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science:the_curious_skeptic [2019-01-31 23:43 (18 months ago)]
Rik Blok
science:the_curious_skeptic [2019-11-23 21:55 (8 months ago)] (current)
Rik Blok
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-====== The Curious Skeptic ======+====== The Curious Skeptic (My teaching philosophy) ======
  
-My teaching is motivated by a desire to help students think clearly and independently.  believe people who think logically and come to their own conclusions do better for themselves and for society.  A critical first step in thinking clearly is to understand how you know the stuff you know.  There are many ‘ways of knowing’ and the scientific method is one of the most valuable among them.  It is unique in that scientific knowledge can be tested and potentially shown to be wrong.  By failing to show an idea is wrongwe gain confidence in it.  This is fundamentally different from other ways of knowing and makes Science powerful tool for clear thinking.  BelowI describe how my teaching encourages scientific thinking and the benefits of this kind of thinking.+Teaching is the most rewarding but also the hardest thing have done in my career.  It seems to me the immediate goal of an educator is to help students construct an accuraterobust, and useful internal representation of a subject.  (The ultimate goal can varybut usually involves learning how to learn — enabling the student to independently expand their knowledge and expertise.)
  
-===== Science =====+===== Challenges =====
  
-I teach Science.  Not physics, not zoology, etc., but Science.  The students who come into my classes are nearing completion of their Bachelor of Science degrees and they have very strong backgrounds in many different fields of science.  And yet they're usually missing something fundamental from their science education: an understanding of what Science //is// I don't blame them…or their instructors.  After all, it concerns issues that //I// didn't think much about until after I got my Doctorate!  When you're busy learning scientific theories and methods it's hard to step back and put it all in context.  Undergraduate science students today are “subconsciously” taking in bits and pieces of what Science is and how it works but they've never been pushed to formulate what it is in a cohesive, explicit manner. 
  
-So what is Science?  I don't want to fully define it here but let me just say it'specific way of understanding the world around us and our place in it.  But it's not the only way.  Isn't most university education about furthering our understanding?  Yet Science is only one faculty of many in a typical university.  At UBC in 2006/07 the Faculty of Science represented only about one quarter of all undergraduate students.  Clearly, there are many other ways to discover truths.  Consider some of the departments and schools in the Faculty of Arts: Fine Arts, History, Philosophy, Sociology, Religion, etc.  Each of these provides knowledge and understanding of important aspects of our experience.+Let’s use an analogy to highlight what makes teaching hard.  Consider how you would guide a friend to construct model bridge out of toy interlocking bricks.  There are many challenges that need to be addressed.  Does your friend have the necessary building blocks?  Do they already have pre-assembled the correct footings to attach the bridge?  How do you convey the required steps to them accurately and efficiently?  What’s more important for this model, building with the exact shapes or colours?  
  
-Science may be no better or worse a tool to gain understanding than the others I have mentioned.  But it is unique in how it works: scientists try to find explanations for nature's inner workings and then devise clever observations to test whether their explanations hold up to scrutiny.  In most other fields of study the ultimate litmus test is how palatable an idea is.  If it explains something and is consistent with our prior experiences then we may well accept new idea as true (or at least possible).  Conversely, if it runs contrary to our experience then we may reject it (or consider discarding some of our previously-held beliefs).  In the end, it'a personal test–we need to be personally convinced of new ideas in most fields.+A teacher faces similar difficulties: Does the student enter with the necessary background?  Are there gaps or wrong assumptions in their preconceptions?  How does the teacher help the student effectively parse new information and incorporate it into their understanding?  How, as educators, do we ensure we impart the knowledge we mean to, and not some spurious details? 
 +Then there is the difficulty of assessing a student’s understanding.  We have only indirect access to the student’s internal representation of a subject.  Even the best-designed assessments can only reveal fraction of a student’s understanding.  (Imagine we can’t see our friend’s model bridge.  How do we check if itbuilt correctly? We need to figure out, with only this limited information, how to help the student move forward.
  
-Scientific ideas, though, ultimately face the harsh judgment of cold, hard, objective reality((Note that not all ideas/explanations can be scientific. For example, there may be no way to design an experiment that could potentially falsify an idea. This is a topic of discussion left for another day. And I won't even get into the issue of whether an objective “Reality” exists.)).  It doesn't matter how elegant or powerful a new scientific explanation for a phenomenon may beif it fails to be supported by experiment we must discard it.  This is reminiscent of [[http://en.wikiquote.org/w/index.php?title=H._L._Mencken&oldid=636845#Sourced | H. L. Mencken]]'s wonderful barb: “there is always an easy solution to every problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”  I realize what I'm describing is an ideal—real science is often much messier and often parts with favoured theories only grudgingly—but it is an ideal we should //strive for//!+Those are some of the challenges an educator faces with each student.  On top of that, we spend most of our time teaching many (and diverse) students simultaneously.  How do we ensure that all students in a class are fully included and learning effectively?
  
-===== Curiosity & skepticism =====+I have been lucky to have some exceptional mentors throughout my teaching career.  I began as a graduate teaching assistant with the guidance of very gifted and dedicated instructors.  For many years, I had the wonderful opportunity to be paired up with passionate, experienced professors in team-taught courses.
  
-In essence, believe Science is driven by two motivators: //curiosity// and //skepticism//.  Research shows that curiosity is a strong predictor of academic success (von Stumm, Hell, and Chamorro-Premuzic 2011).  Curiosity makes us look at nature and ask, “That's interestingwhy should it be so?”  The question motivates us to come up with an explanation.  At this point, we've potentially increased our understandinglearned a new truth.  But how do we know it's true?  In many fields of study we would present an argument and try to convince our peers of the idea's truth.  But in Science we must be skepticswe have to test our theory against reality.  That means coming up with a prediction and looking at empirical evidence to see if it supports or rejects the idea.+learned many valuable lessons about teaching and pedagogy from my mentors.  And through themI was introduced to many different perspectives and philosophies of education.  But none would claim to have the best approach to teaching – or even that there exists an objectively best approach.  We each need to employ the tools and skills we haveto find an effective way to help students learn.  This is one of the things I love about teachingyou can’t expect to be perfect; you can only try to become better.
  
-To be clear, skepticism is not cynicism.  A cynic may say “Well, I don't believe that!”  But a skeptic would add “Let's find out!”  And therein lies the double-edged power of science: we try to make sense of our surroundings (curiosity) and then we test our ideas against available evidence (skepticism).  Perhaps we should call scientists “curious skeptics”.+===== Curiosity and skepticism =====
  
-And that's what want my students to become: curious skeptics.  That doesn't mean they should become career scientists (necessarily).  Rather, I'd like to foster curiosity and skepticism in their natures so it stays with them for lifewherever they go and whatever they do.  Some problems they encounter won't be amenable to this approach but many will.  And if they learn to reach first for their curiosity & skepticism when tackling a new problem, they'll quickly discover just how //many// questions //can// be approached scientifically!+What I’ve found works best for me is to try to foster a //scientific// attitude in my students.  Science is a complicated field, driven by many factors.  But the best scientists know share two great traits: //curiosity// and //skepticism//.  They ask questions, seek answers, and check that their answers make sense.  With this mindset, they tend to correct their own misconceptions and become less wrong.  I aim to develop this mindset in my students.
  
-Science works because nature is personally accessible.  Everybody can check the truth for themselves.  It's not always easy but in principle it can be done.  In facttesting theories in “everyday life” is often easier than it is in professional science.  Maybe you're thinking of buying a home.  Will it increase in value?  Here's a theory: property values increase with population density because land is a finite resource.  If that's true then you should be able to find a correlation between population and home values.  Those data aren't too hard to find. Science can be done by anyone.  Compare that with the effort that was put into trying to find the [[wp>Higgs boson]].+//Curiosity// is a wonderful motivator and motivated students learn better.  Indeedresearch shows that curiosity is a strong predictor of academic success (von Stumm, Hell, and Chamorro-Premuzic 2011).  I strive to rouse the curiosity my students already have, usually by demonstrating how techniques we are learning can shed new light on topics they’re already interested in.  That motivates them to invest the time necessary to learn these methods and skills.
  
-===== Benefits =====+Once they’ve developed the needed skills, students can satisfy their curiosity by applying them to a question of interest.  But there’s a hidden danger here: mistakes are common, especially for novices.  A naïve student, upon finding an “answer”, may leave off there.  If they’re wrong, they may never know and won’t have actually learned much.
  
-Why do want my students to become curious skeptics?  First, I want them to realize their full potential.  I get a lot of satisfaction personally from working neither above nor below my abilities and I believe that the same will hold for my students.  Applying curiosity and skepticism to their own persons will reveal their natural affinities and limitations.  While it can be bitter lesson at the momentI believe candidly evaluating oneself helps avoid more severe distress in the long-term.  (Not everybody can be an astronaut.)  SecondI believe my students will have an advantage in life by becoming curious skeptics.  These qualities are not widely taught but they are valuable.  So those who have them will have skills in demand.  A good boss will come to value the employee who challenges his/her assumptions.  (A poor boss won't—but do you really want to work for that kind of person?)+That’s why believe it’s important to foster //skepticism// alongside curiosity.  A skeptical student is motivated to check their solution, to make sure it’s plausible.  If they discover they’re wrong, they’ll seek to correct their misconception and learn the concept correctly.  Skepticism of one’s own ideas is kind of metacognitionthinking about thinking.  As argued by Finkdeveloping this mindset “enables students to continue learning in the future” (Fink 2013).
  
-But beyond that think fostering curious skepticism is a good thing for our society.  In the last several years we've seen a number of alarming policy decisions that appear to have been personally or politically motivated, rather than being based on evidence.  For example, last year [[http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/02/AR2006050201774.html | Canada cut funding]] for the [[wp>Kyoto protocol]] despite growing evidence that climate change is real and human-caused.  The debate over teaching [[wp>Intelligent Design]] in American science classrooms is [[http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/03/us/03evolution.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin | still being fought]] (even though it is not a scientific theory). And closer to home, it appears the [[wp>Insite]] supervised injection clinic is under constant threat of being shut down in spite of evidence that it [[http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2007.01818.x | helps addicts get off drugs]].  Even more overtlyrecently [[wp>Environment Canada]] scientists were instructed [[http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=47bf0fba-b98f-43fb-89fb-58b6464a7b24&k=65248 | not to talk to the media]] directly.  The motive here is unclear but the effect isn't: scientific evidence being collected on behalf of Canadian taxpayers is now being withheld and filtered from those same taxpayers. +want my students to become //curious skeptics//.  I try to foster curiosity and skepticism in their natures so it becomes ingrained.  By nurturing this attitudeI aim to put them on the path to becoming great scientists!
- +
-I have concerns that this trend signals a shift in attitudes: policy makers would rather make decisions that are easy, cheap, or self-serving than look skeptically at the problem and try to find solid evidence.  It is my hope that by encouraging curiosity and skepticism in students we can promote critical, evidence-based thinking in society and turn this trend around.+
  
 ====== References ======= ====== References =======
  
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science/the_curious_skeptic.txt · Last modified: 2019-11-23 21:55 (8 months ago) by Rik Blok

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