Thomas H. Illman, M.Sc.
Vasa Övningsskola, Åbo Akademi University, Finland
In his reply to this author's criticism of the "constructivist" paradigm, Roth (1998) passionately refuses to "make categorizations easy by providing labels for himself" in order facilitate a "conversation in which we can communicate, come to share, what we and our ideas are about". With or without labels, what some ideas are about may be difficult to grasp for the average science teacher - e.g. the assertion that '["constructivists"] do not deny the existence of a material world ' remains somewhat mysterious bearing in mind Roth's (1998, lines 20-22) explanation that
"[The semiotic] triangle then brings to relief the relation between the knower, knowledge and the world. After birth, humans therefore construct not only the world but also knowledge about the world. These two constructions are different, but are interrelated. I conceptualize these differences in terms of the metaphor of map and territories and the relation between maps and territories."
An "objectivist" response to this could be that we may in some sense construct knowledge of the world, but that the world was there even before our birth and that mapmakers construct various maps for various purposes, but not the territories the maps depict.
The philosophical conflict that has surfaced in today's science education community has long raditions. In ancient times, Gorgias (483-378 BC) claimed that (a) Nothing exists; (b) If anything existed, it could not be known; (c) If anything did exist, and could be known, it could not be communicated. More recently John Dewey, most famous for recommending "learning-by-doing", emphatically "rejects the idea that there exists an 'external permanency' upon 'which our thinking has no effect', which becomes the content of'eventual knowledge' and provides the ultimate test of a belief". In contrast to this type of pragmatism, "Peirce [believed], that given enough time, inquiry will inevitably come to "the one True conclusion" about any given situation or set of facts". Later he modified this epistemological stance to one where, like Ausubel or today's modest realists, perfect certitude or exactitude is viewed as an unrealistic goal (Cunningham 19, lines 21-23).
Though the philosophical basis for science education is likely to be an interesting field in the 21st century (whatever, if any, labels will be used in the discourse) we also need to provide the practising teacher with some ideas for the daily work. Below are some suggestions for making experimental work more faithful to the scientific method - for those who believe that one exists.
Suggested reforms of experimental work in school science
a)Local, national and international student cooperation
Scientific research is not a one man or woman enterprise, but rather a collective effort in which cooperation between members of local research teams as well as with national and international partners is essential. Regrettably, traditional cooperative learning upholds a rigid rule according to which face to face interaction with verbal interchange between students is required Students should be sitting close together so that each student can see all the other members of the group and be heard without needing to shout (Johnson & Johnson 1987, pp.12-13). There are today other means of long-distance communication than shouting, such as electronic mail. If the students do not have own email accounts, the communication with peers in another city or country doing the same or similar experiments can temporarily be done with conventional air mail letters. The only limitations here are the language barriers and even they may not be a permanent road block if science education is integrated with foreign language education.
b)From lab reports to local scientific journals
The experimental work of the students often results in a report resembling the articles reporting new research results written by professional scientists. There is, however, one major difference between scientists and students : the former not only write reports of their own research, they also study reports written by their physically present or absent colleagues in a growing number of journals. The students reports, after possible grading and examination, play according to this authors experience of current practice in Finnish schools and universities no educational role. In order to make the students learning process more similar to adults professional research, copies of the reports could be stored in the laboratory or in the school library, forming a local version of a learned journal. The storage technology can be anything from ordinary photocopies to hard disks of lab computers and, if possible, electronic publishing on the schools website. When a sufficient number of volumes of the journal is available, a new type of assignment can be given: a meta-study of experimental results produced by earlier students, which now are older but possibly present in the school community and available for lectures to younger peers and/or informal discussions. It goes without saying that the students should be encouraged to meticulously document "anomalous" results rather focus on producing "correct" ones.
c)Replication of experiments
If we assume that the main purpose of experimental work in science
education is not to entertain the students but to give them an insight into scientific
research methods, one more change of widespread current teaching practice is necessary.
Scientific knowledge is based on experimental results that can be replicated but how
often is this done to a school experiment? Implementing this change does not require any
new resources, only that one or some (randomly chosen) of the experiments of a lab course
are done at least twice. Though the element of surprise may be gone, and the work
considered boring by some students, it is necessary if education is to faithfully
reflect scientific practice. It may also have some positive affective aspects : students
who felt confused and frustrated by lack of time the first time the experiment was
conducted, may experience a sense of comfortable familiarity with the equipment and the
methods the second time.
The changes is teaching practice suggested above should be possible
to implement by most teachers and will be further facilitated by the growing amount of
information technology in the science laboratory, but they do pose some problems to
mainstream contemporary educational theory. Allocating time to handle long-distance
communication and studies of lab report archives and to replicating experiments is likely
to result in a reduction of the number of different experiments actually done. Some
concepts that earlier have been taught in an experimental way will have to be omitted or
(preferably) dealt with in another fashion. If one takes a view of knowledge and learning
that does not allow any role for the transmission of theoretic knowledge, even by
Ausubelian meaningful reception learning, this is a serious problem. But for those who,
like Austin (1998, 114), take the position that "while the investigative approach is
a useful strategy it must be used with care if misconceptions (or scientifically wrong
ideas) are not encouraged by the process" and are willing to admit that there are
things that - for various practical reasons - can only be learned by direct
transmission from the teacher, from a book or from another similar source these changes
may be a way to not only give our students some familiarity with the content of the
scientific world view, but also some authentic personal experience of how it is arrived
Austin, L. (1998) : Choosing concepts for investigation. Physics Education 33, (2), 114-119
Cunningham, C.A. (19) : Really Living in Space-time. Philosophy
of Education Society Yearbook 19 [Online]. Available:
http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/EPS/PES-Yearbook/_docs/cunningham.html [1998, June]
Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (1987). Learning together & alone: Cooperative, competitive, & individualistic learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice-Hall
Roth, W-M. (1998) : Battling Windmills and Strawpersons: A reply to
Illman. [Online] Electronic Journal of Science Education 2(3).
Available: [http://unr.edu/homepage/jcannon/ejse/roth.html [1998, June]
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