Dec 04 2009

Teaching How Science Works

I and other science promoters have long advocated that science education needs to teach not just the current findings of science, but how science works – how we know what we know. Science is an intellectual  journey and a collection of methods, not a set of facts.

But facts are important too. Method without substance is hollow. Science is more of a dance between facts and ideas, and you need to know both, as well as how they interact, in order to do and understand science.

One conventional criticism of science education is that it emphasizes teaching facts and inadequately deals with process and theory. However, this criticism now appears to be outdated. Educators have gotten the word – teach process. In the UK this concept has been called HSW – How Science Works – and is a major part of the science curriculum.

Unfortunately, this has apparently not led to better science education, and perhaps even worse, all because of terrible execution.

(My standard disclaimer – I know there are excellent science teachers out there. I have had the privilege of having some in my own education. I am discussing the minimum standard, and not denying the existence of occasional excellence.)

HSW is coming under fire in the UK on two major points: First, emphasis on teaching HSW is taking too much time away from teaching traditional science content – so the balance isn’t optimal. Second, the execution of HSW has been bad overall, leaving students frustrated and not really understanding the methods of science. Rather, they are left with a vague sense of science as just another way of knowing, but don’t understand it’s strengths or how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. Students complain they feel like science is just another English comprehension course.

Another way in which a good sounding idea for science education has been poorly executed on average is the introduction of hands-on science. Ideas are supposed to be learned through doing experiments. However, textbook quality is generally quite low, and when executed by the average science teacher the experiments become mindless tasks, rather than learning experiences.

I have two daughters going through public school education in a relatively wealthy county in CT (so a better than average school system) and I have not been impressed one bit with the science education they are getting. Here is an example – recently my elder daughter had to conduct an experiment on lifesavers. OK, this is a bit silly, but I have no problem using a common object as the subject of the experiment, as long as the process is educational. The students had to test various aspects of the lifesavers – for example, does the color affect the time it takes to dissolve in water.

The execution of this “experiment” was simply pointless. They performed a single trial, with a single data point on each color, and obtained worthless results that could not reasonably confirm or deny any hypothesis. By my personal assessment, my daughter learned absolutely nothing from this exercise, and afterwards complained that she was becoming bored with science.

I repeated the experiment with her. First we thought of all the variables that could affect the outcome, and then controlled for those variables. We discussed various hypotheses as to how color could affect dissolving time. We then ran multiple trials and tabulated the results. We discussed some of the technical difficulties of the experiment – it was not completely obvious, for example, when the lifesaver “completely” dissolved – that last little bit seemed to have a half-life. We observed for possible confounders – such as air bubbles in the individual lifesavers. In the end we found that there was no clear relationship between the color and dissolving time.

In the classroom, however, all of these important details were glossed over. The students did a mindless experiment with uninterpretable results, and learned nothing. In fact, if they learned anything it was sloppy technique – they learned pseudoscience.

My daughters learn far more about HSW from Mythbusters than they do from science class.

Where is the disconnect? I think we need more involvement by working scientists, especially academic scientists who have a talent for teaching science. We also need a higher standard for science teachers – who should be required to take seminars and pass exams to qualify to teach science. It is simply too important an area to leave to those who do not have an adequate understanding of science. Great science teachers do a wonderful job of teaching science and filling their students with the wonder and awe of science. We should endeavor to make all science teachers great science teachers.

19 responses so far

19 thoughts on “Teaching How Science Works”

  1. superdave says:

    the problem with experimentation only grows in later grades. In highschool and college, the emphasis is often on learning a specific lab technique or or reinforcing a concept from lecture. There is nothing wrong with this as these are also important but it means that if you have not learned the scientific method by highschool, you may never cover it.

  2. w4rpz0ne says:

    That’s sad. I would think this would present a perfect opportunity to reveal not just the scientific method in practice, but how science can reveal the truth in the face of common preconceptions. Then the real value of scientific testing rather than observation and conjecture could be demonstrated.

  3. engagechad says:

    That system is very flawed, especially considering that you say it’s a wealthy community. You’d think the school system would put some money into the science programs so that they could afford something more than lifesavers to experiment on.

    It needs to be instilled into the minds of youngsters that you don’t believe what you hear immediately. You have to test, and re-test and come to conclusions only after you’ve ruled out all other possibilities. I think a reason why children have such a hard time accepting the scientific process is because a child’s mind is pre-geared towards believing everything they hear. It is a bump in the road that is hard to get around.

    Thank you for the bit Steve, people need to read this.

  4. provaxmom says:

    First music and art disappeared. Then phys ed (and then we had the audacity to complain about childhood obesity). Civics and social studies were next in line at the guillotine, now it’s science. As a teacher in a public school system, I can tell you the focus right now, as a state, is literacy literacy literacy. I’m not against students bettering their reading and writing skills, especially given some of the written assignments I receive, written in ‘text-speak.’ I’m against this single-focus, or our lack of ability to focus on more than one topic at a time.

    The students have the appetites for science. Mine *love* when we go off topic and discuss science. We just need to be able to accurately fulfill that desire.

  5. I think the problem in the US is that science is part of the intellectual elite and isn’t considered as necessary as say an MBA to become a business titan (like that worked over the past few years). When good science educators are battling against Intelligent design and other creationist efforts, I think it gets exhausting.

    When I was in high school 30 years ago, science was fascinating to me. I had a whole career in science because of it.

    We really need to create that fascination over again. I guess going to the internet and finding a picture of a far away galaxy from the Hubble telescope doesn’t thrill as much as it did for me.

  6. CW says:

    Very good article, I’ll have my siblings who are in education (middle school civics teacher and middle school asst. principle) take a read and get their opinion.

    I think my biggest pet peeve of science classes that involved lab work was the lack of time to do it thoroughly, and appreciate the process.

    Quick anecdote based on my school science experience – I actually enjoyed biology classes (especially the labs) in high school. My first biology course was the last class in the day, and so I could stay after school to finish labs (and even discuss them with the teacher). The next year, my biology class was in the morning and so I felt rushed to complete a lab and write the results within that class’s period. It became frustrating to me, and at times, my technique was sloppy to the point that I wasn’t getting solid data. I know it’s an excuse, but having had the luxury of time the previous year made it less fun for me the next year. And then I decided against taking a third year of biology my senior year because it was going to be a morning class.

  7. Campagna8283 says:

    Provaxmom – I know exactly what you are saying regarding “literacy literacy literacy”. It has gone too far. Of course, like you said, literacy is important. There needs to be a balance though, not this overwhelming push for literacy resulting in the neglect of other subjects. My husband is a science teacher, an excellent one I must add, and he feels the problem is is that we don’t teach students from a young age about pseudoscience and proper research. There needs to be more of a focus on these topics. Children are raised believing in a lot of nonsense like astrology, the paranormal, etc., which greatly inhibits their ability to spot the fakers and quacks. Anyway, I am going to forward this blog to my husband. He will appreciate it.

  8. Alain Miville de Chene says:

    Mythbusters is a good example of a stimulating way to show how to think scientifically. It has the added advantage of removing old myths from audience’s mind. They don’t explore the fundamental forces of the universe (rolling balls on an inclined plane) but the style of thought is scientific.

  9. melee says:

    I’ve been teaching 8th grade science for 22 years, and from what I’ve seen there are many more problems that need to be addressed.
    First to clear up something that might explain the life saver experience your daughter had- From what I’ve seen, elementary teachers are drawn to education by their love of children, secondary school teachers are drawn by their love of their subject matter. (I’m certified at the secondary level.) Your daughter’s teacher probably wasn’t trained well enough to do any more than she did. Having science professionals with the appropriate people skills visiting the elementary classroom frequently would be helpful, and I’m sure your daughter’s teacher would agree.
    Being secondary certified, my BS is in Biology, with an extra 2 years to take 2-3 semesters each of additional physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, and ecology courses, I teach SCIENCE- actually I share my love of science with 125 captive 13 year-olds each day.
    Second, striking a balance between teaching HSW and the huge list of required topics is really difficult. Here in NJ, science is on the state standardized tests, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. My own administration actually gave a list of topics that we had to check off as we did them each year- and if I did each of them the way I wanted to, encorporating HSW and critical thinking skills into each of the required topics, well, lets just say it would take way longer than a year.
    In my experience, the biggise issue is class size- I hate to use this as an excuse, but take a room of 31 thirteen year olds, and give them glassware? You’re kidding, right? No sane person would do it. I do. Every week. Over and over. So far we haven’t had any life threatening accidents.
    Another issue- big classes of “basic” level students. I have a class of 27 kids, all of whom have reading and math skills way, way below grade level. Fifteen years or so ago this type of class was not permitted to have more than 12 kids in it. Back then, these classes were my favorite- they tended to be the most skeptical thinkers, most open minded and able to come up with alternate solutions, and they were in groups small enough so that I could interact with each kid every day, making sure they were learning to think, make decisions, and learning the boring content stuff, too. If a class was really into a topic, we could stay with it for months, until they not only understood the topic, but HSW!
    I guess if I could have one wish to make it possible for me to do the job the way I know it needs to be done it would be to never have a class of over 15 kids- I’d be willing to teach more periods a day without a pay increase to get that!

  10. mccorvic says:

    In most states if it’s not math or reading it doesn’t count. A lot of times science is an “elective” and can be skipped entirely.

  11. Joe says:

    Realistic experiments are often out of reach of school children because of lack of access to equipment and chemicals. Massimo Pigliucci (biology, Stony Brook U., NY) recommends teaching science from a historical perspective whereby the students learn about the experiments that led to our understanding. (BTW, Simon Singh’s book “Big Bang” goes about teaching physics just that way.)

    I must quibble with you a bit- science is both methods of learning about nature and the knowledge derived therefrom. As a college professor, I was in a bind to teach the “facts” that chem majors and pre-meds had to know to pass their succeeding classes and entrance exams. I wish I had the time demonstrate how the knowledge was obtained.

  12. Joe – but that is exactly the position I took.

    But facts are important too. Method without substance is hollow. Science is more of a dance between facts and ideas, and you need to know both, as well as how they interact, in order to do and understand science.

  13. Joe says:

    @Steven Novella on 05 Dec 2009 at 6:12 pm wrote “Joe – but that is exactly the position I took. ”

    Indeed it is; what had I read?

  14. TRC says:

    Enjoyed the post, Dr. Novella. I too long for my son to one day appreciate the method of science, not just the ends of the means, so to speak.

    I love the Carl Sagan quote that says something to the effect of the method of science is far more important than its findings.

    Really appreciated the 8th grade science teacher’s perspective (melee) on teaching, and also the comments about having the time to finish the biology labs at the end of the day versus the beginning. That was my experience taking an organic chemistry lab during graduate school (I know, we’re not talking about post secondary education per se, but I think it still applies).

    I can’t tell you what a difference that made to have a little less rushing, and more time to actually think through the experiments during that lab. I probably learned more in that one lab than I’ve learned in any other course in all the classes I’ve taken, and I must confess I’ve had quite a few completing two master of science degree programs.

    It’s hard to make time I know for these labs in such a structured environment like a public school system, and I don’t pretend to have any quick solutions. I just wanted to share that maybe just a little more time in these settings can make a huge difference in the life of a kid trying to figure many things out.

    Thanks again for a great post and great discussion.


  15. Tracy W says:

    Hi Stephen, good thought provoking post, and a lot I agree with in it. However I do disagree with one thing, you say that your daughters’ school system is in a fairly wealthy area and so should be better than average. I don’t think it works that way.

    The US’s NCLB’s law requires schools to track the performance not only of individual students but students by sub-group. And the statistics from that indicate that poor children attending schools in rich areas don’t do particularly better than poor children attending schools in poor areas, they do do slightly better but what’s going on there is probably variance amongst the poor group (the NCLB definition of poor is binary, either you’re poor or you are’t, but a poor famly who is close to the poverty line might well be different in many ways to a poor family who is a long way off it). See

    Now this is US-based data, but I grew up in NZ and I have some anecdotal experience that supports that hypothesis (my mother’s business partner sent her kids to the local primary school in a poor area, one day the school calls her about her youngest daughter and says that “your daughter has a reading problem”, mother goes “Oh no!” and immediately sends daughter off to an expensive private school. Two years later expensive private school calls and says that “your daughter has a reading problem” – 2 years to get to the stage where the state school already was.

  16. zoe237 says:

    I agree, but with the caveat that it is a lot easier to teach broad concepts to one above average student than it is to 30!

    That said, many teachers at the middle and high school level are good at one of two things, but not both. They are good at the science, or they are good at relating to students. Scientists are often not very good at explaining their work at a laymen’s (or child’s level). The ones who are (Sagan and Dawkins and Gould, e.g.) can become famous and well loved. The people who can do both are the exceptional teachers.

    There is also the standard lecture and m/c test pedagogy vs. group work, labs, and HSW. Lecture is easier and, if you have teachers who aren’t terribly effective, can be better. Science education has been teaching HSW type education to future teachers for years, but execution is touchy. HSW takes more resources and it takes more time. It takes skill to gently prod students into coming up with their own answers and to think about solutions. Teachers also often wish to avoid any type of debate in the classroom. In this case, I think your point about them learning sloppy technique-pseudoscience- is bang on. So if this inquiry based methods of teaching science are not well executed, the results can be even dangerous to public understanding of science.

    I am also a big advocate of both facts and inquiry- there should be a balance there. We’re all familiar with the teacher who lectures for 60 minutes with seemingly useless information. But some have gone to the opposite extreme- there are never any right answers, only interpretations, and only wishy-washy experiments that are completely contrived. Balance is needed.

    As a side note, one school (inner city middle) school I taught at didn’t want me putting on the test that the earth was 4.4 billion years old because some of the religious parents might complain. That was a little bit scary.

    I’ve said for a long time they ought to test teachers instead of students.

    And I kind of agree with Tracy W above as well. The only thing that has been shown to correlate with a “good” school is the socio-economic level of the parents. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the school is better. It just means the parents may have the time and resources after school to make up for any mediocrity learned during school (like you did in the lifesaver example). Class size, resources, money spent/student, nothing else seems to correlate that well.

  17. mschmidt says:

    I completely blame school for my late-in-life attraction towards science. I remember in sixth grade being really excited at the idea of ‘science experiments’ thinking that it would be something like Bill Nigh the Science Guy, but it turned out to be boring and uniforming. It only got worse in high school when my astronomy teacher showed a video version of ‘Chariots of Fire’ which basically says that aliens built the pyramids or some such nonsense.

    After that I pretty much gave up on science academically. I took the necessary two science credits at community college and focused on literature, a subject which I had decent teachers. It wasn’t until about late in college a friend started talking about Carl Sagan’s “Dragons of Eden” during work as well as stumbling upon ‘Cosmos’ did I start to take an interest again. Although I don’t think my interest ever waned. I watched Mythbusters but didn’t think of it as a ‘science’ show. There just weren’t many options out there. Now I can’t get enough of science.

    I think, as mentioned, that the primary science courses should teach the history and stories behind science with a dose of explanation instead of a load of rules that need to be followed. Basically, Sagan’s books present the greatest model in introducing science.

  18. theo says:

    Steve, I agree with the intent of your post (and most of the comments). I also can’t emphasis enough, the importance of skeptics taking an interest in science education and the more your write about it the better. However, a few points.

    Education is a funny one (as in interesting, not “ha ha”). Because everyone’s been to school (or has kids at school), they feel more than qualified to talk at length on it than they would, say, medicine. However, usually people can only argue or make points from personal experience and anecdotes (and I include teachers in “everyone”) – something that we skeptics would frown upon in, say, medicine. As much as I like the guy’s intentions from previous work I’ve seen him do, you’ve cited an opinion piece by a film maker and teacher – yet more anecdote. And he cited a forum with 25 posts, many of which, to me at least, read as rants of the ignorant (a person with a PhD doesn’t understand the difference between precise and accurate – gimme a break). Does evidence get any more low level than this??? This is not to say it isn’t true – and there is a lot of research that demonstrates teachers’ (and students’) resistance to change and as such, failure to implement (and attain) curriculum as it was intended (and I ask for your caveat about teachers here too – not all teachers, and often teachers have little or no support/time to enact the curriculum and changes in pedagogy required of them anyway – so it’s doomed to failure).

    Moreover, UK education is still based on external high stakes testing, which by its very nature makes teacher HSW nigh on impossible (and I’d know – I taught Physics in the UK for 2 years… oops anecdote). And, more moreover, it has only been in effect since 2006! Curriculum changes are processes, not events. I could go on at length, but I won’t.

    Instead I’ll direct your attention to some research done in Australia (however, it cites international research and is relevant to all science education in OECD countries). For a quick overview of issues and proposed improvements in science education see:

    For the full details, I highly recommend to anyone interested in science education this report commissioned by The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Re-imagining Science Education, by Professor Russell Tytler:

    It is a review/summary of papers presented at a conference hosted by ACER (in 2006), Boosting Science Learning – What will it take:

    As for your anecdote about your daughter – two suggestions (and forgive me if you’ve already done any of this, or if I’m being too presumptive). 1) Go and speak to her teacher and talk to him/her about your concerns. This would need to be done with great care and tact (having gotten to know you through the SGU I’m confident you would). And you never know, the teacher might be interested in your support to help improve his/her understanding of the nature of science and how he/she can implement investigations with more rigour. 2) Don’t go empty handed, take this:

    Disclaimer: in no way can I be held responsible if you follow my suggestions and it all ends badly… 😉

  19. What a funny magnet says:

    I’ve just found this thread…sorry for being late!

    For the last four or five years I have been working with teachers in developing effective strategies to teach students ‘How Science Works’. The biggest block we have found is that the vast majority of teachers have a limited experience of doing any science for themselves. Most teachers were successful in their own education through learning facts effectively and any assessment of scientific enquiry was ususally through closed experiments where more marks were given for getting exactly the ‘right’ answer than for the scientific thinking demonstrated. This experience is reflected in the poverty of the science that school students often experience; there is plenty of research to shown that in most school experiments students already know what will be found before they do it!

    The most powerful way we have found to bring about a step change in teachers understanding of how to teach science as a way of findng new knowledge is to give them a go at doing it, unpicking what it felt like and then applying the experience to agree a set of principles they want to work to to ensure students get a similar experience. When working with teachers we give them a good long go at tackling problems that provide cognitive conflict. For example, most teachers are aware of the ‘floating candle’ experiment (a lit candle is placed on a raft floating on water, a gas jar is placed over the top so that it just dips below the water creating an air lock. As the candle goes out water is pushed up and the floating candle rises). In our experience no teacher has a sound explanation for this although some believe the myth that as oxygen is used drops etc. the are given a few hours to gather evidence and make progress towards an explanation.

    From this experience teachers invariably understand the need to provide students with problems to tackle that they don’t already know the answer to and capture their interest and imagination.

    We have found that this has brought about a qualitative change in teaching for many. There is much less emphasis upon teacher instruction and much more upon students working collaboratively to tackle problems and the teacher plays the quieter role of coach and facilitator.

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