Arguing Could Lead to Better Science Education
Sometimes it seems that no matter how well an idea is accepted by the scientific community, there’s someone out there not willing to believe it. That’s why Jonathan Osborne, professor of education at Stanford University, says we should be teaching students how to argue based on evidence, not just cram facts into their head. The challenge, Osborne says, isn’t in getting students to argue — it’s getting teachers on board with teaching “argumentation.” Why not just argue with them until they agree?
Osborne isn’t alone in the idea that students need to learn to argue based on evidence. It’s considered a key practice by the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education, released last year. Specifically, that report calls for students to begin, “engaging in argument from evidence.”
The idea that a scientific idea has to be fought for is as old as science itself. We all know and accept the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun now, but Galileo had to defend that idea in court, and it nearly got him excommunicated from the Catholic Church as a heretic.
Not that Osborne wants to see children defend their scientific beliefs in court, he’d just like them to be able to if required. “In science, people argue for their ideas, in terms of the evidence that they have,” he said. “There should be more opportunities to look at why some ideas are wrong, as well as what the right ideas are.”
Osborne also calls the fact that peer review, though crucial to the scientific community for ideas to be validated, is not taught in K-12 education “a bit worrying.”
To test his theories on the importance of argumentation, Osborne set up pilot programs in 2007 at four schools in the United Kingdom that would teach students to argue based on evidence. The study lasted for two years, after which time the team analyzed the data, and were surprised by the results. There was no significant improvement in the student’s skills and understanding.
That could be because two years is not enough time to see major improvements, or the way the students were assessed was not good enough. It might also be because argumentation does not actually help students understand science any better, but Osborne doesn’t believe that’s the reason, and it’s a belief he’s willing to defend by getting more evidence to back him up.