Should Schools Teach the Scientific Method? New Book Says Maybe Not
Think back to what you still remember from science class. No, there’s no need to strain your brain recalling the particulars of cellular mitosis or the periodic table. Instead, consider the idea that spanned any science class from biology to physics: the scientific method, the five-step process for analyzing problems, collecting data and coming to a well-supported conclusion.
But what if the scientific method is actually inaccurate—or at best reductive? What if spending so much time on this framework is giving students the wrong idea about how rigorous work is done by scientists?
That’s the unusual hypothesis being made by John Rudolph, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of “How We Teach Science: What's Changed, and Why It Matters.”
We sat down with Rudolph to talk about the fascinating history of teaching the subject in the U.S., and why we’re still searching for the right approach.
Along the way he touched on the perils of teaching climate change in schools and why all those AP science classes might not be the best use of students’ time.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Tell us a little bit about your book, which focuses quite a bit on the history of science.
Rudolph: I wrote an earlier book on the science education reform during the cold war, after Sputnik. The great thing about the postwar period is that scientists, with the atomic bomb and everything, have great archives of materials.
All these records and papers had been saved. Going through the letters of some of these scientists, there were some really rich conversations. As they began to look at what was going on in science classrooms, they zeroed in on the scientific method. They said, “What?” There is some very colorful language about the scientific method they teach in schools, and it caught my eye.
I'm thinking to myself, “There's something about the process of science—or how science is done that seems really important to them.” I began to look at how has the process of science or the scientific method been taught going back to when science first appeared in schools in the early 1800s to the present. And it turned out to be a really interesting story about tensions between professional educators and scientists who said, “No, that's not how science is done. This is how science is done,” and back and forth over the last 130 or 140 years.
It turns out there's a lot to be interested in—or concerned about—regarding how we teach the process of science to students.
What are some of those lessons from the past that can inform our present?
In the early or middle 1800s, science was brought in as an information subject—i.e., we should teach it because it’s a utilitarian, useful thing. Science was then taught as the facts of the world. Learn these facts, and you'll be able to do things. That was the justification for why it was in schools.
That shifted in the late 1800s, as these scientists came back from Europe. They said, students should work in laboratories and do science to learn science. That was the beginning of the laboratory method.
Once education grew and more students went to school, science education wasn’t for such a select group of students. It was for the masses. Along comes John Dewey who says science should be used in everyday life: He introduced what is commonly thought of as the scientific method. There's a problem, you gather evidence, you come to a conclusion.
It matters whether the method is something that students think anyone can do, or if it's something that’s just the province of experts in the scientific research fields. This was the challenge, the struggle that happened in the post-war period. The scientists said the five-step scientific method is not an accurate description of how science works, and it gives the public the impression that anybody can do science.
Another lesson is this notion that ever since that time period, there was always this view that the best way to teach science was to have students do science—this notion that science pedagogy should be the same thing as the process of science.
That's been problematic—as I show in the book—because almost no teachers, high school or middle school teachers, have actually done science. They’re not scientists. They've have no expertise in scientific research, and yet they're supposed to lead students through the process of science. They revert to teaching, almost by rote, these steps of a scientific method.
But if you take away students from doing science, is there a risk of making it inaccessible, considering you write in the book that you still need a lot of public support for science?
I don't think that I would argue that you take students away from doing science. I think that that shouldn’t be the only avenue to understanding science. I think there are larger things to learn about science—the big ideas, the theories, the way we think the world works. Part of that learning can come from the students doing science.
I think we need to broaden what we teach students about how science works.
Think about macro-evolutionary change. You don't do an experiment to demonstrate that. You gather indirect evidence. You make arguments from historical patterns in fossil data or biogeographic distributions. That’s a different way of doing science.
This is the problem we run into with climate change issues. There's not a way to easily demonstrate, “Oh, I can prove, through doing an experiment, that climate change is happening and humans are causing it.”
What I would argue for is having students participate or do some of these things but have a range of methods of science, and to understand that different phenomena use different types of scientific methodologies and techniques, and appreciate then that science is many things, not just one thing. I think that’s an important lesson to learn.
In the conclusion, you wrote that economic concerns also influenced what's being taught in science, and now there's a big push for college and career readiness. Can you talk about how that influences what's actually being taught in the classroom?
You have this push now with the Next Generation Science Standards. There's definitely a focus on wanting students to engage in the process of science. At the same time, just look at the world we live in, with the increase in income inequality and parents wanting to give their kids a leg up. So schools are all about, “Oh, we want to offer more science classes, more AP classes.”
You've got the pressure from state agencies, so you have states and districts focused on student achievement-test scores. When you look at students, they want to take X number of AP classes, not because they want to develop a deep understanding of what science is, but because they want to gather these credentials that’ll increase their admission chances to the elite colleges they want to get into.
It leads to a shift to focus on content knowledge because it’s easy to assess. It’s very difficult to test students’ understanding of how science works—the process of science.
Is teaching subjects like climate change going to be a hard sell in today's world, where there's something of a mistrust of science?
It's going to be a hard sell for a couple of reasons. There have been some studies done of how science teachers themselves understand climate change, and they don't always have a complete grasp of where that information has come from and how that science works. It's a challenge, always, to get from what the scientists know or what we think should be taught into classrooms across the country.
Then you have this false balanced treatment, where teachers sense the notion of: This is controversial; I need to be careful about what I say. A lot of times, the political authority and control comes from local school districts, and so those teachers need to be careful about how they approach these things. Otherwise kids go home and tell their parents. It’s the same problem we ran into with teaching evolution in the schools.
What can an individual teacher do to rethink science instruction and the way that it's taught in their classroom?
Take the population as a whole—all the students in your classes. Think about how many actually go to college, how many graduate from college and how many major in science. The numbers tail off quickly, and you get maybe 10 percent or fewer of those students that are sitting in class who are going to have any appreciable deep future in science.
What do you do with the other 80 or 90 percent of the students? You need to think of a different way of teaching science than thinking, “I need to prepare them for college science,” which typically ends up being a lot of content memorization.
I think teachers should do what they can to think about, “What does a citizen or a member of the general public need to understand?” And I think that has more to do with how science works than with the content of the scientific disciplines.