reflecting on teaching (& learning) about the nature of science

This is a re-post of something I originally wrote for the ‘other’ blog that I share with Marcus & Fabiana.

A couple of days ago I took part in a discussion around reflective writing. It was organised by the University’s Student Learning Support team, with the intention of helping students working towards their PhDs to think – in a reflective way – about what they are writing. I was asked along because the organisers felt that some of my blog posts were a good example of reflective writing – showing in my writing how my thoughts about a particular topic develop. (This is the example they chose as a basis for the discussion.) It was an interesting & productive session, & I think I probably learned as much as the students (albeit about different things).

One of the students asked me how thinking about science & reflecting on research affected my teaching. There followed a brief pause for thought 🙂

To my mind (I said), thinking about science must surely include thinking about the nature of science – & from there, to thinking about how we teach about the nature of science. This isn’t just idle day-dreaming: if someone is going on to a career in science, then I’d like to think that they have more than a passing understanding of what science actually is. This is something that the new NZ school science curriculum is intended to address (although, realistically, I believe teachers are going to need a lot more support & guidance in doing this). But at university, how do we teach our students about the nature of science? Or, more to the point, how are we going to help them learn about it? For sure, that learning is not going to be on the basis of ‘cook-book’ lab exercises, where students basically follow a recipe to a pre-determined end. (The tutor & I are seriously trying to move away from this, in our first-year bio labs. But that’s another story – perhaps, one that I should persuade her write about here…) We need to give them a lot more opportunities to think like scientists, & to reflect on how science is done.

Standard, ‘traditional’ teaching methods don’t achieve this particularly well. There’s an increasing body of evidence out there that shows this. That student’s original question reminded me of some work I did with a couple of colleagues (& we really must publish it!) looking at how well our students understood the nature of science. To our suprise – & concern – we found that our 3rd-year students had no better grasp of it than the first-years we surveyed. Of course those 3rd-years had a lot more scientific knowledge, but they were still quite shaky on how science worked. To me, this means that we need to be a lot more up-front in teaching the nature of science, & certainly this realisation had quite an impact on my own classroom practice.

Reworking labs is one way to give students more opportunity to ‘do’ some meaningful science, but I firmly believe you can give students the opportunity to practice thinking like scientists in lecture & tutorial classes as well. This is where some of the active engagement techniques I’ve written about earlier come into play. However, ‘thinking like a scientist’ isn’t something that’s picked up by osmosis – we also need to model how it’s done. Those of you who read my ‘other’ blog will know that I’m big on stories as a way of illustrating the way scientists develop their understanding of the world. As I said there, telling the occasional story lets students see scientists as people who are thinking; speculating – saying ‘what if?’; using hypotheses, looking at evidence, ultimately making those strong explanatory theories that tie it all together. They’re thinking creatively: science is a creative process & at its best involves imagination & creativity. They make mistakes! Most of the time we’re wrong but you don’t get to hear about that because it doesn’t make good journal articles; usually no-one publishes negative results. So you just hear about the ‘correct’ stuff. Scientists persist when challenged, when things aren’t always working well. And so on.

Another way to model ‘being a scientist’ for students is to actively show them how you arrive at an hypothesis or the answer to a question. I actively encourage students to ask questions in lectures (& it’s a given that this’ll happen in tutorials) – how else am I to know what they don’t understand, or whether I’ve explained something clearly enough. From time to time, someone will ask a question to which I don’t actually know the answer. (And reflecting on it –  🙂 – this is one of the things that I really enjoy about teaching, because it spurs me to go and learn something new!)  And I’ll tell the class that, that I don’t know. They need to know that scientists aren’t infallible, that we don’t know all the answers. (The idea that scientists ‘know it all’, or think they do, is a fairly pervasive one in the media & not one that does us any favours.) But then, I’ll say: but this is what the answer might be, and this is how I arrive at that hypothesis – the information I’m basing my answer on, how it all fits together & so on. In other words, I model my thought processes for them.  Sometimes they’ll call me on that & propose their own explanations. And then, between that class & the next, I’ll go off & see what I can find in the literature that will let me give a better answer – or if it’s a tutorial class we might look it up on the spot, it depends how we’re going for time. (Occasionally someone in the class will do that too – remember, these are first-year students & I think for many of them the prospect of maybe showing me I have got things wrong is more than a little daunting…) Then I can put the information on-line via Moodle, or use it to kick off the next lecture, & hopefully we’ve all gained something from it.

I hope all that helped the ‘reflective writing’ group; that they could take something from it to inform their own thinking & reviews of their work. I know that the reflection spurred by their initial questions, certainly helped me.

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