Science is a verb – and how to shift lab paradigms to reflect it

I read a wonderful post lately about the use of models in science classrooms.  In it, Drew Roman wrote:

“The second greatest mistake in science education is to teach the book of knowledge in isolation from the process of scientific inquiry, or with process itself defined as a recipe to memorize.”

(I also happen to whole-heartedly agree with his description of the biggest mistake in science education – that the content is removed from everyday experience; and the third biggest mistake – denying students ownership in the process.  But I’ll focus on just the one mistake for today!)

Science is a verb.  It is not something students should learn about.  It’s something they should do.

We need to focus less on what content we need to cover (science as a noun) and more on doing science (science as a verb).

In a recent post I talked about bringing novel science into the classroom – creating moments when you can’t “just google” the answer.  My last post discussed the difference between project-based learning (can often be focused on science as a noun) and problem-based learning (definitely science as a verb).  A while back I posted about why designing experiments is so difficult for students and what we can do to scaffold them through the process.

What’s another way that we can change our classrooms to shift the thinking about science from something we learn about to something we do?  Shift the way we think about labs.

Often science teachers think about labs as separate from instructional strategies.  The most extreme example of this is the traditional university set-up of intro science courses – lecture as one course with separate lab courses.  But even in less extremely structured settings we still often think about labs as slightly separate.  Often when designing lessons, a large variety of techniques are categorized as “learning activities” (lecture, discussion, collaboration, practice problems, reading, demonstrations, etc.) but labs are often not in that list.  Even inquiry labs are often thought of as application of content learned rather than the opportunity to learn content itself.

This subtle treatment of lab experiences as separate from learning experiences continues the unconscious feeling in students of science being something that they learn “about” and then they go “practice” it with a lab.  Instead, labs can be used to learn the content itself – often called “discovery labs” – and this can help them understand that the process of doing science leads to understanding.

I’m realistic – not every experience in the classroom can be discovery or constructivist (at least not with the realities teachers face with content demands, testing, time constraints, etc.) – but discovery/constructivist experiences should be a frequent part of the classroom.

Although this is only one of many ways we can make changes in our classrooms to show our students that science is indeed a verb, including these types of experiences will help students see that science is something we do to learn and understand rather than something we learn and understand in order to do.

What other ways can we help students see that science is a verb?

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