More pondering about habits of scientific thinking
Today was a FedEx day at my school, where teachers get together and try to work on projects of their choosing that will enhance student learning.
I spent part of the day getting together with A and C, two colleagues in my science department to try to brainstorm out a list of scientific habits of mind that might form a backbone to vertically integrate disciplines in high school (and even middle and elementary school) science.
I’ve also been conversing a bit with Mark Hammond, who has been leading a similar charge with his science department and blogging about it at Physics & Parsimony.
In about 90 minutes, we were able to draft out the following list of ideas, which need some significant revision and elaboration.
- Visualize: visual representations are a key to scientific understanding and communication. Often the first step toward building an understanding involves drawing a picture or diagram, and scientists find these tools as valuable as words and equations.
- Seek Evidence: scientists seek answers to their questions with objective data, which can come in many forms. Key ingredients to this process include making careful observations, and being aware of the limitations of ourobserving capacities.
- Think statistically: a scientist looks to guard against the bias of the single story, and instead use to tools of statistics to critically analyze representative samples of data.
- Estimate: using basic numeric sense, unit analysis, explicit assumptions and mathematical reasoning to develop a reasonable estimate to a particular question, and then be able to examine the plausibility of that estimate based its inputs.
- Tinker/Experiment: A simple change to an experiment can sometimes lead to a breakthrough finding. Scientists willingly plunge into the unknown and try new things excited by the new discoveries that may await them.
- Meticulous Documentation: breakthrough findings often come only through the careful, precise development of repeatable procedures and recording of vast quantities of evidence. Scientists recognize the value of careful documentation as a critical element of success.
- Take things apart/Make models: Often one of the most productive ways to study a complex system is to take it apart and study its simpler pieces. Scientists do this by creating simplified models that capture part of the behavior of the system.
- Look for connections/patterns: Many of the most interesting features of a system do not emerge until you look at the relationships between seemingly independent parts. Scientists are constantly looking connections across boundaries of scale and function.
- Question asking: “what if, how and why” are questions that dominate a scientist’s mind. These questions look beyond the simple descriptive questions, and instead lead to investigations and further questions.
- Embrace failure: failure to find a particular result turns out to be the most exciting possible finding. Scientists learn to embrace failure and deal with frustration by finding new opportunities and reflecting and revising their work.
- Collaborate and Communicate: scientists see that sharing one’s ideas is the key to learning. They share ideas both to improve their own understanding, validate and replicate their findings and to take in new ideas from peers.
So that’s what we’ve come up with so far. I really like how a couple of the habits (tinker/exeriment and meticulous documentation, and take things apart/make models and look for connections/patterns) represent opposite viewpoints in approach, which every scientist must balance. In addition to further refinement, the next step would be to think about how to go about teaching these habits, and then further to how to assess them.
My hope is that one day these would become a set of tools that students could “reach for” as they are working in science class to understand a new situation. They could literally tell themselves I need to “visualize” what’s going on in this circuit—maybe I should start by drawing a diagram.
I also like how many of these habits are extensible beyond science class. I want my students to see that scientific thinking is important not just because it lets you do experiments and publish papers in the physical review, but because it has some relevance too for solving problems in your daily life.
In the meantime, I would love any feedback/suggestions you might have about this list.