The Magic Of the Unknown

Earlier in the week I caught some of a Stuart Firestein talk about the origin of his new pop-science book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science. The idea for the book came out of a class he taught at Columbia in which each week a professor from a different field would come in and lecture about the things they didn’t know and the things they wanted to know. The class is the type of outside-the-box idea colleges should be implementing more often, but more importantly, it’s the type of class that would be great for middle school students.

Although K-12 science classes are finally moving away from rote memorization and toward hands-on experimentation, we still don’t place enough emphasis on the possibility of original discovery. Kids are experiencing science, but they’re not learning that it’s possible for them to become an original part of it. The perception that science merely exists, but isn’t something people discovered and will continue to discover, can make or break whether a student remains interested in pursuing a career in science.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a new study illustrates, emphasizing discovery through something as modest as inserting information about how we first came to know something can make a significant difference.

In an experimental study (N = 209), the authors compared the effects of exposure to typical middle-school written science content when presented in the context of the scientific discovery narrative and when presented in a more traditional nonnarrative format on 7th and 8th grade students in the United States…Students exposed to the scientific discovery narrative performed significantly better on both immediate and delayed outcome measures. These findings are discussed in the context of a larger argument for the inclusion of the scientific discovery narrative in science instruction.

The beauty of reminding kids that things are often unknown is that it’s low-cost, low-risk, and high-reward. You change a few sentences in a textbook or add 30 seconds to a lecture and it might be enough to ignite the spark that turns a student on to science for life.

Kids don’t graduate from high school dreaming of becoming explorers because they know there’s not much left to explore. We don’t want students to feel the same way about science. Unfortunately, over the years we’ve placed a ton of emphasis on what we think kids should learn, and in doing do we’ve de-emphasized what’s actually interesting about the state of science in the real world. That’s not a good way to sell science, and we should try to do better.
Arya, D., & Maul, A. (2012). The Role of the Scientific Discovery Narrative in Middle School Science Education: An Experimental Study. Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0028108

One Response to The Magic Of the Unknown

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Light the fire, don’t fill the bucket.

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