"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Developing Scientific Thinking

How do scientists think? It has long been accepted that scientific thinking must be an integral part of science education. I remember in my basic education years in the Philippines how many times teachers have tried to hammer the scientific method into my brain. I must admit that those lessons that specifically describe how science works was not among the high points of my schooling. First, I had to deal with new words like hypothesis, procedure, discussion, conclusion and theory. Some of these words may have common usage, but in science, these words mean something well defined or specific. Of course, scientific thinking is not really equal to knowing what it entails. Back in elementary school, I could memorize the scientific method and regurgitate each step but this meant nothing for scientific thinking is really thinking the way a scientist does.

Obviously, it is not just the scientist that can do scientific thinking. It is an activity that most people are capable of developing and practicing. Deanna Kuhn makes this very clear on the first section of her paper, "What is Scientific Thinking and How Does it Develop?":

Kuhn basically describes scientific thinking as follows:
  • Scientific thinking is knowledge seeking.
  • Scientific thinking involves a coordination between theory and evidence.
  • Scientific thinking has four phases: inquiry, analysis, inference and argument.
Seeing the first description, it is no surprise then that Kuhn also writes, "To seek knowledge is to acknowledge that one’s existing knowledge is incomplete, possibly incorrect -- that there is something new to know." That science is knowledge seeking and that it continuously evaluate its current understanding against new evidence only means that scientific thinking is probably a skill separate from intelligence, reading comprehension, and logical reasoning. Although all of these skills are obviously required to do science, scientific thinking is very likely a different trait on its own that can be measured and assessed.

Koerber and coworkers have recently published a paper that describes an assessment of scientific thinking. The study, "The Development of Scientific Thinking in Elementary School: A Comprehensive Inventory", involved more than 1500 students in grades 2-4 in Germany. The test features questions that have been fully analyzed for difficulty, discrimination and consistency. An example is shown below:

Above copied from Koerber, S., Mayer, D., Osterhaus, C., Schwippert, K. and Sodian, B. (2014), The Development of Scientific Thinking in Elementary School: A Comprehensive Inventory. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12298
The above question belongs to the "Goals of Science" component of the exam. The other components tested are: theories and alternative frameworks, experimental design, using experimentation strategies, and interpreting data. Each question characterizes a student level in scientific thinking as either naive, intermediate or advanced. With only science education and no formal training in scientific thinking in grades 2, 3 and 4, it is amazing to see that performance in this new assessment improves with grade level as shown in the following figure:

Above figure copied from Koerber, S., Mayer, D., Osterhaus, C., Schwippert, K. and Sodian, B. (2014), The Development of Scientific Thinking in Elementary School: A Comprehensive Inventory. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12298
Thus, even without a direct instruction on what scientific thinking entails, children develop scientific thinking. Equally amazing is the dependence of how a children develops scientific thinking on their parent's educational attainment. High level here means at least a college graduate, medium is a high school graduate, and low means no high school diploma. I am guessing that the results above indicate that children really learn scientific thinking by example. How we think influences how our children think. How we regard our knowledge affects how much a child is willing to seek knowledge....

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