By: Lee Davidson is the Associate Dean for the School of Education for Accreditation and Assessment and Chair, Teaching, Learning, & Curriculum Department, Andrews University.
I often tell my students that children are born scientists. They come into the world wanting to find out how things work. Then, over the years, the educational system takes this natural curiosity away and replaces it with a curriculum that tells students what educational officials think the students should know. The result is that students quit seeing science as something that is useful and see it as just another subject in school to get a good grade in.
I am a constructivist at heart when it comes to my philosophy of education. New knowledge only makes sense when it is tied to knowledge/facts already known. Let me give an example. Many years ago—I hate to say how long—one of the first McDonald’s restaurants opened about two blocks from where we lived. It was on the now famous Route 66. I am not sure how it came to be, but my younger sister and brother got enough money to go down to the McDonald’s and buy five chocolate shakes for us to have for supper. (Walking two blocks by themselves when in lower elementary school was not considered unsafe then.) The trouble was, they bought them in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. They wanted to keep them cool until supper but wanted to keep them a surprise. So they put them in my sister’s closet, in a non-air-conditioned house, and set up a fan to blow on them. You can surmise what the shakes were like when they brought them out for dinner. They were hugely disappointed.
I have presented this example in class many times. My siblings were using the knowledge they had about keeping cool using a fan and extrapolating that to keeping the shakes cool, which seemed logical. However, if you asked them now about keeping shakes cool, they would recommend totally different methods. They never tried the closet-and-fan method again because new facts were added to their web of knowledge. At that young age, they most likely were still lacking in the knowledge of heat transfer. At this point, they still might not know all the finer points involved in the transfer of heat.
I keep coming back to this as I teach science methods. Students learn by doing and by making mistakes that lead to falsifying some science construct they had and replacing it with something more accurate.
If students don’t have the opportunity to discover scientific principles for themselves and instead just learn them from a book, they are likely to most strongly believe the authority figure that they respect most for his or her knowledge. For example, having been both a parent and a teacher, I have heard students give the explanation to their parents “because the teacher told me,” implying it must be true. They often put this source above their parents.
I suggest you peruse the article at https://ssec.si.edu/stemvisions-blog/examining-students-thoughts-important-part-teaching-science. It has some links to some informative videos and provides information that could prove useful in science teaching. We aren’t putting information onto blank slates or into empty containers, but adding new information that must either add to the network of knowledge students have or replace and reconstruct the body of knowledge that they have.
Teaching with active inquiry methods that involve many hands-on activities is one way to help students learn to think things through for themselves and build a body of knowledge that is closer and closer to reality.