I have a confession to make: I cringe a little every time I see a school science or science outreach program justified by saying something like, “Young children are natural scientists, truly curious about the world” (That particular quote is from the Delaware Museum of Natural History). I feel like a curmudgeon about it because it often comes with really good intentions to get students actively involved in doing science (something I definitely support).
The problem is that it’s an analogy that gets taken way too far. The analogy has its roots in cognitive science, as a way to talk about what was at first a radically different way of thinking of how children make sense of the world. Instead of thinking of young children as trainable blank slates, it is much more accurate to recognize that they are actively trying to understand the world around them (both the physical world and the social world). Their actions are a bit like those of scientists: They experiment and propose explanations, they ask questions, make predictions and see what happens (an idea often traced back to Piaget).
Describing them as scientists is a wonderful and rich analogy. The problem is that like all analogies, it breaks down, and this one breaks down especially clearly when it’s applied specifically to science learning. Child-as-natural-scientist arguments tend to equate curiosity and exploration with the expert practice of science, something that under-plays and devalues the difficult and complex world of scientists. Sometimes it is even used to say that as they grow up students somehow lose something they had that made them natural scientists. Taken to the extreme it sometimes comes across as saying that they actually become less scientific as they get older. This completely misses point: science isn’t just a grown up version of a child’s curiosity. While kids have the fertile beginnings, becoming a scientist requires that they learn and skillfully practice many abstract skills that are far from intuitive. When students struggle with scientific thinking later in life it isn’t because they have unlearned or lost the ability, it’s because they (for any number of reasons) didn’t get to take the next steps to developing those skills and understandings[i] (This is something I’ve written about before, and Matthew Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum has reflected thoughtfully on it from his perspective as well.)
Despite my curmudgeonly protestations it continues as a common refrain, especially among my undergraduate science education students, mostly future science teachers. I normally respond with approximately what I said above, but I find that in the process of convincing them to be a bit more critical of the analogy we lose a really nice part of it: the way it seems to motivate teachers and science outreach educators. It feels good to think about kids that way and it makes our work with them feel important and valuable , which it is.
In an unlikely place, though, I think I’ve found a better way to talk about it with my students.
The Association for Psychological Science recently posted a summary of a panel from their 24th Annual Convention. The panel was called “Music, Mind, and Brain” and featured psychologists and neuroscientists talking about their research into music appreciation and behaviour. For example Aniruddh D. Patel explained the complex social interactions that result from following a beat along with a crowd. I clicked through to read it because of my interests in science-music connections, not at all expecting to make a link to science education. The surprise came at the end with the panel’s coda speaker: bassist Victor Wooten (best known as a member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones).
Wooten talked about his experiences growing up and learning to play in a completely immersive way, joining the family band at a time when most kids are being sent off somewhere for their first piano lesson. He explained that he learned music in the way that most of us learn our first language – by jumping in and doing it. We don’t send toddlers off to controlled environments to learn about subject-predicate orders. They don’t get practice exercises and aren’t confined to a beginners’ book of words and phrases. They learn by being in and around experts, interacting with them. “Basically, said Wooten, from the very start of your linguistic training, you’re allowed to ‘jam with the pros.’” There is even two way communication, where kids’ phrases and expressions are adopted by parents and siblings. Wooten apparently went on to say that while lots of people recognize that music is like a language, they don’t stop to think of how much benefit there might be in treating musical training more like first language training – something that happens naturally and immersively.
Having had my share of disappointment and frustration as a young musician, brushed aside by family members and teachers as too in-expert to participate, his views resonated with me. As I read it, I wondered how my musical life might be different if I’d had that kind of experience (My piano, that is only played when I am completely alone, probably agrees.) And them bam – those kids-as-scientists arguments slammed into the front of my brain. What would it mean to think about science learning as something immersive and natural like language?
This has some connections to Lave and Wenger’s conceptions of communities of practice, something science educators have picked up on and used as a way to talk about science classrooms and teacher development. It has built into it, the idea of legitimate peripheral participation, the idea that there should be a place for novices to be both a part of the community but also a learner. Usually though, the community of practice is defined locally, i.e., within at the level of classroom or school or municipality.
I liked the idea of thinking bigger about this, about a larger community. As with music, we do too often treat students as complete novices without the assumption that they are already part of a community. Not because they’re scientists but because they’re people. This is what I like about Wooten’s way of thinking about it. The “experts” in his first language analogy are everyday speakers of a first language rather than linguists (or literature scholars or…). Researchers like Collins and Evans, tackling the sociology of expertise, also respect first language development as an expertise. While it’s ubiquitous, it requires significant time and work to develop.
Likewise it might be helpful to think of kids not as beginning natural scientists but as natural members of a wider public community that is interested in, affected by and using science (basically everyone). I am not all the first person to think of this (e.g., linguist J.P. Gee explored using first language acquisition as an analogy for developing learning theories) but I was struck by how much Wooten’s comparison to music made it snap into focus for me.
So what would “child as immersed in a public scientific community” really look like? It’s hard to say. School science is a very particular type of science, often divorced from both the professional practice of science and more public conversations (e.g., Roth & Bowen, 1999). High school lab internships are one type of example and some extraordinary classrooms have contributed directly to scientific literature, such as the British school children who published their bee research in Biology Letters. But this is still about participating in the professional scientific community, as junior scientists. When it comes to broader participation, even great teaching and great outreach programs can feel like the kindermusic or piano lesson equivalent of science, where students are sent off as a group to learn and practice as novices, not the natural and immersive learning of a first language. Is there such a thing as “conversational science” like the expertise of native speakers?
I’m honestly not exactly sure what it might be. My colleague Jrene Rahm, from the Université de Montréal has been involved in a cool program called Scientifines, which includes students publishing their own science newsletter. Angela Calabrese Barton, from the Michigan State, has engaged students in community oriented-research and advocacy through community food projects. These do seem to start to get at the idea of learning naturally through immersion in a wider public scientific community but I need time to consider if further. Is there such a thing as conversational science? Is participating in the wider conversation about science something that students can be immersed in in the way they’re immersed in conversational first language?
Of course, this is of course another analogy that will have its own shortcomings but I’m intrigued about by how it’s made me see things a little differently. When the topic of child as natural scientist comes up, I can’t wait to ask my students this coming year what they think.
[i] It’s not lost on me that this also leaves me mired in deficit model thinking about science though, an uncomfortable place for sure. I ask that you forgive this bit of hyperbole. I know of course that participation, even expert participation, in science is much more complicated than having the opportunity to develop certain skills.