Monday, August 6, 2012

Science not a "method"

The scientific method is about as useful as the rhythm method--it works fine once you remove the human element. And like the rhythm method, takes a bit of spontaneous joy out of the room.

I like humans, and that's who I teach, and we all could use joy.

If you break down a "successful" experiment, it reads like a successful curriculum vitae. Things are all lined up in order, as though coordinated sequentially by the scientists. But that's not how things work.

No matter how polished a resume, even one condensed to one page with no gaps, everyone's life is full of waterfalls and eddies, whirling moments blending into a chaotic river marked by events that choose us as much as we choose them. Some of us get buffeted around clinging to flotsam, some of us manage to build a tiny canoe with paper paddles--in the end, we have less control than we acknowledge, and we all drown.

Kids still know this even though the adults around them have managed to fool themselves.

So what do we do?
From Clastric Detritus--a wonderful geology blog

Toss out the canned classroom experiments for a week. Ask a child to hypothesize and test a very simple idea. What makes something fall faster than something else? Does a slug have a food preference? Do earthworms hear?

Then let the child design the experiment. Most will get stuck. Sadly, most will need permission to get unstuck. They've been trained to get it right the first time. Ask them to keep notes along the way, but use them as guides, not as a graded assignment.

Most of their initial attempts will fail miserably. Gleefully (but not meanly) celebrate the fine points of failure as the child modifies and modifies and modifies. Eventually (and it will happen in a safe classroom), you will hear a child laugh at herself, modify her work, and carry on--without you.

Which is really the point, no?
No one leaves the river alive, and no teacher reasonably expects to outlive his students.

So stop teaching as though you will be around forever...
The Rythmeter from BoingBoing!.


John T. Spencer said...

I'm running with this.

I'm going to start with a question I ask and then I'm going to let them ask their own questions. Maybe I'll brainstorm a few basic questions.

I might just use my son's question and answer process (why leaves fall) as an example of why this is a natural part of science.

Thanks for the help, Michael.

lucychili said...

kathryn lapid said...

Very true.

doyle said...

Dear John,

We ought to swap classrooms for a week. =)

Dear lucychili,

Interesting talk by Karlberg--there's a lot of good stuff happening. Thanks for the link (and your frequent support here and on Google Plus!

Angela Greene said...

So glad I found this blog!

David Rudel said...

The tragedy of "The Scientific Method" is that it conveys something vitally important and relevant, but places it in the wrong context.

The scientific method is not a procedure individual scientists use when engaging in research. It is, rather, a description of how science as a whole progresses. It might seem like this is only a minor inaccuracy, but it is actually a critical one because science as a body of shared understanding progresses most exactly when typical means of doing science fail.

Thus, it is especially misleading to describe the scientific method in terms of how an individual scientist does his work because the typical "method" by which a science works on his research is not by inventing and testing hypotheses right and left but by applying consensus-approved theories and models.

Jess Kane said...

Thank you so much. It's encouraging to know there are other educators out there as sick of all the bs of the education system, and working to keep kids interested in learning rather than focusing on test scores and all that. I'll look forward to reading more of your blog. Thanks!

~Jess Kane