I wrote that science classes usually demonstrate the art of not significantly changing your beliefs when evidence conflicts with an answer you are sure of, at the expense of the central idea of science: experimenting for the purpose of changing your mind.
Chris Chang asked me how it could be taught better:
I can imagine the occasional chemistry assignment that gets around this by having mystery reagants whose identities you need to discover, and the occasional physics assignment where you have anonymous materials and need to figure out some of their properties. But it seems hard to me to extend this to an entire course worth of labs; any more ideas?
I doubt it’s hard to keep children in the dark about the entities in a whole course’s worth of labs, but it may conflict with wanting to teach them more reliably discovered information on the same topics, or at least not wanting to mislead them. Fortunately though, science is applicable to any subject matter within the realm of reality. The topics on which we have collected a lot of knowledge via science are also called ‘science’, which makes it easy to forget they are not the only possible, or even necessarily the best, subjects of science.
We want to teach our children some of this knowledge we have gained from science. But there seems little reason to combine understanding what we already know, about say chemistry, with learning about the process of doing science. If you want to learn to do science, with all the thrills of actually discovering anything, you are probably best to pick an area where people don’t already know all of the cheap answers (those not requiring monkeys, brain scanners or large chunks of subterranean Europe).
The most obvious place to find undiscovered cheap answers available for scientific investigation is in topics that are not very important to people who pay for science. A notable example is the many small scale questions that are relevant to a given student but not to society as a whole. Does decreasing the length of my skirt increase the propensity of the cool students to talk to me? Does learning the piano as a child really make people happier later in life? Does Father Christmas exist? Do the other children hate me or are they just indifferent? What factors best cause my brothers to leave me alone? How much do my grades change if I do half an hour more or less homework each night? Does eating sugar all evening really keep me awake? How often will I really be approached by potential kidnappers if I hang out at the mall by myself after school?
You can probably think of better questions. As far as I know most children and teenagers disagree with their parents, teachers and other adults on a large number of issues. Investigating those issues scientifically might have the added benefit of getting students in the habit of keeping their opinions related to reality. Another plus may be engaging the students’ interest without having to explode progressively larger things.
Science fair projects and the like seem to move in this direction, though many seem to manage the ‘not especially interesting to the rest of the world’ criterion without managing the ‘especially interesting to the student’ one, beyond the student’s inherent interest in doing a project at all.
Roger Shank proposes something similar. He thinks people don’t consider their own activities as experimentation, and so miss valuable information from them:
If school taught basic cognitive concepts such as experimentation in the context of everyday experience, and taught people how to carefully conduct experiments in their own lives instead of concentrating on using algebra as a way of teaching people how to reason, then people would be much more effective at thinking about politics, child raising, personal relationships, business, and every other aspect of daily life.
I don’t know if this is true, but it’s probably worth testing.