Yesterday, at an educational training, I sat down to lunch with a woman in charge of a large Head Start program in the Pacific Northwest. Through our small talk, she learned that I had been a secondary science teacher for six years, and then informed me that her program was going to focus on science during the next school year. I was excited to think of the possibilities of an early-childhood education program with a science focus and listened as she expressed concern that she hadn’t yet managed to convince her staff of the value of a science-focus. Lunch ended before we could finish our conversation, but I’m still thinking about it a day later.
Obviously I am biased, but I am a strong advocate of a scientific (in the sense of “occupied or concerned with science”) approach to teaching at all levels. My reasoning for a scientific approach is not because I have complete faith in the primacy of the scientific method as a way knowing, but because I believe science (in its broadest sense as “systematized knowledge in general” or “knowledge gained by systematic study”) to be an interdisciplinary study. Art, Music, Language, Literature, the various Social Sciences, and Mathematics would benefit from what I would term, a scientific approach to teaching, or perhaps, a scientific approach to curriculum.
Below I share what I believe are the crucial components to a “scientific approach to teaching”.
1. Foster a sense of wonder
I would challenge all educators to become familiar with Rachel Carson’s short work, The Sense of Wonder. All science, all true knowledge and understanding, begins with a sense of wonder, an intense curiosity about “why” and “how”. Too often, our teaching at all levels focuses on the “who, what, and where” of the world around us and treats the potentially awe-inspiring matters of “why” and “how” as simply another “what” to memorize. A scientific approach to teaching encourages learners to wonder about “why” and “how”.
2. Encourage observation
A sense of wonder is grounded in a keen awareness of one’s surroundings. Scientific knowledge is based in empirical data, data gathered from experience and observation. Encourage learners to attend to details and use their senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell whenever appropriate. Challenge learners to record these details qualitatively and quantitatively. A scientific approach to teaching gives learners many appropriate opportunities to use their senses and record their observations.
3. Push for analysis
Wonder grows with understanding and understanding comes of analysis. Quantitative analysis is the heart of much of what we traditionally consider the realm of science and mathematics. Quantative analysis also reaches deep into the realms of the social sciences, of economics, psychology, sociology, and many others. But qualitative analysis is also valid; it has a place in the sciences, the social sciences, and is especially important in the arts and literature. Provide time for learners to revisit their observations and search for patterns, in whatever form they may take. Push learners classify, connect, and count. A scientific approach to teaching pushes learners to seek for patterns.
4. Require communication
Like most things in life, wonder is best appreciated when shared. Our languages provide us with means of communication, but human language is far from our sole source of expression. Prod learners toward precision in their descriptions of the world around them and the findings of their analyses. But also instruct learners on the use of ambiguity in the creative expression of emotion and personal experiences. A scientific approach to teacher requires learners to communicate their learning.
I see a scientific approach to teaching as a way to guide learners in the process of transforming the concrete objects and artifacts in the world around them into the abstract concepts that inhabit the human mind. Each step in the process is crucial. Without a sense of wonder, the learner will have no desire to continue the journey. If a teacher fails to take the time to sufficiently ground the learner in concrete observation, the learner will be lost in unrecognizable terrain. The skills of analysis are what will enable learners to chart future courses for independent learning, while the powers of clear communication and creative expression are what will bind the learner to the rest of the human race.
So how about it? Do you agree, disagree? What would a scientific approach to teaching look like in a Pre-K science lesson or a college art history class? I’d love to know what others think.