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Does teaching the Scientific Method worry you?

Fear not! Alberta students are world class in reading, mathematics and science. It has also been reported that Canadians who are between the ages of 25 and 34 lead the world in “educational attainment”. Our students are in top place because they learn by doing, and they learn the language necessary to explain what they are doing. And yes, they also perform well on international test standards.

Many Alberta students undertake independent project-based learning. Students present the results of their studies in real-world situations through activities such as science fairs. High school students can work with mentors doing hands-on scientific research through opportunities like the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada or Alberta Innovates Heritage Youth Researcher Summer program.

In Alberta, we recognize that the science program cannot be formulaic; we also recognize that there are at least three curricular emphases with their own particular problem-solving approach:
  • Scientific Enquiry
  • Technological Problems
  • Societal Issues
From the earliest grades, we introduce students to the skills of a scientist:
  • Observing
  • Classifying
  • Measuring
  • Inferring
  • Predicting
  • Interpreting data
  • Controlling variables
  • Making operational definitions
  • Making hypothesis
  • Experimenting
In Alberta, we recognize that science education provides a framework for students to understand and interpret the world around them. They develop both knowledge and skills through the processes of inquiry and problem solving. Since language plays a role in developing the skills of inquiry and problem solving, it is important to introduce students to a language framework. An algorithm such as the scientific method leads to strategic thinking. The actions of identifying problems, asking questions and proposing ideas require the use of a particular kind of language whether it be called the scientific method or just “doing science”.

I attended a session given by William H Leonard in 1980 where he advocated what he called the extended discretion approach to science. He justified this through his research showing that students were bored with non-productive, recipe-like activities. Leonard suggested that students become involved in the laboratory investigation by actively planning and then carrying out the experiment.

In the extended discretion approach, working from general goals and techniques, students plan their own experiments. Leonard reports that students who were accustomed to following detailed instructions during lab investigations found the approach hard at first because it required the students to conceptualize the problem. Once the students plan their experiments, they carry out their plan after teacher approval. I suggest that research-granting organizations handing over a great deal of money expect the scientists to go through a similar process in their grant applications. Variations of Leonard’s extended discretion approach are part of the learning cycle used with success throughout Alberta.

Note: I wrote this blog in response to a comment about students using the scientific method, as expressed in my previous blog. Since then, I have come across another concern: Canadian students, while strong in science performance, do not pursue science careers. I intend to explore this question in my next blog.

Does teaching the Scientific Method worry you?

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