Doing and Knowing Science: Is there a difference?
Process vs. Product
If I asked my students at Friends Select what it means to "know" science, they would probably give me a list of vocabulary, terms and concepts that one would need to know in order to be a scientist. Some of them might list "knowing how to ask questions" or "knowing how to do an experiment," but these pieces would be secondary to actually knowing and undesrtanding the information and content. I would argue that, based on these hypothetical answers, most students gain a false impression of what science is. Process is not a part of science. Rather, science is process. The product, or the content understanding of a particular discipline, should come through that process. Instead, in classrooms, often the learning the product through lecture, activities and demonstrations takes precidence over learning it through the process, which is slower, messier and harder to control. However, if process is science, then how is it possible to promote legitimate understanding without process being the most important aspect of science education?
Middle School vs. Upper School
At Friends Select, I found that there were different views toward the role of the scientific process in the curriculum and the classroom. In the upper school, the biology course was very content heavy, meaning that there was such a large quanity of material to be learned that class was largely devoted to lecture. Labs were considered essential, but often only as ways in which to reinforce and provide examples of concepts learned during lecture. For example, the dihybrid corn lab was a useful activity in helping biology students apply their knowledge and understanding about Mendelian genetics and Punnett Squares, but it did not utilize many parts of the scientific process. Students were working to solve a problem, but the problem was not open-ended, nor did the quesitons come from the students.
In contrast, I found the middle school curriculum to be more centrally focused on the scientific process. The curriculum was arranged by general topics (i.e. evolution and adapatations,) and students would study a couple of topics indepth (i.e. arthropod form and function). The unit lessons were planned around the larger activities, and the rest of class time was used to prepare students for the activity or to follow-up on the activity. Students were rarely just sitting listening to the teacher lecture. Rather, they were working independently or in small groups, or actively brainstorming or discussing as a group. There were samples of student work all over the room and lists of students' questions and ideas. As an example, the Mozart and the Mind lab that I did in sixth grade physical science, was open-ended. There was no "correct" outcome. Rather as students worked together to design the experiment and graph and analyze their data. They were being evaluated on their scientific process (i.e. the quality of their questions and hypotheses, their ability to look for multiple explainations for their results and their ability to make recommendations based on their results).
Suggestions for Revision
At both the high school and middle school levels, the focus of the class and the assessment should be the process of science and not the product or content. At the high school level, the rigor of the curriculum will be enhanced, not by simply increasing the sheer volume of content knowledge of the students, but by invloving the students in more complex and demanding genuine scientific investigartions.
I would suggest that, when revising the curriculum, a table of specifications be used to ensure that the majority the time in class and the majority of the assessments deal with the scientific process. I would make lab the central part of all science courses, with the rest of class focused around understanding content and concepts relating to the labs. I would hope to help students internalize the scientific process, by establishing clear and consistent routines and expectations around the type of genuine lab work and assessments that students would be expected to complete. Students should be expected to turn in written work that applies to lab, but is not a formulaic lab report (i.e. answering critical thinking questions about the lab results or redesigning the experiment, using justification from the results). At the high school level, complete written labs should be assigned only once every few weeks and only for labs that are open-ended and require students to do genuine analysis and evaluation of their results. Teachers should give feedback regularly, and students should be required to re-write work. These strategies would stress that writing or effectively communicating ones ideas, a process in and of itself, is a part of the scientific process. At both the middle school and high school levels, students should be given the opportunity to analyze and evaluate their results in other formats, such as posters and PowerPoint presentations. Expectations should be high for students and multiple levels of support should be put in place to help them meet these expectations.