Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Measuring higher level scientific thinking?

(A take-home quiz given recently to my 8th grade son).

I'm tempted to add a question or two:

11. Suppose questions 1 through 10 above represent an attempt to assess the ability to assess experimental design. Which of the following should be done to improve this assessment:

a. Omitting obvious experimental design errors that no one is likely to make, especially when they are displayed clearly in pictures (different sized circles) or spelled out explicitly in words ("in the sun;" "in the shade").

b. Avoiding vaguenesses ("some bacteria"? "milk"?) that make it hard to understand what the experiment includes and does not include (more than one kind of bacteria? of milk?).

c. Not confusing concepts with simple key word mappings ("control"="measurable variable"; "constant"="same amount").

d. Field-testing this exam to find out whether it makes any predictions about students' experiment design skills.

e. All of the above, and more (can experimental design skills be abstracted away from content, or, like so many other instances of "higher level thinking," are they domain-specific?)


Hainish said...

I'm used to Singapore Math vs. Constructivist Crapola, but these science questions made me groan inwardly.

It's all process, dumbed down considerably. Where's the science? What is gained by using these particular examples rather than, say, Redi's experiment, Pasteur's, the discovery of Vitamin B1?

Katharine, would you mind sharing who the publisher of this content is?

Brian Rude said...

Arguing against the scientific method is sort of like arguing against motherhood and apple pie. But I'm used to being the grinch, so here goes.

I would argue that in general the type of science appropriate for elementary and secondary education is primarily descriptive. To be scientifically literate students must build up a mass of information. That takes years to do. Without a solid foundation of information, much of which can be called descriptive information, there is nothing on which critical thinking can be applied.

We do not know about the world primarily through experimentation. We learn about the world primarily by making plausibility estimates. Contrived experimentation is important, but only key points in the development of a science. Contrived experimentation is a very ineffective and inefficient for learning science. Explanation and plausibility fitting are effective and efficient.

I have developed ideas along these lines in two articles on my website. "Rules and Methods of Science" is at, and "The Rationale Of Laboratory Exercises In The Teaching Of Science" is at

Anonymous said...

Well, apart from the age-appropriateness and subject-appropriateness of this quiz, there's the problem that it's a take-home quiz. Who do you think will do best -- children with science-oriented parents? Of course. I agree with Brian that in 8th grade, you want to begin to expose students to the scientific method (actually, you can do it earlier than that in an indirect way), but to have an entire quiz that asks students to pick apart flawed experiments -- that's not good pedagogy. This is, presumably, an 8th grade General Science class; it should be focusing on developing the knowledge base.