Friday, December 23, 2011

Towards a breakthrough in Science Education

In this week’s editorial Bruce Alberts Editor-in-Chief of Science yearns for a breakthrough in teaching and learning of science. He writes, “perhaps, Science might one day be able to highlight the striking results of a large “clinical trial” in science education as our Breakthrough of the Year, reporting the clear benefits to students inspired by a carefully designed, hands-on, inquiry-based exploration of the world observes that we live in an age where “science denial” has become fashionable”.

Scientists and science education scholars have been hard at work grappling with the search for novel and innovative ways of teaching science. There is a broad consensus among scientists and teachers of science on the need for a scientific approach to science education.

Here is a snippet of what I consider frontier thinking that will deliver the yearnings of Bruce Alberts.

The practice of science is invariably an encounter of ill-structured problems that can have multiple causal paths and hence multiple approaches to solutions. To approach such problems, unscrambling through “higher-order” mental processes such as analysis, synthesis, and abstraction are vital. Creative thinking—the most complex and abstract of the higher-order cognitive skills can allow unscrambling of problems and produce solutions through unconventional non-classical insights.

However, we teach science in colleges and lower levels as if problems that require understanding and application of science fall neatly into a pre-ordained singular pathway to a correct solution.

We seldom think of science as a creative process and the scientist as a creative entrepreneur. There is therefore very little learning of any higher order cognitive skills.

In a sample of 77 undergraduate life sciences given by 50 different professors, less than 1% of items in the assessment required students to apply analytical, synthesis or abstraction skills. It is therefore not surprising that only circa one fourth of US college graduates possess the cognitive skills necessary to solve conceptual problems.

Admittedly, creativity is a complex, multi component construct and, therefore, is not easy to define or teach or assess, especially in the context of science. But creativity is at the heart of the advancement of science. As Albeit Einstein so elegantly put it, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science”.

However, there is evidence the cognitive operations required for creativity can be acquired through instructional strategies, which are relatively simple modifications of the active learning known to be effective for teaching abstraction and problem-solving.

In article recently published in Science, Robert L. DeHaan of the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University suggests that two broad categories of mental operations are needed to produce creative insight, namely: associative (divergent) thinking, where thoughts are defocused, intuitive and receptive and; analytical (convergent) thinking, which entails the capacity to analyze, synthesize and focus.

Associative thinking increases the probability of accessing weakly associated
Ideas. Convergent thinking involves unexpected recognition of novel relations through conceptual re-ordering or conceptual integration or blending of concepts or ideas.

A fundamental problem persists in science education: preparing undergraduates as scientists. This problem raises a persistent question: how do we structure teaching and learning of science to foster scientific curiosity, reasoning, and problem-solving to produce a generation of science undergraduates who think scientifically.

Robert L. DeHaan noted that while we expect science students to solve problems, we rarely refer to the creative aspects of the scientific discoveries that we teach. In an article published in Science in 2008, Sarah Miller and colleagues advanced the idea of scientific teaching. They argued that scientific teaching comprise methods that encourage students to construct new knowledge and to develop scientific ways of thinking. Carl Wieman, recipient of Nobel Prize in physics in 2001 believes that successful science education transforms how students think, so they can understand and use science like scientists.

According to Carl Wieman, fundamental institutional reform is necessary to deliver the needed reforms in teaching and learning of science.

Carl Wieman identifies key challenges to delivering fundamental reform to science education: research universities and their faculty care little about teaching or student learning; introducing research-based teaching and learning in college science programs will require resources to develop and test effective pedagogical materials, supporting technology and providing for faculty development; the budget for R & D an the implementation of improved methods at most universities is nearly zero.

These challenges present a framework for a coherent call to action to deliver a breakthrough in science education.

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