Teaching Scientific Thinking

Finally, I’m answering comments that others posted to the entry below, on teaching evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools. If you’re just arriving, you might start by reading the next entry down, and then the comments that others added. I’m starting with a new entry because a lot of visitors don’t drill down to the comments. But take a look: there’s thoughtful discussion there.

Okay. Following my assertion that we ought not to pretend the Intelligent Design contingent doesn’t exist when we teach evolution in schools, Norton said:

High school science…rarely teaches about the process of science. It usually presents the results of scientific research that has been published and evaluated by the scientific community… Evaluating scientific claims is not easy…If we are going to start presenting dubious scientific claims to high school students, we would also need to modify the curriculum to spend considerably more time talking about the philosophy of science and how different claims are evaluated.

Yes, and yes. I think there’s a serious gap in our high school (and middle school) curricula on precisely this score. There might be less time to teach facts if we devoted time to talking about how to assess claims, but I think that’s a tradeoff well worth making. Norton was lucky enough to go to a high school that had a philosophy class, but I doubt that many school do—and even if they did, what percentage of kids would take them?

And yet, all kids are headed into a world that’s full of claims, whether about the latest diet, or UFOs, or Intelligent Design, or how to avoid a heart attack, or the latest from the Hubble telescope. Not all claims are equal. But do we teach kids to distinguish among them? I don’t think so. Not nearly well enough, anyway.

I’m not talking about assessing claims at the PhD level. I’m talking about doing it as ordinary citizens—the way web-savvy people must learn to evaluate the trustworthiness of things they read on the net.

Face it, when we teach science in middle and high school, we’re not teaching most kids to become scientists. We’re teaching them to become informed citizens. They’re going out into a world that’s awash with purported facts, and they aren’t going to have peer-reviewed journals at their sides. But they might have a better chance of applying reasonable judgment to claims if they have some idea of how science is done, and why findings that have passed peer review and been supported by follow-up research are more reliable. Otherwise, why should they believe Discover Magazine over The National Inquirer? Why should they pay attention to the “scientific establishment,” which from time to time appears arrogant, disconnected from ordinary people, and filled with researchers who fake data? Why, in fact, do a large number of people in the U.S. distrust science?

When I suggest that Intelligent Design (ID) ought to be addressed in the school curriculum, I don’t mean to teach it as a co-equal with evolution, but to raise it for discussion in the above context. I wouldn’t mind seeing this happen in middle school. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing a unit in the curriculum addressing a range of fringe science, doubtful science, and pseudoscience. Don’t just stand at a distance and dismiss the claims, but talk about where the claims fall short (as they generally do), and how to make reasonable judgments when confronted by claims. And yes, how to recognize the boundaries between faith and science. (Not to set up one as superior to the other, but to clarify that they are different, and they serve different functions in life.)

In short, do a little teaching in how to think.

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0 Responses

  1. Harry
    | Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly that education should teach students how to think, how to learn, how to recognize the difference between good and poor science and well meaning and twisted religion (perverted for political reasons, etc.)…

    I don’t know if we’ll see widespread adoption of critical thinking in middle and high school any time soon. Conspiracy theorists say, “the government doesn’t want an educated, independent minded, opinionated, doubting citizen; it wants an obedient conformist who believes and does what they’re told.” Other educators will tell you that it is madness to tell already headstrong, back-talking teenagers to question the world around them and think independently because true critical thinking takes the students down the road to where they must consider whether their teachers, parents, history and textbooks, politicians and police are telling them the truth or not and whether what they say and believe in is morally and ethically right or not. I believe it is always better to know everything (I don’t candy coat answers to my kids’ questions) but many disagree and believe in conformity through ignorance.

    Educated high school and university students are usually the ones who protest because along with the other major protest groups (retirees and in the past, stay at home mothers) they have time to do it while most other adults are so busy with work and family that they have time only for civilized letter writing campaigns. The other thing required to protest freely (not a set up state protest) is knowledge. It is interesting the response to the current agressive government in the united states and the response decades ago to other similar administrations. Where are the students? What do they think? Do they think anything or just, “whatever our leader says must be right, I support it 100%.”

    Do students in high school “current events” history classes discuss the war in Iraq? Do they question it?


  2. Norton
    | Reply

    I absolutely agree that teaching kids to think critically is a great goal, but how can it be achieved? The facts are important too, and it seems like more and more facts are critical to success in our increasingly technological society. The balance is very tricky.

    Harry’s question about where the activist students are is interesting. I know that kids do discuss the war and many other things in class, and they do indeed question it (isn’t that what adolescence is all about?) I wonder if they are hitting the same time obstacles as their parents – more pressure to be involved in more things, so less free time to protest?

  3. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Learning facts is important. But many of the facts they learn this year they’ll have forgotten by next. I think it’s even more important to teach them how to decide which facts, or “facts,” to trust.

    Harry, one of our northern neighbors, diplomatically points out that the current crop of U.S. students aren’t protesting this war the way our generation rose to protest the Vietnam War. According to my sophomore daughter, current events rarely if ever get discussed in her classes, and the Iraq war never. Norton gets a different reading–but even there, I should point out that Norton and I live in a town which is pretty much a liberal-progressive hotbed, where people actually still stand holding signs every Monday evening protesting the war. So the experience in other parts of the country may be very different.

    Still, even when I was young and (semi)radical, the real activism didn’t usually hit until we went away to college.

  4. Norton
    | Reply

    My junior daughter took an elective called ‘symposium’ this year, which included activities surrounding many current events. Most recently they held a trial of Saddam Hussein. Ever the actor, she played the part of the Ayatollah Khomenei, appearing for the prosecution. A few classmates also participated in a Model Arab League held a local college.

  5. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Now that sounds cool. Certainly more engaging than the reports I’m getting from sophomore history!

    Let me see, your daughter has been the Yoop, Injun Joe, Titania, and…the Ayatollah Khomenei?

  6. Norton
    | Reply

    Yeah, Titania was clearly her breakout role, gender-wise!

  7. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    In a big way. I hope you’re polishing up your tough-guy image, for when the teen-age boys start coming around.

  8. Teri
    | Reply

    I’d love to see critical thinking taught as an elective in public schools.

    Though I think you guy are wrong in the reason that those kind of classes don’t exist in schools. I think they don’t exist because they’re harder to teach.

    To teach origins by the method that Carver proposes, the teacher can’t get away with “Because the textbook says so.” What the teacher would have to do is explain both theories, in detail. Then she (well, most of my JH teachers were female) would have to explain the evidence available. Radiocarbon dating, fossil layers, genetics (including the notion of gene duplication — something creationists ignore), etc. That’s a lot of stuff to go over, and not only does it take a long time to cover completely, but it’s hard work. Even for the dedicated teacher, the tempation will be to skim over the subject or just to give the conclusion.

    Another problem is the standarized test. If you spend a lot of time explaining evolution properly, you might not cover everything in the science part of the AP tests. It’s not just science, it’s other subjects as well. Schools have to cover so much material in such a short time that the WHYs are left out. I *hated* history until I got into a college level history class. In JH and HS, History is nothing but dates and names — General Lee and the Civil War. History is really more about the decisions that people made, why they made them. Many times one single decision can change the results of an entire war, or cause radical political changes. You can’t teach history that way and still cover the required names and dates for the History AP Test.

  9. Anonymous
    | Reply

    As a science teacher who is passionate about teaching the scientific method and critical thinking I applaud you all. More needs to be done to move us ahead in this area. Teaching critical thinking is very challenging for a number of reasons. For one the students aren’t comfortable with it after years of the old spoon feeding of facts, and as a previous commentator said: it reduces the time that’s needed to cover curriculum that will be on standardized tests. Critical thinking needs to be embedded in the curriculum itself as well, because many teachers themselves are not critical thinkers. And finally, it’s challenging to teach critical thinking because it’s something that moves us away from traditional teaching methods used at the lower levels of education.

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