My summer project: A science education perspective on changing people’s minds

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.


15 responses to “My summer project: A science education perspective on changing people’s minds”

  1. I thought your original response to the question was thoughtful and empathic, but I’m more than willing to agree with you that it was unacceptable if this is the kind of project it creates. 🙂

    I will anxiously await each and every installment. Thank you!

  2. Hi Dr Shanahan. I’m Cris Felipe Alves and I’ll be following your blog. After 15 years of academic research I became fascinated by science communication and have enrolled in a postgradute program at the University of Otago,

    NZ. I’m also very interested in conceptual change theories, as I’m looking for efficient ways to convince researchers and scientists – not the public – that there are novel strategies out there which can help share and broadcast scientific results to one another more efficiently.

    I believe if we revamp the way science is communicated among scientists, we may engage even more with the public. Social networks websites, video-sharing websites, blogs, audio and video podcasts… all can make invaluable contributions to the way scientists talk to each other. I heard about your summer project via my Twitter account (SciCoNewZ) and yet, the vast majority of my colleagues think Twitting is either for birds or for people with a lot of free time in their hands.

    Nevertheless, here’s a good challenge to the conceptual change proposal: scientists seem very unwelcoming to the idea of adding to or even replacing the outdated (in my humble opinion) scientific manuscript/paper. This is a behavior I’m determined to explore and understand. I hope I can learn from your posts. Thus, I’ll be a regular reader of your blog.

    • Nice to meet you! You pose an interesting question about changing scientific publishing models as a conceptual change process. I hadn’t thought of it in this way. I’ll keep it in mind as I write these posts, whether there are particular elements that might be applicable.

  3. I am also really interested in your take on these questions, which I struggle with as well. I am a cognitive psychologist, but I also teach General Psychology to freshmen and sophomores, and a senior History and Philosophy of Psychology course to seniors. I feel like a wonder in science, a joy in the process, and some understanding of how science works really should be a subtext of every single college science course. Just the same, I am not afraid to admit that changing people’s minds is really really tricky work, I know that there are some people who get out of the psych major still having doubts about evolution (yes, even despite my fantastic class on the evolution of the eye!).
    I wonder sometimes whether teaching more history of science might be a good answer. I think a forceful argument for evolution are all the predictions that Darwin made that were not known at that time, but evidence was eventually found. Or the different struggles to measure longitude, or the size of the earth, etc.
    Anyways, really looking forward to reading you thoughts on this.

    • I wish I could take your class! 🙂
      And I concur – those really are the key elements to inspiring science education. And the history and philosphy of science are rich resources for making it happen. Have you read Matthews’s “A time for science education”?:

  4. Hi there, I’m really looking forward to finding out where this questions will lead you… I firmly agree with your point about understanding your audience, it’s something that has been discussed at length here in the Czech Republic (I’m on a work placement at a science centre here). As far as I can gather from my colleagues and a couple of reports, the focus of science communication has been mostly focused on “making science popular” and “winning over the general public” rather than encouraging scientists and the public to maintain a healthy, trusting relationship.

    At the risk of shameless plugging, you may actually find my recent blog post interesting – – and it also references a report about the response of a former-eastern-bloc country to a felt need to catch up with modern views of science in society 🙂

    Anyway, I look forward to reading more, and applying what I learn to changing Czech minds 😉

    • Hi Mia – Thanks for reading. And thanks for the link to your blog as well. I’m sure your placement is providing rich ground for exploring what science education and outreach mean!

  5. It’s an interesting question as to whether the research supports a more subtle, ‘stealthy’ approach to science education over more challenging, explicit practices. In my experience, however, the question is muddied a little by the assumption that education is what occurs in single instances, events or situations.

    I’ve lost count on how often I’ve heard discussions that focus on the ‘best’ way to change perceptions or overturn a belief, almost as often as I’ve heard discussions on the ‘best’ way to teach a student a single idea. The problem is that it isolates aspects of the learning experience. Until fairly recently, pedagogy has long concerned itself with the relationship between the teacher and the learner, especially as a unilateral experience (teacher teaches, learner learns – how do you make this process as productive as possible?). Yet while we can certainly explore educational instances (and there are effective and ineffective practices where these are concerned), I think a more productive approach is to think about how diverse learning experiences work together – especially under different social conditions, be it at school or in a family setting – to create beliefs and learning skills.

    Unfortunately, this makes it hard for us as individuals to do more than play our part in progressing the epistemology of others. It means we can’t arm ourselves as lone gunmen with silver bullets and hunt down myths to destroy. But given the complex nature of social epistemology and how we all learn as individuals, I don’t really see any other approach bearing fruit.

    • Tribal Scientist, you gave away my best punchline! – that there is no one best approach and even those that seem the best are fraught with challenges. And you are absolutely right that scientific understanding does not come from a single incident and nor is it something transmitted to students by teachers or that is the exclusive prevue of schools. Much of the current science education literature explores not only social epistemology but the complex ways in which learning is bound up in identity, self, and community. (Have you read any of Angela Calabrese Barton’s recent work? – if not, it might be of interest). That said, to completely ignore the idea of explicit teaching and what has been learned from studying it is to not be able to understand some of these very interactions and their, often unintended, consequences. I’m not searching for any magic bullets here – like you, I recognize that they don’t exist – but hoping to make some meaning for myself and anyone else who is interested out of what has been done in science education research for the past few decades on the topics of conceptual and belief change. I hope you’ll stop by again to join in!

      • Sorry about spoiling your ending. 😛 I’m like that with books too.

        The only thing that comes to mind with Barton’s work is something I read on nutrition and learning, which piqued my interest given similar experiences I had in the UK with poor nutrition seeming to correlate with a poor learning environment. But I will see if I can dig up more of her work in other fields, now that you’ve suggested it.

        I hope I wasn’t coming across as critical of your ideas here – if more educators, writers and communicators stopped to think about their strategies in relation to their goals, I think education would be able to keep up a lot more with the needs of the community. I’ll certainly come back and read up on your thoughts.

  6. TribalScientist – Haha, I’ll watch out for that if I’m ever writing a book review here 😉
    And I think you’re right that Barton has done some work with cultural understandings of nutrition and its relationship to science education. My favourite place to start with her work would be “Teaching Science with Homeless Children” (Calabrese Barton, 1998) – I know, not the most recent but a classic. An interesting newer one is:
    Calabrese Barton, A. & Tan, E. (2010). We be burnin: Agency, Identity and Learning in a Green Energy Program. (I’m pretty sure it’s available on her website as preprint
    And don’t worry about being critical – your comment was really good. Even though my own research is on identity in learning and mostly sociocultural, it’s actually pretty easy to get swept away with recommended approaches and thinking to reductively. I was glad for the reminder!

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