Harry Webb (@websofsubstance) recently blogged about how many things that are believed about teaching are actually wrong. Within that blog, he included a section on the teaching of Science, and in particular the idea that discovering things for themselves leads to a deeper understanding in students. Harry views this with suspicion and the evidence he presents suggests it isn’t true. This got me thinking about my own Scientific education. I am educated to PhD level in Chemistry, and have been a professional Scientist now for 27 years.
Science is a secondary level subject…in that, to access it, a student needs a high level of both literacy and numeracy (I am always slightly bemused by the expectations for Science in Primary education). Vocabulary in Science is often technical with even normal words carrying specific meanings. Use of language needs to be precise. (And numeracy forms a bedrock on which Science is built). And, that sense of building on foundations is key to understanding in Science. Harry is right to elude to the frameworks of understanding that an expert in Science brings to the table. But, does this mean that self-discovery, or peer group discovery, has no place in Science education?
It depends on which bit of Science is under the microscope. There are facts and knowledge, tools and practical skills, and scientific thinking and problem solving. And there are different stages in the development of a Scientist. By the time a Scientist reaches PhD level they are expected to find stuff out for themselves…..but up to that point, not so much. Why is this? Apart from the requirement to be good with language and maths, and the vast amount of background stuff that needs to be assimilated before the frameworks of understanding are in place, the only other way to find out about stuff (other than it being revealed) is through experimentation. And experiments are very difficult to do. My experience was that school and University practicals only worked if the instructions were followed exactly (and even then often didn’t), and that PhD work almost never worked for the first few attempts. Without the wealth of background knowledge that accrued by the time independent experimentation was upon me, nothing useful would have been possible.
Conducting practicals during schooling is, though, very important. They help to both learn practical techniques and foster scientific problem solving, and it is exciting to see stuff that the theory says will happen, actually happen before your very eyes. And what about group work? This is essential in school Science because of the lack of materials, and sometimes a practical requires two people to handle the equipment. However, this isn’t ideal. Working on your own is much better, partly because it helps to develop that focus an individual needs to successfully carry out scientific enquiry, and also develops the imperative to make decisions. In addition, the complexity of Science means that it is unlikely that much will be learnt from a peer. Basically, Science is tricky and requires long periods of dedicated time. Experiments frequently go wrong. A long apprenticeship is needed before independent work can usefully be carried out.
But, once the apprenticeship has been served (and there are other routes in addition to the PhD), Science is often collaborative and individual Scientists will pool their expertise, experience and thinking to make progress. Diversity of experience and thought is often crucial. The overall context, though, is that Science is a collective Endeavour for the individual to be engaged with; within which, learning never stops.