Can Scientific Reasoning Be Taught? Scientific reasoning is essential to a successful career in science. But research in the journal Science claims this skill can't be learned through memorization of facts alone. Author Lei Bao explains the findings, and how teachers can apply them in the classroom.
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Can Scientific Reasoning Be Taught?

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Can Scientific Reasoning Be Taught?

Can Scientific Reasoning Be Taught?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to Science Friday on NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. A little bit later in the hour, a conversation with one of President Obama's new science advisers, Dr. Harold Varmus. But first, a study out this week in the journal Science says, teaching kids science facts may not be the best way to get them to understand scientific reasoning, which is an essential skill if you want to succeed in a science career. That conclusion may be a bit surprising.

If you're a science teacher or you'd just like to join our conversation to talk about that, give us a call. Our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And you can Twitter us, you can send us a tweet for the "at" sign followed by scifri. Let me introduce my guest. Lei Bao is head of the Physics Education Research Group at Ohio State University in Columbus. He's also an associate professor in the physics department there, and he joins us from the campus. Welcome to Science Friday.

Dr. LEI BAO (Professor, Physics, Head, Physics Education Research Group, Ohio State University): Thank you. And it's a great pleasure to be working with you, and thank you for inviting me.

FLATOW: You're very welcome. Tell us what you did with the story - with your study. You basically compared students in the U.S. with students in China about what they knew about science?

Dr. BAO: Yes. And since U.S. and Chinese system have very different education system - in China, people - the students are educated seriously with a lot of high-level science and math courses, in case of education. The U.S. uses a more flexible course structure and - providing opportunities for student to do exploration and self-motivated investigation.

So, we would be interested to see how these education system differences actually have impact on students' learning of content and development of scientific reasoning, since both are very important to students. In this - also there's a particular thing, like there's a common belief that by educating kids with rigorous science and math course content and we can actually use - help them to develop reasoning. So, this is kind of common belief a lot of people have, even ourself.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BAO: So, we want to see if this is the case, and to determine if we can collect scientific evidence to support it.

FLATOW: And you found that just having the facts in front of you is not going to help you with scientific reasoning, is that right? Yeah?

Dr. BAO: Yeah. This new finding shows that learning science fact in the kind of education settings is not going to automatically transfer to develop scientific reasoning.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Do they teach the scientific method in China? Do they teach scientific reasoning?

Dr. BAO: Actually, they try to do, but in China, it's a totally different environment. Last year alone, there's 11 million high school graduates trying to get college. See, they have this national college admission examination, so most teachers in high school pretty much is teaching to the test. And the competition is very high. Only one in 10 students can go into some kind of a good university. So, although they realize they have to do certain kind of scientific method courses, but they are limited by this environment.

FLATOW: So, the American students did well in scientific fact? They - if you re-taught them, could you teach them how to do well in the facts? They - I mean, is that what's lacking is just the discipline there?

Dr. BAO: Yes. Actually, in college, if kids learn well and has motivation to learn, and most kids - American kids - can learn very well those facts in a couple of years, and be equal to Chinese students.

FLATOW: So, does that give them a foot up on the Chinese students? A leg up on them?

Dr. BAO: Actually, it's a complicated question, because right now, we are seeing that if kids are motivated in college and their ability is very strong, so they can learn very well. And for Chinese students, they already learn a lot of facts, but they really needs a lot of training in scientific method and being creative. Whether this ability can be later passed on, it's a question for open exploration. We don't know yet.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. You know, the big focus here in America seems to be the scientific method. Doesn't that teach scientific reasoning?

Dr. BAO: Yes. Because scientific reasoning is really addressing the learning process, so it has to be developed through the process of discovering knowledge. You cannot just give students a certain way to learn the method. They have to really do it themselves. And so, I think in the U.S. school curriculum, although it's a little weak on the content side, but the emphasis on scientific method and scientific ways of knowing is very high. So, we need to keep doing what we already are strong in and - but we can think about putting a little bit more content in it. So, I think that's what American system should do.

FLATOW: And you have been experimenting with this more interactive teaching style at OSU?

Dr. BAO: Yes.

FLATOW: Can you explain how it works a little bit? You have a little clicker, a remote control thing that you use.

Dr. BAO: Yeah. For example, in a college lecture - because still, lecturing is the most cost-effective method, we have to use it - usually, you get couple hundred students sitting in a lecture hall and the professor just talking to them, and a lot of kids will get tired and bored and just not focus on anything.

And so, we actually try to actually be - interact, so we give them a little remote controller type of thing, and we have a receiver. And so that we give them several questions during the one hour classroom session, and these are carefully designed questions, so they will trigger student into thinking different kind of ideas. Then we guide student into group discussion, and try to discover why they actually answer wrong or why they answered it correctly and what other ideas can be explored. And so, this would kind of create a mini-inquiry little session within the lecture system.

FLATOW: Yes.

Dr. BAO: And by just doing this a few minutes of lecture, we actually are seeing about 10, 15 percent gain on student learning in college physics.

FLATOW: Wow. So, you break the students up into small groups...

Dr. BAO: Yeah.

FLATOW: And they discuss what's going on, and then you circulate around the groups and give them a little...

Dr. BAO: Yeah, this...

FLATOW: Quiz as they're doing the stuff?

Dr. BAO: No, they use the remote controller just to beep their answer back right into the computer, and then you display the answer in real time, so they can see it - their own answers on the screen, so they get very motivated and very excited.

FLATOW: And I guess kids grow up with this kind of interaction now, and they must expect it and like it in college.

Dr. BAO: Oh, yeah, definitely. Kids are very good at these little gadgets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BAO: If you don't give them, they really feel bored.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I mean, maybe we do have to develop these new kinds of things for kids that are growing up in a new world.

Dr. BAO: Yeah, definitely, because now they have cell phone.

FLATOW: You just can't sit them in a classroom anymore and have them be happy.

Dr. BAO: Yeah, definitely. Better to give them a Xbox or something to play with physics or whatever (Laughing). Then they'll get them learning.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. And do we need to retrain the teachers then to be better kinds of teachers?

Dr. BAO: Yeah, definitely. And the most important thing is that teacher need to think about a different perspective, because they need to learn a totally new way of thinking today's kids and teaching them. So, basically this study is trying to help them to realize that. And - because there is really a common belief that by just training student with content, they can actually develop reasoning.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a call in here. Chris in Baldwinsville, New York. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. How are you? Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

CHRIS: I'm a technology teacher in New York state, and we've been teaching the project with WAVE curriculum, and it's helping out students that are going into engineering. It's basically pretty much - it's the open-ended. It's college-level curriculum, but it's open-ended and you're giving kids problems to solve in - that they - and you're teaching students how to solve problems, not so much the vocabulary that goes with it, but that goes along with it. And I think we need to move that way in the sciences as well.

FLATOW: You don't find them deficient in their knowledge of the facts and it doesn't matter.

CHRIS: Well, if you apply - if the kids are applying it - for instance, we'll do a project with - in computer-integrated manufacturing with CNC machines, and if the kids need to do geometry to come up with a solution, then they do it because they have a need to, not because, here's geometry. Learn it because you're going to need it.

FLATOW: Right. No one ever needs an upstream-downstream problem, do they?

CHRIS: No, and also, the project, with the way it works out, there's intensive training for teachers because teachers really need to understand how to teach. It's like your other guest has said, it's a totally different methodology of teaching when you're trying to teach applied items, such as - like you were saying - like science and the scientific method. You can teach kids the scientific method through a lecture, but for them to really understand it, I think they need to actually use that scientific method and use it successfully.

FLATOW: All right, Chris, thanks for calling. Lao, what do you think of that?

Dr. BAO: Yeah, this is really in the right direction, because in physics we're actually experimenting for a long time. This inquiry-based education, it basically asks students to think about a scenario, explore the situation, design your experiment. So, everything is open to them, and so in this way actually, the kids learn quantum much better because each quantum piece is actually connected - well-connected to other things they have learned.

And also, they know how to apply them, and it makes it more meaningful for them. And the methodology gained through doing this hands-on and the group-learning environment kind of experience will really carrying them out into future, because basically, there's no text book teach you how to exactly build the future. You have to be really to build it yourself. And this kind of methodology thing is really, really important.

FLATOW: But you wouldn't throw out the factual teaching, like the kind they do in China?

Dr. BAO: No, no, I wouldn't, but I would say, just as I repeat, it's like we want the fact learned in a way so that it become an integral part of your knowledge system and can support your reasoning application. And if you have the ability - and most people can gain certain knowledge quickly, and they have motivation to do so - and so, I think we need to come a balanced method, like educating both content and the scientific method. So, this is actually the big question that we have to invest into research.

FLATOW: And what would you - exactly would you be looking at in your next research?

Dr. BAO: The next research, we're actually looking at how inquiry-based learning will help people learn both content and reasoning, and we try to find the most optimal system try to help a student learn. It's like try to create the perfect classroom, although we don't know if it exist or...

FLATOW: Do you think you can teach people that? Can you teach them how to learn?

Dr. BAO: I think so. At least, we can improve our education setting, so that kids can gain both content knowledge and also develop a good reasoning skills.

FLATOW: And you'd have to integrate this into the teaching system, hopefully for new teachers to pick up on something.

Dr. BAO: Oh, yeah, definitely. And the teacher preparation is a key to that thing.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's a whole system, and hopefully there'll be some (Laughing) money to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, you know, we always boil down to money here, especially in the economy we're in now, right?

Dr. BAO: Yeah, but actually, if you look at this - the new economy - you should think education is actually the primary, most important industry we should invest into, because it creates most green and sustainable intellectual resources that we can use forever.

FLATOW: And there you go, that's the message, and we'll see where that heads in this new economy.

Dr. BAO: (Laughing) Hopefully.

FLATOW: Thank you, doctor, for taking time to be with us.

Dr. BAO: Well, thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Lei Bao is head of the Physics Education Research Group at the Ohio State University in Columbus, also professor in the physics department there. We're going to take a short break and come back and have Harold Varmus join us to talk about "The Art and Politics of Science." He's done it all. So, he's going to tell us about how he managed over 50 years to still stay sane with all the science and politics (Laughing) that's going on around him. Stay with us, we'll be right back.

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