Tuesday, September 15, 2015

But why (male) models?

First off, I really don't think the words model and experiment make sense. As Lehrer said in chapter 2, experiments in class have been used to demonstrate a certain concept, whereas modeling enables students to explore and debunk (or confirm) their hypotheses. Lehrer's observation highlighted for me the hypocrisy of your normal classroom lab experiment. Here we are with a book that tells me exactly what to do, how to do it, what should happen, and what that means, and maybe if I'm lucky, how or why something works the way it does. No wonder students think a lab experiment is the worst thing ever. They're not performing an experiment, they're reading a cookbook. Only instead of at the end they get a cloudy white precipitate instead of a cake. (That said, I do recognize the importance of a replicable procedure and a clear methodology).

I really liked Lehrer's idea of making conditions right for the student to see. I was reminded of driving, trying to find a destination. Probably the easiest most surefire method of getting them to the right place would be to put them in a taxi. Will a taxi get them there? sure. Will they get lost? probably not. But will they gain a deeper understanding of that area? Will they gain a better sense of direction? Will they be able navigate without a taxi? Will they gain skills necessary to navigating new areas (estimating distance, estimating times, using landmarks, keeping a sense of direction)? Maybe, but the GPS eliminates the need to develop any of those skills. Now obviously there are equally strong arguments against dropping them in the middle of Boston with nothing but a car and no charlie card, but I think I made my point. Yes, step by step instructions will give any old chem student the ability to come up with a pale pink solution. But it won't tell them what it means, or how it happens, or more importantly, give the student the tools to branch out and explore new concepts, to ask new questions and design models to answer those new questions.

Speaking of questions, shall we talk about answers? Yes. is the answer. To go back to my trusty taxi analogy, I almost always have to get lost at least once in any given area before I can gain a good sense of the layout of the streets. In the same way, maybe making a monstrosity of a mistake offers good insights into a certain topic. For example, one Alexander Fleming didn't clean his cultures one day, later coming back to discover his petri dish had mold in it. Had he been continually punished for wrong answers and screwups, he might have thrown away his petri dish and restarted. But, being the good scientist he was, noticed the mold was eating chomping away at the infection he was trying to culture. And now we have penicillin! Even graphene was discovered by a few schmucks playing with graphite and scotch tape. All I'm trying to say is I agree with Lehrer that scientific exploration in real life is quite dissimilar to the cut-and-dried sterile lab experiments we have today.

Which leads me to my final point, (and the last paper, not so coincidentally): grabbing science by the horns. We tell kids, "Here's the American dream! Carve your own path! Control your fate! Find your manifest destiny! Go places no man has gone before! Right after you do exactly what I tell you to do." I don't want to say direct instruction is without merit, but we are stunting what I think should be the goal of teaching: student curiosity. Instead of giving a lesson then trying to shoehorn in an application, why not have students bring in real-world applications then come up with scientific explanations, think of a hypothesis, design an experiment and so on and so forth.

Obviously, there is some depth of knowledge required before one can begin to make scientific inquiry. There is also a good deal of time and resource constraint that makes this exploratory modeling a difficult task. Furthermore, a lot of the standards require quick facts instead of intimate understanding. But instead of being Captain Buzz Killington, we as future teachers should continue to explore all possible ways to equip our students with a map and a compass instead of a taxi.


  1. I love our answers paragraph. In the tradition of a Louis Pasture or a George Washington Carver where the first try is not the best. Perfect practice makes perfect especially in the sciences. Experimentation a key result of modeling grants students a deeper look at what went "wrong" and allows them to delve deeper into the subject and determine what is the next step to take.

    1. Thanks Avery. One of the things I do in lab is try to optimize a synthesis project. Changing ratios, concentrations, incubation times, etc. Sometimes my experiment fails completely, sometimes it sort of works. However, after however many months I've been working, I feel I have yet to come upon the "right" answer. And I think that that sort of searching and exploring, making guesses and going out on limbs is one of the most important aspects of scientific inquiry, and yet is one that is rarely touched upon in schools.