Even though I usually teach in the summer I still find this to be a time of reflection, a time for thinking about how to approach the coming academic year. The other day, my thoughts wandered towards what it means to be a science education researcher and what I might have to offer the wider scientific community.
In some way or another, I’ve been a science educator as long as I can remember. According to my mom my first words were “What’s that?” Always a curious kid, she often asked me to explain things to her, from science in the news to issues brought up by her doctors. I’ve been a science camp instructor, a school volunteer, a science teacher and a university science teacher educator. Sometimes the education is formal, where I have to work with a required curriculum and assess student understanding, others times it’s informal, taking friends, family and kids on a journey through the wonder of science (whoa, hold on there cheeseball…).
When I thought about what all of these experience have in common though it’s funny that I came up with something that isn’t explicitly about science: Science education in all of these varied forms is really about challenging people to change their minds. Sometimes the change is relatively minor, adding a new dimension to something already understood. Other times, the change is radical and I’m asking someone to completely rethink their understanding of reality. Teaching middle school students about the particulate nature of matter isn’t simply about learning some rules about solids, liquids and gases. It asks them to defy the understanding of the world that they have developed through their own experience for the past twelve or so years. Whether we recognize it or not, science educators are mind changing experts. It is what we do every day.
Science educators though aren’t the only ones with an interest in how to shift conceptions towards more scientifically accepted views. Advocates for evolution education, the organized sceptical movement, climate scientists, “Bad Science” followers and writers, for just a few examples, are all interested in what it takes to challenge others to rethink their views of the world and over the past year (and of course before that too) there have been frequent discussions about the best way to do it. What does it take to convince someone? Phil Plait’s “Don’t be Dick” talk at The Amazing Meeting 8 last year (an annual meeting for the community of scientific scepticism) addressed some of the issues head on, commenting on the tone of sceptical arguments and that shouting and calling someone an idiot (or worse brain damaged) might not be the best approach. The talk has been discussed widely since last summer (for example at Almost Diamonds and Pharyngula).
In the spring, I sat on a panel at LogiCon called “How to convince your friends and family that science is awesome” (a title which I still dearly love). During the panel, the chair, Desiree Schell, asked us if we think of ourselves as evangelists for science and how we approach the task of convincing friends and families to think scientifically. I need to confess something though: I didn’t think that deeply about the question (sorry Desiree). In my answer, I said that I try to be a stealth evangelist, taking an inclusive and non-confrontational approach. Maybe it’s from my days as a camp counsellor and from teaching little kids but I almost always start from a position of trying to be nice and to understand what the other person might be thinking or feeling (except of course when the phone company is driving me crazy, but that’s another story all together). The answer was genuine and seemed to be well received but the part I feel I need to apologize for is not actually answering it like a researcher.
Science education as a research area is relatively young but one of its core elements is conceptual change theory. Sharing a common history with parts of cognitive psychology, conceptual changes theories take a science education view of the problem of challenging people’s preconceptions. Conceptual change theorists have focus less on mechanisms of change and more on teaching and learning strategies aimed at changing students’ conceptions of scientific ideas and on the eventual long term impact of the strategies on students’ broad understanding of scientific concepts.
This summer, having been mostly a spectator in these discussions over the past year, I’d like to revisit the question that Desiree asked me and answer it from a different perspective: What does science education research (especially conceptual change research) tell us about the best way to change someone’s mind. Each week, I’ll be blogging a study related to this question, highlighting findings and evidence and making connections beyond the science classroom. It’s my small contribution to these ongoing debates and a way for me to challenge myself a little bit – is being a stealth evangelist supported by the research? There’s nothing like a little critical self-reflection to help a summer’s day go by.
Note: I made some minor wording edits to the first paragraph after posting this. They were made for clarity and flow only.