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The Importance of Process in Science, the Brain, and Education:
Motivations, Ambitions, and Experiences vis a vis Science as Story Telling in Action

Paul Grobstein
Director, Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College
Co-founder, Serendip website

Changing Pedagogies in Math and Science Education
31 August 2005

Some background

Thinking about Science (and Science Education) As Process

Linear scienceSeriously loopy science
  
Science as body of facts established by specialized fact-generating people and process

Science as successive approximations to Truth


Science as authority about "natural world"

Science as process of getting it less wrong, potentially usable by and contributed to by everyone

Science as ongoing making of observations, summarizing, making new observations, making new summaries

Science as skepticism usable by and empowering anyone at any time about any thing for any purpose

Science as Practical Tool, Continually Being Adapted
"The Crack" as Feature Rather than Bug (multiple possible summaries)

Significance and issues re science/math education:

The Brain as Designed to Carry Out Process (Its All We've Got, Bipartite, and Seriously Loopy)

The Linear BrainThe Loopy Brain with Semi-autonomy and Story Telling

Science as Continual Elaboration and Revision of Summaries of Observations
AND of the Stories Used to Summarize Them
Story Telling is Common to All Human Beings and is an Essential Component of Science

Significance and issues re science/math education:

The Potential ...

"Science has the potential to be what we all collectively need as we evolve into a world wide community: a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride. For this to happen, we all need to work much harder to not only reduce the perception of science as a specialized and isolated activity of the few but to make it in fact the product and property of all human beings" .... Revisiting Science in Culture

Trying It Out (and Learning to Get It Less Wrong): Examples and Problems

Biology 103 (see also Biology 202 and Biology 223 = English 223)

"Moving on, the prof asked a question in class. It was after our conclusion that doctors and scientists don't really KNOW anything. That there are no 'truths' and that everything is sort of dependent on other factors. He followed this conclusion with a question: how does that make us feel? I didn't answer in class, but I'd like to here. I really think that I feel good about knowing that. If I believed everything I was told by a scientist or a group of doctors, and acted on whatever it was that they concluded, then my life really wouldn't be my own."

"This is a stirring appraisal of science and one that I would very much like to believe. But I'm beginning to have my doubts. In my conversations with others about the natural sciences and the social sciences, I have represented the views that you express in class--about the noble skepticism of science--as those of the scientific community at large. Now I sense my own naivete in having done so. ... Are all scientists as given to reflection about what it is they are trying to achieve? ... I feel there is a strong dichotomy between the doers and the thinkers, and it is the thinking minority that allows science to remain, in large part, unaccountable for what it has brought about"

There is a need not only to teach science/math differently but to promote change within the professions of science and mathematics as well

The SENCER experience

"One of our most enthusiastic colleagues reports that after he "SENCERized" one of his courses for majors - and, in so doing produced a learning situation that he thought was quite spectacular - the evaluations his students gave him and his course were markedly less positive than they had been in his "traditional" rendition of the course" ... Wm. David Burns

There is a need for coordinated change through the educational system, including precollege levels.

From the Science as Story Telling in Action summer 2005 group

"... there should be motives and advantages of choosing the traditional way of learning science, considering the number of national and international-wide supporters of the system ... In the traditional educational setting, the teacher has an absolute authority, whereas in science as storytelling setting, the teacher is more likely to be one who takes part in class and assists students in creating their own stories and revising them rather than being an authority figure. In my culture, the latter one would not be accepted." ... Yaena Park

There is a need for serious engagement with the broader culture within which education is necessarily situated.

The Web as a Case Study

Life is not really so difficult if you just follow the instructions
"Born in 1994 ... conceived as a interacting and developing system, not unlike a living organism ..."

"Serendip is ... a gathering place for people who suspect that life's instructions are always ambiguous and incomplete ... an expanding forum and continually developing set of resources to explore and support intellectual and social change in education, in social organization ... and in how one makes sense of life"

What has Serendip learned, about itself? about the world around it? Or, more accurately, what have I, as one of its parents, learned from watching it grow/evolve?

The Potential ("people can develop their ideas and perspectives in extensive interaction with other people")
and the Naive Ideal

Build it (a rich interactive playground) and they will come.

Some Do ... But Lots Don't (Yet?) ... Why?

Contributors:
  • From 3 -> 40+ (mostly local, mostly one time)
  • Many more students (required in courses)
  • Enthusiasm for participation in a "world-wide cultural and intellectual interchange"?
Visitors:
  • > 1 million unique visitors a year (~10,000 a day), >95% from outside Bryn Mawr, ~40% from outside US (not bad reach)
  • 4.3 pages per visit, 1.4 visits per visitor (lots not coming back)
  • 60% from Google/Yahoo/Ask Jeeves/etc
  • Not BAD, some partial exchanging (most visits relate to student papers) ... BUT much of it is info-collecting rather than interchange ...
Barriers to "interchange" ... on Serendip? on web? in general?
(Some lessons from recent Serendip exhibits and forums)
  • There needs to be a task more sharply defined than "exchange"? with a leader and an agenda?
  • People need to be assured they are being listened to, ie that others are changing as a result of what they say?
  • People need to be willing/able to be vulnerable, ie to be changed by what other people say?
  • People need to overcome a concern about "privacy"?
  • People need to overcome a concern about being an outsider? being either judged badly by insiders or feeling themselves like a disrupter?
  • People want to feel some shared agreements about how one exchanges ideas, including understandings about language and style
  • People want to work with others who are like themselves

Many of these are "community" functions, and we can try to find ways to do them more effectively on Serendip and on the web generally. But there is something to be said for the additional distinctive kinds of interaction that the web makes possible ... and for evolving human interactions generally in new ways based on those experiences ...

  • Continue to encourage people to think of themselves as including aspects beyond their particular group identities and known interests
  • Continue to encourage people to become their own "leaders" and "readers"/"listeners"
  • Continue to encourage people to value "thoughts in progress", appreciate "process" as much as "outcome", to both value in process products and trust their own the usefulness to others of their own
  • Continue to encourage people to incorporate the kind of self-reflectiveness that is faciliated by intermittent as opposed to synchronous exchange, ie to make use of "disconnection" to allow new thoughts/questions to arise, thoughts/questions that might not in direct contact with others
  • Continue to encourage people to value the ongoing process of "thinking for oneself", the value both for oneself and for others

General lessons from the web about the prospects of "a nexus point that encourages and supports ..." and about process oriented education with the same objective

  • We tend to be afraid of
    1. being attacked
    2. being ignored
    3. being held accountable for thoughts of our own
    4. being changed by thoughts of other people
    5. being judged wrong (by ?)

  • If "Life's instructions are always ambiguous and incomplete ... " because there is no one writing them but ourselves ... and no way to write them but by trying things out and seeing what happens ("getting it less wrong"), then we need communities of people who think for themselves, are committed to and enjoy working on continually updating and revising instruction manuals together. There is no way to enhance the numbers of people who participate in such activities other than to give them satisfying experiences doing it.

The Bottom Line (for now ...)

Here's to process ... let's learn to believe in it, trust it, enhance it

Science is about change, about getting it less wrong
The brain is about change, about getting it less wrong
Stories can/should be used to encourage change, getting it less wrong
People (scientists included) need to become more comfortable with change and the capability/role that individuals can/should play in it
Science not as "authority" but rather

Science is a tool to help one become better at thinking for oneself ... at using observations to make one's own stories that motivate new observations that motivate new stories that one shares with others in order to continually get less wrong onself and help others do so as well

Science education should help people become better at thinking for themselves at ongoing, shared, exploration and creation

Science As Story Telling In Action: three similar, related, and intersecting processes ... science, brains, education

Contribute your thoughts to further exploration of this story

Post talk notes

Very helpful to have the images of the student who "gets it", can do it but not explain it, on the one hand, and of the student who can explain it but not do it on the other. Yes, we should value, pay attention to, unconscious learning as well as to conscious processing and, most importantly, to the back and forth between the two of them.

Also very helpful to be challenged on whether I am advocating teaching young students (or anyone else) that there is no "Truth". No, that is not my intended message (however I might sound). The point is not to teach the "Truth" that there is no "Truth". The point is to teach in such a way that one doesn't (inadvertently or otherwise) give students to understand that what they are hearing is "Truth". Its teachers (not students) who need to understand that science isn't/can't be "Truth", so they don't mislead students on this subject.

And, as became clear in discussion (thanks all), the issue here is as much practical as metaphysical. Being told science is "Truth" turns at least some people away from science (for a variety of reasons). And contributes to their concerns about getting things "right", which in turn inhibits their natural exploratory activities. And makes it hard for students to deal with transitions from one "Truth" to another as they progress through science courses. And gives them trouble in the real world, where things are inevitably messy and uncertain to varying degrees.




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