On Teaching Science: Principles and Strategies That Every Educator Should Know

On Teaching Science: Principles and Strategies That Every Educator Should Know

by Jeffrey Bennett

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781937548407
Publisher: Big Kid Science
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 170
Sales rank: 355,500
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Bennett, winner of the 2013 American Institute of Physics Science Communication Award, is an astrophysicist and educator who proposed the idea for and helped develop the Voyage Scale Model Solar System—the first science-oriented exhibit approved for permanent installation on the National Mall in Washington, DC. He is the lead author of college textbooks in four subjects—astronomy, astrobiology, mathematics, and statistics—and has written critically acclaimed books for the general public including Beyond UFOs and On the Cosmic Horizon. He is also the author of children’s books, including those in the Science Adventures with Max the Dog series and The Wizard Who Saved the World. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt

On Teaching Science

Principles and Strategies that Every Educator Should Know

By Jeffrey Bennett, Joan Marsh, Lynn Golbetz

Big Kid Science

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey Bennett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-937548-42-1


What Is Teaching?

If you're going to be a teacher, a good starting point is to have a working definition of what it means to teach. This is harder than it sounds. If you look in a dictionary, you'll find a number of alternate ways of defining the word teach, most of which boil down in one way or other to something along the lines of "to impart knowledge." But this is clearly inadequate as either a definition or a goal for teaching, because if all we did was impart knowledge, then each generation would learn only what the previous generation imparted to them; in other words, our civilization would never advance. So I'll offer you what I believe to be a better working definition:

Teaching The transmission from one person to others of knowledge and of the means to acquire additional knowledge.

It's the second part of this definition that presents the greater challenge. Any good storyteller can transmit knowledge to an audience, but a teacher must also inspire the members of an audience to create their own, new stories. Indeed, while any particular course will focus on some specific set of subject matter, I'd argue that our primary goal in teaching is less for students to remember the particulars of a course than for them to "learn how to learn," so that they'll be successful in future endeavors.

It's worth noting that this definition of teaching poses a measurement problem, because it means that true success in teaching can be measured only by evaluating the long-term success of your students, meaning their success long after they've left your course. In essence, the assignments and exams that we can grade in the short term can at best tell us only some reasonable probability as to whether we've been successful teachers. This measurement problem should not stop us from trying to evaluate teaching success, but it means we must be careful to recognize the limitations of any evaluations that we use.


What Is Science?

Since this book focuses on the teaching of science, it would be useful to know exactly what science is. It's not easy to define science in a concise way; indeed, scholars who investigate the history and nature of science do not always agree on exactly what constitutes science. Nevertheless, it's clearly critical that we help students understand the basic nature of science and of how to distinguish science from nonscience, so I'll offer an approach that I've found to be successful with a variety of audiences. This approach begins by focusing on the purposes of science and then discusses key hallmarks that can help us distinguish between science and other methods of seeking knowledge.

Purposes of Science: One of the first problems we encounter in teaching science is that most students don't have a clear idea of the value of science. In many cases, students come to us with great misconceptions about the role of science in society; some even believe, for example, that the purpose of science is to undermine religion or other personal beliefs. I therefore find it effective to begin any discussion of the nature of science with what I believe to be three important purposes of science in society:

1. Science is a way of distinguishing possibilities from realities.

This statement represents the idea that in the absence of evidence, we can imagine a broad range of possible explanations for any set of phenomena. Science gives us a way to look at evidence that can allow us to determine which of those possibilities are consistent with observed reality and which are not. The classic example is the ancient debate over whether Earth is the center of the universe or a planet going around the Sun. For more than 2,000 years, the debate over the two possibilities continued almost without change — and with most people believing the possibility that turned out to be incorrect — because observations were not yet precise enough to test whether one idea offered a better match to reality than the other. Then, as observations improved during the Copernican revolution, we ultimately learned that the Earth-centered possibility simply did not agree with the evidence. Perhaps equally significant, nearly everyone supporting the alternate possibility had assumed that planetary orbits would be circular, but the data showed that this was also inconsistent with the evidence. That is what led Kepler to investigate other possibilities, enabling him to discover that Earth and other planets follow elliptical orbits around the Sun. For a simple bottom line, without science, we would likely still live in a world in which most people thought Earth to be the center of the universe.

2. Science is a way of helping people come to agreement.

This statement simply reminds us of the way science advances. We collect evidence that anyone can in principle examine, and we analyze the evidence to decide what it means. We then put our conclusions to the test by looking at what our ideas predict about what we should find in other observations or experiments. If the predictions fail, then we know we have to go back to the drawing board. But if the predictions are verified, then we think our ideas are on the right track and we can build a model of nature based on them. If the model succeeds repeatedly and in varied circumstances, then the evidence can eventually become so overwhelming that anyone who looks at it will reach the conclusion that the model is valid. Again, the Copernican revolution provides a classic example. The debate about whether Earth was the center of the universe went on for more than 2,000 years. Then, over a period of barely more than a century, the evidence became so overwhelming that virtually no one argued any further for the Earth-centered view. Stated slightly differently, it's possible to argue endlessly as long as there are no actual facts to get in the way — and only science brings us the facts and understanding that can ultimately settle the debates.

3. Science is the primary driver of technological progress.

Our society has undergone tremendous technological change in the past few centuries, and while there is room for debate on whether these changes have been a net positive or negative for the human race, there are very few people who advocate halting our technological progress. However, strange as it may seem to those of us who teach science, many people don't recognize the fact that science drives technology. For example, while nearly everyone favors advances in medical treatment, far fewer understand that these advances are connected to fundamental biology (including being rooted in an understanding of the theory of evolution). This type of misunderstanding often leads to debates about the value of fundamental research, putting at risk the very types of scientific investments that are necessary to continue technological progress. Only by connecting science and technology can we show people the intimate and important role that science plays in our everyday lives.

By emphasizing these three purposes, I've found that we can often overcome the misgivings of many of those who question the value of science. After all, who can be against something that helps us learn about reality, that brings people to agreement, and that is responsible for the technology that we have come to depend on?

Hallmarks of Science: In addition to helping people understand the value of science, we must also help them understand how science actually works. To this end, I find it useful to emphasize that science begins with careful observations of the world around us, and then to offer a set of three concrete "hallmarks of science" that can be used by both students and the public to distinguish between science and nonscience:

1. Modern science seeks explanations for observed phenomena that rely solely on natural causes.

2. Science progresses through the creation and testing of models of nature that explain the observations as simply as possible.

3. A scientific model must make testable predictions about natural phenomena that would force us to revise or abandon the model if the predictions do not agree with observations.

These hallmarks may not be foolproof, but I believe that they are solid enough to allow students to look at claims and decide for themselves whether those claims are scientific in nature. (For more detail on the hallmarks and other ideas about the nature of science, please see "Excerpt 1: What Makes It Science?" starting on page 123.)

NOTE: THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD You'll notice that the above description of science does not refer to the "scientific method," in which science is claimed to progress through a straightforward process of developing and testing hypotheses. The reason is simple: While the scientific method can be a useful idealization, the reality is that science rarely works this way. For example, Galileo did not point his telescope toward the heavens to test some particular hypothesis; he did it to see what he would see. Although it can be helpful for students (especially younger children) to apply the idealized scientific method to simple projects and experiments, we should be careful to emphasize that real science is much more creative, interesting, and fun.

NOTE: CREATIVITY AND SCIENCE As the above note reminds us, real science requires a high level of creative thinking. Unfortunately, this fact is not well known to many students and members of the general public, who tend to think of science (and especially of mathematics) as being the opposite of the creative arts. It's therefore very helpful to emphasize the creativity required in science, and worth noting that many scientists also excel in art, music, writing, and other creative endeavors. Indeed, making this connection may help encourage some young students who love the arts to realize that their creative talents also make them well suited to future careers in science.

Dealing with Creationism and Other Nonscientific Beliefs: Part of the reason that it is so important to talk about the nature of science is that we live in a society in which science is greatly misunderstood. As a result, we will encounter students and members of the public who hold a variety of nonscientific beliefs — such as beliefs in creationism (or intelligent design), UFOs, or parapsychology — and who in some cases may feel that the teaching of science is a threat to them. You can find many resources to help you with such situations, but I have found that the most effective strategy is to be gracious and nonconfrontational about personal beliefs, even while remaining clear about the division between science and other forms of seeking knowledge or understanding. Indeed, I believe that much of the public debate is a result of a natural defensiveness that arises when people believe that science is challenging their personal faith. As a result, we can often defusse the debate by making clear that we're out to teach about science, not to force anyone to accept it. In particular, I've found that we can overcome most objections to things like the teaching of evolution by letting students (and the public) know the following:

• Science is a way of acquiring knowledge about the world around us, and as discussed above, it has proven enormously successful in driving technological progress. It is this great success that explains why we teach science in schools. Nevertheless, science is not necessarily the only way to acquire knowledge, and students who wish to reject the conclusions of science are free to do so. The only thing we ask is that while they are in science class, they learn how science approaches and seeks to answer questions about the world.

• Just because something is nonscientific does not make it wrong. Consider UFO sightings: Because many of them have not been conclusively identified, it remains possible that people have witnessed alien spacecraft visiting Earth. The reason we don't teach about this topic in science classes is that it does not involve the type of evidence that allows us to investigate the topic scientifically; that is, it does not meet the three hallmarks of science.

• Science says nothing at all about the existence or nonexistence of God or any other form of the supernatural. That is because the supernatural by definition falls outside the realm of the hallmarks of science. For this reason, science should not be a threat to anyone.

• In accord with its second purpose (see page 4), science always seeks to help people come to agreement. When there are significant disagreements about the science of an issue, it generally means the evidence is not yet strong enough to support clear conclusions. When we call something a scientific theory — like the theory of gravity, the theory of the atom, the theory of relativity, and the theory of evolution — it means the evidence is so overwhelming that nearly everyone who has studied it in depth has come to agreement on the theory's validity. It is this unanimous or near-unanimous agreement that leads us to believe it deserves to be taught in the classroom, not any judgment call about personal opinions.

• Science is never finished. Every answer in science leads to new questions, and even the most successful theories still leave some questions unanswered. That is why, for example, scientists still ask questions about how evolution works, even though there is virtually unanimous scientific agreement on the general idea that life evolves over time by natural selection. Indeed, scientists are always looking for new questions to ask, because it is only by asking new questions that we can search for evidence and advance our scientific knowledge.

NOTE: TEACHING EVOLUTION The debate over the teaching of evolution is the most common one to arise with students and the public, and for that reason you can find an abundance of resources to help you with it. I especially recommend the judge's opinion from the 2005 Dover case (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005)), which is eloquently written and describes all the key issues. For something a bit shorter, I've included a second excerpt (Excerpt 2: Evolution in the Classroom, which begins on page 143) in which I have tried to give a concise summary of why evolution qualifies as science and should therefore be an integral part of the science curriculum, and of why alternative ideas such as creationism or intelligent design do not qualify as science.

NOTE: TEACHING ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING In recent years, the debate over teaching about global warming (climate change) has become nearly as contentious as the debate over evolution, especially since the Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the importance of the topic. Fortunately, this issue lacks the overtly religious implications of the debate over evolution, and I think the best defense of why we should teach it in school comes from the agreement issue (the second purpose of science above): Among scientists who have studied the evidence — which generally means climate scientists — there is extraordinary agreement on the basic science of the subject. (For a suggestion on how to approach the topic pedagogically, please see the discussion of climate science on pages 71–72.)

It's also worth noting an important practical difference between this debate and the debate over evolution: Fifty years from now, people who choose to reject evolution will still be just as free to do so as they are today. In contrast, unless we act rapidly to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, the models for global warming predict consequences within fifty years that will be impossible for anyone to ignore. In other words, the public debate over evolution is likely to continue for a very long time, but the debate over whether the world is warming is only temporary. (Of course, some may still claim it's a natural cycle rather than human caused, but the fact of warming will be abundantly clear.) In the meantime, even those who don't believe it should want to know what the scientists think, since that is the only way to gauge the level of risk we take if we choose to ignore the predicted consequences.


One Key to Student Success

I realize it may sound a bit audacious to claim that there's one key to all student success, but here it is:

Learning requires effort and study.

Having made this statement to many faculty audiences, I know that most of you are thinking, "Well, that's kind of obvious." After all, we all know that we have to work to learn anything, and learning complex ideas can require huge amounts of concentrated study time. I also know that a few of you may be preparing to argue the semantics, so I'll note that I'm using the term study in its broadest sense, which Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines to be "application of the mind to the acquisition of knowledge." In that sense, "study" can apply to many different specific tasks, from intently listening to a teacher or reading a book to actively engaging in hands-on or group activities; it can even apply to a toddler learning to walk, since the mind must be applied to develop the necessary skills of coordination. So if we want students to succeed in our classes, we need to make sure they devote effort and study to the material we hope to teach them.


Excerpted from On Teaching Science by Jeffrey Bennett, Joan Marsh, Lynn Golbetz. Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey Bennett. Excerpted by permission of Big Kid Science.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction ix

1 What is Teaching? 1

2 What is Science? 3

3 One Key to Student Success 9

Learning requires effort and study

4 Three Big Picture Ideas about Teaching 19

Big Picture Idea 1 19

You can't actually "teach" anything to anybody; you can only help people learn for themselves

Big Picture Idea 2 20

Brains are brains. We may know more as we get older, but we still learn new things in the same basic way

Big Picture Idea 3 24

People have know how to teach successfully for thousands of years

5 Five General Suggestions for Successful Teaching 27

General Teaching Suggestion1 27

Above all, try to ensure that your students study

General Teaching Suggestion2 35

Provide structure and assignments that will help your students study sufficiently and efficiently

General Teaching Suggeston3 50

Teach for the long term by focusing on three linked goals for science teaching: education, perspective, and inspiration

General Teaching Suggestion4 57

Have high but realistic expectations, and spell them out clearly

General Teaching Suggestion5 61

Be human

6 Seven Pedagogical Strategies for Success in Science Teaching 65

Strategy1 65

Begin with and stay focused on the Big Picture

Strategy2 69

Always provide context

Strategy3 74

Emphasize conceptual understanding

Strategy4 78

Proceed from the more familiar and concrete to the less familiar and abstract

Strategy5 81

Recognize and address student misconceptions

Strategy6 89

Use plain language

Strategy7 103

Challenge your students

7 Putting It All Together 105

Appendices 107

Appendix 1 How to Succeed Handout 109

Appendix 2 Sample Syllabus 114

Appendix 3 A Dwarf Quiz 120

Excerpts 123

Excerpt 1 What Makes It Science? 123

Excerpt 2 Evolution in the Classroom 143

Acknowledgements 151

Detailed List of Headings and Notes 153

Figures and Tables 159

Index 160

About the Author 164

Visit the Web Site 164

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