Monday, October 15, 2007

Don’t Panic! It's Okay If You Don't Know the Aswer.

A Monograph on WISE Philosophy

In fact, I would go even farther to say that life in general is better and more interesting when you don’t already know all the answers, because that means there is some puzzle, or conundrum, or problem at hand which offers an opportunity for creativity and exploration. All of you are certainly aware that even if a teacher KNOWS the answer to a question, it is often better for students if a teacher avoids answering them directly. Here, I offer an extension of that same idea.

Now I will admit that it seems a little odd, telling teachers not to worry about knowing the answers. After all, traditional pedagogy places a teacher at the head of the class giving lectures, demonstrating their knowledge, dispensing wisdom, and assessing whether students know and understand what they have been taught. And while it’s true that most of us have gone through our academic career being penalized for not knowing something, or for having forgotten some fact or date, WISE espouses a shift in the traditional pedagogy and overall mind-set in science and technology education. Instead of grading people on whether or not they know something, we emphasize how well students figure something out that they don’t already know. To be sure, this is a very different process than simply checking off memorized facts on a multiple choice test against a Scantron key, but the results are worth the mind-shift and the change is not a difficult one once understood.

One reason that this shift in emphasis is important arises from the fact that most traditional science classes test for facts and figures, and the ability to solve problems that are but slight variations of problems students have already been given in prior homework and classroom examples. This approach is then testing for science as subject matter, and completely misses the point that while there is certainly a lot of subject matter to learn, the most important aspect of science is as a PROCESS. In that sense, learning science in the traditional lecture and rote lab pedagogy never actually gives students an opportunity to participate in the PROCESS of science, but rather has them memorizing how others have already done so. If students are never given the opportunity to engage in novel research and discovery by personally practicing the scientific process on real rather than contrived pre-solved problems, they will never experience the true wonder and excitement of really discovering something for themselves. That very feeling is the crown jewel of science gratification and the secret to keeping children engaged in the subject.

Worse yet, students passing through such a system have been trained to be adept memorizers and test takers, but have had very little exposure to, or practice in, innovating, discovering, or being creative. The only level of critical thinking such a curriculum fosters is that of deciphering what a teacher wants and responding to respond appropriately on tests and homework in order to maximize grades. With the emergence of web search technologies like Google, however, there is no remaining need or utility for memorization of obscure facts when a 3 second web query will result in an almost instant answer. We are left training people who are “book smart” but have little practical experience in using the smarts to create novel solutions.

Another powerful motivating factor for the shift in emphasis from fact and memorization to process and discovery is in how it aligns the motivations and goals of both teacher and student. This alignment mitigates one of the most prevalent barriers to the enjoyment and adoption of science as a profession, the fear and anxiety that arises from NOT KNOWING SOMETHING. This fear of NOT KNOWING is hardly a surprising result given that students are largely graded on whether they know or remember. It is a completely natural response to worry about how one will perform, and when tests penalize a failure of memory then of course anxiety will arise in response.

Unfortunately, this completely natural result of traditional pedagogy is exactly contrary to the goal of a strong science education, which is to train students in the practice of science. The conflict arises because the whole goal of science (the profession and the process) is to figure out and discover things that we don’t already know. But if students are trained, however inadvertently, by our misplaced emphasis on science facts and our testing and assessment methodologies to get nervous when they don’t know something, then we are teaching people to be nervous when they should really be excited and interested. We are conditioning students against enjoying science.

When scientists discover something they don’t understand or realize that they don’t know something, that generally means there is something interesting to discover. There is an “aha!” or a “Eureka!” in the wings. In this sense, lectures and the testing of memorization and repetition of demonstrated problems actually foster math and science anxiety. In my experience it is this very interaction that drives many students to say things like “I’m not good at science,” and it is this very sort of interaction which drives students away from science. The sad truth is that many of these students never had a chance to practice real science or to realize the wonder of discovery contrary to the pain of failed memorization. What they fear is being tested about science history and mistake that for science proper.

Now consider what happens in a realigned pedagogy which places the teacher as a guide to exploration rather than as a font of wisdom, facts, or pre-defined processes. It is then possible for both teacher and student to enjoy moments of not knowing together. It even becomes possible to model by example and mutually share in the enjoyment of NOT KNOWING. Students and teachers are thus encouraged to be comfortable not knowing, and to seize that opportunity to discover, understand, and explain phenomena. Science and math anxiety vanish and interest flourishes as a result. Even students who never considered themselves “good at science” discover new interests and empowerment.

Now stated as a philosophy, the goal of this shift from fact to process is straightforward but the task of practically implementing that philosophy in a classroom setting is somewhat subtle. Please don’t mistake the title’s statement for the idea that it’s okay if a teacher doesn’t know ANYTHING about the topic at hand since both teacher and student can discover together. In order to be an effective mentor and guide to exploration, the WISE science teacher needs to be practiced at the PROCESS of science, and conversant with the tools and techniques pertinent to the topic at hand. And while it’s okay to not know an answer, a well-trained teacher should be familiar with several different METHODS relevant to DISCOVERING an answer. Classes and teaching environments can then shift from teaching facts to teaching methods and techniques, approaches to problem solving, and relating constructive processes in critical thinking that break large problems into a series of smaller more approachable ones.

In some sense, the very notion of a science class can then shift to encompass collaborative learning which gets students to jointly experience the process of discovery. Since facts and memorization become less important, worries about cheating and copying vanish when it is practice in the process that is more important. The goal of the teacher can then become how to prepare class materials so that students have repeated opportunities to learn tools and techniques, to practice the techniques and then use them to discover things.

Note that this proposed shift is more of a change in pedagogy than a change in curriculum. The subject matter, and in fact, much of the teaching materials can remain constant as long as there is a change in how the material is related, and how answers are not given directly, and instead of lecturing and relating facts, the materials are offered as things to be discovered through collaborative processes. So performed properly, the subject matter and facts can be learned as part of, and motivated by, the discovery process. It's not as if we don't expect either the teachers or students to learn or remember the key material, but we do espouse shifting the balance of HOW the materials are learned to a more scientific process.

If you are unsure as to how to begin applying these principles in your school or classroom, well, that is what WISE is for. We advise and support schools to help them set up laboratories where students can come in on their free time to explore, discover, and work in a mentored environment at their own pace to learn the necessary skills and tools. Each WISE lab is connected to all the others with simple video-conferencing software, and Teachers that become involved in the WISE labs gain an immediate support network where questions can be asked and frequent brainstorming sessions ensue, and where resources that describe best practices are freely available.

Stay tuned for specific examples. In the meantime, think process and discovery instead of fact and memorization. Please do post questions or suggestions to this web log or email them to me at, because we really do want to hear from you!