How scientists actually work is much more exciting than we lead children to believe. The ‘human adventure’ of science has been neglected in our curriculum, reports Burnett Cross, retired science textbook editor and author. Cross believes that we have been teaching science using a flawed concept of how scientists work. This misconception, he states, has hurt our science teaching and turned children away from studying science.
Science curricula have described the scientific process as a routine system of logical reasoning, careful step-by-step experimentation and record keeping. In fact, however, the scientific method involves a lot more. In Cross’s opinion, students should learn that science has a very human side – a challenging and exasperating side made up of wrong turns, hunches that don’t pan out, errors and discouragement, as well as intriguing ‘chance’ discoveries and ‘lucky’ accidents.
The adventurous side of science
Cross urges elementary teachers to expand their science teaching to include study of the adventurous side of science. In order to develop students’ understanding and appreciation of how scientists work, students need to talk to scientists or to read what they have written.
The really valuable factor, according to Albert Einstein, is intuition. And Louis Pasteur commented that “chance favors only the prepared mind.” Scientists know that intuition is the partner of reason and that one gains an intuitive sense through intense study and hard work, that store of experience on which intuition is based.
Scientists report that the intuitive moment often occurs at odd times and in odd circumstances, and is, alas, often wrong. However, the fundamental value of intuition in scientific discovery is undisputed, a primary force that students need to understand in order to appreciate scientific discovery.
A second important aspect of the ‘human side’ of science is collaboration. Cross describes collaboration as “the wondrous combination of cooperation and competition” which is a factor in most scientific discoveries. Scientists build on each others’ discoveries and often work as part of a team that ‘brainstorms’ together, both arguing with and encouraging one another.
Even those who work alone in laboratories publish their discoveries in scientific journals or present papers at conferences, thus sharing their knowledge so others may verify it and build on it. This cooperative interaction plays an important part in the effectiveness of research. Cross believes students need to understand this.
Cross concludes that science curricula have tended to dehumanize science and scientists. By incorporating into the curricula the very human and personal aspects of the work scientists do, students will gain a better understanding of the scientific process, a human process that is both intriguing and exciting. Given this revised understanding, writes Cross, perhaps more students will pursue a career in science.
“A Passion Within Reason: The Human Side of Process” Science and Children January 1990, pp. 16-21.
Published in ERN May/June 1990 Volume 3 Number 3