Science and Engineering Practices: The Scientific Culture

Science and Engineering Practices: Slow Down Thinking, Improve Learning

We love those questions that are answered quickly. The rapid answer provides closure and keeps you coming back for more. Hence, the enduring popularity of game shows like Jeopardy. 

Today the focus is on how we are able to answer quickly and why that is a mixed blessing.

We have two systems, a fast one and a slow one that help us process our interactions with the world.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the two. System 1 is our automatic system. It works very quickly, often before you are aware that a “question” has been posted. For example, you are driving down a dark road. It is cold and there is some moisture on the road. Before you are aware that the moisture is ice, System 1 is working out the answer to the question: “which way would you turn the steering wheel when the car begins to skid?” and is implementing it almost before you are aware that the car is skidding.  System 1 is also operating when you walk into a room and instantly it lets you know the answer to the question “who are they talking about?” is you! This is the system that evolved to help us respond to danger.

System 2 is the one that we use when our conscious mind is required to answer a question; such as, multiplying 27×18, comprehending a paragraph about reduction-oxidation equations in chemistry, or chairing a committee whose task is to recommend a new math series for the elementary school.

While System 1 is fast and seemingly effortless, it can be fooled quite easily.

What do you see in the box below?


Your System 1 let you see immediately that one line was longer than the other.

If you invoked System 2  by asking, “maybe it’s a trick. Are the lines really the same length?” You tested what your eyes saw by measuring with a ruler. The lines are the same length.

Kahneman observes that

If asked about their length, you will say what you know. But you will still see the bottom line as longer. You have chosen to believe the measurement, but you cannot prevent System 1 from doing its thing; you cannot decide to see the lines as equal, although you know they are. To resist the illusion, there’s only one thing you can do: you must learn to mistrust your impression of the length of lines when fins are attached to them. To implement that rule, you must be able to recognize the illusory pattern and recall what you know about it. If you can do this, you will never again be fooled by the Müller-Lyer illusion. But you will still see one line as longer than the other.

Unfortunately, classroom culture often discourages the use of System 2, the system of rational thought, by its emphasis on students responding quickly to questions.

The culture of science, in contrast, has developed a culture of deliberation when trying to make sense of what is seen. Asking questions, building models, testing the models, gathering and evaluating the data, contracting explanations, arguing from evidence, and gathering, evaluating, and sharing information in a community of peers all encourage the use of rational thought (System 2) to make sense of the world.

The eight science and engineering practices from the Framework for K-12 Science Education give teachers a powerful way to create a classroom culture that is scientific because it relies on the thoughtful consideration of our observations.

I think that the science and engineering practices are not to be thought of as something that is added on to a lesson (Today, let’s all think of a question.”).  Rather the practices provide a foundation for how a teacher develops the culture his or her classroom almost in the same way that classroom manners are built in to its day to day life.

The mind is powerful but it can be fooled. But if it has developed the habits of thoughtfulness, its owner will be a lifelong learner.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York. 2011. Winner of the National Academy of Science Book of the Year for 2012.

Daniel Willingham, Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers About How the Mind Works and What It Means for Your Classroom. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco. 2009.

Also check an article in Science Scope, Vol. 37, No. 3, November 2013, “Evaluating Scientific Arguments with Slow Thinking,” by Beth A Covitt, Cornelia B. Harris, and Charles W. Anderson.


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