National Geographic

Teaching scientific knowledge doesn’t improve scientific reasoning

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOn Tuesday, I wrote a short essay on the rightful place of science in our society. As part of it, I argued that scientific knowledge is distinct from the scientific method – the latter gives people the tools with which to acquire the former. I also briefly argued that modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method. It is so blindsided by checklists of facts that it fails to instil the inquisitiveness, scepticism, critical thinking and respect for evidence that good science entails. Simply inhaling pieces of information won’t get the job done.

This assertion is beautifully supported by a simple new study that compared the performance of physics students in the USA and China. It was led by Lei Bao from Ohio State University who wanted to see if a student’s scientific reasoning skills were affected by their degree of scientific knowledge. Does filling young heads with facts and figures lead to a matching growth in their critical faculties?

Fortunately for Bao and his team of international researchers, a ready-made natural experiment had already been set up for them, in the education systems of China and the US. Both countries have very different science curricula leading to different levels of knowledge, but neither one explicitly teaches scientific reasoning in its schools. If greater knowledge leads to sharper reasoning, students from one country should have the edge in both areas. But that wasn’t the case.

In China, all students work to the same standard courses until the 12th grade (Year 13 in the UK). For physics, those run for five years, starting at the 8th grade. The curriculum is heavy on both algebra, conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills. In the US, physics education is more varied. It’s covered in general science courses, but only one in three students take it up as a subject in its own right, and even then, just for two years.

It should come as no surprise that test scores reflect these differences. Using two standard physics tests – one on mechanics and one on electricity and magnetism – Bao tested the knowledge of 5,760 freshmen. Each was about to start a physics degree at one of four American and three Chinese middle-ranking universities.

In both tests, the Chinese students outperformed their American rivals. On the mechanics test, the average Chinese score of 86% easily trounced the American average of 49%. On the electromagnetism test, the Americans scored an average of 27% (barely better than chance) while the Chinese still averaged a respectable 66%. The Chinese students were also less varied in their scores, as you might expect of a nation that has a uniform curriculum. In contrast, the greater variability of American education led to a much wider range of results.

So the Chinese students clearly have the edge in terms of scientific knowledge. But in terms of scientific reasoning, students from both countries performed almost identically.  Bao also asked them to sit Lawson’s Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning – another standard test, but one designed to examine basic scientific skills. It doesn’t require much knowledge, but instead probes for skills like wielding deductive and inductive logic, controlling different variables and testing hypotheses.

Faced with these questions, the average scores of the American and Chinese students were practically identical (74.7% and 74.2% respectively), as were their distributions. These striking similarities suggest that students from both countries share matching scientific reasoning skills, despite their vastly different educational systems.

To Bao, it’s further evidence that modern science education “emphasizes factual recall over deep understanding of science reasoning”. Even if this fact-focused system is realised in a rigorous way over many years, as it is in China, it still doesn’t lead to vastly better scientific reasoning skills. And while Bao’s study only looked at physics but there’s reason to believe that the same would apply for other scientific disciplines. After all, both countries have similar differences in the way they teach biology and chemistry.

Now, you might argue that the fact that both sets of students still achieved respectable scores in the reasoning tests proves otherwise – surely if their education was bad at instilling reasoning skills, the average scores would be much lower? Well for a start, you might expect that the sample group – students who were already starting a university physics course – would have a natural edge in reasoning skills anyway.

But Bao also points out, “Their reasoning ability was developed through both formal education (or school education) and informal education (learning in real life).” His data show that different standards of education, leading to different levels of knowledge, don’t translate into different aptitudes for reasoning.

So if it what we teach doesn’t lead to better reasoning skills, perhaps it is how we teach it. That’s an idea Bao subscribes to. He advocates more “inquiry-based learning“, where teachers encourage students to discover things for themselves, acting more as a facilitator that guides the class rather than a vessel that pours knowledge into it. Obviously, this shouldn’t be introduced to the exclusion of knuckling down and cramming some basic facts in, but the two approaches should complement each other. If this concluding chapter feels a bit rushed, it’s because I freely admit that I have no experience in the educational sector – I’m more interested to hear the opinions of readers who are.

Reference: L. Bao, T. Cai, K. Koenig, K. Fang, J. Han, J. Wang, Q. Liu, L. Ding, L. Cui, Y. Luo, Y. Wang, L. Li, N. Wu (2009). PHYSICS: Learning and Scientific Reasoning Science, 323 (5914), 586-587 DOI: 10.1126/science.1167740

More on education: When learning maths, abstract symbols work better than real-world examples

Image: Graphs from Science; classroom by P.Morgan

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There are 45 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. rob
    January 30, 2009

    Interesting study, but it seems incomplete. Perhaps this simply argues that reasoning ability is more innate and/or can not be taught.
    To properly advocate for ‘inquiry-based learning’, it must be demonstrated that after such instruction the students perform better on the reasoning test. Hopefully that’s where this work is headed.
    BTW I also have little experience in education.

  2. Ed Yong
    January 30, 2009

    Actually they did a little pilot study to test that using American students. It’s in the supplementary materials for the paper, and they show that inquiry-based teaching can improve reasoning scores. BUT… it’s a very preliminary study, which is why I didn’t write about it.
    Bao et al. do acknowledge that this is the next step though, so you’re right about that, Rob.

  3. Becca
    January 30, 2009

    I wonder if this means the researchers did a very good job controlling for the caliber of students in the two groups of universities- or if scientific reasoning skills are basically uniform across educational institutions.

  4. Markk
    January 30, 2009

    Inquiry based learning sounds interesting, but will it run into a “depth” problem? To do cutting edge research, for example, one needs to have ok reasoning skills, but actually MUST have a certain base of knowledge in the field. Can a person still get that in the productive years of their life in the right sequence, if they are learning better reasoning skills? In other words are better reasoning skills that important or are ok ones good enough?

  5. Joshua Zelinsky
    January 30, 2009

    I’m not sure I’m convinced by this summary of the data. I haven’t had time to look at the study in detail but I worry about drawing this strong a conclusion when there are only two countries in question. The Lawson test especially should be done with students from other countries.

  6. Theodore Brown
    January 30, 2009

    This is a very interesting post. I taught chemistry at the university level for many years, have authored or co-authored several chemistry texts, and mentored nearly 100 graduate students working on their Ph.D. dissertations. From that experience I’ve concluded pretty much what Bao’s study illustrates: simply having subject matter knowledge does not by itself produce a capacity to employ inductive and deductive skills imaginatively to solve problems.
    But such skills can be learned. The best learning environment is one in which the student works with real problems, perhaps in a laboratory environment or -if the research is computational or theoretical – with real data and problem situations. Students learn how to make their way through problems by adopting methods already developed by others, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out many years ago, and by developing a store of tacit knowledge that comes from real hands-on experience, as described by Michael Polanyi in his classic book, Personal Knowledge.
    I’ve seen many examples during my career of students who possessed great skills in learning materials and solving standard problems, but who somehow lacked a capacity to formulate approaches to solving new problems, or for that matter to sense the difference between important problems and ones that, even though difficult, aren’t all that worth working on. Creative imagination is an elusive ingredient. Yes, it rests on having knowledge, but that is not sufficient in itself.

  7. Rana
    January 30, 2009

    A slightly different perspective, not from a teacher, but from someone “in business”. The primary quality that I was looking for from job candidates was precisely this “scientific reasoning” to which you refer, the ability to look at problems and analyse them properly, reductionism and insight in their purest sense.
    I am well acquainted with UK secondary school science teaching materials too, and am fairly impressed with the way that some of the questions try to test these attributes, but there is still a lot of rote learning required, much in my view unnecessary in the age of the internet.
    Again though, those scientific reasoning skills are absolutely required in the business world, and it is shocking just how many candidates fail to demonstrate them.

  8. Lilian Nattel
    January 30, 2009

    That is an interesting study. I wonder though how much scientific reasoning can be taught. I know that my husband and friends who are academics despair of teaching critical reasoning though they try every method they can get their hands on. Knowledge can be taught, but maybe reasoning is not a universal talent.

  9. Anne KG Murphy
    January 30, 2009

    While teaching scientific reasoning sounds admirable, to my mind the major component that must be done to increase the number of students who go on to execute a scientific approach in their life’s work is to teach both scientific and social risk-taking as well as social collaboration. As a practicing scientist, I know that science is both a social process and a process of recurrent “failure” from which one must learn and keep going instead of giving up. I was recently discussing science education with planetary scientist Ralph Lorenz, who said he thinks the worst thing our science education does is present science as a sort of a solitary endeavor that mostly involves crunching numbers, when that isn’t the most important skillset you need to do science at all.

  10. This Week in Evolution
    January 30, 2009

    I don’t see how you can draw any conclusions from comparing only two countries which differ in so many ways. Comparing similar students taught in different ways would be much better, although the conclusions might be the same.
    Also, knowledge may be much more important in biology than in physics, while reasoning is important in both.

  11. Brian
    January 30, 2009

    I absolutely agree with Ed’s comments and Bao’s assertions. Especially about inquiry-based learning. The thing I think people may not be thinking of is that reasoning, deduction, etc are all things that can be taught to children long before they’ll ever be able to comprehend physics facts. If you teach this to children when they’re young, it’ll be something natural rather than something they have to struggle to pick up or fit in to what they already know by the time they’re in university.
    It isn’t just about “reasoning skills.” They’re talking about the language of science, and like language it’s something that is best learned early.
    As for inquiry based learning in particular, I think it definitely works. In fact, it is used to an extent already in the USA… but only in select(expensive) private schools.
    If you’re convinced that students don’t really need to be taught reasoning skills or that it’s an innate thing… Read Richard Feynman’s memoirs on his stay in Brazil, teaching there.

  12. Neuroskeptic
    January 30, 2009

    Like Rob I was tempted to think that all this shows is that reasoning can’t be taught, not that it isn’t being taught. I have no evidence for that but from my (limited) experience of teaching undergraduates, some just “have it” and some don’t.
    of course this is a dangerous thing to believe because it justifies lazy teaching – The good ones will do well whatever I do and the bad ones are irredeemable! Which clearly isn’t true. But I think there is an element of truth in that when it comes to reasoning skills.

  13. Tony Jeremiah
    January 30, 2009

    It was led by Lei Bao from Ohio State University who wanted to see if a student’s scientific reasoning skills were affected by their degree of scientific knowledge.
    The data above doesn’t appear to be directly related to this hypothesis. At face value, the simplest interpretation of the indicated data, is that the Chinese and US education systems differ in such a way that Chinese students have greater knowledge of mechanics, electricity and magnetism; and are similar in such a way that Chinese and US students are equal in reasoning skills. There is no data that allows one to make any direct conclusions about the nature of the relationship between knowledge acquisition and reasoning skills.
    To establish whether there is indeed a direct relationship between knowledge acquistion and reasoning skills, correlative data is needed. In particular, was it established that significant correlations exist between students’ scientific reasoning scores and their scores on the mechanics and electricity/magnetism knowledge tests? If there are no significant correlations, this means that knowledge and reasoning skills are qualitatively distinct cognitive phenomena that should not be expected to interact (thus reasonable to assume that the observed similarities and differences of student scores are due to similarities and differences in the education systems), or, the tests are inappropriate for capturing how knowledge and reasoning skills interact. For example, it would seem more appropriate to have a reasoning test that specifically examples reasoning in the context of mechanics, electricity/magnetism rather than a (presumably) generic reasoning test.
    If the tests scores reveal significant correlations, one could conclude that there is indeed a relationship between knowledge and reasoning skills. For example, if it could be shown that the reasoning scores for the Chinese students correlates significantly with the knowledge scores, but no such relationship exists for the US students, this would suggest reasoning skills play a stronger role in determining the knowledge scores for the Chinese than it does for US students. This makes some sense given that it’s possible to answer “knowledge” questions either by figuring out what is being asked (i.e., reasoning), or, by simply remembering the information (i.e., knowledge).
    This might suggest reasoning skills enhance knowledge acquistion/remembering (which might explain the greater knowledge of the Chinese students), rather than knowledge (remembering) enhancing reasoning skills. This gets at an alternative interpretation for the data, that the Chinese might place greater emphasis on reasoning and problem-solving skills, which enhances ability to remember facts, explaining the difference in the knowledge scores.

  14. Mike
    January 30, 2009

    Hi Ed,
    As an American science teacher, I have to say that I am EXTREMELY skeptical of “scientific reasoning” without facts. This debate is going on in many education circles in the US, and makes me more than a little nervous.
    The idea I compare it too is “thinking mathematically,” another brainchild of educational professionals. Trying to teach kids how to approach a mathematical problem, in place of foundational skills, such as multiplication tables, place value or algebra. The result? Kids who can’t add or multiply in their head, don’t understand scientific notation, and can’t isolate a variable.
    As a result, teaching chemistry can is now twice as difficult, because their learning chemical concepts and (re-)learning math at the same time. Many chemical/physical concepts don’t fully make sense without understanding the math behind them.
    I believe that problem solving is important, and have tried to implement many problem-solving labs in my course, but I worry we’re headed down the path of “hey kids, here’s a bucket of water and some clay, go discover buoyancy.” That eureka moment came from logic PLUS knowledge, as does all science.
    I recommend you take a look at the book, Connected Knowledge by Alan Cromer. He’s a research physicist, so he has science street-cred, and he discusses this idea, from the other angle.
    We have a rich foundation of scientific knowledge that is the result of centuries of careful and difficult work. I, for one, am glad for it and will continue to teach it, in conjunction with certain habits of mind. It seems to me that, in the West, we’re always looking for a silver bullet, when it comes to education, and particularly math and science education. Unfortunately, no such thing exists. Hard work and determination, mixed with curiosity are the necessary ingredients, and these have to come from a nurturing home.

  15. Liz Gregory
    January 30, 2009

    I am a high school science teacher, and in Texas (and the US in general) there has been a movement for the past ~5 years toward more inquiry-based instruction. I have applauded this with great enthusiasm. I have always believed that teaching kids HOW to think is much better than telling them WHAT to think. How can a society make educated decisions if they don’t have the reasoning skills necessary to understand and analyze the data?
    Yes, I can go on about this for an extended period of time. Suffice to say that I agree with you: “Obviously, this shouldn’t be introduced to the exclusion of knuckling down and cramming some basic facts in, but the two approaches should complement each other.” Memorization is pointless unless you have some reason to do so, and something upon which to hang those random facts.
    I constantly bring up my years in microbiology research when talking to my students about why and how science is done. I like to think that students leaving my class will be better able to make informed, thoughtful decisions in their personal (and political) lives.
    …and not one of my students ever uses the term “nucular”

  16. Tony Jeremiah
    January 31, 2009

    Memorization is pointless unless you have some reason to do so, and something upon which to hang those random facts.
    * Einstein was reputed to have stated that one should not memorize anything that can be looked up in less than 2 minutes
    * Other research (e.g., Choi et al. (2007) ) indicates Eastern thought is more holistic than Western thought, which is in accordance with your statement about random facts/knowledge being hung together.
    * It’s possible that Chinese educators place more emphasis on synthesis and evaluative thought (presumably, what is really meant by “scientific reasoning”), which are higher levels of reasoning according to Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. Importantly, this framework assumes these thinking levels can be taught depending on the types of assessments educators use.

  17. LS
    January 31, 2009

    Almost everyone agrees that reasoning skills are important. Of course as Ed Yong says, basic facts have to be learnt.But like some of the commentators, I strongly believe that critical thinking must be taught explicitly at a young age. Then later whether they study science or take up vegetable farming, they can do whatever they do really well. It is a life skill.
    I have taught Chemistry to undergraduates for 14 years and find they do not pick up any critical thinking skills at all in college. They dissociate scientific knowledge from critical thinking skills they may possess when confronted with everyday problems(like whether to wear a warm jacket etc).
    I believe we must teach this skill earlier in their lives.
    I have therefore taken up a small group of children between 11-13 years of age from a village school and tried to teach critical thinking meeting them for an hour after school four times a week for about three months.
    I tried using logic games and puzzles to do this. I cant say I have been successful though.
    Any suggestions welcome

  18. zombie_bot
    January 31, 2009

    anybody who thinks inquiry-based learning is a good idea, is clueless.
    i’m not american, but doesn’t america encourage inquiry-based/discovery learning slightly already? if so then why didn’t they score higher on reasoning?
    inquiry-based learning is so incredibly stupid, it encourages teachers not to teach, that’s a stupid as it gets.

  19. africangenesis
    January 31, 2009

    One correction, the US educational system still has only one year of physics, not two, and what might be said to constitute “physics” a the primary and middle schools can’t be minimized enough, total survey targeting the 5 minute attention span.
    I got a taste of the contrast between the British and american systems in high school when we had an exchange teacher from England. He commented on the inquiring enthusiasm of the American students vs the burned out for years high stakes testing oriented rigor of the british system. Of course, physics was an elective in the US at the time, but expected for those on the college track.
    On a personal basis, I must disagree with the inquirey based approach. If one is already interested enough in science to have become scientifically literate BEFORE getting to the actual course, then the inquiry based approaches are mind-numbingly dull. Either you already know the “answers” you are supposed to “get”, or, even worse, the experiements are so inanely constructed that you can’t even guess what it is about. These pretend “experiments” are a waste of time. If you are going to spend more years on specific subjects, perhaps instead of repeating the same “dull” knowledge or literally “drilling” deeper, the reasoning can be taught through the history of science, the missteps, mysteries and problems they faced along the way. A lot of popular science reading does a better job of this than the textbooks. English literature classes require a lot of outside reading, why not science?

  20. africangenesis
    January 31, 2009

    LS, “I have taught Chemistry to undergraduates for 14 years and find they do not pick up any critical thinking skills at all in college. They dissociate scientific knowledge from critical thinking skills”
    Do you think this impression might be biased by the pre-med students? As I recall they were totally focused on competing for good grades and test scores so they could get into med school. It didn’t seem to me that they had the time or inclination to enjoy the subject. The ones that become general practitioners, seem to be a sorry lot. They spend very little time enjoying the medical literature, and they are the ones I have to ask “permission” of to get the drugs and tests I want. Hmmm.

  21. Tony Jeremiah
    January 31, 2009

    I tried using logic games and puzzles to do this. I cant say I have been successful though. Any suggestions welcome
    Check out the literature on metacognition (e.g., Livingston, 1997).

  22. Therese
    January 31, 2009

    Now to convince physics grad schools of this; too much weight is placed on the physics GRE, which tests more scientific knowledge than reasoning. Chinese students regularly achieve perfect scores on the exam (it’s the standard and the needed score to get into American grad school for them), while Americans score much lower.

  23. Kristine
    January 31, 2009

    zombie_bot, don’t you know that the curricula in America are now based on the No Child Left Behind policy, which emphasizes rote memorization and standardized testing? Even a trip to the museum has to be justified to school administrators as teaching to this or that test. It has led to the meddling in the classroom by private/corporate interests and has had a disastrous effect upon public education.
    Inquiry-based education is pushed by people who are “clueless”? I have seen inquiry-based curricula in action. Do you think Abigail Housen is “clueless”? Philip Yenawine? Jennifer Robbins and Pamela Roy? The inquiry approach works.

  24. Liz Gregory
    January 31, 2009

    Those of you who have problems with the “inquiry approach” to learning science don’t, I think, understand exactly what it is supposed to be. You start out with a concept, then explore the relationships between the variables within that concept. You look at real data that you have collected and draw reasonable conclusions from it. Students aren’t supposed to play with things until they rediscover Newton’s Laws of Motion, but they are supposed to _experience_ science in a way that lets them physically manipulate materials and collect data as a way to take some personal meaning from the classes and content they are being asked to learn. It is very difficult to prepare a good inquiry lab that will challenge all levels of students in your class, but it can be and has been done.
    This needs to happen in the lower grades, much more so than in the AP/IB/college prep classes. All students are required to take a certain number of years of science, and our goal is not to make them learn esoteric facts and minutiae, but to give them real life skills to be able to think critically and make sound decisions. We do this within the scope of science, because that is what science is all about – the process of asking a question, researching and experimenting to gather data that helps you to develop a conclusion about that question. And the most important part to me, communicating your results accurately and intelligently.

  25. Jim Thomerson
    January 31, 2009

    I’m an Emeritus Biology Professor with years of undergraduate teaching experience. I have always thought the best way to teach biology was stories about how we come to know what we know, and why we think it was important to learn these things. This can transition into thinking about what we don’t yet know, and how we might make progress. I enjoyed teaching that way, whether it did any good or not.

  26. Adam
    January 31, 2009

    The specific results are interesting, but the title of hte post is what caught my interest, so I wasn’t surprised to find that a high level of scientific knowledge did not translate to being a good “scientist”, in the general sense. I mean, not that marks are an indicator of intelligence by any means (ahem…) but I know people who get some pretty good marks and are fervent supporters of astrology.
    p.s. africangenesis – though I’m no med student, I do see a lot of that high knowledge/low internalization among the wannabe med students I see around me, where marks are everything and “science” is just a means to an end. Seeing as I’m in a health care professional program right now, it is a bit distressing to think that practitioners don’t put a high value on being good scientists.

  27. I am so wise
    February 1, 2009

    Not shocking given my friend once set his class into a tizzy by asking that they “compare” southern and northern societies on the eve of the Civil War and then for docking points when they only provided responses that listed similar features. Apparently they were enraged because asking “compare and contrast” was the proper way of asking that question.

  28. africangenesis
    February 1, 2009

    Jim Thomerson,
    It sounds like a class I would have enjoyed. Humans seem especially tuned to learning from stories. I believe we can learn our critical thinking that way, by hearing about the challenges of the past, what was hypothesized, what surprised, what gave insights, what were the dead ends and why we went down those trails.

  29. Tony Jeremiah
    February 1, 2009

    Now to convince physics grad schools of this; too much weight is placed on the physics GRE, which tests more scientific knowledge than reasoning.
    Kuncel, Hezlett, and Ones (2001) examined the predictive validity of the GRE and obtained results that contradict the study conclusion presented here. Across multiple disciplines, they showed the GRE Subject knowledge test to be a better predictor of graduate school performance than the GRE verbal, quantitative, and analytical tests. In fact, for one predictive measure (faculty ratings of students), the Subject (knowledge) test alone had a higher predictive validity (.49) than the remaining tests combined (.45). Furthermore, the GRE analytical test (which seems most closely associated with the reasoning test in Bao’s study), had the lowest predictive validity (.38). I recall elsewhere, the analytical scores tend to negatively correlate with graduate performance of women and minority applicants.
    The author’s hypothesized that the greater predictive validity of the subject test is probably related to the subject test being an implicit measure of student motivation and interest in the subject. What is surprising, is that the subject test (I think) is still an optional test and not used as a main criterion for selecting graduate school applicants; instead, the less predictive (pure cognition) tests are used.
    Reference
    Kuncel, N.R., Hezlett, S.A., & Ones, D.S. (2001). A comprehensive meta-analysis of the predictive validity of the graduate record examinations: Implications for graduate student selection and performance. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 162-181.

  30. Neil
    February 1, 2009

    As a UK secondary science teacher I can tell you that there is a change going on, the current phrase d’jour is ‘How science works’. Getting rid of the key stage 3 SATS should remove some of the pressure to force-feed content for an exam and allow more work on skills etc.

  31. Feynmaniac
    February 1, 2009

    Great post! I’ve been saying for awhile now that schools do tend to focus too much on rote memorization and should put greater emphasis on reasoning skills.

  32. ekcol
    February 1, 2009

    “I also briefly argued that modern science education (at least in the UK) focuses too much on the knowledge and too little on the method.”

    Strongly agree – method either isn’t taught, or else it’s a freeform investigation/”exploration” of a subject where the student has to come up with hypotheses and tests themselves, and learns nothing (I still have a straight line graph of the resistance of a wire at different temperatures from my physics A level. I couldn’t think of what else to do.). We need to teach facts *about* scientific reasoning.
    I don’t think it would be inappropriate to keep the factual curriculum for GSCE students intending to continue studying sciences, but for other students, take out most of the facts and teach them about epistemology and empiricism, the difference between science and pseudoscience, why astrology is silly, placebo and double blinding and whatnot. It would stick in people’s minds more, and leave the populace better educated about science, even though they wouldn’t know anything specific – everyone forgets the facts by age 20 anyway.

  33. Sam Santhosh
    February 1, 2009

    I strongly agree with your comment “it is so blindsided by checklists of facts that it fails to instil the inquisitiveness, scepticism, critical thinking and respect for evidence that good science entails.”
    But I am not very sure if the study that you mention later fully matches with the initial assertions.
    Also, as somebody else pointed out the variations across countries are so much that cross country studies will have too many variables.
    However the fact that teaching scientific knowledge does not improve scientific reasoning is so true from what I have seen in my home country India. The more ‘educated’ ones seem to become more carried away with horoscopes, rituals, living gods and so on that I feel that is something very wrong with our education system.
    Btw, your blog is excellent – keep it up!.
    Rgds
    Sam

  34. Caryn
    February 1, 2009

    Short version: people need more practice doing philosophy in order to think straight.
    Philosophers have been making this claim for millenia. :-)

  35. IST
    February 2, 2009

    zombie-bot> It’s unfortunate that your lack of understanding of inquiry learning causes you to dismiss the entire process as “stupid”. Your ignorance is readily apparent from the statement that it “encourages teachers not to teach”.
    Mike> Noone with an inkling as to how people learn is truely suggesting that you hand the student materials and let them completely alone with them, past a very young age. That plays into the misconception I addressed above. Inquiry-based learning implies that rather than directly telling the student what they should know, you design the activity so that (with your guidance) they arrive at the concept on their own. It involves a good deal of preplanning and enormous amounts of instructional monitoring.
    africangenesis> great idea on the outside reading.. now can you suggest a way to get my 20yr old sophomores to have better than a 3rd grade reading level? Yes, this is a high school.

  36. africangenesis
    February 2, 2009

    IST,
    Unfortunately, I think the method of improving your sophomores reading skills is the opposite of letting them “arrive at the concept on their own”. The authors of PhonoGraphx make the point that it took millenia and our best minds to invent the phonetic alphabet system, yet we are asking our students to guess how it works on their own. Many don’t quite guess right. Reading is so important, that in this case, the “outside” reading should occur in class, the anachronisms left in the phonetic system by the now silent gutterals and the great vowel shift should be explicitly understood, so that the phonetic rules can not just be memorized and internalized, but can actually make sense. Your students are guessing wrong, based upon beginning and ending letters, word shape and context. They are quite intelligent in this regard, that is how they got this far, but they can fail miserably on novel scholarly material. What is remarkable is not that so many have gotten this far by guessing, but that there are actually a few that have guessed right. Were they just lucky, or do they have some of that same genius that was required to invent the phonetic alphabet system?

  37. IST
    February 2, 2009

    africangenesis> agreed. I don’t condone inquiry instruction for reading, especially remedial reading. I’ve taught middle grades reading (as well as sci and history, university level bio and ed courses, and now HS science), and for the lowest readers the directed instruction seems to work best, no matter how mind numbing it is for the teacher. The comment in that regard was just wishful thinking: I’d like to assign outside reading, and I KNOW it would need to be done in class. Time doesn’t permit this, and in their case inquiry instruction( wherein they can internalise the concepts without needing to read them first) actually speeds the process along. My AP Bio class is assigned outside readings which are discussed in a socratic seminar style once a week. In fact, I use less inquiry instruction with them (although they are required to design their own experiments for some topics) because they seem to learn better in the mannr you and I were taught.

  38. RickD
    February 3, 2009

    An interesting study.
    But really, the fact that American students can learn scientific reasoning without learning scientific knowledge does not imply that it is a good idea to do so.
    It is important to both teach students how to think and to teach them what the body of knowledge is.
    Inquiry-based learning has its place, but an education based solely on that would be way too inefficient. There is simply far too much to learn out there. At some point it has to be learned. It’s not as sexy to simply learn facts, but it is important to do so.

  39. RickD
    February 3, 2009

    “I have taught Chemistry to undergraduates for 14 years and find they do not pick up any critical thinking skills at all in college. They dissociate scientific knowledge from critical thinking skills they may possess when confronted with everyday problems(like whether to wear a warm jacket etc).”
    I have to disagree with the tone of this comment. It is entirely possible for college students to pick up critical thinking skills. Indeed, “non-traditional” older students can pick up critical thinking skills.
    It’s just that most undergraduates have been trained to think a certain way, and are at sea when asked to go beyond their training. I agree that it is important to introduce critical thinking at an earlier age, but critical thinking skills can be expanded at any age in life, as far as I can see.
    Personally, I think my ability to reason mathematically had several growth spurts – in 7th grade, in 12th grade, twice as an undergraduate, and then at least twice as a graduate student.

  40. Lycosid
    February 4, 2009

    Can we scrap NCLB now?

  41. mm
    February 10, 2009

    Kids today have lot of computer based learning and experience lot of living in vitual world formed by TV and internet – to the extent they frequent do not differentiate between seeing something in virtual world vs real world.
    Inquiry based learning – doing experiments – forces them to isolate and abstract essential facts in real world and reason from there rather than ingesting processed knowledge that is already clean. Creative process requires these skills and so do all true discoveries.
    Are we handicapping kids by providing them more and more clean and processed bytes from virtual world ?
    Seeing a real giraffe is no longer as exciting since there is so much exposure on TV. Learning bouncy in experiment leads to recall of similar demostration on TV – the curiosity needed to continue the experience is gone already – so inquiry based learning generates more irritation than motivation, forget learning the reasoning processes.

  42. Murfomurf
    December 28, 2009

    Surely a social scientist should have spotted the gigantic gap in their own reasoning on this topic- “everyone” knows that memory for facts has nothing to do with the ability to put disparate pieces of information together and see logical connections or disconnections. Many people can reason logically from an early age on most general topics, but some need intensive training to see logical vs. “concrete” or surface connections; others will never learn- their brains aren’t conducive to rule-bound reasoning.

  43. djn1
    January 17, 2010

    Good education needs to provide students with a two rail track for learning. It is always necessary to teach specific content to build basic knowledge, but one must also provide opportunities to explore, inquire and apply learned knowledge. If students see the application of the material they have learned in ways that relate to the real world they are more apt to truly understand the area of learning.
    Africangenesis, many children need specific step by step instruction to learn reading but some children actually put reading together with little more than some rudimentary explanations. For these children the step by step instructional system is painful. Reading instruction should be tailored to the child’s needs.

  44. Kate
    April 23, 2010

    I think the idea of inquiry learning is great, but when you have been faced with a class of 16 year olds whose only motivation is to either get an “A” or just get done so they can zone out for the last 10 minutes of class, you realize that inquiry doesn’t work.

  45. Kristina
    January 21, 2011

    I am concerned with physicians whose training convinces them that they were taught the “truth” and that new ideas are therefore wrong. I went to college at The University of Chicago where science courses, especially one in biology, taught one how to think. For example, in biochemistry, an exam asked “How would you design an experiment to prove this?” My training in medical school was all rote learning. What if one’s college education was similar? Are these the doctors who practice “cookbook medicine”, following the edicts of insurance companies whose goal is to save money, and will use any argument to do so?

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