I once taught under a professor named Dean Ballotti. He was interesting because he had a Ph.D. and years of experience in geology, but later went back to school and got a degree in teaching. He instructed his classes to teach with a philosophy that centered around banishing the myths about science from the get-go and to stop teaching that science isn't "dirty."
Scientists make mistakes, he reasoned, and there are times when things are held together by whatever is lying around, such as the ubiquitous duct tape. Due to my experiences in the lab, I tended to agree with him. College students should have enough experience to know that sometimes, even when you follow the directions perfectly, the experiments do not come out as you thought they would and that there likely will be variations. While I taught with his philosophy during his university classes, I decided to see how it would fare during my volunteer services this year with kids at Indianapolis Children's Museum.
My colleague, Mary, is a great scientist and educator. She knows her field, physics, inside and out. More amazingly, she can explain even the most intricate concepts in physics in an elegant and understandable way that adults and children alike can grasp. She also believes that the scientific method is immutable and everything taught in science is fact. She also taught with Ballotti and butted heads with him constantly about his looser philosophy. Mary was to be my counterpart in this experiment.
Over the past two years, we have gotten together every week to plan lessons for our various classes and endeavors. We have spent a good deal of time debating whether we should be teaching science more "her way," where the core of science and the scientific method is rigid and linear, or more "my way," where the core serves more as guidelines. In the end, we have always ended up taking a middling approach to the lessons, imparting the values of scientific laws (gravity will always be there), while reminding them that there are exceptions to nearly every rule (gravity is nearly zero in space until you get near a large object, like a planet).
In order to see which method helped students learn the concepts better and gain more understanding, Mary and I decided to see if either of the two philosophies would make it easier for the students to learn. We chose to do this experiment for a month in the museum curriculum for the home-schooled kids to minimize the problems it would cause with any students in an established system with a set teaching methodology. Mary taught a set of classes according to the philosophy that, once a law is established in science, it must remain true and cannot change under most circumstances. My task was to teach a different set of students with the philosophy that science has structure, but it's not rigid.
During this time, Mary and I came together for our usual lesson planning, but also to compare notes about how the kids were learning with the dichotomous philosophies. The ones who were being taught that science is stable and solid had a much easier time grasping core concepts as well as applying the concepts to a few basic applications. However, the ones who were being taught a more fluid form of science had an easier time with using the concepts on a wider array of applications—once they understood the concept as a base.
One of the things neither one of us saw coming from this experiment was the impact that our methodology and teaching philosophies would have on creativity.
The students who were taught that science was immutable seemed to have a temporary decline in creative abilities, which were recovered once they gained confidence in their ability to use the lessons in an applied way. The other group grew more creative, and even intensely more so, after they gained confidence with how to apply the concepts. The kids showed this creativity by talking more openly about ideas from other areas they had been studying.
For example, in one class they were challenged to build a wooden bridge out of balsa wood that could withstand a simulated earthquake. The students who had been using the less rigid methods for studying science asked for permission to test other things in the room that might be used in place of wood glue. Whereas, the students studying with the more rigid methods read the directions on the box, experimented with a few designs using only wood glue and balsa wood, and never asked if they could use different materials to supplement the experiment. There were many more examples of this type of ingenuity over the course of the weeks, and each time the groups studying the more flexible methodology jumped to creative solutions first.
Ultimately, we discovered that a middle path between the two philosophies was the best of both worlds. We were relieved that all our volunteer efforts didn't impede the students' ability to learn, understand, and apply what they were learning in ours or other classes. However, we now wonder if we couldn't do with a little looser structure in a few of our science lessons to encourage more creativity and innovation. In the future, we plan to keep to the middle with forays into the different teaching methods. Our hope is that this will not only keep kids interested, but also create a more creative, diverse and innovative work force for the future.