As part of my work, I read a relatively new paper about the use of argumentation in a school laboratory setting.
Basically, science classrooms are doing it wrong. I think most science teachers know that they are, but there’s not a lot to be done because the bureaucratic inertia is strong and teachers are too busy grading papers to read current research to show how teaching could be better and more effective. I’m going to try really hard not to get on my soap-box about how classrooms should work. I was moderately successful in using a lot of technology to reduce my workload and that allowed me to do more labs and more constructive work, but I also had 5 preps.
Anyway, so this research project is really about what students do when preparing for and discussing the results of an experiment. The authors deliberately designed experiments to generate as ambiguous results as possible and then allowed time for students to discuss what was going on.
In the first experiment, the authors gave groups of students 3 cups made of the same material, just painted different colors (white, black, and shiny silver), then asked them to determine which one is more effective at holding heat in. The students prepared an experiment to measure how the cups retained heat. Then the students had a post lab discussion about their results.
What was interesting (to me, but not really the focus of the paper) was that the students were so used to the stock school ‘experiments’ that they tended to focus on getting the right answer instead of actually thinking about the experiment. The students focused on the “what do to” instead of the “why to do”. The students knew that the purpose was to measure heat flow out of the container, but there was no why involved. No mention of practical applications or (apparently) a discussion of heat flow. Just, “we do this then that”.
The students also tended to see instant patterns. After only a few measurements of temperature, the students came to a conclusion and that’s what they stuck with.
A more rich experiment was also done in which the students examined statements, discussed them, then experimented to find the answers. Discussion was remarkably short (and my understanding was that it was dominated by 1 or 2 students), the experiments yielded even more ambiguous results than the first experiment.
The end result of all this was that students fell into several groups regarding their experimental results.
● Group A denied the problem and simply accepted their measurements without
saying whether they supported or refuted the hypothesis. That is, data became the
final answer to the task.
● Group B rejected their original hypothesis and concluded that salt loses mass
when being dissolved in water, thus accepting data as ‘true’.
● Group C at first rejected their original hypothesis, but then discussed the
● Group D ignored anomalous data and kept the original hypothesis, thus accepting
the hypothesis as ‘true’ over data.
What we can see here is a complete failure to A) understand the point of experiments B) understanding how science is done C) critically examine the results, the experiments, and the data collected.
We see these problems in adults all the time. In politics, some groups want to stick with failed economic policies because they SHOULD work regardless of what the evidence actually is. In creationism (and other anti-science movements), data can be safely ignored or manipulated to show something that it really doesn’t. In personal life, the lack of skepticism regarding even the simplest things.
There’s an annoying problem with a lot of science. We don’t want science to be a class that’s nothing more than the regurgitation of facts, but we can’t have a pure experiment, self-discovery class because the students just don’t have the background for it. It would be like taking a kid from the 1700s and sticking him in a modern kitchen with a recipe and asking him to make a cake. He probably wouldn’t be able to open most of the cans/bottles/boxes of supplies, much less turn on the oven. The other side of the coin though, is that if we teach him, step-by-step to bake a cake, then that’s all he can do. He still wouldn’t be able to batter and pan fry some fish. The skills just aren’t there. But without some knowledge, the skills are useless. If a student doesn’t know what heat is, then how can they design an experiment to measure it?
School lab experiments are supposed to be unambiguous in their result. The idea to show a certain phenomenon… not that the student derive the phenomenon from their base knowledge (like Newton had to do).
So, students in science classrooms are tending to get a false impression of science, what it is and how it’s done. They are not learning that science is often ambiguous, which may be harming science as these students become adults. When real science is presented as ‘confident’ or “may be” or anything like that, the only experience people have is of the certainty and ‘getting the right answer’ in their school science labs. They might (probably don’t) see that science, especially cutting edge research, really isn’t confident. There may not be a right answer, and even if there is, we don’t know what it is in advance.
The latter issue is a big problem in dealing with the ID crowd. They see that experiments are designed, so any results are just evidence of intelligent design. That’s false, as I’ve discussed before.
There are a lot of problems in our education system. This is one of the big ones. The teacher planning meetings that take place in the week before school starts should be talking about the latest research on effective teaching, not the minimum length of girls’ skirts.. Teachers should be given tools to automate things like grading as much as possible and students should be taking responsibility for their own learning… I know, I’m living in a dream world (time to wake up Neo).
Like I mentioned, I had a brief taste of how technology could be used to really aid the classroom teacher, not just as a toy for students to play with. If you don’t care about that, you can stop reading now.
At my last teaching assignment, every classroom had a smartboard. A projector was used to project the information from a computer onto the board and the board was fitted with sensors like a giant touchscreen. So, I could create a powerpoint and actually draw on the board during the powerpoint presentation. We could surf the web. We could play videos, pause them, and draw on the screen to illustrate something. All in all, it was cool, but not critical.
That changed when we got the first set of remote ‘clickers’. No one else wanted them, so I got to use them all the time. Basically, we had a classroom set of small hand-held devices with a number keypad that were wirelessly linked to a central box, which was then connected to my computer.
When the students came in the door, they would grab a remote and sign in with their user id. Our school had required ‘bell-ringers’, these were short sets of questions or discussion topics that students were supposed to do when they came in the classroom. In the past, we collected an obscene amount of paper with two or three questions on them from the students, each day. With these remotes, I could ask multiple choice, T/F, or numeric response questions, the students would enter their answers and my computer would record the score and display the results.
This allowed me instant grading and to instantly review the material. If a question had a large percentage of wrong answers, then I knew it was something that we would need to go over. I would often use these bell-ringers to evaluate the previous day’s lesson or the assigned reading or homework. The students got a clue pretty quick and started to (amazingly) actually read the assignments before class started.
Further, with the smartboard and the integrated remotes, I could stop my lesson at any point and ask a question. The students would respond and I could see immediately how many got it, how many didn’t get it, and how many where asleep. The students didn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of being called on when I could see that confused look. I could ask a question and only I could see the actual students who got it wrong. The students just saw the percentages right and wrong.
Even further, I conducted several full on tests using the remotes. The computer could score the responses instantly and I could see, once all the tests were complete, who needed remediation in which areas. I didn’t have to wait for a week until I could get a bunch of tests graded to see if we needed a review day or two, I knew it right then. When dealing with science concepts that build on each other, it’s critical to know that everyone has step one before moving on to step two.
The integration of technology that is designed to reduce the workload on the teacher can massively improve the education of students. Teachers can focus on teaching and discussion rather than grading (which, is a big deal, go ahead go ask an English teacher how long it takes to grade 200 5 paragraph essays).