How Should We Teach Science?

How Should We Teach Science?

November 20, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


I just released this video on Veritasium about two systems of thought inspired by the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” and this video is going to be based on that, so it won’t make any sense unless you’ve watched that video first, so…please go and do it. One of the things I was thinking about is why do we enjoy watching educational videos and I think my main answer is we like it when someone else’s Drew has done the thinking work for us. A great educational video allows you to leapfrog on someone else’s thinking and as was the thesis of that video, thinking is difficult it’s uncomfortable and a lot of people in the comments kind of asked why is it uncomfortable though and I think there is probably a biological reason for it. You know the brain actually uses a lot of energy and if you can minimize the sort of the deep strenuous work that it does you can actually reduce the amount of resources you expend. I made this comment towards the end of the video about watching videos that give you the sense of understanding without actually learning anything and I was wondering if anyone would pick up on that but of course they did and thought I was roasting the audience or trolling them or something. Mainly, I just wanted I guess to point out that I know that phenomenon can happen for example there are videos like the 10 dimensions video which are complete nonsense when it comes to actually explaining science and yet people watch that and they feel like they’ve had some profound insights. There are some other videos, that I’m trying to think whether I should mention, that you know have this sort of like gloss of deep thinking and yet there really isn’t deep thinking there and so I think it’s easy to trick people into thinking that there’s deep thinking. I also think it’s it’s possible to trick people into believing that they’re understanding when they’re not. You know, I did my PhD trying to study how can people learn from educational videos and what I often found was the videos that people felt they learned the most from or felt they were the clearest most concise the easiest to understand were actually the ones they learned the least from and when I looked at confidence in correct answers after watching any video I found that just watching any video increased confidence by like a step jump and you could look at the data of how much people actually learned and it and it would be quite different depending on the video but the confidence increase in the correctness of their answers was always about the same so it seemed to me like watching an educational video gives me a boost in confidence on these answers whether or not that boost in confidence is sort of justified or not and so that’s something I wanted to reflect on. I also think that sometimes as a video creator myself I’m faced with the question of do I try to explain this or do I try to present this in such a way that it’s more confusing for my audience in that I think that they will have to think harder and that will lead them to learn more or do I want to make this more clear and fun with the potential risk that they may learn less and… um, you know I’d love to say that I always make the choice to make people think harder and you know get them to learn more but the problem is I kind of have a double bottom line where you know I don’t get paid. My living does not come from people learning necessarily it also comes from just people watching my video so if I always went the route of a you know forcing people to think hard and potentially learn more but not share or enjoy the video as much then I think the channel would never have grown as much as it has. Another thing I’ve thought a lot about are constructivist approaches to teaching and that basically just means this realization that students are active builders of their knowledge that Drew has to be very active and engaged with the material in order for it to end up in long-term memory the goal of any teacher. I worry sometimes that this view of learning has been misinterpreted by some people who take it to mean that students must be active in order to learn. Yes, they need to be cognitively active Drew must be active but they don’t need to be physically active necessarily. This has also been taken a step further to say that in order to teach students science we should ask them to do science. I understand kind of where that comes from like eventually… the idea is when a student learns a lot they become a scientist so why not just make them to science from the start and I think that if you understand Gun and Drew there’s really good reasons why students of science should not be made to do science at least not in that complex of a way and not too early. The reason is this when a scientist looks at something they have this wealth of experience they have a massive library of prior knowledge which means they have an incredible set of chunks really big complicated networks of prior knowledge so looking at any particular problem or an experiment they immediately have insight it’s kind of like a chess master looking at a chessboard they look at it their perception of it is completely different from the novice’s perception of that board because they see meaning and they see structure and they immediately see strategy and they have all these tools that are built in that Gun has. It’s recognition it’s like you know seeing faces for us. We all have great recognition of faces but we don’t all have great recognition of chess boards or of scientific problems because we haven’t all spent the time investing in them so if you try to expect a student to do science right off the bat the problem is it may look like a straightforward task to the teacher the professor it doesn’t look like a straightforward task to the student and rather than using Drew’s effort carefully and wisely to focus in on a key problem the key things that the student needs to be paying attention to in order to learn it they may be sort of completely focusing on the wrong things. All the studies of novices do show that they can’t seem to pick out the salient features what do I really need to be focusing on and studying at this particular moment and that’s why the teacher is there and that is why we teach the way we do typically at least historically by not making students do science straight up. We teach them about how scientists have done science in the past we teach them rules and laws and formulas. I have this analogy because I played trumpet from the time I was in grade 7 and I did not read music. I could kind of fake as though I could read music like they would give us music and then we would play it but here’s something right you notice that when you’re teaching kids to play music you give them songs they already know because then although they had the music in front of them and although you’re teaching some sort of basic music theory they don’t really need to read the meter because they know how it’s meant to sound and they just make it sound that way and that’s what I did at least before of the year or two multiple years I didn’t really understand what 16th notes wereI didn’t really understand what the 4/4 was. It is funny to admit this right but I know that that was true that I didn’t know how to read music and I was just kind of playing and the whole point of giving students songs that they already know is that Drew doesn’t have to think through the music because Gun knows the song and so there’s no extra mental strain there but here’s what happened for me anyway after a couple of years after playing songs that I knew mostly and sort of seeing the notes go by I developed a sense of how music works and I started to be able to read music after a period of years but it’s kind of amazing if you would ask me to say sight read a piece I didn’t know when I was in, say, grade 8 or something I would have done it terribly and you might have said that the music system is failing us because you know these kids have been playing music for a year can’t even read a single you know a few bars of of sheet music this is the whole purpose of scaffolding students to these deep understandings is that they need to build up that breadth of experience with different pieces of music and just with with seeing a lot of it go by and eventually something does click and maybe it’s less hard on Drew to do it that way. I made the GPS analogy in the car but again I think there’s more subtlety there which is you know if you force yourself to figure out where to go and you don’t use a GPS I think you’ve got a much better chance of figuring out the lay of the land because you actively effortfully have to employ Drew to think about all the different turns and look for landmarks and all that sort of stuff but if you drive the same route with the GPS say 20 times chances are that over that time Drew will start to engage a little bit here and there and pick up bits and pieces and you won’t have to rely on the gps for so many turns and ultimately you might be able to turn the GPS off and Drew might be okay so i think there’s an argument about speed of learning something here where the more you scaffold the slower you learn it but that’s not to say you won’t ever learn it. *moment of realization* * Mind=Blown * So what’s the takeaway message here The takeaway message is that learning happens through Drew and that is complex and challenging it’s hard it’s hard for anyone and there are ways to reduce the strain on Drew but you don’t want to reduce the strain so much the Drew doesn’t engage at all like in a lecture and he just falls asleep or focuses on something completely irrelevant because then you’ll never get there but you also don’t want to load all of the effort on to Drew. This is really an optimization problem and I think that’s both a science and an art for teachers to figure out just the right way to give Drew enough of a help that you know he doesn’t feel overwhelmed but also not too much help so that he doesn’t engage. That is the real point of great education *mindblowing silence*