Science is a Process, Not Just a Bunch of Facts

A study published in the January 30 issue of Science shows that learning more scientific facts doesn’t seem to improve the ability of students to use proper scientific reasoning. This seems like a “well, duh” observation to me, but apparently it isn’t obvious to those who create science curriculums in many schools around the world.

The researchers tested about 6,000 students majoring in science and engineering at seven universities (4 in the US and 3 in China). Here are the results:

The first test, the Force Concept Inventory, measures students’ basic knowledge of mechanics — the action of forces on objects. Most Chinese students scored close to 90 percent, while the American scores varied widely from 25-75 percent, with an average of 50.

The second test, the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment, measures students’ understanding of electric forces, circuits, and magnetism, which are often considered to be more abstract concepts and more difficult to learn than mechanics. Here Chinese students averaged close to 70 percent while American students averaged around 25 percent — a little better than if they had simply picked their multiple-choice answers randomly.

The third test, the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning, measures science skills beyond the facts. Students are asked to evaluate scientific hypotheses, and reason out solutions using skills such as proportional reasoning, control of variables, probability reasoning, correlation reasoning, and hypothetical-deductive reasoning. Both American and Chinese students averaged a 75 percent score.

What’s the difference between teaching someone that the Earth is round and that the Earth is flat if you don’t also explain how to find out by themselves using hypotheses and evidence?

The whole point of science is not to simply take things on faith, but rather to figure out how things work using evidence. Of course, nobody can verify everything scientific they learn, but they could if they so desired, and that’s the point.

Science is all about questions and how you answer them, not only about the answer themselves. I’m not sure how compatible that is with an education system that teaches students that having the “right answers” is the way to move forward. And by “answers” here, I mean all kinds of things: facts, numbers, techniques, equations, ways to look things up in databases/journals, etc — all very useful to a point, but if you don’t know the “why” behind these answers, you’re still missing the bigger picture.

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4 Responses to “Science is a Process, Not Just a Bunch of Facts”

  1. Jake G. Says:

    This is an important point that is never brought up enough, despite it’s significant impact on the effectiveness of our schools (and in my opinion the most significant), Kudos Michael.

    Not sure how this applies outside the U.S., but here schools around the country are just making the problem worse by demanding less holidays, longer school years, just to cram more ineffective rote learning in. This will only make testing worse, as students get increasingly frustrated with their workload, causing more calls for increased school hours, and so on. Worsening the vicious cycle.

  2. Jake Says:

    great post, but I also think this can apply to learning in general. the education system in the US is atrocious because it doesn’t teach kids how to learn, it only teaches them to memorize stuff.

  3. Steve Says:

    Science is 1) the discovery, classification, and organization of features of the natural world, and 2) the verifiction of the possibility of a sequence of events returning a predictable outcome. It doesn’t set out to prove or disprove creation nor evolution. It simply tests and catalogs information. It is agnostic, not atheistic. It is neutral and not good nor bad. But, how people perceive that data is an entirely different story.

  4. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    “It doesn’t set out to prove or disprove creation nor evolution. It simply tests and catalogs information. It is agnostic, not atheistic. It is neutral and not good nor bad. But, how people perceive that data is an entirely different story.”

    Is science “agnostic” about the shape of the Earth or the color of the sky?

    Interpreting the data is important, and if the data tells you that there’s a lot of empirical evidence supporting hypothesis X but not Y, that tells you something.

    You can’t pretend all hypotheses are equally likely (e.g. There are mountains of evidence supporting evolution by natural selection, there is none that I know of for supernatural creation). That’s the whole point of the falsifiable hypothesis: it tells you something.

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