There is no WHY in science?

Once again, blame him

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve pointed toward Michael Doyle’s blog. But if you’re a new reader, and you have yet to visit his place, you can at least thank me for that much today. In reality, the rest of this post is essentially a response to Doyle’s post, “Just because…” from this morning. There, go read it. Go read it and come right back please. Save his site and spend those three hours trolling through all of the goodness he has there for later. Doing so right now will almost certainly throw you off task. What are you waiting for? GO.

The response:

Remember, this train of thought response to Doyle’s post won’t likely make a great deal of sense on its own. You are hereby warned:

“I really like how Gary Stager refers to the way science is often taught as being more or less… Science Appreciation. He’s right.

I’d say much of my “teasing out the nature of science” occurred during the six years I was crawling around knee deep in the hanging prairies of the Loess Hills landform in NW Missouri and SW Iowa. There is something very crucial to being able to “get inside” a scientific endeavor, and really bruise your knuckles on the nuts and bolts of it. It is perhaps the only way to learn the layers of complexity in this way of “knowing” the world.

A look across a Loess Hills ridge in the extreme southern part of the range in Missouri. These hills become less forested as you move north into Iowa.

When I needed to classify and assign a latin name to everything green on a mid-grass prairie undergoing secondary succession, when I had to come to terms with the subtle mathematical ways of describing how the distribution of each species relates to the total ecosystem, when I had to figure out how I was going to then convert all of this data to warm, acceptable, humanspeak, when that humanspeak was going to happen in public and be picked apart by far wiser and more experienced peers, then… I suppose I had to come to some sort of soaked-into-the-cells understanding of the affordances and limitations of science in being able to describe what was happening on my prairie.

This takes gobs of time, and there is most certainly no app for that. As science teachers, even the best among us attempt to package up little experiences that allow for every element of the above. But there’s just something about time in this case. Perhaps it’s the weeks of thinking and reflection in between any of the “doing” that makes it a deeper experience.

I can realistically tell you this, the only students who have left me with a deep understanding of science, were students in a course we called Science Investigations. This course was from one to three years in duration and really sought to bring a true authenticity to the student experience. From the development of an authentic, self-designed (with coaching, of course) study, to the defense of said study to university professors… these kids did it all. I only had 10 to 18 students any given year, and there is truly no way I could have coached any more than that at any given time. My recollection of those days are memories of some of the best work I’ve ever done.

I say all of that because each year I also had another hundred or so students in Zoology, Botany, Ecology, Dual-Credit Biology, etc., who ultimately left us knowing quite a lot about the natural world. That might sound really great to the uninitiated, but I’m certain you see the distinction. Sure, many of those students were inspired enough to go off and become far more accomplished scientists than I ever was. But they didn’t really learn to be scientists from me. Perhaps they were ripe for this sort of learning when they arrived at the clock tower, but it was there they actually put the pieces together.

I don’t know… we require students to work deeply through the writing process from beginning to end don’t we? Don’t we expect them to be able to write independently and effectively when they leave us? (don’t get me wrong, I’m a writing-across-the-curriculum guy) But show me where we expect a similar efficacy in the processes and performance of science. We don’t. We just expect them to “*know a bunch of stuff.” Sure, we examine elements of the process, but only in chunks. Learning to write only in chunks leaves you quite short of that as well. In my opinion, it is worth getting upset about because changing this systemwide approach really wouldn’t require magic. It would just require a rearrangement of national and state priorities. Good luck, eh?

My classroom on the first night of class, August of 2003. Notice the sign in the upper-right. I might reconsider if I could go back now.

Back to the “sign wars” in your department… and your giant “WHY?” sign in the classroom. This might be one of those great minds think alike moments. Maybe curious minds is a better word. I had those four poster-board-sized characters on my wall from about 1993, on. Although, you’ll see that I, instead, used an overhead projector. Hey, I’m a font nerd. In practice, I tended to point in that direction as a “why do you say that?” in order to encourage students to provide reasoning for their claims. It was also a huge nod to the realm of wonder.

If I still had that classroom, I really think I might go in this weekend to change it from WHY? to HOW? I think your colleague is right on that one. How likely is the better word here. Although, there is also beauty in tapping into the why at the edges of what we study… even in biology class. You don’t have to be a card-carrying reverend, or the like, to at least point in another direction.

Sure, science is known by many for a set of processes it often includes. And yet, it is also truly a way of knowing. It certainly has limitations as that, but hey, so does religion, etc. Knowing a little about those limitations, and perhaps even hammering out a SCIENCE/SPIRITUALITY venn diagram on week one of class might be good.

You’re making me think too much (or at least report on such thinking) for a Saturday morning. Way to go.”


How do you tell the difference between commenting on someone’s blog and actually attempting to hijack it? I’m not completely sure, but I bet it looks something like this:

I blogged here pretty regularly in ’08 and ’09 when I was in the classroom more. As my role has changed over the past few years, somehow that frequency died back a bit. I suppose it is easier to comment elsewhere than attempt to relocate your own “voice.” The above screen capture was the result of trying to respond to Doyle’s blog with about 2X the character count of his original post. I’m glad I was checked on this one. Sheeesh. What a blog hog.

In the end, this little reflection took me back to the roots of how I learned to be a biologist… why perhaps I was able to foster the same in a percentage of students each year… and why curriculum and philosophy matters so much when trying to help students develop a true understanding of the world in which they live.



The Realm of Not-Knowing

How do you express that which you do not know? Is it really as simple as it sounds? How do you recognize uncomfortable uncertainty? Can you articulate the degree and type of not-knowing that can lead to wonderment? Is this quantifiable in some way? Would this even be valuable? If so, it would likely lead to new jargon. Might that be a good or bad thing? Before coming back to these initial questions, let’s first briefly examine jargon itself.


jargon 1 |ˈjärgən|
special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand

How do you feel about jargon in general? More specifically, what about edu-jargon? Ever hear someone use “nickle-bee” in reference to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB)? I have. Personally, I know how I felt about edu-jargon as recently as six years ago. Put simply, I was largely offended by it. As a full-time classroom teacher for many years, my professional reality was wrapped up almost entirely within the four walls of my classroom. The bulk of my interactions on a daily basis were spelled out with my students, and to a lesser extent their parents. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy some truly model collaboration with a few colleagues. Are you ears burning, Jincy? The bottom line: edu-speak in that scenario would have actually been a barrier to understanding among all stakeholders. See what I did there?

And yet, this post is not a blanket denouncement of jargon as a whole. In fact, my acceptance of edu-jargon began about the time I made the switch from a full-time classroom teacher to the role of instructional coach in my building. In that role, after teaching Dual-Credit Biology or Zoology first block, I would spend the remainder of my day in direct support of teachers. Whether it was whole faculty PD, small group studies or one-to-one coaching, my work for the first time was outside those four secure classroom walls. As a generalist coach in a high school, instructional practice was a common strand that could be studied across content areas (smart folks would make an argument here for technology as well).  It was at that point that I had to quickly warm to the jargon that would allow a back and forth regarding the practices of teaching and learning. (I could have said pedagogy here if I wanted, and I usually do… work with me.)

To say that I grew as a professional during those four years would be a criminal understatement. Thoughtful sessions punctuated by planning, discourse, and debate were the norm. When learning alongside my fellow coaches each week during our own PD sessions, we simply had to bat jargon back and forth to be even remotely efficient and uniform at conveying the work we were doing. As I reflect back, a challenge there was in not stoking the fire and brewing a cauldron of our own comfy jargon that would be off-putting to our wider faculty back in schools. Tracy Staedter’s recent interview with Jonathon Keats reminds me of this fine line between positive and negative. In response to her question, “Why does jargon exist at all?”, Keats replied with:

“Jargon is usually counterproductive in the long term, but in the short term, it’s so useful as to be seductive. It becomes a code that establishes membership in a given guild and allows abbreviated communication in that guild, and prevents someone who is not in that guild from understanding anything. In the long term, it’s catastrophic though, because it prevents anything new from happening. Assumptions get forgotten, and innovation is inhibited. You get communication onto a plateau where everyone agrees, but nobody ever asks any questions about whether there might be some flaw in the worldview as a whole.”

You must know that Keats, an experimental philosopher, is one rather unique individual. When further discussing if and when jargon becomes not jargon, he goes on to assert that words arising from marketing and self-promotion have little chance of becoming anything else. He suggests that the only way jargon rises up into something more universally-accepted is that if it does so organically. He claims that only the natural language that arises from the origin of a true and credible subculture has a chance of making it.

not quite clear on the concept


To me, the conversation there wound down just when it got interesting. Keats was then asked if there might be a noun or verb in science that doesn’t currently exist, but should. Though he hesitated to suggest a particular term, he spoke of the need for a term describing the realm of not-knowing. Smart educators have long been aware that one of the keys to deep understanding is metacognition. Today we should well know that keeping abreast of one’s own thought processes throughout the course of learning is a crucial element to success. In fact, a purposeful approach to formative assessment pretty much rests its core on attention to metacognition. Or rather, it should, in my opinion.

Foundational to the subject is Stanford Psychologist, John Flavell. Flavell differentiated between metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation. Metacognitive knowledge can be as simple as knowing that the Biology textbook you just pulled out of your backpack will require a completely different approach than the novel in the next pocket. Regulation of metacognition is where the payoffs begin. These are the often subtle self-questioning strategies of comprehension.  —  What did that just say? Were you able to connect the previous few sentences to another event? Did you feel the need at some point to go back and re-read? Might you have even looked up a word or concept in a completely outside source for further understanding? That set of actions might just be the distilled essence of regulation of metacognition.

To ditch the jargon…  did I “get it,” or not, and what am I going to do about it?

delaney and the mantis


It might seem that the concept of metacognition is fairly easily summed up in that one fancy word. Inherent in regulation would be not only knowing, but the ability to detect not-knowing. Right? Keats would suggest “not so fast” on this one. In the interview, the man who copyrighted his very brain, asserts that not only is the act of deeply not-knowing the underlying impetus of science, but that we might not hear much of this today. The reason? Perhaps because today we are so proud of being “in an information age.” Wary of outright suggesting a term or terms for not-knowing, he encourages people to widely discuss and debate the idea, thereby organically breeding words to describe what he sees as a potentially valuable addition to our language.

From my perspective, there’s truly something to this discussion. I can’t quite nail it comfortably in my head and that is what tells me this likely is a worthy debate. I can honestly say that in my years as a biology teacher, the parameters of certainty were something we got a great deal of mileage from. Though most of what I remember was instead an explicitly cognitive strategy… identifying, analyzing, and stating upfront the limits of certainty in experimental data. I always felt that a keen focus in that area was one of the things responsible for the success of so many of my students. That depth of… not understanding at the edges of what they had discovered was the impetus for the wonderment and awe that often led to some pretty remarkable things. Yet, as a meta-process, I’m just not sure. Do we truly need an inverse of knowing?

What do you think of this? After thinking this through a bit, are you able to make room for a bit of verbiage in this realm? I figure I might as well do my part to kick some rather important jargon around and see if we can’t elevate the discourse in one small corner of cyberspace.


*A Curious Discovery 2 by Liam Manic on Flickr.
*not quite clear on the concept by woodleywonderworks on Flickr.
*Delaney and the Mantis is one I captured this past Autumn.