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Nature Agrees: Science Students Should “Actively Grapple with Questions” Not Just “Listen to Answers”


Discovery Institute has long promoted critical thinking in the science classroom, noting that it is remarkably scarce in the way evolution is taught. Despite media opposition to academic freedom laws, active engagement, asking questions, and thinking analytically have been demonstrated to promote student understanding and success.

That insight has now been confirmed by no less a source than Nature, the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, in collaboration with Scientific American. The two journals got together to produce an issue on the theme, showing that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) instruction is due for reform. They note, “[S]tudents gain a much deeper understanding of science when they actively grapple with questions than when they passively listen to answers.”

In the cover package, “Building the 21st Century Scientist: Why Science Education is More Important than Ever,” Nature emphasizes research demonstrating that active engagement increases student understanding and success in STEM classes. They highlight various types of interactive instruction, and present strategies for teachers to improve their instructional methods and institutions to incentivize change.

What Is Active Learning?

Jay Labov, a senior education advisor from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, describes active engagement as “learning content not as something you memorize and regurgitate, but as raw material for making connections, drawing inferences, creating new information — learning how to learn.”

Unfortunately, this is not the norm for science classes. Jonathan Osborne wrote in 2010 in the journal Science:

Typically, in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised. Consequently, science can appear to its students as a monolith of facts, an authoritative discourse where the discursive exploration of ideas, their implications, and their importance is absent (7). Students then emerge with na�ve ideas or misconceptions about the nature of science itself — a state of affairs that exists even though the National Research Council; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and a large body of research, major aspects of which are presented here, all emphasize the value of argumentation for learning science (8-10).

Active learning can take many forms, but it generally repudiates traditional lecture-style teaching. Neuroscientist Sarah Leupen, for example, doesn’t ask her physiology class to name the sensory nerves in the leg. Instead, says Nature, she poses the following question to the students:

You’re innocently walking down the street when aliens zap away the sensory neurons in your legs. What happens?

  1. Your walking movements show no significant change.

  2. You can no longer walk.

  3. You can walk, but the pace changes.

  4. You can walk, but clumsily.

“We usually get lots of vigorous debate on this one,” Leupen said.

For curious readers, the answer is d.

And there are many other classroom strategies for fostering scientific inquiry. Nature highlights Little Scientists’ House, a program developed in Germany for children between three and six years old, but spreading worldwide. At Little Scientists’ House, students learn to ask questions about the world around them and look for answers by simple observation and experimentation.

In one exercise, students guessed whether more water could accumulate on the head of a euro coin or other currency. One student thought that the smaller coin, which was worth more money, would hold more water — and the class proceeded to try out his idea. “In the end, the children could not come to a definitive answer, but that is OK, says [kindergarten teacher Christina] Jeuthe. The point is to spark questions, and a conviction that they can be explored rationally.”

On the college level, the University of Richmond in Virginia has begun offering introductory, interdisciplinary science courses that explore real science questions such as “antibiotic resistance and cells’ response to heat.” Outside of the traditional classroom setting, active learning can encompass activities from involving high school students in real scientific research projects to materials-based outdoor exploration.

What about Evolution?

Eugenie Scott, former executive director of the National Center for Science Education, has said, “There are no weaknesses in the theory of evolution.” No matter what your stance is on evolution, however, treating scientific theories as unquestionable fact doesn’t make sense.

At Discovery Institute, we recommend teaching both the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory. Students should not only hear about similarities in DNA sequences between species and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, but also grapple with the Cambrian explosion and the intricacies of the cell.

We put it this way in our Educator’s Briefing Packet:

What Is a Suggested Plan for Teaching a Unit on Neo-Darwinian Evolution?

Objective education means that students must be allowed to form and express their own opinions. An objective unit covering neo-Darwinian evolution might look something like this:

  • First, cover the required curriculum by teaching the material in the textbook. Ensure that students understand the scientific arguments for neo-Darwinian evolution. (1-2 weeks)

  • Next, spend a few days discussing scientific criticisms of neo-Darwinian evolution. The supplementary textbook Explore Evolution, the DVD Investigating Evolution, and the Icons of Evolution Study Guide are potential resources. Encourage students to think critically. (2-3 days)

  • Finally, consider allowing students to spend a couple days wrestling with the data and forming their own opinions. This could include in-class debates, or an assignment where students write a position statement on neo-Darwinian evolution. In these exercises, students may defend whatever position they wish, but must justify it using only scientific evidence and scientific arguments. (1-2 days)

Most public school curricula stop after step 1, missing out on the benefits from steps 2 and 3. Some might claim those extra steps would take too much time. But teaching the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution in an objective fashion need not take any more time than the 2-3 weeks typically spent on an evolution unit.

More importantly, any extra time taken to teach this topic objectively is not wasted — it will help students better understand the evidence, better appreciate scientific reasoning, and fulfill standards requiring critical thinking and use of the inquiry method. Finally, this approach will be welcomed by students who find this topic engages their interest in science.

Building 21st-Century Scientists

It’s high time for a change. Science education, especially at the university level, faces some hurdles. Nature says, “A study tracking 17,000 post-secondary students in the United States and Puerto Rico found that only two-fifths of those who enrolled in a STEM discipline went on to obtain a degree in the field, or were still studying for one 6 years later.” On the other hand, Nature notes that research at the University of Washington in 2014 surveyed 225 studies of teaching in STEM fields and found that active engagement decreased failure rates by one-third.

Carl Wieman, a physicist at Stanford who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in his field, began advocating for science education reform after interacting with newly graduated scientists who “had done really well as undergraduates, but couldn’t do research.” Today, along with prominent journals such as Nature, Scientific American,and Science, he promotes active engagement in the classroom.

Nature concludes its keynote editorial, “But change is essential…. In an era when more of us now work with our heads, rather than our hands, the world can no longer afford to support poor learning systems that allow too few people to achieve their goals.”

That’s right. Teaching the controversy over origins would be a step towards better overall science education. Where the approach has been adopted already, it trains students to think analytically and examine the evidence — in all scientific fields. It awakens interest in the issue of origins by inviting students to confront the research themselves. And students who succeed in courses on evolution (as well as other STEM courses) are more likely to pursue degrees in these fields. Inquiry in the classroom paves the way for inquiry in the lab.

Image: � stillkost / Dollar Photo Club.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.