The questions students investigate in school have answers that someone, somewhere (usually including the teacher) already knows. Even teachers that are using carefully constructed, wonderfully inquiry lessons are almost always having students investigate something for which the answer is already known.
I’ve spent the last four years working with graduate science fellows to bring their current research into the high school classrooms as a part of an NSF GK-12 grant. Among lots of of things, it’s shown me the importance of letting students get a feel for what it’s like to ask a questions that no one…and I mean no one…knows the answer to.
It’s hard to get students to accept that it’s even possible. They’re convinced that even when the grad students talk with them about their research, that at the end of grad school the faculty adviser or committee will let the grad student know if it was right or wrong. They find it completely unimaginable that the grad students are truly working on novel research – something to which no one, NO ONE, knows the answer.
We, as teachers, often take it for granted that when we talk about scientific research in our classrooms that students understand that we’re talking about novel research. But the students have no frame of reference for this (they’ve always had someone that they could in the end go to and see if they got it right or not.) and therefore they don’t imagine it when we talk about research.
Even when teachers play the “black box” game (having a box or container with objects inside and students are asked to infer what’s inside based on observations they can make without opening it). Even then, students know that although THEY can’t open the box and have confirmation on whether or not they were right or not, someone somewhere knows what’s inside that box (even if the current teacher doesn’t because they inherited it – the person that original put the box together knows). This is a very common exercise for trying to show students that novel science means no one knows the answer…the problem is that it’s a false scenario and the students know it. It doesn’t go as far towards actually convincing them that there are times when no one knows as we think.
And think about what we called “research” in the classroom – a “research paper” or project in the classroom is not undertaking novel research at all, so why should the students imagine novel research when they hear the phrase “science research”?
Here’s a TED talk describing how students undertook novel research…it’s a fabulous “much watch” for all science teachers!
Wouldn’t it be amazing if our students actually undertook novel research – no matter how small in scope, resources and time spent – and instead of looking to us to see if they are “right,” they use their data and observations, current understanding of relevant concepts and discussion among themselves and with others they share with, in order to draw conclusions of their own and then share those findings with the world?
I’m realistic – I know that there is content that needs to be covered and a plethora of other constraints on time and resources in the classroom. I’m not saying a classroom can (or should) look like this all the time. But if we can allow students to experience it – even once per class – it would be immensely worth it! Just think what they’d be capable of doing if they’ve experienced science in this way each year over their 13 years in school?
What question would you and your students like to investigate?