Science and Intuition - Why it's important May 25 2020, 0 Comments

Students Find Science Difficult.

Let’s agree that students generally find it difficult to learn science. Teachers and parents have experienced all of this themselves: the difficulty of the various science concepts, the difficulty of the scientific method, and the experience of mental strain: “I don’t get science! I think I’m giving the right answer, but I didn’t pass the test” or “I tried to memorize it, but I got the question wrong” or “As soon as I think I understand, I get the wrong answer.”

Three Ideas About Science and Students

Is this “just the way things are?” Or are there real causes to this difficulty? I think that there are some helpful answers to this situation. Before describing those answers, I propose three main ideas to describe science, and to describe the learner. Later, we can reconcile those ideas to clarify the problem of learning and teaching science.

First Idea: Science 1

Science is a body of knowledge, publicly shared by scientists, citizens and students. This body of knowledge includes things like the gas laws, heat and temperature, states of matter, light, reflection, refraction… all of the topics covered in science classes. This kind of science is the main concern of students, parents, and educators. It is the part that is outlined in curriculum documents, published in text-books, studied in school laboratories, and tested in state-sponsored exams. I call this Science 1.

Second Idea: Science 2

Science is also the method of acquiring new knowledge. This is quite distinct from (1). It involves methods of investigation, methods of reasoning, the structure of knowledge, etc. This is the part that is the concern of professional scientists and philosophers. Formally, it is the epistemology of science. I will call this Science 2. For the most part, it is not included in textbooks or exams.

Third Idea: Teenage Thinking and the Adolescent Mind 

Now let’s describe the teenager who is learning Science 1 and Science 2. Before we can address the problem of learning science, we must understand teenagers’ natural roadblocks to learning. In their “natural thinking” and “natural language”, students appear to use a small number of reasoning structures, structures based upon the movements of their own bodies. We need to understand the natural faculties that teenagers use, the limits they face, and the difficulties they encounter when they try to learn science. Adolescent reasoning is a biological / psychological given, and cannot be easily changed. Detailed understanding of adolescent reasoning is essential to designing practical science instruction.

 Using These Ideas to Address the Problem

If these ideas describe our situation, what can parents and teachers do about it? The central idea must be number 3: a detailed description of teenage thinking. Science 1 and Science 2 must be organized to fit the student’s ability. I propose three strategies to address this problem effectively.

1. Reconcile Science 1 and Teenage Reasoning

The first task is to reconcile Science 1 and Teenage Reasoning. We can’t change the psychological givens; therefore, we must re-organize Science 1. We can change the content of Science 1, change the order in which concepts are presented, and change the representations that we teach the students. This means that we must create “pedagogical models” of Science 1, that is, we must re-present Science 1 specifically for learning, so that teenagers can learn it. I have invented several such models.

For chemistry, I have invented a “pedagogical model of the periodic table of elements.” For motion, I have invented a “pedagogical model of kinematics.” You will also find a “pedagogical model of current electricity,” and a “pedagogical model of gases.” These pedagogical models resemble traditional curricula, but differ in significant ways.

The most important difference is the careful selection of a fresh "unit of analysis" of the traditional science curriculum. Students can use their natural reasoning to operate upon this new unit of analysis, and to arrive at scientifically defensible conclusions.  

2. Reconcile Science 2 and Teenage Reasoning

The next task for teachers and parents is to reconcile Science 2 and Teenage Reasoning. This means that we must develop “pedagogical models of science.” Each lab exercise in the IntuitivScience books uses a “pedagogical model of science.” We insist that students pay close attention to their own representations as they attempt to predict and explain the science concepts they are studying. Much more will be said about this in blogs and other communications on the IntuitivScience web site.

3. Reconcile Science 1 with Science 2

The final project is to reconcile Science 1 and Science 2. You might believe that this would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, over the decades, the curriculum itself has become sclerotic - old simplifications of Science 2 stick like crumbling bark to each topic of Science 1. The result is that students accumulate an incoherent combination of incomplete understanding, and outright misconceptions, of Science 2. Our remedy, shared by all of the IntuitivScience books, is to abandon Francis Bacon’s method of science, and replace it with this:

“Science is not the study of nature, as much as it is the study of human representations of nature.”

This directs the students’ attention away from “nature out there” to the students’ own representations of nature. Most of the IntuitivScience labs require the students to clearly present their initial representation, to test that representation, and then to modify that representation if necessary. This is much closer to the practice of real scientists today, and it fits very well with our emphasis pedagogical models of Science 1. 

 What Next?

This is the briefest sketch of the IntuitivScience pedagogy. This will be elaborated in future blogs and articles on this site.