Thinking Like A Scientist

Why I don’t teach the scientific method and what I do instead!

While there are tons of teachers out there teaching the traditional scientific method, it does not define science. This was a controversy I faced in my early years of teaching. Nearly all beginning of the year units and textbook companies emphasize this in their first units. Why the controversy, well science is NOT a set process, nor does it have all the components of the scientific method in many many cases. 

I worked as a field scientist before I became a teacher and brought this experience to my students immediately, which is why I am an inquiry based teacher. I rarely lecture, rather give direct instruction as needed and don’t want students to think that there is only ONE way to do science. This is a big misconception that teaching the scientific method brings to the classroom.

So what do I do instead? I begin my year helping students learn how to think like a scientist. I emphasize that science is generating ideas and solving problems. My favorite quote that I read in an article (sorry I don’t remember the name of the article) is: “Science is trying new ideas, discarding those that don’t work, and building on those that do. In science one must search for ideas. If there are no ideas, there is no science.” This is what I lay as the foundation for science  in my class. And I go out of my way to provide multiple opportunities for this way of thinking in various lessons and activities.

So over the first weeks of school we do activities that help us learn what it means to be a scientist and the skills that we put forth to reach the essence of this quote. So my students do learn how to make observations, how to design and experiment, etc. But they learn that science is ever changing and the skills that are needed to think like a scientist is not a linear set process and that you choose the skills needed for the problem you are trying to solve or the discovery you are trying to make. I still build the vocabulary of what the parts of the scientific method are, but I don’t call it that. I actually show them and then break down the barriers of this being the method of science. 

We discuss the types of questions/problems different scientists might be investigating. We explore what it means to make observational studies, research studies, the use of models and demonstrations and experimental studies. 

  • Observational studies are those where your key method is through observations. This can be like Jane Goodall’s observation of using tools in chimpanzees, or an ornithologist who is examining mating rituals in birds of paradise. The key component is observations that lead to conclusions. 
  • Research Studies: this usually involves an in- depth research on multiple studies within a topic to draw conclusions from correlations. This may lead to an investigation. Oftentimes scientists in their field may make connections between their work and others and realize that their combined ideas are helping answer their questions. 
  • Models/Demonstration studies are those where you take what you are learning through observation and/or research and create a model. A great example of this could be taking shark feeding behavior and breaking it down into steps so swimmers can identify the steps to avoid a shark attack. Or it can be creating a way to explain how rock layers were formed. These observations led to models we use and continue to create. 
  • Experimental Studies are those where scientists design an investigation to test specific variables either in the lab or in a field. Often they employ the skills of the scientific method to think through their process. 

All of these methods are incredibly important to learning and discovery. So I don’t want to limit a student’s possibility and/or curiosity. Rather employ them with the scientific thinking skills to generate ideas and design ways to further investigate our world.

So if you do still teach the scientific method, I strongly urge you to break down the barriers of this and make sure that students recognize that these are components of science for the right type of investigation, but they are not static and not used in many fields of science. Rather they can help communicate with other scientists when conducting and “experiment” and can be formatted in this way. So as you think more about “real world” science, teach students to think scientifically and not be bound by the construct of the scientific method. 

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