The educational strand – ideas from the student perspective

When I first read about the idea of linking the Ordered Universe Project to education, I was fascinated by the parallel drawn between knowledge development across time, within the individual on the one hand and in the history of science on the other. It seems to me to be an intriguing suggestion that there may be some overlap between the conceptual caveats that in medieval times hindered (what we now believe to be) accurate understanding and those that make scientific reasoning difficult for children and teenagers. Within the group of students taking part in the FIDEM congress, we have thought a lot about what benefits the Ordered Universe Project could bring to pupil and student learning. This is because we are still very much at the recipient end of the knowledge spectrum, and for some of us school education is still very recent. During the FIDEM congress, I feel I didn’t only learn a lot about medieval and contemporary physics, but also I gained much more of an insight into what is called the ‘scientific method.’ In this respect a useful distinction can be drawn between two contributing aspects within the Ordered Universe Project, namely learning about Grosseteste and his strategies, as well as getting firsthand experience of the research group’s methodology. (Being a psychology student, I have found myself focusing on the advantages an educational adaptation of this project could bring for science learning, and I am sorry for potentially neglecting the benefits to history education in what follows.)

With regards to the former I found that the more I was trying to put myself into Grosseteste’s position back in the 13th century, the more I got the impression that he was actually quite similar to the modern day science student. Just as students nowadays, he saw a world that seemed ordered but he neither knew the underlying principles nor its origin. Unlike Grosseteste, however, modern day students are not left to their own limited devices to figure these questions out, but instead they are bombarded with answers (this predominantly applies to secondary school, I would say). During the age of 11 and 18, the goal becomes to know the right answers to as many questions as possible, and often the correctness of these answers seems to depend heavily on the frame put forward by the individual teacher or exam format. I have experienced myself how this educational practice does not teach us how to ask the right questions in the first place. As Tom McLeish put it in his presentation during the FIDEM congress, this is what he has to teach his students, as they are still in the process of learning that being (retrospectively) wrong is a pretty common thing in science, and that this can be fruitful as long one is constructively so. It seems that education equips students with crystallised knowledge that has mostly been passively received, and what is mostly lacking is a toolkit that allows students to go out and actively generate new knowledge. To become a scientist, however, this is precisely what you aim to do, and the educational strand of the Ordered Universe Project may present a fascinating opportunity to introduce some counterbalancing to current educational policy in these respects.

More precisely, by seeing pupils and students as ‘little Grossetestes’ teachers could ask them to constructively develop their own models for scientific phenomena, before they would eventually be introduced to the bulk of explanations that have been established by modern day science. In addition, thinking Grosseteste’s and their own (albeit incorrect) accounts would allow students to become more sensitive to the fact that the currently accepted model is just one amongst very many theoretically possible ones. This realisation may then go together with the ability to justify why we believe the currently accepted model to be a more adequate explanation. Moreover, it seems that such an approach to teaching science would create more of an awareness that just as we have long revised Grossetestian accounts, future generations may completely overthrow our currently held conceptualisations. Hannah Smithson said that as a contemporary scientist she has found the involvement with medieval science to be quite a humbling experience, and that it may prevent cockiness about modern scientific achievements. If I understand correctly she sees this not only in relationship to the just mentioned greater awareness of potential future paradigm shifts, but also with respect to the realisation that our current scientific  methods aren’t as original and new an achievement as we may like to believe. Scientific reasoning, in the sense of ‘groping for understanding’ as Tom defined it, dates back to ancient Greece and was very much present even in the medieval period. Finally, in secondary education the bombardment with answers to questions that students haven’t even yet asked seems to take away the wonder and marvel about the world as it presents itself. Students end up learning a great deal about issues that they all too often do not adequately appreciate to be interesting and intriguing areas of research. I found myself very surprised to hear about the broad range of scientific phenomena that Grosseteste tried to explain in an abstract and analytical way. Even more I was surprised and shocked that I hadn’t thought about these issues very much myself, as I think I have just been implicitly assuming that they (the scientists) will know how it works, and that I can’t know and think about everything. I find it very sad to have acquired this ‘bunker mentality’, and learning about a medieval thinker who was so deeply intrigued about issues spanning the range from colours to comets to theology has inspired me to look at the world more inquisitively.

Over and above finding out about Grosseteste’s approach, I feel I learned a lot from being part of this interdisciplinary research group. As Per and Dorothy highlighted, this drawing together of diverse subject areas will constitute a key aspect of the project’s educational adaptation. To my mind, this presents a great opportunity to make students see history, languages and modern science all as tools to accomplish the common goal of understanding Grosseteste’s thinking. Conceiving of different subjects as serving such a unified purpose would be very likely to encourage students to learn about all of these areas and to not focus too narrowly on what they consider to be their future area of expertise. This seems important given the useful distinction psychologists draw between convergent and divergent thinking. Whereas the former has a narrow focus on the current subject of thought, the latter draws on a diverse range of topics and thus is often presented as the basis for analogical reasoning and creativity. To be innovative and able to initiate progress, we need students who are capable of thinking outside the box, and this presupposes knowledge about subject areas that are outside the box of the focal research interest. From the impressions I got during the FIDEM congress, it seems that the Ordered Universe Project could be a model project to give more emphasis to these key aspects in education that allow students to appreciate the many wonders in history and science, as well as to be prepared for asking the right questions in later academic life.

Ulrike

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