the teacher's effectiveness of engaging their students, why are the teachers of other subjects not held to the same criteria? For pragmatic reasons, there are only a limited number of jobs in academia, industry, and other areas demanding scientific expertise.

Paul Grobstein's picture

scientists (or other professionals) as teachers

There is an interesting issue here, worth thinking more about. Yes, of course, in general the more experience one has with a subject, the greater one's story resources to engage in productive give and take with students. On the other hand, "more experience participating in the scientific community" has its downsides as well. The "scientific community," like all disciplinary communities, has as a primary objective acculturation into a working group with shared understandings of what significant understandings exist, what questions are attackable, and how they should be attacked. Its not clear to me that becoming well acculturated is necessarily a good background for productive give and take with people who are not similarly acculturated. It may even more it more difficult to engage in.

For more along these lines, see Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond and The Objectivity/Subjectivity Spectrum: Having One's Cake and Eating it Too.

jrlewis's picture

I like to believe that being

I like to believe that being acculturated, becoming a member of a community, allows one to talk or teach about that community better. Someone who is a member of the community has special experience. They are priviledged. They have a unique capacity to present the activity of science to nonmembers of the community. They are able to compare and contrast between the scientific and nonscientific communities. Acting as anthropologist, guide, and translator between the two cultures. I think that it is valuable for students to learn about both cultures, scientific and nonscientific. By scientific, I mean a community of professional scientists. However, the same is true for any professional discipline.
LuisanaT's picture

A metaphor is a story

(Please do not perceive the title as a metaphor.)


Metaphors are incredibly useful because they provide the learner with a “mental back-and-forth;” requiring a compare and contrast between two resembling ideas/things/etc. It is especially valuable because obliterates the teacher’s contribution to the class that has continually been regarded as a paragon, better approaching a more autonomous, inquiry-based education. Metaphors function just as a story (of observations) does, both calls for a resisting learner, a skeptical yet active member of a class/group/etc to invoke a “back-and-forth” discussion. Seeing this similarity between metaphors and scientific storytelling which are usually associated with seemingly separate disciplines (humanities/art and science), I can confidently see all fields of knowledge using this kind of pedagogy to best teach students.

Paul Grobstein's picture

the skeptical learner

Me too. And yep, a key element, in all contexts, is the "resisting learner," "skeptical yet active." See below and Writing Descartes.