Saturday, July 03, 2010

What is Science?

For those educators out there, please understand that I know that doing science and doing science education are very different. In many ways, the latter is more difficult than the former.
I'll quote a person whom I met and spent some time listening to. I only know him though his works, although my time watching and listening to him at Caltech brings the written transcripts of his words to life in my mind.

Richard Feynman, speaking to an NSTA meeting, said, "In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself." You can find his complete transcript at

I've found this concept very difficult to explain to people, even those who teach science. I happen to believe very strongly that understanding this difference, really understanding it with all of its implications, is critical to teaching science.

If you do not understand the difference, you can readily fall into the trap of teaching the tools of science and not teaching any science at all. The tools of science are easier to teach and to test for than is science.

So, when you teach students how to do a chemistry lab procedure, you're teaching a tool of science and not teaching science. When students learn the phases of mitosis, they've learned no science at all. Learning that planets and moons travel in elliptical orbits is not learning science -- unless you figured that out all by yourself.

How do you know when you've learned some science? Feynman has a test you can apply. Like all tests, it's not absolutely perfect, but it will work when words are involved, especially for young children. Here's his test.

Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.
This is vintage Feynman, clever and succinct.

However, this idea will not completely explain science to those who don't really understand it. Some will insist, for example, that science is observation. Like words and procedures, observation is an important tool of science. But observation is not science. Here's Feynman again.
Suppose I were told to observe, to make a list, to write down, to do this, to look, and when I wrote my list down, it was filed with 130 other lists in the back of a notebook. I would learn that the result of observation is relatively dull, that nothing much comes of it.
It's not enough to observe and record. You have also to think. In addition, you must realize that many observations do not lead to new ideas.Too often, science classes force students to make lists, to observe, without thinking. My son's high biology teacher had students fill a notebook with tree leaves. And that was the end of the exercise.

Frequently, teachers have their students perform some activity and make a record. Then, they take students figuratively by the hand and show them how these observations lead to some wonderful conclusion about science. Everyone says, "Wow. That's wonderful." This approach leads students to believe that every observation leads to science. Not so.

To do science, you must engage your mind scientifically, and you must be patient. To teach science, you must help students learn how to engage their minds scientifically and to be patient. Few science classes provide these insights to students, except possibly as just words. Fewer give many real opportunities to learn these concepts by the work the students do.

Yes, I know that there's not enough time, not enough money for equipment, etc. It's hard enough to get students just to listen and to learn the tools of science (words, formulas, procedures, etc.). But that attitude (which is correct as far as it goes) misses the real point. Once students begins to understand science, they become engaged. Then, the learning of the tools becomes easier and sticks better in their minds.

It's like activation energy. It's a tough push up the steep hill initially, much tougher than the gentle rolling hills of learning tools. But, once you get to the top, everything goes forward much better and faster.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
Follow this author on ETC Journal

No comments: