“It ain’t necessarily so.” Heyward & Gershwin
“There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.” Richard P. Feynman
Doubt? In schools? Schools are not generally places where doubt or skepticism are much discussed or even encouraged. “Do you doubt my word?” “Are you sure? I hope you’re certain about that answer!”
While doubt and uncertainty may be strangers to the classroom, they are central to understanding science.
As Richard Feynman puts it,
A scientist is never certain. We know all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty, that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false.… Now we have found that this is of paramount importance in order to progress. We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. (Feynman, pp. 111-112)
But there is a problem because, our brains work very hard to get to certainty and to rid themselves of doubt. As psychologist Michael Shermer puts it,
The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in to the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and finds patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. …We can’t help it. Our brains evolved to connect the dots in our world into meaningful patterns and to explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality. Shermer, p. 11)
Once the belief is in place, we find the reasons for holding on to it, and we are generally very good at finding opinions that match our own whether or not those opinions are supported by the data.
In stark contrast, the scientist begins with doubt and works very hard to maintain skepticism, even about the findings of his or her own investigations.
How do we as teachers manage the paradox between our role as an “authority” and as a teacher who wants to develop in our students the skills of constructing explanations by beginning with questions; that is, by doubting what they have been told, heard, and perhaps even read?
The science and engineering practices play a powerful role in the resolution of the paradox because they provide a portrait of how scientists actually work. How does one approach a natural phenomenon from the perspective of science?
One way to look at the practices then, is as a set of mental disciplines that scientists have developed over time in order to maintain their uncertainty about explanations, including their own.
Just as you have acquired the discipline of brushing after every meal, one develops the discipline of approaching explanations about the natural world with doubt that leads to questions.
Similarly, there is a mental discipline that drives one to attempting to explain a phenomenon by constructing a model, constructing an investigation to test the model by gathering data, finding the patterns in the data, constructing an explanation, arguing for the explanation from evidence and finding, evaluating, and sharing information.
These should be the habits we develop as teachers so that we become models for our students.
“The Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society,” pages 111-112, in The Pleasure of Finding Things out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999.
Michael Shermer. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and God to Politics and Conspiracies––How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York. 2011.