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Science Education and the Growth Mindset

Sarah Chaffee

Lately, I’ve been very interested in learning more about teaching and learning. I’ve been involved in coaching public speaking and debate for nearly a decade, and taught ESL classes off and on, and have recently come to realize that I am an educator. I had a professor in college who told us that if we were going to read one book on a subject, we might as well read ten…we’d learn a lot more and if we just kept going, before we knew it all ten would be finished. Well, often I don’t do that, but recently I’ve been raiding the Education section at several branches of the local library system…learning about teaching reading, differentiated learning for gifted students, controversies over giving homework, and much more. 

One gem I came across was Mary Cay Ricci’s Mindsets in the Classroom. And it clicked with my work at Discovery. 

The Growth Mindset

In learning about what Ricci and others call the “growth mindset,” I was reminded that the way to teach critical thinking in science is to have students engage with the content like scientists.

Growth mindset is an idea popularized by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. She contrasts the idea of a growth mindset — that we can become smarter as we work hard and our brains make new connections — to the notion of a fixed mindset — that we have whatever talents we were born with, or that our growth is limited. Here is a helpful video from Dweck on growth mindset, speaking for Khan Academy. 

Mary Cay Ricci’s book takes Dweck’s concept and gives teachers concrete nuts and bolts for how to teach growth mindset in the classroom.

Nuts and Bolts

I found her section on critical thinking striking. She notes:  

Another important factor to consider about critical thinking is that it is not a simple skill (Willingham, 2008). According to Willingham (2008), critical thinking is a process that must be infused with content; it is not something that you can just check off a list once it is mastered. Why? Well, one reason is that the content being focused on and the complexity of thinking critically becomes more sophisticated over time — it is always evolving. The practice component applied to the content knowledge is essential to develop learners who can apply critical thinking when they need to. Hand in hand with practice is persistence and effort, probably the two most important attributes of having a growth mindset! 

If you embrace Willingham’s argument that critical thinking is not a bunch of isolated skills, then you too (like me) may become annoyed by the amount of resources on the market that advertise ways to build critical thinking “skills.” Due in part to the way critical thinking is framed in these resources, the concept of accepting critical thinking as a process embedded in content rather than a set of skills can require a major shift in thinking.

As an aside, note her use of the word “evolution” — to signify things becoming more complex over time! That’s not how evolutionists use the term. But never mind that. Ricci sees critical thinking as an essential component of the growth mindset — it is key to practicing new learning. 

Critical Thinking in Science

When applied to the subject of science, critical thinking as defined here becomes synonymous with scientific inquiry. “Critical thinking is a process that must be infused with content….the content being focused on and the complexity of thinking critically becomes more sophisticated over time…” And it is true that one cannot teach critical thinking skills in isolation. There must be a content area to analyze, and the critical thinking skills for one content area are not the same as critical thinking skills for another content area. In science, critical thinking is scientific inquiry — observing, coming up with hypotheses, experimenting, recording data, drawing conclusions, etc. 

One of the world’s foremost science publications, the journal Nature, has noted: “[S]tudents gain a much deeper understanding of science when they actively grapple with questions than when they passively listen to answers.” 

Also in Nature, Jay Labov, senior education advisor from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, commented that he sees 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.”

Teaching evolution well means educating in relevant aspects of scientific inquiry — critical thinking — too. This means, in short, exposing students to current scientific inquiries in the field — the relevant, recent research. 

Scientists, Too, Learn and Change

This is from Denis Noble, Professor Emeritus and co-Director of Cardiovascular Physiology at Oxford University, and Fellow of the Royal Society, writing in the journal Experimental Physiology. He describes scientists as they learn and change their views in response to evidence. 

The ‘Modern Synthesis’ (Neo‐Darwinism) is a mid‐20th century gene‐centric view of evolution, based on random mutations accumulating to produce gradual change through natural selection. Any role of physiological function in influencing genetic inheritance was excluded. The organism became a mere carrier of the real objects of selection, its genes. We now know that genetic change is far from random and often not gradual. Molecular genetics and genome sequencing have deconstructed this unnecessarily restrictive view of evolution in a way that reintroduces physiological function and interactions with the environment as factors influencing the speed and nature of inherited change. Acquired characteristics can be inherited, and in a few but growing number of cases that inheritance has now been shown to be robust for many generations. The 21st century can look forward to a new synthesis that will reintegrate physiology with evolutionary biology. [Emphasis added.]

As I said earlier, the way to teach critical thinking in science is to have students engage with the content like scientists. What could be better than exposing them to current scientific debates and asking them to examine the evidence for themselves?

What would this kind of activity foster? I can easily see it planting questions in students’ minds that may blossom into full-fledged scientific inquiries. The leap is not great between enjoying science in high school and trying out science classes as a freshman or sophomore in college, and onward to graduating with a STEM degree and beginning a graduate program or one’s first job in industry. For fostering future scientists, physicians, and engineers, inspiration and a growth mindset are the key.

Photo credit: Chetan Menaria on Unsplash.