How Grosseteste could help in conveying a ‘grasp of scientific practice’

In recent years science education has moved progressively further away from teaching students scientific facts towards conveying an understanding of how science works, or of the Nature of Science (NOS). One attempt in this respect has been to define a set of necessary and sufficient criteria that distinguish good from bad scientific inquiry, and to then transmit these to students in the form of declarative knowledge. However, as Per Kind outlined during the workshop, this approach has not led to improvements in students’ active engagement with scientific inquiry. The obvious alternative is to make students do science themselves, so that they would gain an implicit understanding of what scientific practice involves. Per warned that simply taking students to the lab has been found to not do the job very well. What seems to be crucial is the way experimentation is done, and potentially whether it is instruction-based or self-directed.

In this respect, promising evidence has been reported by Ford (2008), who found that sixth graders gained implicit knowledge of how to construct and critique scientific inquiry (what Ford calls ‘grasp of practice’) from 10 class hours of participating in self-directed experimentation. Based on the question of how steepness affects speed, students first suggested how relevant variables could be operationalised, and different proposals were experimentally evaluated against each other. During subsequent data collection, students identified outcome variation to be a problem, and they themselves worked out that a standardised protocol and averaging across multiple trials per condition would be adequate counter-measures. Ford then tested whether the skills gained would be transferrable to a new ball drop problem, and indeed they found that in approaching the problem, pupils did not only apply an acquired declarative method but that they constructed a new strategy piece by piece as the experiment developed. The following dialogue from a pair of students who worked on the ball drop problem (Ford, 2008, p. 169) I think illustrates very nicely how actively engaging in scientific inquiry conveys enthusiasm about the subject, and how it introduces students from a very early age to the curiosity and eagerness to find out that characterises scientific and scholarly work.

P: So the drop affects the bounce how you push the ball

M: If you push the ball

P: Yeah, if you push the ball [M: and the surface] and the height

[M: the kind of ball you have] and then the kind of ball you have, the size of the ball

M: Yeah

And later on:

M: One went here [P: Oh, my gosh!] and one went here.

(M, on his knees, holds his hands at the respective bounce heights of each ball)

P: Yeah, that was close—

M: That’s like the difference in their height. The bounce was about the difference in their height, so.

P: Yeah. Now when you had two tennis balls it’s different

M: Yeah, I guess—

P: Wait, wait wait wait, let’s measure how high the highest one of these goes

M: We need like a tool to measure with

Reading this transcript from Ford’s evaluation experiment makes me smile, I can picture in my head how the two children were completely drawn into the task, and it seems that the skill they have learned through it will be more long-lasting and more transferrable than had they been simply told about the nature of the relationship between drop- and bounce-height.

To my mind, Grosseteste and the Middle Ages provide a unique context in which such self-directed experimentation could be encouraged. By putting students into the mindset of being ‘little Grossetestes’, they are more likely to adopt the inquisitive, curious attitude towards natural phenomena that has motivated people across the centuries to push the boundaries of their knowledge. Unlike the modern day student, in Grosseteste’s world there were many things still not explained in a satisfactory way. The Grossetestian project was to carefully observe these phenomena, and to come up with a model – incorporating what was already ‘known’ about e.g. optics, or the structure of the universe (its Aristotelian spheres) – that would coherently account for his observations. By travelling back in time into Grosseteste’s world, students can adopt the frame of mind in which they still need to fundamentally find out about things, rather than simply memorise or in the best case replicate what others have discovered long before them.

In support of this point, Allchin (2011) argues that to convey knowledge about how scientific reasoning works, one should forsake ready-made science and instead go for science in the making. To learn about how science works, it is crucial that students are blinded to the outcome just as modern scientists are uncertain about what will turn out to be (for the time being) an adequate explanation. In this respect, knowing the right answer in advance very much prevents the learning objective of acquiring an (implicit) understanding of the scientific method.

Whether Grosseteste himself actually conducted planned experiments is questionable, however I do not think that this makes the Grossetestian narrative ill-suited for self-directed experimentation modules. By contrast, students could get a feeling for how scientific methodology is continuously developed further, and in this way they would simulate carrying forward Grosseteste’s legacy. In addition, this self-directed scientific experimentation module could be incorporated within a larger framework on life in the Middle Ages, a period that I only discovered to be of mind-blowing complexity and fascination since I have joined the Ordered Universe Project.




Allchin, D. (2011). Evaluating Knowledge of the Nature of (Whole) Science. Science Studies and Science Education, Wiley Online Library (

Ford, M. (2008). ‘Grasp of Practice’ as a Reasoning Resource for Inquiry and Nature of Science Understanding. Science & Education, 17, 147–177.

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