Some of the most important things your science teacher taught you are wrong
by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University
There’s the science most of us learned as kids. Then there’s the science that scientists actually do.
The K-12 variety is more like a cooking class, but with chemicals, goggles, an occasional Erlenmeyer flask, the unforgettable smell of formaldehyde, and nothing you would want to eat. There, the scientific method is reduced to the formula of a lab report: hypothesize, test, gather data, evaluate, conclude, generally along the lines the teacher told you to expect.
Outside the classroom, science has over the centuries spawned revolutionary advances in knowledge and well-being. But in the classroom it’s, what? Predictable. Formulaic. Boring. All of the above.
Judy Morrison, an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at WSU Tri-Cities, is out to change that.
“One of the things that we as science teachers need to remember is that school science really needs to reflect the scientific endeavor,” she says. “There has been a disconnect between those two things. School science is not often how science is actually practiced.”
Fittingly, Morrison is standing at the front of a classroom, before a dozen or so school teachers in a professional development workshop, “The Nature of Scientific Inquiry,” at WSU Tri-Cities. She prefaces the workshop by noting that she herself spent several years teaching science, only to see how much more needed to be done for students to appreciate the field’s whys and wherefores.
“I started realizing that my students didn’t understand what was going on and they didn’t have a clue,” says Morrison, who this year was named the state’s Higher Education Science Teacher of the Year. “You teach and teach and teach all this stuff and then they take the test and they might have a right answer, but there isn’t complete understanding there.”
The misunderstanding starts with our popular notions of what the word “scientist” means, which Morrison gets at by asking the class to describe what comes to mind when they hear it.
Wild hair. Glasses. Lab coat. Standing next to some foaming chemicals. As recently as the ’70s, says Morrison, some textbooks portrayed scientists exclusively as white men in lab coats.
Over the next few hours, Morrison starts chipping away at the stereotype and, more dramatically, what he—or she—does. She starts with images of black marks crossing a white space. The workshop participants suggest they look like bird tracks in the sand, or dinosaur tracks, or birds flying.
Morrison now asks the teachers to get “metacognitive,” to think about how they thought. If they were thinking literally, says Morrison, all they could really say is the black marks are, well, black marks. Everything else—like the notion that the marks look like bird tracks and may represent some bird behavior—are inferences, she says. That’s a good thing, she adds. Inferences are crucial to scientific knowledge.
“Sometimes in science we try to think, ‘Oh, just make observations, just stick to the observations,’” she says. “That’s really not how science is. We don’t stop at observations. It takes that creative endeavor to figure out inferences: What could this be? What might this be?”
Science has other tools, too: building models, drawing analogies, recognizing patterns. These might not be employed in any particular order, and creativity and imagination can come into play at any moment.
Morrison produces a large cylindrical tube, much like an oatmeal container. Four knotted ropes stick out its side. When she pulls out a lower rope, its opposite rope goes in. That seems simple enough; they must be connected. But when she pulls an upper rope, the lower rope across from it goes in.
Morrison hands out a few of the tubes and the room grows animated as different groups start looking for patterns and analogies to draw.
“That one pulls at an angle ...”
“Pull that ...”
“What’s happening? Weird.”
“Bottom right… like slip knots.”
“What’s the experiment called?” someone asks.
Morrison, smelling a ploy, says: “You can’t Google it.”
A hypothesis emerges: the four ropes are joined by a knot in the center, so all are connected and prevented from coming out.
“Does that fit the evidence?” Morrison says. “It can’t be one piece of rope with four ends.”
Morrison’s work grows out of an effort launched in the early 1990s to communicate science as it is really done. She has a lot to get across: that science is a way of knowing and constructing reality, but not the only way; that its knowledge is provisional and subject to change under new evidence; that it is rigorous, but also a human affair, subject to human psychology and complications.
With a hypothesis in mind, the teachers in the classroom are reanimated as they start testing the ropes anew. You can hear the gears turning.
“I think there’s a little gnome inside, a little leprechaun,” one of the men says.
“This is good,” says Morrison. “This is where we go back to our characteristics of science. And we talk about the possibility of gnomes. Does this fit into what we know about science? Is this a logical, possible, based-on-what-you-know-about-the-world explanation?”
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