Science: A Collective Endeavour

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.


9 thoughts on “Science: A Collective Endeavour

  1. Ian Lynch

    I found out a lot of things for myself outside a school. I learnt about grouping stuff and classification at home before I went to school, I learnt about how stuff fits together because my dad bought me lots of those sorts of toys. I learnt about natural selection mainly from TV – for some reason I missed the lessons on it – but I still chose to do the A level question on it. At university in my first year physics course I repeated Cavendish’s experiment to measure G with no help and probably that was one of the few times I was motivated to do more than the bare minimum. I don’t buy this idea that learning through discovery needs eradication. It might need reduction in some cases and augmenting in others.It is unrealistic to expect all children to learn everything like that, however, it can be motivating and if we don’t want to reinforce dependency culture some value has to be given to independence. But then I have been self-employed in business startups for the last 22 years so probably I will have a different perspective to those working in very different contexts with different personal experience.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      I think the issue is what level of self-discovery is appropriate within the education system (in Science). I would not want to see any attempt to regulate or steer activity outside of education/schooling. Such activity should be absolutely free form; up to parents/carers and individuals to determine what they want to do. In my case, astronomy got my science juices flowing (mostly through private, elective reading). But, here’s the rub…..any misconceptions/misunderstandings I might have developed were my own responsibility. Within a schooling concept, I don’t think it is appropriate to leave this to chance….I think development in scientific thought generally needs to be directed….but, directed towards the aim of developing independence. This isn’t encouraging dependency, in my opinion. In Science, there is a lot of stuff that is required to build those frameworks of understanding…but once they have been put in place, then the foundation for independent scientific thought has also been put in place. It is a question of when such independence has been established, not whether (if the student is destined to progress to Scientist-hood, that is).

      Your point about personal context (and personal characteristics, too) is interesting. I have changed from research to development, and changed fields (in an industrial setting) four times (so far). I value diversity of experience and thought in my colleagues…and actively recruit to avoid hiring ‘like-us’. I have found that independence of thought is essential for progression, regardless of the scientific field of endeavour.

      As you hint at, balance is important. I guess I think that a self-discovery learning approach should not be the main thrust in science education; but neither should an approach that fosters dependency.

  2. Mr J Dexter

    I agree with the thrust of the points made here. I am a Chemistry graduate, did a year’s research and have taught secondary for a long time (30+ years). One very interesting aspect of my world has been the use of Investigations in Salters’ A level Chemistry. During Year 13 our students plan, research, carry out, analyse and evaluate their own investigation. Students choose their own topic and carry it out over 18 hours. They often spend a long time planning the method but also researching the Chemical Ideas behind their practical. They have to do some things not normally carried out routinely such as risk assessments, “fiddling” around with concentrations to optimise results and looking how to extend their investigation or bring in an idea from somewhere ( ‘Ah a tlc might help me here’). Although it is coursework they all really enjoy it, they become quite an expert in the practical and they see something of the ups and downs of research compared to set practicals. Sadly in the new world of A level this exact style won’t happen as practical work is downgraded. It is a great shame and I hope does not have too many unintended consequences. It was a way of working which glimpsed a world of research that has encouraged many a student into that career with a more knowing and skilled approach.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      John, I had to google Year13 (upper sixth?), which tells you something about how long it is since I was at school (or my kids, for that matter).

      I am not familiar with the Salter’s exercise you describe, but does strike me as an excellent exercise for students of Upper Sixth age. By that age they will have a significant (but clearly incomplete) framework of understanding of Chemistry, and such an exercise will test their understanding, and could easily reveal any misconceptions, as well as bring the other benefits you mention. Maybe you could arrange some sort of cut down version to run in one of the half term holidays? (Being in Nottingham I would be surprised if you couldn’t get some industrial or University support…).

  3. Mr J Dexter

    Wow actually that’s such a good idea dn the RSC (esp our local contact who is brilliant) could pikc it up. You are right about misconcentions and once students choose their topic eg “bromine clock reaction”, or “how much copper in a coin by 3 methods”, we try to really ensure they understand the chemi behind it. To give an idea, we are just choosing topics now and planning now but will do them in Jan/Feb. I just looked out some old ones as exemplars and thought as I read them just how wonderful was the work there. I used to moderate these for OCR and have seen some fantastic stuff. I once showed a Prof one and asked him for a view……I think at least a first there John!!


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