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Teaching the practice of science,


unteaching the “scientific method”
by Konstantinos Alexakos

Does the scientific method


equal science?
During my first year of teaching science, I was intro-
duced to an article in Discover magazine about “hot-
heads.” This article, dated April 1, 1995, detailed the
discovery by wildlife biologist Aprile Pazzo of some
tiny, molelike mammals in Antarctica called “hot-
heads” that use their hot-plate-like foreheads to tunnel
through the ice under penguins and eat them (Folger
1995). Their foreheads get so hot (hence their name)
that they can melt the ice before the penguins can
waddle away. With these and other clues (the impos-
sibly high body temperature that melts ice, the names
of the scientist, Aprile Pazzo [pazzo means crazy/fool]
and the explorer, Philippe Poisson [poisson means
fish], the reader is meant to figure out that the entire
article (including the existence of the hotheads) was
published as an April Fool’s prank. I loved it and start-
ed asking my students to read it. While some students
caught on to the prank quickly, it came as a surprise
to me that most needed some nudging. Still, this ar-
ticle served as a nice icebreaker at the beginning of
the year, helping students to be more questioning and might be. To my astonishment, what emerged through
become more inquiry oriented. discussions was that as a result of constant drilling in
Interestingly, the same students who did not realize the scientific method, many students had been taught
on their own that such creatures cannot possibly exist to think of science as doing “cookbook” lab activities
often used the “scientific method” to justify their expla- devoid of anything stimulating or creative. Science and
nations. The article itself does not explicitly mention scientists for them could not be imaginative and funny,
such a method. It starts off with Pazzo’s observation and anything labeled “science” had to be believed. Such
of a penguin being attacked by the creatures, which assumptions and beliefs had helped create and foster
she then follows up with more observations. To these disconnects between these students and science.
students, sounding scientific was somehow closely It was just such mechanical teaching of science
connected with the scientific method and vice versa. that prompted education associations and scientists to
What became clear through our discussions was that explicitly repudiate the concept of one size fits all sci-
these students seemed to assume that if one follows entific method. NSTA’s Standards for Science Teacher
some predetermined, universal steps (any permutation Preparation specifically states that no such method
of hypothesis, experiment, observation, results, etc.) of exists, noting that inquiry should not be reduced to
the scientific method, one would automatically arrive the specific steps, but should be dynamic and reach
at the right answer, no matter how bizarre that answer beyond isolated procedures (NSTA 1998; 2003). Simi-

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FIGURE 1 Teacher notes for the density lab

1. Materials (per group of students): cup of pennies 5. It is very likely that each one of the nine trials each
(~50 each) of mixed years, graduated cylinders of group does will provide a different result given the
various diameters, triple-beam balances, source possible combinations of pennies. Often enough,
of water, paper towels. The materials for all of the students reconcile this by taking the average to find
groups should be grouped together. the density of one. I personally prefer that students
2. Each group of students is asked to take the equip- do their own (individual) written lab report before
ment and materials they think are necessary to find pointing out their differing trial results, and use this
the density of 10, 20, and 30 pennies. They are discrepancy in their results as a lesson about ques-
asked to perform three trials for each quantity, using tioning their findings.
different pennies each time. Students then use their 6. The whole-group discussion on the results of stu-
results to predict the density of one penny. (More dents’ labs should be framed as questions by the
advanced classes can skip the step with the 10, 20, teacher so that students begin to see the discrepan-
and 30 pennies, and just be asked to find the den- cies and inconsistencies on their own (rather than
sity of a penny using at least three different trials.) just being told). Possible questions could be about
3. When students are asked to decide which graduated are the definitions and differences between preci-
cylinders to use with no instructions how to use them, sion and accuracy, the meaning of density, and
they have to think of how to measure penny volume, whether the density of one penny is different than
and then which cylinder will give them a useful change the density of two pennies and why.
of water volume when they add the pennies. 7. Students can then be asked to investigate the offi-
4. As students begin to conduct this activity, the cial composition and density of the pennies, explain
teacher can carry out either whole-group discus- their results in light of this, and formulate possible
sions or a whole-class discussion on what the alternative trials for finding their densities.
operational definition of volume and density are and 8. By doing the trials again without mixing the be-
how to calculate each. In the process of doing the fore-1982 and the after-1982 pennies (and not
activity, students should be asked to modify their using the 1982 pennies at all), students should be
operational definition of density as a result of their able to arrive at the conclusion that the density does
experience, which should help them reframe and not depend on the number of pennies used.
revise their procedures.

larly, the National Science Education Standards state the “objectivity” of science, in the long run, personal
that “this standard [Science as Inquiry] should not be idiosyncrasies and quirks are often what guide solu-
interpreted as advocating a ‘scientific method.’ The tions to scientific questions. He viewed the hypotheti-
conceptual and procedural abilities suggest a logical cal objectivity and purity of the scientific method as a
progression, but they do not imply a rigid approach self-serving and harmful mythology.
to scientific inquiry” (NRC 1996, p. 6). In contrast to Yet in my experience, many teachers continue to
the unimaginative structure of the scientific method, teach the scientific method not only because they too
Thomas Kuhn (1996) argued that science is not only were taught to believe in it, but also because it is still
about increasing the accumulated amount of knowl- emphasized in many science textbooks. In a recent
edge, but of changing its meaning through novel and review of high school chemistry books, for example,
creative approaches that fundamentally change what almost all were found to “explicitly convey naive rep-
has already been accumulated. Similarly, Stephen J. resentations” of the scientific method (Abd-El-Khalick,
Gould (1994) suggested that while variation and indi- Waters, and Le 2008, p. 850). To help me get a better
viduality among humans may seem very different from understanding of the underlying arguments, as well as

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create new opportunities for my students to experience


Sample template for open-
FIGURE 2 ended laboratory report
more inquisitive approaches to “doing” science, I began
to explore other resources, especially the “Ten Myths
of Science” by William McComas (1996).
Below is a sample template I ask my students to fol-
low in writing up their investigations. Because many McComas’s Ten Myths of Science
students are not familiar with open inquiry, I find that
Students’ reactions to the hotheads article changed
at the beginning they need a lot of guidance and I
for the better when I introduced them to the “Ten
spend time directly facilitating the activity. As the se-
Myths of Science” article prior to asking them to read
mester progresses, students become more comfort-
the hotheads piece. As the title suggests, McComas
able working with such an approach and their work
argues against some of the enduring misconceptions
becomes more self-directed.
about science, including the widespread belief that
there is a universal scientific method, and asserts that
1. What is this lab about? Discuss what you are
teachers should be cautious of how they use the term
investigating and why (your goals).
“hypothesis” in school lab activities (“prediction” may
2. Explain how you went about investigating it.
instead be more appropriate). Especially apropos to
a. Discuss the steps your group followed in
some of the attacks on science today, he also address-
designing and conducting this experiment,
es why a theory in science is called a theory and a
including your setup, the equipment and tools
law a law, and that there is no hierarchy or order of
you used, and how you used them.
progression. Unfortunately, the scientific method, as
b. Use drawings to illustrate your work.
many students have come to understand it, embod-
3. List the data you collected.
ies and perpetuates many of the problematic ideas he
a. Use tables, graphs, or any other charts that
writes against. While students are drilled on the steps
may be necessary to organize and present
of the scientific method, they still have little under-
your data.
standing of practices in science.
4. Analyze the data you have collected.
The McComas article generates many healthy
a. Do your data address your goals?
discussions on the nature and practice of science, the
b. Justify your results.
methods scientists use to investigate science, and how
5. Conclusions
science as perceived by scientists is different from
a. What did you do?
popular understandings of science. It is not uncommon
b. What observations did you make and what are
for students to complain that what McComas exposes
your findings?
as myths often represented what they were taught as
c. How do they meet (or not meet) your goals?
science. They were led to believe that science is static
d. Are the findings what you expected? Explain.
and uninteresting, and that they would be penalized if
e. Discuss the different strategies you attempted
they did not follow the steps of the scientific method.
in setting up and carrying out your work (and
Many students report their science fair projects being
how successful they were), your analysis, any
judged on how well they followed the prescribed steps,
unexpected results, errors, possible alternative
and their laboratory experiences as being exclusively
findings, and explanations.
verification activities that made science boring and
f. Discuss any revisions that you think may be
uninteresting, creating the impression that, as one of
necessary in regard to your methods and
my students put it, science has “no room for creativity.”
findings.
They are surprised to learn that science is a creative
6. Reflections
process, where the methods and outcomes are often
a. What do you think of this experience? Why?
not known from the start. As a result of the controversy
b. What did you learn?
and excitement generated by reading the McComas
c. How did this activity help you (or not)?
piece, students begin to see science in a more positive
d. What were some of the issues and how did
light and become more comfortable with questioning
you deal with them?
“objective” observations and claims. Students have an
7. Suggestions?
easier time arriving at the conclusion that “hotheads”

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are fictional, and that the article is meant for them to its implications. Students are provided with cups of pen-
be more inquisitive and question what is presented as nies (each having approximately 50 pennies of mixed
“science.” mint years), graduated cylinders of various diameters,
and metric triple-beam balances. Each student group is
asked to find the densities of batches of 10, 20, and 30
Developing inquisitive habits pennies and, using these results, determine what the
with open-ended activities density of a single penny may be. For equipment, each
Even with the myths and hotheads discussions at the of the groups is asked to pick on their own whatever
beginning of the semester, I still find that students they think is necessary from what I have provided for
have a hard time operationalizing their newly found the whole class. Rather than accept the formula as a
understanding of scientific thinking and in applying definition, I ask them to come up with an operational
it to topics they are studying. For instance, when do- definition of density (describing in simple words the
ing lab activities, they are just as comfortable with actions through which one finds a numerical value for
odd measurements and results as they are with any it) as they are doing the activity. This leads to a discus-
outcome (e.g., the weight of a 500 g cube is 500 lbs). sion about what mass and volume themselves are. Stu-
At the same time, and not surprisingly, students still dents’ operational definitions for density provide them
manage to get the “correct” results in cookbook lab with a guide for how to start the activity and solve for
experiments even when the equipment they use is density. Because the discussion is taking place at the
not in perfect condition. They generally know what beginning of the investigation, it provides students with
they should get; the answer is often in the stated hy- a chance to reformulate their definitions as a result of
pothesis. Because many students deeply believe that their hands-on experience. This reformulation in turn
science can be reduced to a method of duplicating the helps them further restructure how they carry out
right answers through a prescribed set of steps, and the activity. What students are not told is that pennies
that science does not have to make sense, their lab re- minted before 1982 have a different metal content and
sults often go unquestioned, even when these results therefore density than those minted after 1982 (pennies
are contrary to what they expect. minted in 1982 may be of either density).
To encourage students to be more inquisitive and Students have the oddest ideas about masses and
questioning of lab results (and move them away from volumes and how to measure them. For example, many
the rigidity they ascribe to the scientific method), the students think that different quantities of pennies will
activities they are assigned become more and more have different densities based on the number of pen-
open ended as the semester progresses, and the results nies (not because they are aware of the differences
not so obvious. When studying waves, for instance, I in composition). Having students decide on how to
distribute Slinkies and ask pairs of students to come up carry out the investigation and what equipment to
with some different wave characteristics. The first time use (they are not provided with instructions) opens
I did this, I was surprised to see students just holding further discussion about the tools we use in a lab and
the Slinkies, totally bewildered as to how to start since why, as well as about concepts such as precision and
I had not given them any other directions. For them, accuracy. Asking students to ponder what to do and ar-
science did not connect with having fun or exploring. I rive at and implement their own decisions and choices
therefore encouraged students to just start playing with makes concepts more salient and, judging by their
the Slinkies. Once they started having fun, I asked each excitement, a lot more interesting and enjoyable than
pair of students to carefully stretch the slinky between traditional labs. Furthermore, it encourages students
them and start shaking it. Once they got into the activ- to work collaboratively, as they need to rely on each
ity, creating and investigating waves became fun and other to design and implement such activities.
educational. Once students have made their trials for each of the
Another exercise I often use is finding the density three sets of pennies, I ask them to write a report of
of pennies that, unknown to students, have a variety their results. Because of the differences in composition
of compositions (see Figure 1). Many students are and the possible combinations of pre- and post-1982
already familiar with the formula for density (mass/ pennies, each one of the trials is typically found to give
volume), even if they are a bit unsure of the concept and a different density, but this does not often raise much

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concern. Sometimes, students writing their report (see science as undeniable and unchanging truths, it leads
Figure 2) may be curious as to the discrepancies and them to cynicism toward science when they discover
look up a penny’s density on the internet, but (unfortu- later in life that this is not so.
nately) this does not happen frequently. When I return Empirical results and experimental observations
their reports, I challenge them on the discrepancies and evidence are the cornerstones of today’s sciences.
among their results by asking them to explain how and While scientists do use such methods and results to
why they could have gotten such diverse answers. This justify their findings, the objectification and pontifica-
leads to additional discourse on what may be an accept- tion of the empirical method as portrayed through the
able percentage of error, and sources of errors such as dogmatism of the scientific method is a dangerous
process and equipment. Having students think about and misleading fallacy. Gould (1987) argues that the
the activity allows for further rethinking of the scientific scientific method is an oversimplified process of how
method and science processes in general, especially on investigations are carried out in science. He points
the question of how we deal with discrepancies. out that unlike how the scientific method is taught
While the hotheads article challenges the irrefutabil- in schools, many actual scientific investigations take
ity of the results of the scientific method, students’ belief place outside of the laboratory, and many scientific
in it is so deeply ingrained in how they view science that inferences are not limited to direct vision. He cites
it takes a lot of undoing to effectively contest it. The as examples the evolution of dinosaurs into birds and
penny-density activity contributes in-depth, inquiry- the creation of the Himalayas; these phenomena took
generated discussion about density. This allows for place too far in the past for anybody to have seen them
further conversations about other deeply held student or be able to reproduce them experimentally. Still, the
beliefs on density, such as that a single penny can have theories of evolution and plate tectonics are not any
a different density than 20 pennies of the same composi- less scientific. Though engaging in a few open-ended
tion (quantity should not matter, only composition). activities during one semester may not always get stu-
dents to move away from the scientific method and be
more inquisitive about their lab results, it does help in
It is OK to be baffled opening them up to such ideas. In open-ended activi-
What to investigate and what to include in the find- ties, the question, method, and solution could all be
ings can be very messy and is a personal decision. It is left open (Schwab 1960). While there is a lot of initial
not unusual for scientists at the frontier of knowledge resistance by students to noncookbook-type activities,
to be baffled and get into intense arguments. As Neil using scientific principles to question and analyze
deGrasse Tyson once quipped: “Stop the presses! To claims becomes easier as the class progresses; many
scientists, the universe is a source of endless puzzle- students come to actually prefer them.
ment” (Tyson 2002, p. 22). Past and present challeng- In investigating how seasoned scientists reason as
es such as climate change, bacterial drug resistance, they seek solutions to their own science questions, Kevin
genetic engineering, the search for life on other Dunbar (2000) found that rather than thinking alone,
planets, the treatment of cancer, and the creation of they engage together with others in their reasoning, and
alternate energy sources need not just empirical ex- that they pay extra attention to unusual and unexpected
perimentation and evidence but also original, imagi- results. Using inquiry-type activities in middle school to
native, and creative new approaches. The Earth sys- challenge and encourage students to question as well
tem, for example, is made up of components that are as co-construct with their peers their own methods of
too dynamic and complex, with many feedbacks and resolving science questions helps promote and develop
interactions, to be resolved through the reduction- scientific thinking and practices. n
ist methodology of the scientific method. Almost 50
years ago, Joseph Schwab argued against the teach- References
ing of science as a collection of facts that are “treated Abd-El-Khalick, F., M. Waters, and A.-P. Le. 2008. Represen-
as self-existing givens” (Schwab 1960, p. 178). He tations of nature of science in high school chemistry text-
argued for teaching students in ways that would pre- books over the past four decades. Journal of Research in
pare them to be comfortable when facing new, novel Science Teaching 45 (7): 835–55.
situations. He believed that when students are taught Dunbar, K. 2000. How scientists think in the real world:

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Implications for science education. Journal of Applied dards for science teacher preparation. Arlington, VA: NSTA.
Developmental Psychology 21 (1): 49–58. National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 2003. Stan-
Folger, T. 1995. Strange molelike animal melts ice tunnels dards for science teacher preparation, revised edition.
with its head. Discover 16: 14–15. http://discover Arlington, VA: NSTA.
magazine.com/1995/apr/01-molelike-animal-melts-ice- Schwab, J.J. 1960. Inquiry, the science teacher, and the
tunnels-with-its-head. educator. School Review 68 (2): 176–95.
Gould, S.J. 1987. Darwinism defined: The difference be- Tyson, N.D. 2002. On being baffled. Natural History 111 (4): 22.
tween fact and theory. Discover 8 (1): 64–70.
Gould, S.J. 1994. In the mind of the beholder. Natural His- Resources
tory 103 (2): 14–23. The composition of the cent—www.usmint.gov/about_the_
Kuhn, T.S. 1996. The structure of scientific revolutions. 3rd mint/fun_facts/index.cfm?action=fun_facts2
ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McComas, W.F. 1996. Ten myths of science: Reexamining
what we think we know about the nature of science.
School Science and Mathematics 96: 10–16.
National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science Konstantinos Alexakos (alexakosk@brooklyn.
education standards. Washington, DC: National Acad- cuny.edu) is an assistant professor in the School of
emies Press. Education at Brooklyn College, CUNY, in Brooklyn,
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). 1998. Stan- New York.

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