Science, creativity, & literature

October 20, 2012

The nature of science is often misrepresented as dull, straightforward, & overly empirical. Such a view misses important aspects of creativity & intuition in science. Below is an abstract to a recent paper where the author uses insights from Edgar Allen Poe to illuminate the creative side of science. Now the question is, “how do we illuminate these aspects of science for our students?”

Edgar Allan Poe’s standing as a literary figure, who drew on (and sometimes dabbled in) the scientific debates of his time, makes him an intriguing character for any exploration of the historical interrelationship between science, literature and philosophy. His sprawling ‘prose-poem’ Eureka (1848), in particular, has sometimes been scrutinized for anticipations of later scientific developments. By contrast, the present paper argues that it should be understood as a contribution to the raging debates about scientific methodology at the time. This methodological interest, which is echoed in Poe’s ‘tales of ratiocination’, gives rise to a proposed new mode of—broadly abductive—inference, which Poe attributes to the hybrid figure of the ‘poet-mathematician’. Without creative imagination and intuition, Science would necessarily remain incomplete, even by its own standards. This concern with imaginative (abductive) inference ties in nicely with his coherentism, which grants pride of place to the twin virtues of Simplicity and Consistency, which must constrain imagination lest it degenerate into mere fancy.

More than Standards

June 22, 2011

So I’m working on a research project in which I compare two groups of students understanding of the “nature of science” (how science works, philosophy of science, etc) (NOS for short). The difference between the two groups was the level of assessment. In the first group, informal assessment was used for NOS exclusively. That is, the assessment was in the form of questions in class to inform immediate teaching decisions. In the second group, the informal assessment still happened, but with the addition of formal assessment. The formal assessment was based on a NOS standard as part of the course standards. The second group outperformed the first.* But wait, there’s more!

The second group was not simply SBG. The assessment used with the second group is best characterized as “continual, reflective, & explicit” assessment. Continual, because the standard was revisited in assessments throughout the semester. Reflective, because students were expected to reflect on their own learning via self-assessment. Explicit, because one of the course standards was about the NOS.

Had the assessment change only been to make the assessment “explicit” via standards, I am confident the second group would not have outperformed the first group as clearly as they did. So, as you consider how to make your assessment more explicit with standards, don’t forget about the continual & reflective components of assessment for learning.

*there is a plethora of research to help explain this result, but this is not the time or place. If you’re really interested try searching for a paper with “beyond cold conceptual change” in the title by Pintrich, Marx & Boyle ca. 1993. They talk about how goals, motivation, self efficacy & control play a role in student learning. I think it’s easy to see how the second group’s assessment better supports those constructs.

A pedagogy of learning

September 15, 2010

My area of expertise is science education and I dabble in learning theory.  I subscribe to a “hot” conceptual change model (Pintrich et al. 1993) in which students conceptual frameworks, developmental levels, motivation, goals, stress, learning dispositions and attribution all affect learning.  These conceptual ecologies (Southerland et al., 2006) are difficult to understand and even more difficult to modify (read: TEACHING IS HARD!!!).

One lesson from the area of science education is the power of implicit messages (Clough & Olson, 2004).  One goal of science education is to teach students about how science works.  Unfortunately, when teachers focus on “right” answers and step-by-step laboratory experiences, students get the implicit message that science is simply a set of facts or that science does not require much creativity.  Although teachers don’t mean to send this message, they do.

Now consider the implicit messages we send students about “learning” itself.  The medium (teaching) is truly the message (learning).  Our actions as teachers send messages to students about what it means to learn, whether we want to or not.  When we focus on “right” answers, declarative knowledge, and accurately following directions, students are likely to walk away with very simplistic views of learning (i.e.: memorization).  These simplistic views of learning do not likely aid in students becoming more autonomous learners.  Instead my experience is that students with simplistic views of learning desire more structure and hand-holding rather than being willing to engage in more meaningful learning.  These students’ dispositions toward learning can actually cause them to reject the methods of teachers who are working toward education reform.  When teachers pose questions rather than give answers, students with simplistic learning dispositions seem to think the teacher is not doing their job.

If we want students to have more robust dispositions toward learning and view learning as a continual, effort-filled, and rewarding, we must consider the implicit messages we are sending out students.  What things have you seen teachers do (or you yourself have done), that might promote undesirable views of learning in students?  What things have you seen, or done that promote more desirable views of learning?


Clough, M.P. & Olson, J.K. (2004). The Nature of Science: Always Part of the Science Story, The Science Teacher, 71(9), 28-31.

Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational Research, 63, 167 – 199.

Southerland, S.A., Johnston, A., Sowell, S. (2006).  Describing Teachers’ Conceptual Ecologies for the Nature of Science. Science Education, 90, 874-906.

Philosophy vs. Research

December 7, 2008

This post is reaction to people constantly saying “it’s research-based” and expecting me and others to blindly follow whatever strategy they are promoting.  Unfortunately, nearly any claim one wants to make can be supported empirically.  Therefore, I believe it is more important to consider our own and the researchers’ philosophies as well as their data.

One reason to consider a researcher’s philosophy is that research data will be interpreted in light of their educational philosophy.  If a researcher or teacher believe a good lesson is one where students aquire information, they will interpret the effectiveness of strategies accordingly.  Similarly, if a teacher or researcher believes an effective lesson is one where students are not disruptive and are sitting quietly listening to the teacher, they will not likely believe any of my lessons are effective.  While these cases might seem extreme, and we hope that teachers and education researchers would not simplify education to such a degree, the examples serve to illustrate the point that what we believe to be effective will affect how we view data on classrooms.  Essentially, research is made sense of based on what someone believes to be true – this applies to the natural sciences as well as the social sciences – research is not objective.  These connections between philosophy and research go on, even the kinds of questions asked by researchers are affected by their philosophies – the philosophy provides direction to the research.

The phrase “research-based” is too often thrown around to support ideas – yet most of the research being cited is in book form and has not undergone peer review. (ie: Marzano, Gardner, Payne, brain-based learning, etc).  These are all secondary sources and cite primary sources, but within their own framework of thinking.  Oftentimes, primary sources are cited out of context and quotes are plucked out in isolation to support the secondary source author’s philosophy.  Of course, I am not suggesting that we as teachers ought to be going out reading primary sources only.  My point is that we need to realize all research (primary and secondary) is philosophy-laden.  Instead of promoting ideas simply because they are “research-based”, we ought to be able to articulate how the strategy promotes our goals for students and fits into our own well-developed philosophies.

Lastly, I’ll note that instead of holding up researchers as “the” authorities, we ought to realize the importance of educational philosophers (my personal favorite is John Dewey).  Too often philosophers are dismissed because of a lack of empirical evidence.  Yet, without philosophers, education research would have no direction and new ideas would not be possible.  New ideas do not come from data, they come from the act of thinking (philosophizing).

Of course, this doesn’t mean education research has no validity.  We need to try to understand how the various research studies can be fit together.  More use can be made out of the whole than the individual parts.  Unfortunately, this task is indefinitely difficult.  Yet, working to make sense of the vast amounts of research can help us develop a well-founded philosophy of teaching that can guide our classroom decisions.

So instead of asking, “is it research-based?’ perhaps we ought to ask, “how does this fit with my philosophy of teaching?”


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