Sunday, February 06, 2005

Science in the classroom: musings 1.

Reading material on science teaching, the one thing that stuck out is that science is not strictly logical.

Bjorn Andersson, in a paper called, “Some Aspects of Children’s Understanding of Boiling Point”, asked children about what they think happens when water boils and is left boiling.

“Some of the pupils’ explanations are quite consistent. This of the pupils on category 2 B on problem 1 (the longer the water is on the hot-plate, the hotter it gets), 80% explain, as would be expected, problem 2 by saying that the switch-number determines the temperature of the boiling water. …many of the apparent misconceptions came from good logical thinking, the problem was merely that the pupils had inadequate background knowledge.” (258-9)

Science does not proceed from first principles, it proceeds from learning by rote what others have frequently figured out by intuition, and then proved by experiment. I know this, it isn’t knew. But I don’t see this paralleled in much science fiction for children—although it used to crop up a lot in 1950s engineering style sf where often the sensible and Iogical choice was not the right one (think Colin Kapp here).

But leading on from that is that, and more interesting for some of the issues science fiction raises, is that studies of science teaching demonstrate how it is possible to have a well educated populace, steeped in superstition and ignorance.

“Driver and Easley point out … that whenever we attempt to introduce a topic to our pupils they come to it with a framework of ideas relating to it which they have derived from past experience. When they are faced with the statements of teachers or textbooks or the result of their own experiences, not in keeping with the conceptual framework they hold, they either have to modify their own framework or keep two separate systems. Alas, the two systems are sometimes never reconciled; some pupils using one to pass school examinations and one they use in every day life. Likewise Karmiloff-Smith and Inhelder … provide developmental corroboration that a child does not easily relinquish a new theory. And when they do they first prefer to create a new theory, quite independent of the first, before attempting to unify all events under a single, broader theory. ( from Kenneth Lovell, “The Relevance of Cognitive Psychology to Science and Mathematics Education”, (3)

Which goes a long way to explain how you can teach a class physics and still end up with a bunch of people who believe in Creationism.

All of this interests me because one of the absolute staple threads of much of what I’m reading is an interest in pedagogy and a belief that a properly educated workforce will be an enlightened one. The nearest book I can think of that reflects this alternative idea--that classroom theory can exist independent of other theory--is Jeff Noon’s Nymphomation, in which children drop out of different stages of the education that’s on offer. I’m pretty sure someone important wrote a very scary story with the same idea (Zenna Henderson perhaps?) in which this is expressed also.

But it also interests me because of these multiple reading protocols we discussed earlier, and for many children, the multiple behavioural protocols they adopt: school, playground, home, grandparents’ home. Again, it’s not an idea that crops up much in fiction for children where one of the definitions of maturity appears to be the ability to bring together oneself in one neat package.


Blogger ChrisH said...

In several of their popular science books (including the 'Science of Discworld' books) Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart talk about much of what is taught as being 'lies for children'. In other words there is a huge amount of simplifaction that goes on in the teaching of science. This is not just at school level but at all levels of teaching. What particularly gets missed are all the 'fudge factors' that get added in to makes certain theories work.
Alas I am at work right now so I can't access any particular examples. I'll have to dig the books out...

1:07 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

But please do!

The problem seems to be an assumption that these "lies for children" are ok because they will be corrected later. The snag being that so many children don't continue with science (or ethics,or history or any other area where this comes into play) so that the "lies for children" become the world view.

One of the issues I want to tackle (I think) is the way in many of the books I'm reading "lies for children" is turned into the "lost colony" myth. Why? Still muttering over this one.

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading material on science teaching, the one thing that stuck out is that science is not strictly logical.I've been thinking about this, and about what you said about science in an earlier post. I agree that science isn't just logic alone; crucially, science needs empirical observations in order to provide content for logical reasoning.

It seems to me that teaching science might involve three things: 1) teaching the logical methodology (the skill sets in your earlier post) 2) teaching methods of acquiring/accumulating empirical observations independently and 3) teaching the empirical observations that other people have already made and which are difficult and time-consuming to find independently.

I think science fiction is a useful tool for teaching logical thinking (point 1). (Incidentally, this is also why science fiction is a good tool for teaching philosophy, as philosophy is founded on logic just as much as science.) Whether SF is also a useful tool for teaching the experimental method (point 2) or for passing on information about what we already know about the world (point 3) I'm not so sure.

Just some thoughts. Don't know if they make much sense.


10:16 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

These thoughts make a lot of sense.

One of the markers of a good researcher v. a bad researcher (in any field) is the willingness to abandon a thesis. This is an element of "logic" that conflicts with "faith" and may be one of the areas where Creationists have problems. But teaching children that the world is explained through a set of plausible stories that might be revised, takes one hell of a lot of confidence. It also takes up to date text books.

I coached someone for A level history in 2002. She was using a textbook that I had used when I studied the same course in 1986. How do you give children an idea of scientific method--test, add in new evidence--test again--if the continued presence of text books means that the sense of world knowledge is presented as static?

5:34 AM  

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