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Science Education - Some New Directions?

Paul Grobstein's picture
During the summer of 2008, Paul Grobstein, 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 three 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?

Our first two conversations suggest that "traditional" science education has some problems in actually engaging students. And that issues of significant individual variation in student interests, abilities, prior experiences are perhaps a part of the problem .... or maybe a part of the solution? How can we get students (and teachers) more effectively engaged with science? Some suggested directions ...

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on "boredom" in education, and a new place to discuss it

"learning how to gauge the effectiveness of one's teaching does require that the instructor learn how to become more reflective, and more responsive, about the students' feedback, both positive and negative."

Yep. And of course "it's difficult not to feel personally insulted by the visible boredom of one's students." But maybe it helps if one doesn't think of it less as a personal failing and more as an indicator of a need for interpersonal renegotiation?

"students may have profoundly wrong or misguided impressions of what more advanced work in a field is actually like"

This is another key issue worth talking more about. Is it actually a teacher's business to convey to students "what more advanced work in a field is actually like"? My inclination is to argue that what's important isn't what work in a field is actually like but rather what it is in a field that is meaningful to people outside the field. The only people who need to know what work in a field is actually like are those who are going to try and make a career in it, and that's not most of what's in most people's classrooms.

Delighted to follow David’s suggestion that we center this continuing conversation at Serendip. Let me further suggest that the conversation is rich enough so that it deserves it own location, specific to the issue of what scientists and humanist can learn from each other about education. I’ve created one at /exchange/node/2610. The hope is that this will not only make it easier to find one another but also facilitate other interested people joining the conversation. See everyone there.

David Mazella's picture

boredom as a pedagogical tool?

Well, one of the potential difficulties here is the fact that students may have profoundly wrong or misguided impressions of what more advanced work in a field is actually like. It is always possible that deeper engagement and more first-hand experience of a subject will show them why they do not in fact want to delve further into the subject. Some will react positively to these new challenges and some will not. So at what point is it appropriate to honor such a response, even if it does express a wish for disengagement?

Your notion of boredom as a marker of a "productive inference range" is a nice way to think about this for individual students, but one of the trickiest things about the contemporary classroom is the diversity of levels and experience contained there, and the unpredictability of their responses to the challenges of classwork. So this becomes one of the most difficult things to calibrate as an instructor.

Since instructors are human, it's difficult not to feel personally insulted by the visible boredom of one's students, as I blogged about the Atlantic Monthly's Professor X some time ago.

This piece is about the tendency to blame one's students for one's own failings as an instructor. But learning how to gauge the effectiveness of one's teaching does require that the instructor learn how to become more reflective, and more responsive, about the students' feedback, both positive and negative.

David Mazella's picture


The boredom question is very important, because students, especially younger and less experienced students, get very anxious if they feel that they're just "flailing around," which quickly reverts to boredom and disengagement if the teacher does not respond in some way to their worries.

I think Anne's citation from the Willingham piece on the "Privileged Status of Story" provides some clues here, because it argues that storytelling derives its pedagogical power from its ability to encourage "medium range inferences."

If students are asking questions the way they're supposed to, the first thing they will want to find, according to Willingham, is causal relationships. Yet causality is a principle that can only be discerned after repeated empirical observations, and even then will seem "speculative" until many others confirm and validate the observation as significant and regular. (And can inexperienced students even recognize the causality that a trained researcher would notice?)

So the inquiry model runs up against its first obstacle when students try to move to slightly more generalized or predictive accounts, (are these observations?), something along the lines of Willingham's "medium-level inferences." This, I think, is what Willingham meant when he said that puzzles are fun only when they are not TOO difficult nor TOO easy to work out. I suspect that good teaching depends on a similar spectrum of difficulty, in order to sustain student engagement.

Finally, I think both the humanities and the sciences demand a similar level of "sitzflesh" from beginning students, but I don't know if students in the sciences complain that their teachers have ruined their appreciation of nature.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Medium range inferences and sitzflesh, across two cultures

Yep, students in the sciences too worry that learning "about" something might "ruin their appreciation". They key here, I suspect on all fronts, is to effectively convey an understanding that what inquiry (into anything) does isn't to end questioning but rather to open new questions and hence create new appreciations. See Brian Greene re science education in a recent NYTimes, and my commentary on it. Greene is, not surprisingly, a little chauvinistic ("Science is the greatest of all adventure stories"), but does urge that science be given its "rightful place along side music, art, and literature". So maybe we could say that "all inquiry is the greatest of adventure stories" and teach it as such?

Along these lines, I think you're making an important point both in emphasizing Willingham's "medium range inferences", and in linking it to the "boredom and disinengagement" matter. Perhaps as teachers (of whatever subjects) we could all learn that boredom isn't a failing in students (or in ourselves) but rather a useful indication that the interaction outside a productive inference range (either because things are too obvious OR because they are not engageable with)? Maybe if we got that right, even in introductory courses, we'd find we have to rely less on sitzflesh?

Paul Grobstein's picture

thinking more about open-ended inquiry in the classroom

A few notes for myself, and any one else interested, from last Friday's conversation, informed by, among other things, some questions about how open-ended inquiry might or might not work in humanities teaching (see also Inquiry and historical research in the literature classroom).

The starting point was the question of how to make students interested, how to engage them with the material of a course. The suggestion was to start with questions, not necessarily answerable ones but rather ones that are interesting to both students and teachers. This creates for students from the outset an atmosphere in which the can "feel for themselves" and "find out for themselves". It creates for teachers the opportunity both to rethink why they are interested in the material and to look forward themselves to the possibility of seeing it in a new way. The contrast is starting out with either foundational material or questions to which the teacher knows the answer. In either case, there is a risk of students being passive or trying to figure out what the teacher is trying to get to rather than fully engaging with the material themselves. And a risk of disinterest/a sense of obligation on the part of the teacher.

If one is going to work in terms of students' (and teachers') interests instead of a pre-existing content outline, the question arises of how long one persues a given topic. The intriguing suggestion was made that one stays with a topic until people get "bored", ie until it no longer is generating interesting new ideas and questions.

Would this suffice to assure "significant movement" as opposed to "just bullshitting"? Perhaps one can rely on the teacher's greater experience and familiarity with the material to tell when a collective inquiry is no longer generative, and to convey to students a commitment to the novel and distinctive. Zen education provides a possible model along these lines. Student responses to unanswerable questions are challenged by the teacher until the student comes up with an answer that the teacher hasn't yet thought about and so can't challenge. At that point, a new question is posed, and so on. In dealing with unanswerable questions, students are expected first to "surprise" themselves with an answer, and then to "surprise" the teacher, rather than to either know or discover the "right" answer.

What's in the way of such an approach? Teachers seem, in general, to be reluctant to "take risks", to do something without knowing where it may go. Th open-ended approach would, in this respect, seem to place an unreasonable burden on the teacher since there are so many ways things might go. An alternative is to recognize that the teacher is more familiar with the material than the students and needs only to know that there are some places it might go that can be productively challenged and others that will lead in interesting directions. That, the boredom criterion, and the teacher's own curiosity should provide enough support for risk taking.

An interesting test of this approach has to do with medicine, and one's expectations of doctors. Would one prefer to have them answer questions, or to be "informed inquirers", and work with patients? Should pre-med students want/expect to "have teachers teach me rather than explore it myself"? Which form of education seems likely to produce better doctors?

Perhaps in general one should evaluate the effectiveness of an educational experience not by how much someone knows after it but by whether they questions they ask after the experience are more sophisticated than the ones they asked at the outset.  This might apply to science, premedical curricula, and the humanities as well?


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.

Penn Tong's picture

Possible Model

In our weekly meeting, we discussed the importance of letting the student "roam free" and explore until they are tired of it. Throughout this discussion I had this mental image of a model that fit the discussion.

Image a point in space. This is the starting point of all students. Instead of only being able to progress in a straight line, the student can go in any direction, so if we where to map out the infinite possibilities of a student's path it would a circle. I feel that this is also a way to chart a student's progress and assessing how well they are performing in class. The farther out from the starting point, the more they have observed, learned, and inquired.

This is what I pictured during the meeting and with more refining ideas it could be something useful.






jrlewis's picture

A Borrowed Model

The Learning-with-Scratch page at has an interesting illustration of student learning. It portrays the processes of creating and learning as one. I think this similarity is important to note, especially in terms of science as a story. This parallel can be extended to the nature of art and science as human activities. It might even allow an artist to successfully teacher a science class.
LuisanaT's picture

The Less Wrong Model

The possible model Penn mentions is a good starting point for student and scientific progress. We (Julia and I) would like to take this opportunity to expand on this model, giving it a third dimension. In this newly revised model, the starting point of every individual is of complete ignorance/total wrongness. Any given number of observations constitutes a sphere with our point at its center. For any given sphere, there are multiple, acceptable interpretations, allowing the number of stories to surround the point to approach infinity. This sphere is comprised of the stories/theories of science/student’s understanding of life concepts. As the number of observations that a story is capable of addressing appropriately increases, the greater distance there is from the center point. Progress therefore, can be measured by distance from the starting point. It is important to note that this does not entail a linear process; it is very possible to move in scientific understanding and not make any “progress”. If one were to imagine the possibility of there being multiple stories that encompass the same number of observations, the shift in the individual’s learning can travel in a L-shape fashion. This movement is still valuable in generativity and potential progress. This holds especially true if the scientific progress advances further away from the center at this new point and forms for example, something of a staircase shape. Although the nature of the path can not be predicted, all we can say is that it is more than likely not linear.

This understanding of science should be taught to students in their first introductory lesson/class of science. It’s important to have students understand where their science education is going and how science will and has progressed, allowing them to come into science with the appropriate mentality and expectations.
Paul Grobstein's picture

getting it less wrong, in lots of directions

I like the idea. See Getting It Less Wrong and Science as Story Telling or Storytelling ...

"Describing science as a process of getting "less wrong" is intended to acknowledge not only that there is no claim being made to having "Truth" but, equally importantly, that there is no claim being made to there being any single path along which all stories can be positioned and evaluated, not even all "scientific" stories. There may well be multiple "less wrong" paths from any given point"

There's an illustration missing in Penn's post, and a promise of one from Lusiana and Julia.  I'd like to see them both. 
LuisanaT's picture

An informed inquirer, what any student should aspire to become

There is no step-by-step formula informing a teacher on how to go about evaluating the growth in inquiry skills especially when taking into consideration the diversity, neurodiversity and otherwise, found in each individual. This is a definite problem we face when deconstructing the ideas of schooling and what one is expected to do after obtaining a certain level of education.

Let us take a look at Zen Buddhism as it offers great insight on a non-conventional approach to the student-teacher relationship. Here, the teacher provides the student with a difficult question such as “What sound does a open handed clap make?” The student leaves to toss around potential ideas in their mind and returns confidently with an answer for the teacher. Upon hearing the answer, the teacher explains to the student why it is that that particular answer cannot be correct. Off again goes the student to think about another answer for this enigma only be rejected logically and sensibly by the teacher’s greater knowledge and world experience. This little interplay continues until the student presents an answer the teacher’s wisdom cannot refute. The teacher’s responds instead with another question just as inexplicable as the last, allowing this process to continue in a cyclic manner until the teacher has offered all of the questions they themselves cannot completely answer and the student has answered all of those questions in a way that currently cannot be proven wrong. At this point, the teacher’s final reply to the student’s irrefutable response is congratulation on graduating.

This relationship clearly emphasizes inquiry skill development through attempts of getting matters of life less wrong. What this story also highlights is comfort found even while getting some thing wrong, the reality of unanswerable questions, and, just as, if not more importantly, the student’s continued participation despite this fact. For with each successive question, the student is contemplating potential answers with more awareness and inquiry than the last.

This ideal captivation in the student supports the idea of allowing students to learn about X, Y, and Z until they are bored with it. One can easily understand the great difference found when students are learning for fun and when they aren’t-it is the reason why people pick up hobbies or are naturally experts in certain areas of life. Now if the student happens to already know all there is to/they would want to know about X, it is the teacher’s job to find a variety of ways to resuscitate their motivations and continue their educational progression, such as with another mind boggling question like in the story. It is incredibly crucial that the teacher’s are conscious of the fact that that which interests them in that particular area of study does not have to be the same or the only thing student’s will find captivating enough to learn about. This will force teachers to put more focus on what it is all sorts of student’s would find most appealing and stimulating for them to learn. If all else fails, it is then the school’s job to reposition the students to where s/he will be introduced to concepts Y and Z, which they have not yet dealt with/finished exploring.

Paul Grobstein's picture

education as zen buddhism, boredom as an educational benchmark?

Interesting ideas, but maybe they conflict? Would a student repeatedly told to go away and solve a problem that has no answer get bored?
jrlewis's picture

Is This Dangerous?

Education is risky. Especially when a fifty year old man is trying to learn how to ride a horse. Even more so in the absence of a trainer or any sort of traditional instruction. As an amateur rider and friend, I offered my horse and equestrian expertise. What follows is an experiment in open-ended transactional inquiry. The man mounted the horse, had his equipment adjusted, and was told to do whatever he wanted. The ride continued for almost an hour without incident.

At this point it is important to consider the role the horse is performing. The horse is the teacher or trainer here. She is setting up a situation in which the man can experiment and observe. The man will try to summarize his observations and then collect new observations. He is asking questions about his own capabilities, such a posting to the trot. He is also inquiring about what the horse considers acceptable. She will respond to commands that are essentially correct in concept if not perfect in execution. She is teaching him about which signals conflict and which are complementary.

However, this horse is a seasoned show horse, capable of responding to the subtlest of commands. By working with this horse, the man is learning to refine his commands. Someday, he will have the same level of subtly as I do when riding her. With each ride, the man's story or theory of riding becomes slightly less wrong.

Paul Grobstein's picture

teacher as rider

Interesting parallel. Questions as above.
jrlewis's picture

An Ideal Classroom

Science education should be about affecting student thoughts about themselves and their environments. The students thoughts should become progressively less wrong as they discover and experience more. That is learning. The purpose of formal education is to place students in a situation where they can learn. The teacher's job is to create and facilitate this situation. Teaching is not about transfering a body of content to a student.

Monty Robert's applies a similar idea to training the most inexperienced, young horses. These horse horses are at the beginning of their educational career and are analogous to kindergarten students. He explains his methodology in the following paragraph:

"Hold in your mind the idea that the horse can do no wrong; that any action taken by the horse-especially the young unstarted horse-was most likely influenced by you. We can do little to teach the horse; we can only create an environment in which he can learn."

Robert's approach emphasizes acceptance and appreciation of his equine students. He takes each horse as they come to him. He recognizes the horse-human power dynamic and attempts to be sensitive to his student/horse.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Horses/kindegarten/education in general

Is this applicable only to horses/kindegarteners? How does it translate to middle school/high school/college?
Penn Tong's picture

Learning as Children

Bringing in the readings from last weeks , the most interesting thing I found was that a child's mind can be altered simply by being told whether they are capable of doing something or not. Similarly, it is easy to discourage students by telling them that their ideas are wrong.

In my experiences from kindergarten to high school, science has always been black and white, there is no medium. It was a subject where memorization was the key to success. Coming into college, we are expected to do the same. It is not until we do research do we realize that science is much more. We are suddenly expected to make mistakes and to question what we observe.

Students are given the wrong impression of science the moment they start school. I'm not saying teachers should praise students for being wrong, but they should find another approach to make the subject less subjective. Ask questions that don't have an answer so children can discuss the topic without being embarrassed of inserting 'incorrect' ideas or their own personal thoughts. When encouraged to defy the boundaries the educational system has defined, students are able to incorporate their own experiences and beliefs making it a true learning experience.

ptong's picture

Conflicting Data on American Education Crisis

This is a paper written by a Haverford student over the summer about conflicting data regarding American education.

jrlewis's picture

I agree with the paper,

I agree with the paper, that we do not know as much about the American educational system as we claim to or should. However, I not as comfortable with its concluding dedication to experimenting and testing various approaches to improving learning and performance by all students. It is just as important to study the differences as the similarities between students. Some strategies may benefit certain students more than others. This may occur because of either cultural or neurodiversity. It is important to recognize and preserve diversity throughout the entire educational system.


Paul Grobstein's picture

another key to meaningful science education

"Ask questions that don't have an answer so children can discuss the topic without being embarrassed of inserting 'incorrect' ideas or their own personal thoughts."

Another key, I think, to not only making science education engaging but meaningful in broader terms. Would teachers be comfortable with this? Would students? How about if we started it very early? What would parents think?

jrlewis's picture

Psychology of Chemical Reactions

My philosophy of education is about increasing awareness of oneself and one's environment. Awareness in terms of experiences and knowledge that lead to the analytic ability to compare and contrast concepts. This might take the form of a child differentiating between themselves and their puppy. Conversely, the teacher might compare the response of a chemical system and a human to the appearance of stress. Le Chatelier's Principle may be described as when stress is applied to a system at equilibrium, the equilibrium position shifts to reduce the stress. This idea is applicable in both science and psychology. In biology, its application to living systems as homeostasis. Anthropomorphic principles can be incredibly powerful tools for facilitating a student's connection to an abstract topics, such as chemical reactions. Primo Levi's work, "The Periodic Table," treats the elements and their properties metaphorically and for literary purposes. This technique augments the meaning of each chapter in the text by comparing it to a particular element.

While anthropomorphic principles can be useful techniques for teaching students, they can be abused. These principles promote a homocentric or speciesist perspective. This is the assignation of rights or values to beings based on their species membership. They should not place a special significance on features that make "things" similar to themselves. By things, I mean all the animate and inanimate objects that populate the universe. It is important for students to be able to appreciate the difference between themselves and the "things" in their environment. This is part of the practice of engaging with diversity. Some "things" have properties that are not present in humans, yet are very important to know about.

Paul Grobstein's picture

chemistry, psychology, the brain, and education

Is there actually a "psychology" of chemical reactions? Or is it instead the case that some interactive phenomena exist at many levels of organization with some additional phenomena appearing at higher levels of organization? Maybe we could avoid the "homocentric" or "speciest" perspective by paying more attention to the latter possibillity? See From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond and Emergent Pedagogy.
LuisanaT's picture

Something so meaningful

The idea of something “meaningful” being contingent on the social dimensions involved is a conclusion I came to myself at the start of my freshman year here at Bryn Mawr. One thing I constantly found myself saying is the fact that a class- a designated time and place to try and (1) solidify and develop the diversity in individual ability and perspective (2) get concepts of life less wrong, thereby (3) expanding on one’s repertoire of knowledge and awareness of the world- is only as good as the participants that make it up.
Paul Grobstein's picture

responsibility in an open-ended classroom

"only as good as the participants that make it up" is a particularly important point in the context of an open-ended transactional inquiry classroom. Its an important thing not only for students but for teachers to bear in mind. How well things work is as much a function of the students as the teacher.
LuisanaT's picture

Thinking about integrating

Thinking about integrating our ways of thinking

Skimming through the Science and Knowledge topic, I came across one component of real science in this world; the ability to evaluate “the significance of evidence.” Thinking about this, I feel as though this concept is not emphasized strongly enough to students when first understanding the role science (using science, being a scientist, etc.). If this were not the case, discussions regarding creationism and evolution would not as heated an argument as it has been.
Most of the times the past science examples that have been refuted are simply told to the students, not presented to the class to facilitate the development of inquiry skills and come to the story’s (inevitable?) rejection him/herself. When stressing the significance of scientific stories, like those surrounding Bohr’s models, student’s will react with a deeper comprehension of the science behind it and not consider it mentioning a superfluous recap on past scientific gone wrong. They will better appreciate the models that have lead up to what is currently the most less-wrong story about life because they will be actively exercising their brains when criticizing each past story.

Paul Grobstein's picture

the key part of science education

"they will be actively exercising their brains when criticizing each past story"

Yep, and this, rather than teaching what is "right" seems to me the needed contribution to helping people learn to continually question not only their scientific stories but all their stories.

jrlewis's picture

you can still participate in science

The conflict between religion and science has been fought on many fronts and continues to generate new controversies. It has had the unfavorable effect of forcing people to choose between religion and science. Seen in this light, science seems less accessible to humanity. Rebekah Baglini discusses how this issue affects American society. As a Quaker and a chemistry major, I have struggled to resolve this duality in my own beliefs. The paragraph that follows contains my personal belief or story about the role of religion and science in one's life. I do not mean to impose them on anyone. I offer my thoughts so that they may help someone else in a similar situation.

Religious beliefs and scientific stories have fundamentally different properties. However, religion and science may be complementary. The purpose of religion is provide consolation and hope about things that we have no way of knowing. For example, religion is able to talk about life after death. The goal of religion is edification.

However, science is a tool used to elucidate experience. It generates tentative stories or understandings that summarize known observations and inspire or structure future inquiry. Science is unable to talk about life after death, because there are no experiences or observations available to create a theory. According to Bickmore and Grandy, "scientific stories are crafted to explain observations, but the observations that are used as a basis for these must be reproducible".

With respect to the debate about creationism vs. evolution, I believe that science will prove itself capable of constructing progressively less wrong stories about the origin of life. There are an increasing number of facts and observations that are being incorporated into the theory of evolution every day. This perspective helps me to resolve the potential conflict between my religious and scientific views. The reconciliation allows me to participate in religion and science.

LuisanaT's picture

I am on a brainy qoute rush

Paul Grobstein's picture

science and religion

You're not the only way comfortable with such a resolution. Cf The Life of Faith is Not a Life Without Doubt and, more generally, Science and Spirit and Evolution and Intelligent Design.

On the flip side, there remain many people on both sides of the divide who are not comfortable with resolutions of any kind. And there are some serious matters at issue that go beyond the science/religion debate (cf Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction, Science/Religion Clash?, On Being a Lonely Atheist, and The Perils and Potentials of "I Believe".

Can we create a human culture in which everyone is comfortable with the tentativeness not only of scientific knowledge but of all knowledge, whatever its origins? In which its is not only the "reproducible" that is the subject of inquiry and challenge but also the idiosyncratic? In which everyone (ourselves included) treats "elucidation" as the best route to "edification"?

LuisanaT's picture

Exploring the exploration of open-ended transactional inquiry “

“While changes are needed at all levels of the educational system, elementary science education creates a pattern of expectations that affects all subsequent levels and so needs special attention.”

I have to agree with this 100%. It is for this reason that I have gained interest in the educational system, especially in elementary school. This early stage in student’s educational life is crucial in determining whether or not they will continue along the path of getting an institutionalized education. The student’s interest and concern for their education is contingent on the effectiveness of the staff and curriculum and so it is extremely important have that part of their educational experience as compelling and intriguing as possible.