Reflection: Are we teaching the scientific method?

Inquiry based learning, learning through insight, research based teaching – all of those modern buzzwords which are sometimes hardly achievable in practice. Ask yourself: “How to explain to students what is scientific research in a simple but effective, innovative but cheap, short but correct way?” Do I know what that could be? Do you?

As a physics teacher and as a STEM teacher trainer I have encountered something interesting in my trainings and workshops. Spoon project showed that it might be a global issue, or lets rather call it a challenge. Educational challenge.

When teachers are faced with a simple task to individually reflect and then work in smaller groups to analyze and write down elements of research, elements of scientific method, elements of inquiry, even though there are different meanings among those terms, the bottom line problem remains the same. Just by giving them pieces of papers, pens and some scotch tape with a task to create a collage of the group consensus about what are the elements of scientific method something strange happens. In order to share it more efficiently with the rest of the groups, instructing them to stick their mosaics on the wall, most of the time some deep issues of the educational system come to the surface.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

We didnt make any statistics about it, nor we have any concrete data about it, but estimating like the estimation is sometimes done in science using the thumb-finger approach i would dare to say that roughly 90% of STEM teaching community do not know how science is done nor how the humanity acquires new knowledge. Or they are not teaching it in a classroom in a form which is true to inquiry and research practice.

If teachers are asked to do the previous activity regardless of what is written on the papers most of the time two things happen.

Is path toward the 
new knowledge straightforward?
Straightforward path to knowledge
  • The design or if you want to call it the organization of the papers are commonly straightforward. All the common known elements are more or less present but the order is linear. It starts with some type of a question, hypothesis and it ends up with conclusion, eventually with communication of the results. Precisely that is where I think that educational system is failing. We are teaching students like we have been taught as well. That every single textbook problem has a solution and that there is a protocol to follow, equations to use or a cookbook with a recipe. We even manage to give awards to students who manage to get to the right solution following the right procedure, and punish with lower grades students who did not manage to get the correct result.
    And that is deeply wrong because science is not about the content but about the process. Research practice, inquiry as one of the highest forms for cognitive activation in learning, paths to acquire new knowledge are not linear path. It is not a highway. One can not simply just follow the protocol, the cookbook to come to a meaningful solution or new discovery. That path is clumsy, frustrating and looking more like a goat road somewhere deep in the forest without any signs of directions. It is a path of failure, errors, disappointments, but curiosity, passion and persistence. Maybe the most simple presentation would be that it is some kind of a circular or spiral path where one question leads to another one and another one and another one
    If we are teaching our students to follow the recipe in order to come to a correct result, if we are teaching our students to recognize the formula and fill it in with numbers, or even if we are teaching the students experiments by telling them directly what the next step should be and what questions should be answered in each segment we are guiding them to the solution and conclusion we want them to make. We can even make it simple, more engaging, interactive, funny, amusing and share the image of how science is beautiful but with that we are making a mistake. Once if and when they decide to pursue the career in STEM related fields, enroll in university or even go to PhD they are slapped in the face with the untold reality.
    Science is hard, there are a lot of obstacles, you gain new knowledge and understanding by making a lot of errors, by feeling miserable but the beautiful part of research is that the process of inquiry, of challenges of problem solving is beautiful just like it is when you play with a jigsaw puzzle. 
Is this creativity in teaching?
  • Another interesting thing that showed up when the same assignment is given to the teacher is the same design of their own mosaics. They are neatly ordered, one behind another, in line with each other. Occasionally some will end up being tilted, and they are creative ones. There is structure and order in those papers the teachers collaboratively create. One could say how STEM teachers are strict and in some cases rules of engagement and behavior have to be obeyed especially in laboratories or when dealing with dangerous substances. At the same time there is no place for creativity. It looks like a standardized classroom with benches and chairs and students placed in rows and columns. It looks like we have a collective obsessive compulsive disorder. I have not been diagnosed with it but I am sure how it is somewhere in me. I tend to spend so much time fixing the margins, aligning the images. I have been taught that certain equations are more beautiful than the others. I have this utterly deep bad feeling when I see that something is not in line. We are teaching kids to color the color books and keep it within the lines. It is a rule. It is important at a certain age to develop fine motor skills to stay between the lines. But is it completely true in science, research and the processes behind new knowledge acquisition. The question remains how to teach creativity, out of the box thinking if we are not able to step outside of our comfort zone into the darkness of not knowing what to expect.

STEM education is not only about the content as it is about the process. And to achieve that in the classroom we, as teachers, have to change.

Challenge your preconceptions, or they will challenge you.

Mr. Velik

As a famous scientist Mr. Velik apparently once said, our preconceptions are standing on our way. And most likely if you are reading this you are wondering who is this famous scientist? The most famous scientist from planet Vulkan, an imaginary planet with imaginary characters but with wisdom which is definitely valid here, on our planet. So maybe the better question is could not knowing how to teach scientific method be used to learn about it?


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