Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bad for Pluto, Good for Educators

Mike Smith's article on really hits the nail on the head about the lesson of the Pluto controversy for educators. Science is all about asking questions and debating conclusions based on evidence. It should never have been enough to memorize the names of the nine planets, and now, hopefully, it will not be.

In an essay submitted to NASA as part of the 2005 report on NASA and Afterschool Programs, David Hammer and Janet Coffey offer the following as one recommendation of how NASA can contribute to after-school science learning:
"Highlight controversies and confusions ... for children to learn how science progresses through argumentation, they need to be able to see some. At one level, they need to see, simply, that disagreements are not only inevitable, but productive; scientists like to find things to argue about, because arguments are opportunities for learning.

... this can happen at different levels, depending on the students. Early, it may be enough for them to see that scientists argue in these ways; later, they can start to understand the specifics of a debate. Then the objective can be for them to see the logic and evidence on either side, even if—especially if!—the controversy is not yet resolved. If the main objective were students’ acquiring knowledge, this might be counter-productive, because they’d hear conflicting ideas. But we second the reports’ view that this shouldn’t be the main objective; that’s already the focus in schools. Instead, NASA can help afterschool provide something that doesn’t happen in class, opportunities for students to see and experience how the game is played.

For the same reasons, it is helpful to display mistakes and confusions that happen in authentic science. Students need to see that scientists shoot and miss, as they do in basketball. It’s not the same as having a teacher tell them it’s okay that scientists make lots of mistakes; they’d get much more out of having access to particular examples and the people involved."

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