Discussion: Keynote Part 1

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posted by: Brian Drayton on May 14, 2003 at 8:44PM
subject: A really interesting question
It could take pages and pages of answers, from many of us, to really
come to grips with it. The first thoughts that come to mind: Preamble:
The challenge is in the nature of science itself, which is not a single
field, but many fields, and each field has some characteristics unusual
to itself. They all have in common a general approach: build
explanatory theories which provide a causal account of some phenomena,
which are in accord with the data, and whose validity is improved by
the testing of hypotheses which bear on the (implications of) one or
another aspect of the theoretical "story" being woven. If new data
appear, or a better way of explaining the data appear, then (hopefully)
the explanation becomes more satisfying, gives rise to more
implications which upon testing turn out to be true.

But the general approach that I have just sketched is used in the
context of stuff, events, phenomena, and these are incredibly complex
and various. The learner (and the practitioner) will be required to
observe accurately, count/weigh/measure, critique evidence, and decide
what variation is worth paying attention to, and what is not.
Depending on the phenomena (animal behavior, projectile motion, cloud
formations, crystal shapes…) this is a hard thing to do in and of
itself. Evidence is often not conclusive, so that all you can say is
that the null hypothesis is disproven (for example), not that the
alternative hypothesis is proven (or disproven)-- just that one
explanation seems more or less likely than it did before the

And because of the many different kinds of things out there to
study, and the many kinds of theories and evidence, there are many
kinds of investigations — not everything is experimental, often it's
historical (for example, in astronomy, earth science, evolutionary

So the teacher has to know many different kinds of things. For
example, in thinking about weather ( a common middle school topic),:
What kinds of phenomena are seen? How are they described (for exmaple,
cloud shapes)? What characteristics are used to classify the
phenomena? What kinds of data are used to quantify the salient
characteristics? How are the data collected? What can go wrong in
collecting each kind of data? What are good explanations for some of
the phenomena seen, and what theories can be addressed (sometimes even
created) by student data collection?

Then there are whatever ideas or assumptions that kids may come in
with, or come up with, because most kids have some ideas and
experiences (or at least TV acquaintance) with many natural phenomena.
How can I tell what sense a kid is making of what she is looking at, or
what I am telling her, for that matter? When do I push for qualitative
expressions of student ideas, and when quantitative? etc etc etc.

So errors can be of fact (the child did not really see something
important, or misunderstood what was happening), or in the way data
were collected, or in interpretation, or in reasoning from evidence, or
in linking today's learnings with previous learnings…And of course,
many of these "errors" should better be seen as transitional
understandings, which will change and be replaced in the future,
perhaps because the teacher figures he should help the kids test and
refine their ideas. (I think it was Bruner who insisted that a child
is not an imperfect adult, it is a "thing" in its own right; so too a
transitional idea is an idea in its own right, which may be inadequate
from various points of view, and need to be addressed withn the agenda
of good science learning, but the transitional ideas are often crucial,
and part of a teacher's task is to decide when and how to intervene to
support, direct, or leave alone the growth of understanding. Not
always a decision that can be based on principle…)
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