No more “scientific method”

Taking a cue from John Spencer, I want to remove a phrase from our vocabulary.  Science teachers at all levels ought to stop using the term “scientific method”.  This term sends a powerful implicit message about how science works and removes the need for creativity in science.  To believe that all scientists follow a single step-by-step scientific method limits science in unnecessary and unrealistic ways.

Historically, scientists have used extremely varied strategies to investigate the natural world.  Some scientists study distant stars, how can we do a controlled experiment on a star? We can’t.  “Controlled experiments” are often thought of as necessary.  Yet, we know a lot about stars on which we cannot experiment.  Thinking we must do experiments to generate reliable knowledge leads to all sorts of misconceptions.  Most prominently is the dismissal of scientific ideas like evolution or global warming because there is no “controlled experiment”.  Most science is not experimental science, it is based on detailed observation.

To help illustrate my point and maybe push it a bit further, let us consider a few scientists.  Antoine Lavoisier fits the typical view of how scientists work.  He made careful measurements of gases and tested hypotheses related to masses of gas before and after burning.  He and his wife carried out these experiments using carefully constructed glassware and repeated their measurements several times.

While Lavoisier fits the typical view of scientist, let us consider another well-known scientist, Albert Einstein.  Einstein claimed his chief strategy to be imagination.  He imagined himself riding on a beam of light and thought about whether he would be able to see himself in a mirror.  From these “thought-experiments” and through mathematical manipulation he created his theory of relativity.  Einstein made no observations (his ideas were later confirmed through observation), he simply set loose his imagination.

Now, imagine the poster of the “scientific method” you have hanging in your classroom.  Where on that poster or in that textbook diagram is the step “use your imagination”?  My suggestion, take the poster down and encourage your students to understand the multitude of strategies scientists use to learn about nature.

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20 Responses to No more “scientific method”

  1. Ian Yorston says:

    There is a particularly dreadful classroom poster available from the UK Institute of Physics entitled “Are you a good Scientist?”

    It’s difficult to imagine anyone with any drive or enthusiasm wanting to become a Scientist having seen this poster.

  2. jerridkruse says:

    oh my. Thanks for the link. I’ll have to share that with my preservice teachers.

  3. Frank Noschese says:

    Yes! Let’s do it!

    “Understanding Science” is a great website with the same mission. The resources there might be of help to your pre-service teachers:

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  4. One more thing, Jerrid. I didn’t realize this was a new blog. I’m looking forward to reading more!

    • jerridkruse says:

      Ya, I wanted to create a resource more focused on science education. I have visited the “understanding science” site before. I think half of this blogs resources will come from the comments. Thanks all!

  5. Bev says:

    Absolutely agree! I also dislike linear “scientific method” taught in thousands, no millions of science texts! Read through the draft of the conceptual frameworks of the new generation of science concepts @ and comment! Needs your input!

  6. brunsell says:

    I agree — In fact, I did a workshop for science teachers last summer & we literally burned PHEOC during our bonfire the first night… It did shock and dismay some of the participants.

    Thankfully, the draft Framework for New Science Ed Standards seems to take a much more authentic approach to the nature of science and science inquiry.

  7. I actually have several posters of “The” scientific method. I bought them to start a discussion. They are all different – so how can there be only one way to complete a scientific investigation? I definitely try to stem away from using the words “scientific method”. Hoping this year I actually have a chance to use my multiple posters with my students in order to get them thinking – and also to encourage them to be curious and use their imaginations.

    Great post – thanks for sharing.

    • jerridkruse says:

      that is a great idea. Perhaps i shall collect these posters instead of burn them 🙂 You have also hit on an important point. We can’t just tell students their is no scientific method, we have to engage their misconceptions and encourage them to think critically while providing information and evidence along the way.

    • jerridkruse says:

      went to your site. You start school in 4 days! WOW.

  8. cindyfriday says:

    We have to start with something, and I think the term “method” is a little intimidating given the little amount of time left to teach science at 6th gr level. I prefer using “steps” and “observe and record” and “testing our educated guesses”. Some of them watch “Mythbusters” and get an idea of what you can learn from happy accidents and thinking beyond your experiment. I have to remind them that the show is entertainment and is edited — so they might not be seeing all that happened.

    • jerridkruse says:

      While mythbusters has peaked interest in science, they focus too greatly on hypothesis testing and controlled experiment. Mythbusters is a great attention, but not much more (in my opinion).

  9. Dr. Shawn says:

    The term “scientific method” has been rightly rejected by many educators and scientists since at least the 1950’s when some well known philosophers of science begin attacking it. You are right, their is no single method to science. It is much better to refer to the “scientific process of discovery.”

    The definition we use in the LabRats Science Education Program is this

    “Science is everything we know about the physical universe and how we know it.”

    That is, science is both facts and process. The process of science we describe simply as, “Making sure your not fooling yourself.”

    This approach works very well. The kids understand the value of the scientific habits of mind immediately. This is the most effective way we know to communicate the essence of what science is all about to young people.

    This is what my wife, Dr. Michelle, an I also advocate in our book “Living Science–how to inspire young people to love learning about science and technology” due out in 2011 from Harvard University Press

    Dr. Shawn
    Shawn Carlson, Ph.D.
    MacArthur Fellow

    • jerridkruse says:

      Look forward to the book. You are right, this call for “no single method” is old. Many have written about it, but still it persists. I have had fellow teachers straight up call me out, saying they don’t agree that I teach students there is no scientific method. I provided several articles to support my points, and never heard about it again.

      Since we are talking about words to get rid of, let me make a suggestion. Consider how the word “discovery” modifies what science is really like. Discovery contains connotations of “finding things”. While scientists do find things, they also invent ideas to explain observations. So science is both discovery and invention (not invention in the technology sense). What do yo think?

  10. Lori Andersen says:

    Great post! I do wish “The Scientific Method” would go away as a topic. It seems that we subject students to that every year, in every scone class. We need creativity in science, not just direction followers!

  11. Sandra says:

    I am soooo with you on this! Been ranting it for years.

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