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More pondering about habits of scientific thinking

April 11, 2011

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2011 10:13 pm

    What would success look like? How would you know if your students are starting to refine these habits of mind? Could you have students do a meta-reflection on how they approach something? Could you ask them to contrast with how, say, an artist would interact in a scenario?

    That last one, particularly, is codified in the s0-called “Hamline Plan” that is the general scaffolding for our general education requirements. When we teach a Natural Science course that counts towards the “N” requirement we have to:
    1. show that there are tools
    2. Have the students use the tools
    3. Contrast the tools with another discipline

    We get a lot of push-back, especially from students who want to just go take a summer course somewhere to satisfy the requirements. Even though those other schools have identically named courses, we’re not sure if they are explicit about #1 and #3. Number 2 is, I’m sure, present everywhere.

    Unfortunately we haven’t held onto this standard hard enough. Most students just look at our plan as the same as every other general ed plan and, for the most part, they’re right. I do like it in principle, though.

    • April 11, 2011 10:18 pm

      This really is great feedback, and we’ve got a lot more thinking to do. Part of me thinks that many of these habits aren’t that different from habits in other disciplines—and I wonder both if this is really true, and if so, what are the habits that really distinguish scientific thinking from historical thinking, etc.

  2. Stacy Chalmers permalink
    April 12, 2011 9:51 am

    I love the idea of creating a vertical alignment of goals for scientific thinking from P1 through 12 within the science department. I’ve pasted below the short version of the “Habits of Mind” from Georgia 5th Grade Science Standards – many of which already appear in the learning goals for our 5th grade students.
    • Records observations
    • Offers and considers reasoning
    • Quantifies data
    • Measures and estimates
    • Uses scientific tools
    • Assembles, describes, takes apart,
    • and reassembles
    • Identifies parts and makes models
    • Describes changes
    • Compares physical attributes
    • Draws and sketches
    • Questions and seeks to find answers
    • Researches for scientific information
    • Replicates investigations
    • Works safely

    Not on the state’s list, but appearing in our learning goals is Collaborate and Communicate – though not stated so succinctly.
    On your list but not listed as one of our goals, though emphasized in class, is Embrace Failure. Why is it not listed as a goal? The challenge of assessing it fairly. It is easy to provide opportunities for students to fail but difficult (and possibly unethical?) to make sure that they fail frequently enough to grow from the experience.
    Should we measure response to failure and provide feedback? Is it our prerogative to help students develop a growth mindset? I think the answer to both questions is yes, but I don’t think it is exclusively the domain of science.

    • April 12, 2011 10:48 am

      Thanks for this. I should have checked to see if there were something like this in state standards, but nonetheless, I think it was helpful for us to try to describe these in a bit more detail for ourselves. It certainly is helpful and encouraging to see that we closely match the state standards.

      You bring up two questions that are definitely worth thinking a lot more about. How much are any of these standards exclusively the domain of science, and if none of them are, are there other standards that we are missing that are exclusive to science.
      Regarding the failure habits, I think this is different from growth mindset (that’s a metacognative skill that I would also like to teach and assess but not grade). I just keep coming back to how much failure is a part of real science, often you have to build and rebuild and experiment many times before you get it working properly. And this is somewhat different from the even more interesting null or unexpected result, which can naively be viewed as failure. I really like using the word failure, since I want to to de-stigmatize it, but I can see how others find it not quite idea for describing what we’re looking for—prototyping?

      I’m also not entirely sure about how one would go about assessing these habit (and I’m not sure I would ever want to grade them, per se). At the moment, I’m inclined to say in my own teaching that’s way far down the line. First, after getting a finalized list, I’d want to try to think about how to teach these habits, how they appear in my class already, how I can better teach them explicitly and how more advanced assignments tacitly require these habits.

  3. April 12, 2011 5:43 pm

    I’ve been reading material from the Foundation for Critical Thinking lately. I’m not sure what I think yet (and will blog about it one of these days) but they have a very prescriptive definition of what critical thinking is. It includes “intellectual courage” and “intellectual humility,” among other things. They give interesting examples of how their standards and traits describe patterns common to, for example, historical thinking, scientific thinking, and literary thinking. I wonder if these things fit in the system you’re describing, and maybe have a relationship to embracing failure (maybe courage includes pursuing an avenue that most people consider fruitless or wrong, just because it’s interesting to you or because you feel that you need to try it to prove to yourself that it’s wrong).

    • April 14, 2011 7:48 am

      Thanks for this—I hadn’t seen this reference before and I think it could be very helpful. I’m still trying to piece together exactly what habits of thinking separate scientific thinking from other forms of thinking.

  4. science_4_all permalink
    April 12, 2011 6:04 pm

    These habits of mind look pretty solid. You may also want to refer to the Benchmark document from Project 2061 to see how they organize habits of mind K-12

    • April 14, 2011 7:49 am

      Project 2061 is a great reference, and I can’t believe I overlooked it. I will definitely take a look at it as we move forward with this project.

  5. Jessica Sanders permalink
    April 12, 2011 6:28 pm

    My name is Jessica Sanders and I am an elementary education major at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. It excites me to see science used in a way that children can relate too. So many students are tired of seeing science used in the same old traditional ways. I am glad and overwhelmed that someone as your self has taken the time to outline and develop a better way to challenge students!


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