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In support of the scientific method

Image of "Why Stop" signA couple of days ago, I was casually monitoring my Twitter stream. I was following the occasional link, but in general I felt that I was wasting time and that I had better close it down and get on with something productive. Then, like a bolt of lightning, I was struck by the following tweet:

A middle school teacher says he is going to drop the scientific method from science fair. What do you think?

I had two immediate thoughts: good luck to any of his students entering the regional science fairs I’m familiar with; and I’ve written several blogs on this topic in the past. I’ll link back to one of those to make my thoughts known.

And so I did.

To be fair though, I thought I had better take a closer look at what was bothering this middle school teacher.

Overall, I think he wants the same things that we all want in science education. His list of science practices is very similar to the skills of a scientist that I presented in my blogs. To me, that is all part of the scientific method. So what does he mean when he writes that he wants to get rid of the scientific method? Is he talking about those four- or five-step flow charts that are shown in some text books or on canned worksheets available through a search of the internet?

I feel for his frustration at seeing a low-level project such as comparing absorption levels of two different paper towel brands. That issue though is not the fault of following the scientific method. Perhaps the teacher needs to guide students with a list of more intense questions. One thing that I did over my years in the classroom was to keep a few examples of ‘excellent’ work to show my classes the next year. It amazed me to see that the ‘excellent’ of one year became the ‘standard’ for the next. Over a period of 3 to 5 years, there was a tremendous increase in the quality of work done. Students want to do good work. Sometimes it just takes an example to show them what really good work is.

My next thought on the issue of teaching the scientific method may sound totally radical, or it may be intuitively obvious. The scientific method is not the recipe for doing research, it is an organized algorithm for communicating the results. It is our duty as science teachers to help students do both.

I’ve pointed out in previous blogs that not all research can have a hypothesis. For example, there is no prediction possible if a student project involves dissecting orchids or studying the behaviour of red pandas at the local zoo. I am not even sure how one would make a hypothesis on which brand of paper towel works better. However, if there is a manipulated and a responding variable, then the student will need to consider and predict the possible results, if not prior to the experiment then certainly before drawing the graph of the results.

Even kindergarten students can think like a scientist when they are given the appropriate language and encouraged to “predict - observe – explain”. So here is my advice to science teachers: do not abandon the scientific method. At any level of science past the lower elementary grades, there is a difference between the raw data recorded in a log book and the formal report, presentation or poster board display. Show your students where the scientific method is incorporated into the skills and practices of a scientist.

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In support of the scientific method

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