Thinking pedagogically about scientific thinking: Towards a taxonomy of investigations. Colin A. Smith



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Colin Smith Page Jan 2010 Nottingham,


Discussion Paper from Work Package 5


Thinking pedagogically about scientific thinking: Towards a taxonomy of investigations.
Colin A. Smith

Strathclyde University


With additional material supplied by
Fearghal Kelly

East Lothian Education Department


And
Sinclair Mackenzie

Thurso High School, Highland Region

S-TEAM Conference

Nottingham

January 2010

The business of science involves more than the mere assembly of facts: it demands also intellectual architecture and construction. (Toulmin, 1961, p 108)

Scientific ideas and practices are essentially interconnected and networked. To understand science, one must consider not just the links between a theory and observations, but between a theory and other theories, and the influence of theories on observations. It is global and holistic, in the sense that it is not found to be in any one isolated component. (Kosso, 2009, p.36)

Introduction

The S-TEAM project has taken on the task of ‘firing up’ science education across Europe through helping teachers more often to adopt advanced teaching/learning methods. Encouraged by the EU, we have focussed on investigation-led science teaching as comprising ‘advanced’ methods likely to bring about greater learner engagement with science and retention of those learners into science careers.

Of course, our acceptance of this challenge is not merely opportunistic within a particular political agenda. We too, based on research and argument, think that investigative methods in science education need to be encouraged and supported. For example, McNally (2006) identifies a number of reasons for adopting investigative methods in science lessons, including facilitating an understanding of the nature of science, to meet a need to do science as well as to learn it, and to approach something like ‘authentic scientific activity’. However, the idea of doing ‘authentic scientific activity’ in the school laboratory is problematic. There is a gap to be closed between inquiry in research and school science (Gengarelly and Abrams, 2009) requiring, perhaps among other things, a reconceptualisation of science from lab to school (Sharma and Anderson, 2009). Leaving aside the further issue of whether this gap can be fully closed in practice, this discussion paper aims to begin to flesh out a ‘tool’ for connecting the work that is done by teachers using classroom investigations to (features of?) authentic scientific thinking. The tool, hopefully, will empower both ourselves and teachers to think pedagogically about supporting our young people in developing aspects of scientific thinking that underpin authentic scientific activities. It may also help in integrating our work across the work packages. To put it another way, this discussion is based on three assumptions. First, that through using investigative approaches in science education, we wish to facilitate the ability of our pupils to develop scientific thinking. Therefore, and second, we need to theorise in pedagogically useful ways, the connections between investigation in school science and scientific thinking.1 Third, this theorising will help in integrating our work across the work packages.
Feist’s analysis of scientific thinking.

Feist (2006)2 conducts a major review of studies that can be said to contribute, at least implicitly, to the psychology of science and the study of the origins of scientific thinking in the history of humankind. His aims are not pedagogical but to establish the psychology of science as a sub-discipline of psychology on a par with, and complementary to, sub-disciplines of other disciplines such as the philosophy of science, the history of science and the sociology of science. Nevertheless, along the way he provides powerful arguments for identifying certain cognitive activities as constitutive of scientific thinking. These cognitive activities, here called aspects of scientific thinking3, are brought together in tables 1 and 24.


Table 1: Fundamental aspects of scientific thinking and human thinking more generally

Scientific Thinking/scientific mind (Adapted from Feist, 2006)

Attribute/skill

What it involves

Observation

Using all sensory modalities –hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling and seeing- to input information

Categorisation

Classifying information from observations into meaningful systems

Pattern recognition

Seeing patterns of relationships between different things and events the classified information refers to (E.g. Thing A is always found with Thing B. Event Y always follows Event X)

Hypothesis formation and testing. As develops in scientists, becomes an ability to systematically test hypotheses.

Arises initially from pattern recognition. Begin to expect world to behave in certain ways and test these expectations

Cause and effect thinking

Arises initially out of pattern recognition and/or hypothesis verification. (e.g. recognition of pattern that Y follows X or verification of this as a hypothesis leads one to think about causes).

More sophisticated when one realises that co-variation is necessary, but not sufficient, for causality.


Table 1 shows those aspects of scientific thinking that Feist argues are found in both the implicit scientific thinking of children and adults, and the explicit scientific thinking of scientists. Indeed, they are fundamental to both everyday and scientific thinking. That is not to say that children’s, adults’ and scientists’ thinking are the same in all respects. If I understand Feist correctly, the factors that seem to differentiate these forms of thinking are found largely in table 2. The aspects of scientific thinking in table 2, along with language, enable thinking to become ‘less and less immediate and sensory-bound and more and more consciously represented, explicit and metacognitive’ (Feist, 2006, page 71). The acquisition of language makes this progress from implicit to explicit thinking possible and is achieved to its most advanced degree in science (and, presumably, other organised systems of thought)5.



Table 2: Further aspects of scientific thinking




















































Scientific Thinking/scientific mind (Based and adapted from Feist (2006)

Attribute/skill

What it involves

Ability to separate and co-ordinate theory and evidence.
Not ignoring/recognising the importance of disconfirmatory evidence.
Realising one’s thinking may be wrong and in need of revision.

I have put these together as they seem related.

In relation to these, Feist discusses avoiding confirmation bias, not ignoring disconfirmatory evidence outright, and avoiding distorted interpretations of evidence to fit preconceptions. We might want to add ‘distinguishing examples from principles.6



Visualisation

Feist identifies thought experiments, models and diagrams. I wonder if he has overlooked graphs, charts and tables. These tables, for example, comprise an attempt in visualising scientific thinking based on Feist’s analysis.

Making the implicit explicit in one’s thinking.
Developing control of thinking and representations - metacognition.

Again these seem related. In Feist’s scheme, ‘implicit’ means more sensory bound thought. By making these implicit representations explicit by redescribing them, they become available for thought and modification. This is part of metacognition, along with becoming aware of and directing one’s thought processes.

Ability to use metaphor and analogy

Analogy – seeing how something (target) is like something old (source). Metaphor – an ‘as if’ comparison. Think about X as if it was Y. Both useful in hypothesis and theory formation, thought experiments, creativity and problem solving. Dunbar and Blanchette (2001) also report how scientists use analogy to fix experimental problems. Analogy and metaphor provide useful constraints to solutions to problems by focussing strategies

Use ‘confirm early-disconfirm late’ heuristic

Apparently many successful scientists when formulating theory look for confirming evidence first (‘make it a goer’), then seek to find evidence and arguments against it.

Collaborative (distributed reasoning)

Based on long-term analyses of weekly lab meetings (e.g. Dunbar, 1995, 2002; Dunbar and Blanchette, 2001). Apparently, an important process is the sharing of reasoning and ideas that goes on in the more informal settings (behind the scenes in hallways, etc.) and is the result of input from, many people.7 Also, in the formal lab meetings, conceptual change of various levels or forms can be brought about as a scientist’s results are discussed and interpreted by the group.

Another thing we need to remember is that we should not regard those aspects of thinking in table 1 as developing purely in a linear fashion. Although Feist argues that observation is first to appear, then so on down the table, as the others develop complex relations happen between them so that they each affect each other in dynamic interplay. Feist does emphasise this point but could possibly have usefully developed it further into a description of how they co-develop (Lagnado, 2006).

However, our purpose here is to see if modelling scientific thinking helps us to think pedagogically about investigative led science teaching. One question to ask about science investigations in the classroom is, “What aspects of scientific thinking do they help the pupils to develop?” However, if that is one pedagogically useful question to ask about investigations, there are at least four others. Let us look at these before returning to this question.
Four other dimensions of investigations.

These additional questions and the dimensions of investigations they imply, concern the origins of the investigative question or problem being pursued and the locus of control. Firstly, is the origin of the question based on everyday observation, common sense, folk science (call it what you like) of the pupils or does it follow from the pupils’ understandings of scientific theories, and/or hypotheses encountered or developed in science lessons, and/or previous experimental or other forms of data gathered? This issue was raised during our discussions in the Scottish National Workshop.8 Another way of putting this question is, “To what degree is the question underpinning the investigation rooted within the scientific discipline being studied and to what degree is it rooted in the ad hoc interests of the pupils? An example of the first type of investigation might follow if the pupils know, come across or are introduced to the basic equation for respiration. It could be treated as a hypothesis and a number of experiments carried out with plants, yeast or invertebrates to test its components. In fact, this was standard practice in my school.

An example of the second type of investigation might be when a pupil asks, “What grows faster, a daffodil or a tulip?”9 In the Scottish context, this might arise because they noticed both these plants appearing in the early part of the year (their everyday observations). Of course, it could also be an example of the first type of investigation arising because they had been introduced to vegetative reproduction in plants (so, perhaps, to some degree from within their understanding of biology). Another example would be an investigation of the way light makes vision possible. In my experience, a group of Scottish pupils hypothesised (and argued strongly) that light rays come out of the eyes onto the object being viewed, a bit like the way Superman’s heat vision or X-Ray vision is depicted. This clearly arises from within their folk science.

The second dimension involves who initiated the investigation – the teacher, a pupil or pupils, or some sort of combination. This may not always follow from the first dimension in the ways expected, For example, the above pupils believed with so much certainty that their model of vision was correct that they saw no need to test it. They had to be challenged to devise a test or tests of their belief that would convince others of its validity. That is, the investigation arose not from their understanding (dimension 1) but from teacher initiation (dimension 2). The set of respiration experiments comprised a more traditional form of teacher-instigated investigation.

The third dimension concerns how much control the teacher or pupils have of the actual investigation. This can lead from complete direction by the teacher to greater freedom for the pupils, with the teacher acting more or less as a facilitator. Note that it is possible for the pupils to raise the question and the teacher to direct the resulting investigation. Also, as we saw above, it is possible for the teacher to raise the question or challenge and for the pupils to set out to investigate it.

The fourth dimension concerns how open or closed the investigation is10. The sense meant here by this is, ‘Is the investigation focussed on a narrow or closed question requiring only one, or a few, definitive piece(s) of evidence or finding(s) to answer it (the eye and light issue above) or a wider one (how the eye works in detail), or a wider one still (how the senses work together in a co-ordinated way), to an even wider one (how do all the organs of the body co-ordinate their various functions), and so on.’ The more open, in this sense the question, the more indeterminate the end of the project would be (another sense of open in which there would still remain unanswered questions that arose during the investigation itself). Also, of course, it is possible to start with a closed question and, motivated by answering it, move onto a more open question.

Finally, we have the dimension of aspects of scientific thinking outlined above.
Five dimensions of investigations

So, we have at least five dimensions of investigations. Table 3 shows these, and some pedagogical questions11 associated with them, that teachers, and those wishing to support them, might need to ask. Note that one advantage of this approach to thinking about investigations is that it relieves us of the question that seems to vex some as to what counts as an investigation (Barrow, 2006). Instead, we can think about educational activities that may be argued to be investigative more profitably in terms of their pedagogical aims and outcomes. Note also that it does this without necessarily implying that our pupils are working in exactly the same way as scientists. It could be that the best we can do is to provide them with opportunities to develop and practice the same aspects of thinking that scientists use. Opportunities for them to participate in a range of investigative activities, some of them more contrived than others, may be required to ensure this development.

As you can see from table 3, dimension 5 (aspects of scientific thinking) emerges as a key dimension connecting the others and, if it is correctly described, linking what we do
Table 3: Five dimensions of investigations and some associated pedagogical questions.

Dimension of Investigation

Some Associated Pedagogical Questions

1) Origin of the investigation question in pupil understanding.

a) Does the question behind the investigation derive from pupils’ thinking inspired by folk or everyday understandings, or does it derive from pupils’ thinking inspired by new scientific understandings they have developed or are developing?

b) Can I justify pursuing it within the content requirements of this course? If not, have I got time to pursue it for other reasons (e.g. 1c and 1d or 2b, 2c) and what are the consequences, such as continued misconceptions, if I leave it?

c) Can I justify pursuing it because it is likely to promote engagement?

d) What aspects of scientific thinking (dimension 5) would be supported by this investigation?



2) Origin of investigation question in learners’ and /or teachers’ goals.

a) Did I instigate this investigation, or did the pupils, or is it the result of a jointly felt interest?

b) Did I instigate this investigation as a challenge to pupils’ pre-understandings?

c) Did the pupils instigate this investigation out of interest and will it promote engagement?

d) What aspects of scientific thinking (dimension 5) would be supported by this investigation?



3) Control of the investigation.

a) Will the pupils be able to devise unaided a suitable investigative strategy, or do we devise it together, or do I suggest the strategy to them?

b) Am I controlling the investigation to ensure coverage of course aims and ability by the pupils to deal with assessment requirements? Can I achieve this without exerting this degree of control?

c) (related to ‘a’ above) What aspects of scientific thinking (dimension 5) do they need to devise and carry out an investigation of this question and when and how do I put scaffolding in place when these aspects are absent or need help in developing? Are some of them only able to be practised when pupils have a certain amount of control?


4) Degree of openness of the investigation

a) Is the investigation question closed enough to be answered quickly and with a reasonable certainty that the pupils will come to scientifically accepted conclusions?

b) Is the question too open to be fitted in to the constraints of time and course requirements?

c) In open and, possibly also, closed investigations, how will I monitor the development of pupil’s understandings and challenge any initial and/or developing alternate or misconceptions?

d) What aspects of scientific thinking (dimension 5) are supported by closed and open investigations? Are some of them particular to certain types of investigations?



5) Aspects of scientific thinking used in the investigation

a) What aspects of scientific thinking would be supported by this investigation and do I need to do other types of investigation to ensure all are practised effectively?

in the school to what scientists themselves do. The other dimensions involve pedagogical decisions that have to be made to ensure other aims are met, such as adequate coverage of required content without misconceptions (arguably equally important as developing scientific thinking skills, Seatter, 2003) and ensuring engagement with the investigation and the related content, while allowing or facilitating aspects of scientific thinking to be developed and practised. I am arguing that this five dimensional model of investigations allows us to focus on the pedagogical aims and outcomes for learning activities that can be broadly described as investigative. We can analyse these activities using the five dimensions and monitor the degree to which our pupils are able to use and practice the aspects of scientific thinking The next section tries to illustrate this with some examples.


The five dimensions of investigations applied to examples.

(Since I am retired from teaching, I thought it useful to have the model tested by people still involved in educational practice. Therefore, Fearghal Kelly and Sinclair Mackenzie from the Reference Group have kindly provided extra examples in Appendices 2 and 3.)

S’ grade investigations.

In Scotland, as part of their formal assessment, pupils doing Standard Grade Science Courses12 have to complete two investigations. These investigations are generally not very popular with teachers and criticised for a number of reasons. 13 Most relevant here is the argument that they are not like real science investigations. However, the purpose here is to get away from this kind of thinking and replace it with an analysis of whether they contribute to scientific thinking.

Probably the main reason for criticising them as investigations is that they are undoubtedly contrived in nature. For example, in Biology pupils may be asked to consider what might affect the rate of germination in small seeds. They are given an assessment booklet to complete. This guides them through the process of choosing an independent variable to investigate, formulating a hypothesis, planning how to carry out the investigation, controlling other relevant variables, considering how they will change the independent variable and measure its effect on the dependent variable, recording their results, graphing them and drawing a conclusion. There are, however, certain rules that also have to be indicated to the pupil if they are to get the maximum assessment marks. For example, they must have at least three values for the independent variable (so that a graph may be plotted) and to do the experiment twice so that they can average their results. It probably depends on the teacher whether these have to be told just before the investigation or have been part of their general training.14 How does this investigation fit onto our 5 dimensional model? Table 4 gives a simplified analysis. It is simplified



Table 4: Analyis of ‘S’ Grade Investigations

Dimension of Investigation

Aspects (where relevant)

Analysis

1) Origin of the investigation question in pupil understanding




Depends on investigation Germination is in the course, so may be construed as relating to their developing biological understanding. However, if they have not reached germination, they still generally have no problem generating lists of relevant variables from their own understanding.

2) Origin of investigation question in learners’ and /or teachers’ goals.




Teachers’ assessment goals

3) Control of the investigation.




Teacher through assessment booklet and allocation of resources

4) Degree of openness of the investigation




Relatively closed

5) Aspects of scientific thinking used in the investigation

Observation

Supported15

Categorisation

Not supported

Pattern recognition

Supported through analysis of graphs

Hypothesis formation and testing.

Supported

Cause and effect thinking

Supported, at least in terms of choosing how to measure dependent variable – see foot note 15

Ability to separate and co-ordinate theory and evidence.

Not ignoring/recognising the importance of disconfirmatory evidence.

Realising one’s thinking may be wrong and in need of revision.

Possibility of need to revise thinking supported if their hypotheses are not in line with results actually obtained

Visualisation

Supported through graphs

Making the implicit explicit in one’s thinking.

Developing control of thinking and representations - metacognition.

Supported through booklet.

Ability to use metaphor and analogy

Not supported

Use ‘confirm early-disconfirm late’ heuristic

Not supported

Collaborative (distributed reasoning)

Not supported

because, obviously, it is possible to say much more about some of the aspects than statements such as supported/not supported. For example, observations are noted as being supported by this form of investigation but no attempt is made here to expand on this in terms of how it interacts with other aspects of scientific thinking. The aim here is simpler, merely to show that the tool can be applied. However, this form of deeper analysis would probably be a requirement for anyone wishing to either impose investigations on teachers, or for teachers themselves planning how to utilise a range of investigations to help their pupils to develop scientific thinking.

Perhaps the table suggests that this form of formally assessed investigation is more use than we might suspect and could be justified as one tool in supporting some of the aspects of scientific thinking. Nevertheless, even in accepting this, we should also be aware that a table like this, however useful in some respects, might hide issues. For example, as recorded in the table, the booklet can be supportive of metacognition related to how to direct one’s thinking through an investigation aimed at hypothesis testing through what might be called a ‘fair test procedure’, but only if the pupils perceive it as such. If they see it as no more than an assessment booklet to be completed, then that metacognitive support may be lost. There is always a context to be set by the teachers, but for them to realise that and find ways to create that context, they need to be aware of the issue and see it as one worth resolving. To be aware of the issue teachers need conceptual tools - if not this model, then something else.16
Experiments to test respiration equation.

As with the Standard Grade investigations, these are included here to see what, if any, support the more traditional forms of science teaching may give to pupils developing scientific thinking so that we may get a clearer picture of the added value of other approaches. Although there are variations, a more or less standard set of experiment can be found in Scottish textbooks (e.g. Torrance, 2001) that can be presented as testing the validity of the equation for respiration17. In addition to presenting an opportunity for


Figure 1: Oxygen uptake (Torrance, 2001, page 72



Figure 2: Release of Carbon dioxide in respiration (Torrance, 2001, page 73)