Cool for School: A Grossetestian framework for teaching scientific knowledge and how science works

IMG_1932Nowadays teachers are expected to have clearly defined learning objectives for every lesson, but more fundamentally it must be definedwhat the overall aims of education should be. These seem to cluter around the acquisition of firstly a broad and in-depth knowledge base across the disciplines, and secondly of procedural skills that enable students to critically evaluate information and to identify gaps in arguments and evidence. Having laid out learning objectives along these lines, we should take a step back and compare the current educational strategies against these standards.

I’m a third year Psychology and Philosophy student, and I am lucky to have been taught by many inspirational teachers. Nonetheless, my way of learning has changed drastically since I have come to university. In school the aim of the game seemed to be to know the correct answer to as many questions as possible, and this involved a lot of rote learning of key words that we were told examiners are looking out for. At university, by contrast, we have been continuously encouraged to critically reflect on the models and experimental paradigms employed in the field. Identifying holes in arguments, as well as suggesting further research to clarify open questions, are key characteristics of good pieces of work. I find this way of acquiring new knowledge much more engaging and intrinsically motivating, and in addition it seems to be much more efficient in committing knowledge to long-term memory (that exceeds the time frame of target exams). Over and above studying my course, the involvement in the Ordered Universe Project has crucially enhanced my meta-level awareness of what science actually is and how it works. I have come to realise that it is not a modern day phenomenon but that in the sense of ‘groping for understanding’ humans have engaged in science throughout history.

Retrospectively I wish I had gained many of these insights already at school, as I think it would have spurred my interest to learn about subjects such as physics, which do not come to me that naturally. Also, I feel I was spending enormous amounts of time learning about science by memorising facts and formulae, without really reflecting upon how these were arrived at, and why it would be good to have them. Especially in the context of the educational strand of the Grosseteste project, I have been wondering about what it was that prevented me from taking away from school lessons all these realisations that were somehow implicit in them. In what follows I would like to sketch a framework for teaching that from my student perspective would be more likely to convey knowledge about the nature of science and about scientific discoveries in a way that moves beyond memorising information for the sake of the next test (and letting it decay thereafter). In these respects, it seems to me that Grosseteste and the Ordered Universe project can make invaluable contributions.

Firstly and fundamentally, I think that learning starts with the realisation that there are questions that need to be answered. E.g., before joining the Grosseteste group for the conference in Porto, I had never even given it a thoght that the extension/ dimensionality of matter demands for an explanation. Especially during secondary school, lessons started with giving us answers for something that we had not even identified as worthy subjects of enquiry. To put it mildly, the failure to acknowledge the relevance of these explanations did not exactly increase our keenness to come to grips with them. Grosseteste is a great resource for inspiration in this respect: he was faced with a universe that appeared ordered rather than chaotic, and for a vast range of phenomena (colour, rainbows, light, the origin of the cosmos, and many more) he strived to arrive at a model that would uncover the underlying systematicity. To my mind, allowing students to discover the wonders and marvels of the world out there would crucially enhance their intrinsic motivation to learn about the governing principles inherent in its nature. In this spirit, Tom McLeish suggested during the workshop to take students to a planetarium, where first of all time would be devoted to letting them pick up on the regularity of movements of planets and stars, and to allow them to realise that what they see is reflective of an ordered and complex solar system.

Secondly, based on these systematic observations students could – akin to Grosseteste – be encouraged to develop theoretical models that would account for the phenomena they have observed. In this respect, giving students the identities of ‘Little Grossetestes’ is of key importance because it frees them from the awareness that the right answer is already around. As Tom  pointed out, even at university level students often only realise when they start their PhDs that being (retrospectively) wrong is inherent in scientific discovery, and that instead of constituting failure this adds to our knowledge, as long as one has been wrong in a constructive way. In addition, the side-by-side presentation in the classroom of several a priori possible models would raise awareness for the fact that scientific models are not necessarily faithful descriptions of what is out there, but attempts to uncover the underlying governing principles. Per’s research has shown that grasping the idea of modelling is very challenging for students, and in-lesson comparisons of their own models with the Grossetestian and modern scientific models bears the potential to enhance awareness in these respects. Furthermore, Hannah Smithson has repeatedly highlighted that putting current explanations into their historical context can be a rather humbling experience for modern day scientists, as it makes them think about how future generations will look back at their attempts to unravel natural mechanisms.

Thirdly, after having observed natural phenomena and modelled conceivable explanations for them, students would move on to thinking about how these contrasting models could be tested against each other. The ability to build differential hypothesis certainly becomes very important at university level, and it may be possible to give students a flavour of this central scientific methodology already at school. In combination with the modelling process itself it would allow students to see that far from being rigid and restrictive, science gives not only room to their imagination but crucially requires creativity and divergent thinking. From having talked to Sixth Formers about their university choices, several members of the workshop session had the impression that a lack of this awareness has prevented many from making a properly informed decision about what they want to study. Furthermore, thinking about how variables could be operationalised is a fun and engaging activity that is likely to get not only conceptually but also practically minded students on board.

Edward I penny
An English Penny from the beginning of the 14th century, about the same time as the Merton Fragment

It has been a matter of long-standing debate within the Grosseteste group and beyond whether Grosseteste himself conducted experiments, and much depends on whether the Latin ‘experientia’ is used in the sense of ‘experimentation’ or ‘experience’. In any case, Grosseteste writings have certainly encouraged his audience to test his theories experimentally. This becomes evident from  the Merton manuscript of the De iridewhich describes that the water-vessel set up requires a denarius instead of simply an object, as it had been specified in the original. This again underlines how in the Ordered Universe project, palaeography and translation as well as scientific analysis have mutually supported each other in the joint goal of understanding the Grossetestian universe. However, I do not think that the questionalibility of Grosseteste being an ‘experimenter’ would force one to discontinue the Grossetestian narrative in the teaching module. Rather, discussing how experimentation has been introduced into the scientific method, and why it is advantageous, would increase students’ awareness that science has not always been conducted the way it is nowadays, and that our modern methods have evolved over generations of social engagement in ways of finding out.

I know that I am hopelessly idealistic in suggesting such a framework for teaching science, as syllabus and examination requirements rarely leave time for such open-ended ways of engaging with the topic in question. Nonetheless, I feel that education should not just be about doing well within a specific exam format. During their time at school children develop an understanding of what the world is like and what opportunities it offers. School should spark students’ curiosity and fascination, and in this way raise their motivation to learn, which then feeds back into exam performance. In diverse ways this has been and is happening in schools already, and the educationalist adaptation of the Grosseteste project has the potential to add to this on many different levels.

Ulrike

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