09. Scientific Inquiry and How People Learn

        To know science in traditional schools was to have meant to learn the conclusions of scientists over the years, definitions of scientific terms, and important discoveries of the past.  The focus of instruction was on "what" scientists know.  Two new efforts recently have created guidelines that include an emphasis on the discipline's concepts, theories, and models; an understanding of how knowledge is generated and justified; and the ability to use these understanding to engage in new inquiry.  
        The three chapters that follow on science focus on light (elementary school), gravity (middle school), and genetics/evolution (high school).  They support the learning principles from How People Learn.  
PRINCIPLE #1: Addressing Preconceptions

        Every experiences often show conceptions that are limited or false.  Students bring these conceptions every day to the classroom.  For example, properties are generally believed to belong to objects rather than to emerge from interactions.  Or, people perceive things to "be" a certain color, when with some tools like a prism, we can understand that they absorb part of the spectrum of light.  

Everyday Concepts of Scientific Methods, Argumentation, and Reasoning

        Much like in history, there is a development from seeing things as facts to ideas supported by evidence.  Yet, many high school students still have conceptions of science that are at very fundamental levels.  

Conceptual Change
        Any instruction that does not explicitly express students' everyday conceptions fails to help them refine their scientific understanding.  A pioneer in the conceptual change for how physics should be taught was Jim Minstrell, a physics teachers and author.  This was based on the realization that it wasn't so useful to learn quantitative relationship when students still were making large conceptual misconceptions.  To get students to make a conceptual change is therefore the focus of the 3 units in the subsequent chapters.  To do so, they all integrate content with inquiry processes.  

Principle #2: Knowledge of What It Means to "Do Science"

        The views of the great scientific minds is very frequently not recognized in the classroom.  Students are often asked to conduct experiments that are already given, instead of being asked questions such as how can we test this out?  Inquiry methods of science involve observation, imagination, and reasoning about the phenomena under study.  

Principle #3: Metacognition

        New research shows promising effects of teaching students to monitor and reflect in order to comprehend.  For example, ThinkerTools showed results higher for kids in urban school compared with those in suburban schools who learned traditionally.  Furthermore, the urban students outperformed the suburban ones on "reflective assessments" as well, that involved metacognitive elements.  


        Learner-centered: All three chapter focus on the ideas students bring with them to the classroom.  They try to draw out what they know or don't know, rather than begin with new material.  
        Knowledge-centered: All three chapters have a focus on what needs to be taught, which is quite clear especially in terms of what they need to understand.  This includes both what scientists know, and how they know.  Simply introducing the "scientific method" raises more questions than answers.  Rather, using inquiry students can learn about generating good questions and exploring them, learning by being surprised (by dis-confirmations), etc.  
        Assessment-centered: Assessing the quality of hypotheses, the adequacy of methods and conclusions, and effectiveness of their efforts and learners and collaborators is very important and done throughout.
        Community-centered: Developing a culture of respect, questioning, and risk taking is very important in the entire process.  Even disconfirmation is an exciting discovery and not a failure.  


        These chapters are meant to be illustrative.  Teachers should try to take the principles from here instead of trying to replicate it.  


What do you think you know about this topic?

        I think that to learn science you need to understand the key conceptual issues behind it, which is really to observe, reason, and experiment.  For students to get excited by it, it can't be just a collection of procedures or learning history of other experiments.  Rather, they should try to learn to think scientifically.  This involves invoking observation, reasoning, and experimentation as something they do, and constantly talking about it and trying to refine it.  

What questions or puzzles do you have?

Should you provide students with methodologies and let them try it (with their own hypotheses), or let them create their own way to test phenomena.

How can you explore this topic?

I can ask others; I can just think about it and reason for myself: I think you ought to start with a question, then, let the students think about the different methodologies they can use to explore it.  Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each and help them refine their understandings until they can understand the reasons for the methodology you have chosen.  Then, they can choose their own hypotheses and test them.