Written by Julia Burton
Learning science in school is a great way of developing students’ critical and creative thinking skills while engaging them in classroom activities.
Importance of science in school
Children are naturally curious and love exploring the world around them – they are natural scientists! Learning science in school teaches our children how to make evidence-based decisions and helps prepare them for life in rapidly evolving societies.
Science lets students find explanations to their questions about the world around them. Science education is about teaching students to seek evidence and apply their knowledge to find answers to questions that interest them. These critical thinking and analytical skills are more important than ever as we are bombarded by misinformation, fake news and pseudo-science. We need to be able to evaluate information given, in order to figure out what to trust and what to disregard.
Learning to ask the “right” questions
Students need to understand scientific ideas, but they also need to be scientifically literate. Gaining that literacy involves learning how to question statements and find an appropriate explanation. They also need to learn how to investigate, evaluate and apply knowledge to reach an evidence-based conclusion. These science literacy skills are all key features of the scientific method.
The ability to use prior knowledge and draw evidence-based conclusions to inform decision-making is the basis of scientific literacy. Simply following a set of steps in a science experiment to achieve the “right” result won’t develop these skills. Instead, students need to have opportunities to take ownership of their own learning. They can do this by designing their own science experiments within the scaffold their teachers provide, or investigate phenomena to figure out the “rules”.
The scientific method gives teachers a framework for teaching critical, evaluative thinking and creative problem-solving skills. It can teach students how to ask questions in a way that they can then test. As well as how to carry out those tests and how to evaluate evidence. Each of these skills is important to real life.
Making learning science fun
Science experiments don’t have to stick to the template of students following a set of instructions to get the “right” answer. They are far more effective if students investigate what happens when they manipulate aspects of their world. Why are bubbles always round? Why do some objects float while others sink? How can I build a stronger bridge or a taller tower? Play becomes science when children find evidence-based reasons for their observations.
Play-based learning is a pedagogical approach that is common in early childhood education but much less so in primary and secondary schools. It allows children to direct their own learning while developing investigative, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Most importantly, with this approach students are having fun while they are learning! Science experiments and activities can harness the same pedagogy. This gives teachers a great opportunity to engage students at all levels in science and help them grow into curious, lifelong learners.
There’s no such thing as a wrong result
Teachers with a non-science background can find it daunting to conduct experiments with their classes. Science experiments often “go wrong” and it can be challenging to explain why the results aren’t what you expected. Students can become discouraged and think that they are no good at science if they can’t do it “right”.
It’s easy to forget that, before they begin an experiment, scientists usually don’t know for sure what the results will be. They have a hypothesis of what they think will happen and they design an experiment to test it. Any results that prove a hypothesis wrong are just as valid as results that support it. The fundamental purpose of any scientific experiment is to find an explanation for the results you get. There’s no such thing as wrong result. Rather, an unexpected result may indicate an incorrect hypothesis or an opportunity to investigate further to figure out what’s produced it.
Getting an unexpected result is also a great opportunity for teachers to model a deductive process to identify what caused it. Were all the steps taken in the right order? Was a step added or missed? Did something contaminate the experiment? Was another variable that you didn’t consider involved? Try repeating the experiment to see if the same thing happens again. Often this process will lead to deeper learning than you would achieve from getting the “right” result first time round.
It’s important for teachers to be confident in their understanding of the scientific concepts behind the experiments and activities. This will allow them to help students pinpoint the issues when things appear to go awry. To this end, it helps to draw on resources that explain underlying scientific concepts quickly and easily. Most teachers do not have time to spend hours researching the answers on their own.
Science doesn’t just happen in a lab. It is all around us every day and plays an increasingly significant role in our societies. Our children need to be scientifically literate to navigate their world and find solutions to global challenges, which range from climate change to pandemics.
By engaging students with science in school through fun and engaging experiments and activities, we can teach them how to make decisions based on critically evaluated evidence. In this way, we are equipping them with skills and capabilities that they can use to succeed in and contribute to their society in their lives after school.
Related resources by Julia Burton