Teach science through argument, professor says

Apr 10, 2013 by Paul Gabrielsen
Jonathan Osborne, professor of science education, says teachers should help students learn to argue a position from available evidence. Credit: Linda A. Cicero

(Phys.org) —Teaching students how to argue based on available evidence engages them in the scientific process and provides a better idea of how science actually works. The challenge is training teachers.

Earth orbits the sun. cause infectious disease. Plants use to grow. Most of us know these scientific truths from our earliest school days. They're accepted facts. But astronomers, and once fought for these concepts using arguments based on evidence. Science, it seems, arrives at its tenets through argument.

Science education should follow suit, says Stanford education Professor Jonathan Osborne. Teachers should help students learn to argue a position from available evidence, he says, helping them learn why we know what we know.

Osborne believes that this educational model, "argumentation," makes science education more valuable, not just for future scientists but for the public at large. His recent work suggests that training teachers how to implement this model is the toughest challenge that lies ahead.

Last year, the National Research Council, in collaboration with other national science education organizations, released A Framework for K-12 Science Education, which states are using to develop new science curriculum standards. A key practice, the report reads, is "engaging in argument from evidence."

"In science, people argue for their ideas, in terms of the evidence that they have," Osborne said. "There should be more opportunities to look at why some ideas are wrong, as well as what the right ideas are."

Argumentation invites students to consider the foundations of science, Osborne said.

"It's having opportunities for students to engage in that process of thinking about why we believe what we do in science."

Osborne teaches in the Graduate School of Education and has firsthand experience as a science teacher. After earning a master's degree in physics, he taught in London high schools for nine years in the '70s before pursuing a doctorate in education. Now an expert in science education, Osborne believes there is a disconnect between how science is done and how it is taught.

"There's not enough discussion and argumentation," he said. "It puts off students because they feel that somehow it's very authoritarian. Science isn't like that."

As a result, public scientific literacy suffers. Society needs to know science's major ideas, why they are important and how they are justified, Osborne said. The last component, justification, is lacking in , he said. Peer review, for example, is a cornerstone of scientific validation, but is not taught in K-12 curricula.

"That's a bit worrying," Osborne said.

In 2004, Osborne and colleagues studied 12 teachers and how they used argumentation during science lessons. The students' argumentation skills improved, but researchers concluded that students needed more time than one school year to show significant improvement.

In 2007 they launched a large-scale, two-year study at four schools in the United Kingdom. Because individual teachers come and go, Osborne and his colleagues sought to embed the new method in the faculty of an entire school. "Lead teachers" learned argumentation from training videos and passed their training along to their colleagues. Researchers tracked students' reasoning ability, argumentation skills, views about knowledge and engagement with science.

The results, recently published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, were surprising –measures of students' skill and understanding did not significantly improve.

"This is more of a challenge that we thought it was," he said.

He and his co-authors have a few theories. Perhaps even two school years is insufficient time to see a significant effect. Or maybe the assessments of students' skills were insufficient.

"Measuring students' skills in argumentation is something which, as a field, we have not developed," Osborne said.

Or their teacher training methods may need re-thinking. Osborne is now working to help teachers implement argumentation hands-on during summer sessions. He and his colleagues continue to work on this problem, but time is growing short – 26 states, including California, will release their Next Generation Science Standards this spring.

"A lot of teachers will be considering this in the next few years," Osborne said.

Publishing a "null result" paper – a negative result – shows that Osborne is willing to adapt his scientific inquiry to follow the path of available evidence – just as he hopes will.

Explore further: Video games could dramatically streamline educational research

More information: dx.doi.org/10.1002/tea.21073

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HannesAlfven
1.5 / 5 (8) Apr 10, 2013
Professor Osborne should spend some time arguing with people on physorg. The fact is that assessment in our schools prioritizes rote memorization and facts over uncertainty and controversy. Joseph Novak likens the distinction as the difference between positivist and constructivist epistemologies.

People seem not to consider, in particular, that we run into significant measurement problems at the two ends of the cosmic scales. Parallax stops working at 1% the diameter of the Milky Way; all distances beyond that are inferred based upon the paradigm under discussion. The same problem exists at the bottom end, where it would appear that we can't make direct observations from something like 10^-19 meters down to 10^-35. And yet, where is the uncertainty which one should expect to accompany such problems? The fact that alternative paradigms are so quickly shot down demonstrates that people are not behaving as though they are uncertain.
Maggnus
5 / 5 (5) Apr 10, 2013
I think the word "argument" should be changed to "debate". I also think that in conjunction with giving the tools of debate to students, the tools of critical thinking and logic should be taught. The problem is not so much that less intelligent people are being duped, the problem is that people do not have the tools to critically and logically judge the claims being made.
Take Zephyr's aether "theory". First, it is not even a theory. Secondly it is not supported by mathematics or physics. Third it is being supported by a person who uses word spaghetti and Gish gallop to hide the fact that he does not fully understand the theories he is trying to supplant. So how can such a theory gain any traction? Actually bad example, because no one actually supports the idea except the person promoting it.
Electric universe theory is probably a better example. It is a captivating theory, well written and, for its time, exploiting a good number of unknowns and poorly understood phenomina. .cont..
Maggnus
5 / 5 (5) Apr 10, 2013
The problem as alluded to in this article, is that the teaching of science (not science itself) has become very rigid. Students are forced to conform to a standard that is often politically motivated, using a curriculum teachers are punished for deviating from, and to meet standards that come from textbooks that are outdated, and often very outdated. Furthermore, the teachers have to contend with, and try to convey the absolute avalanche of new findings, confirmations and ever finer measurements arriving every single day.
Its no wonder students become disillusioned with scientific learning and study. This is further confused by theories like Electric Universe that use well written, scientifically worded material to promote an undercurrent of repression and misunderstanding in the scientific community. Such theories fall apart when subjected to scientific scrutiny, which would be readily apparent to students who are taught the art of debate in combination with the skills of critical
Maggnus
5 / 5 (5) Apr 10, 2013
skills of critical thinking and logical progression of ideas. The underlying pseudo-science of such "theories" do not require a university level of science study to see their failings, if students have been taught the ability to think through the arguments being presented in support of the theories.
I also am coming to think that sites such as this can be a valuble tools in themselves. It is often the case that those who promote their pseudo-science get a rough ride in places like this, and they will often then retreat into cries of repression and conspiracy. This, in and of itself, is a lesson in scientific scrutiny and the means by which a pseudo-scientific theory can be shown to be the baseless or misunderstood refutation of "real" scientific inquiry it usually is, along with the means by which such real inquiry can be furthered.
Maggnus
5 / 5 (3) Apr 10, 2013
Zephyr I am not trying to debate your theory. Please, just once, try to stay in the conversation and on point.

And same goes to the EU crowd. I'm not trying to debate your view of the EU in this thread.
Maggnus
4 / 5 (4) Apr 10, 2013
I ran into some of this with my own son. he was doing a science project through his school and came to me very confused over the climate warming debate. I was able to use what happened to him to introduce him to the way that pseudo-scientific methods are employed, not to illuminate the subject but to obfusticate and obscure. He's reached the point now where he actually identifies examples of repeated previously debunked claims, even from the same person, and misrepresentations of the material contained in the articles being posted on. It has turned me around a bit, in that while the dealing with such people can be frustrating as all get out, they also give incredibly useful data points to use in teaching him about scientific inquiry versus pseudo-scientific posturing. Zephyr's continual retreat into use of material previously shown to be incorrect or misunderstood by him is also great, because of, not in spite of, the obvious intelligence he displays in his word usage.
Maggnus
5 / 5 (5) Apr 10, 2013
Nice Zephyr, you've managed to make my point for me!
hrfJC
1 / 5 (4) Apr 10, 2013
Teaching students to challenge established theories or theses is an excellent idea. I suggest starting with the scientific basis of processes stipulated in the molecular evolution of living cells from primordial gases or mud. The late Leslie Orgel published his analysis in PLoS in 2008 concluding existing theories were implausible.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (4) Apr 11, 2013
Maggnus, you nail it here ...

"The problem is not so much that less intelligent people are being duped, the problem is that people do not have the tools to critically and logically judge the claims being made."

There is an information visualization component to what is happening. We hear a LOT of talk in education reform circles about teaching to how the mind actually learns, and yet little observable effort to apply David Ausubel's assimilation theory -- which is a very effective theory for how conceptual learning takes place which Novak has ported to the concept map. Hyperphysics is close, but now we have deep zoom capabilities -- which suggests that Stephen Toulmin's earlier attempts to visually map out complex debates can now be updated to better utilize whitespace. If combined with the findings of the discipline of computer-supported collaborative learning, the results could be incredible ...

Concept mapping Deep-zooming Argument visualization Force concept inventories
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (5) Apr 11, 2013
Re: "So that the proponents of plasma cosmology may feel vindicated during description of many dark matter phenomena, but these phenomena aren't driven with EM charge, but with lepton charge of neutrinos. Which is why I'm calling them homologies, not analogies of EM plasma."

I think there is some confusion as to the role of models in physics here. Dark matter is a theory. We can create more than one model for our theories. Each scientific paradigm can guide a multitude of models, which can then act as the basis for further observation or even possibly experimentation. The models are not reality; they are explorations of the possibilities. They tell us if the theory can be made to work.

What you're doing here is suggesting that a particular model, based upon one paradigm's claims and assumptions, somehow disqualifies the claims of another paradigm. You'd certainly not allow the EU to argue the same in the reverse, so where's the philosophy?
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (5) Apr 11, 2013
Re: "The underlying pseudo-science of such "theories" do not require a university level of science study to see their failings, if students have been taught the ability to think through the arguments being presented in support of the theories."

Well, I think you might run into some problems attempting to cast mainstream cosmology as more than speculative science. If students are permitted to debate the issue, the argument that the current dominant paradigm can only account for 4% of the universe's matter is going to sway a lot of students to -- rightly so -- consider alternatives.

Furthermore, if we are talking about students here, consider that they have just been taught that magnetic fields and electric currents tend to go hand-in-hand. Now, explain to them that cosmic magnetic fields are actually quite common. Is it that the student is wrong to ask if there is an electric current cause? Or, is it that our educational system simply teaches them to NOT ask that question?
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (5) Apr 11, 2013
Re: "It is often the case that those who promote their pseudo-science get a rough ride in places like this, and they will often then retreat into cries of repression and conspiracy."

Um, you might want to take a closer look at how we are training our physicists. Try checking out Disciplined Minds, by Jeff Schmidt, which goes into great detail. Needless to say, whatever you assess is what you basically get in education. So, if you are testing your physics PhD's with stacks of problem sets, which they must basically memorize in order to pass the exam, there are very specific ramifications to the culture of the physics discipline.

The fact is that there is more than enough reason observable in both psychology and sociology alone to account for how it is possible that bad theories can become mainstream. We also now know that misconceptions play an important role in undermining critical thinking, since most teachers continue to view education as a one-way communicative process.
HannesAlfven
1 / 5 (4) Apr 11, 2013
Re: "Teaching students to challenge established theories or theses is an excellent idea. I suggest starting with the scientific basis of processes stipulated in the molecular evolution of living cells from primordial gases or mud."

Gerald Pollack's controversial gel cell model will come in handy in such an exercise. Since the cytoplasm is actually a gel, and gels already exhibit ionic gradients naturally, there is really no need for a mechanistic army of pumps and channels to maintain the observed voltages across the cell membrane. One of the very useful ramifications of the gel cell hypothesis is that life becomes that much easier to create from the inanimate.

See "Hypothesis: the origin of life in a hydrogel environment"
http://faculty.wa...ogel.pdf

For further background, see Gerald Pollack's Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life.
CrankAstro
5 / 5 (8) Apr 11, 2013
What the article, and the Electric Universe advocate, fail to mention is that scientific argument is not an exercise in rhetoric, but an exercise in building mathematical models that can provide numbers which can be compared to experiments or observations. Without the mathematical constraint, such 'science' is indistinguishable from politics.

For example, I have yet to see an 'Electric Sun' model that computes the speed, charge distribution, and electric and magnetic fields of the solar wind consistent with their popular claim that the Sun is externally electrically-powered. Such examinations of their models have NEVER been consistent with spacecraft measurements. Yet Electric Universe supporters never cease to ARGUE that their model 'works' better.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2013
The greatest minds argued about Quantum Mechanics. I would add: Question Everything.
CrankAstro
5 / 5 (5) Apr 13, 2013
To natello,
False. This also shows the error of relying on the ability to 'argue' with no rigorous constraints of a mathematical demonstration.

Notice also that the claim is worded in a form that tries to exempt them from demonstrating a working mathematical model - the model is 'very flexible' and it is 'difficult to distinguish' the components therefore it becomes 'correct' without the advocate doing any actual work producing models that we can compare to actual measurements.

Like (positive) masses attract. Like charges repel. What happens if you try to collect one Earth mass of neutral matter, so gravity dominates, vs one Earth mass of just protons, so electromagnetism dominates? The coupling constants that determine forces and energies between electromagnetism and gravity differ by incredible orders of magnitudes. Therefore separating these contributions is relatively trivial as has been done in mainstream astronomy.
Solidproof_Layman
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2013
Please pardon my changing the flow of discussion here a bit, but I have a question. Does anyone know, or recall, what the syndrome is called when a person, every time any new fact or evidence is discovered, always claims it perfectly fits their theory(s). The last time I knew what this condition was called, I failed to note it for future reference and all my attempts to locate the term have been for naught.

I seem to see it as an oft recurring phenomenon in many phys.org commentators. I know there is an actual name for it. Anyone?
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2013
The key to the entire matter, though, is one phrase near the beginning. The article talks about argument "from available evidence".
But what proof is there that was is provided as "available evidence" is legitimate? How does anyone outside "laboratories" know that what is represented to be "evidence" is real?
"Science" devotees will insist that those outside "laboratories" don't matter. They largely don't make any pronouncements and any that do will be determinedly opposed, mocked, attacked and condemned to try to make the gullible stop paying attention. Only "scientists" will be allowed actual access to "evidence" to see whether it's real or not. And, by that time, they'll be so corrupted by the politics and craven behind the scenes machinations that they can be trusted not to reveal there is no "evidence" and it's all just lies.
Moebius
5 / 5 (3) Apr 14, 2013
I happened to tune in the discovery channel this Sunday morning. The head of the Creation museum in Kentucky was using the technique to argue that paleontologists have rearranged all hominid bones to lengthen the legs and shorten the arms. He then went on to say that dinosaurs were around the same time as people. He also said that there were only 50 species of them. As evidence he cited a passage in the bible about the behemoth. I guess arguing works both ways, whether you know what you are talking about or whether you are completely full of BS like this so-called museum.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2013
Only "scientists" will be allowed actual access to "evidence" to see whether it's real or not.
It's in primary interest of human civilization not to put the informational monopoly into hands of only subject (the mainstream science at the case of cold fusion, for example). At the moment, when most of scientists already work in research of competitive methods of energy production/conversion/transport and storage, then the (opinion of) scientific community becomes biased and as such untrustworthy automatically.