Dinosaurs, Mindful Thinking, and Unicorns*

I just had an “Aha!” moment. Often, when I read about the problems of modern education, I find myself thinking that to solve some of them, we just need to allow students to learn about the nature of science. It turns out that science can be considered a form of mindful thinking. In “The Power of Mindful Learning” Langer compares the habit of mindful thinking to the habit of thinking like a scientist.

“A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”

Doing science requires this type of thinking. The body of human knowledge has been written collectively over time. While scientists build on existing knowledge, they understand that existing knowledge is not written in stone. It is always open to change. Generally, changes in ideas are small, but occasionally, there is a huge change in the way we model the universe. Scientists understand this and accept that there are no absolute truths in science. Indeed, the ability to change existing models as new data are created is one of the great strengths of science as a way of knowing.

Science is a process by which knowledge is developed. Sadly, this important point is often lost in science classes. It gets buried in seas of facts and procedures that establish themselves in student’s heads as sets of absolute truths and as science. One way for students to understand the nature of science is for them to engage in the process–to conduct real experiments, those for which no answer is known. However, this is difficult to manage well as a teacher and, as a result, rarely occurs. Another way to help students understand the nature of science is for them to spend time discussing (and perhaps arguing about) it in class and to see how this process 

Zhao Chuang; courtesy of Peking Natural Science Organization

Yes. Some dinosaurs appear to have had feathers!


has operated to create historic paradigm shifts. I used the second technique in my first year high school physics classes. When I explained the nature of science to my students—no absolute truths, data-based model creation, science as one way to explain the universe—they reacted with resistance and disbelief. I was asking my students to recategorize science from what they believed to be a body of facts into a model that best fits the existing data and which is open to change. Doing this requires a high level of abstraction. Many students are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of knowledge. Some choose not to think this way. As the teacher, I made sure that I gave my students activities in which they returned to and interacted with the idea throughout the year.

I disagree with Wesch when he argues that:

“The best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that learners are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives.”

I think that the best learning occurs in classrooms and on computers and in large groups and alone and in loud conversations and silently. Just as only sitting in a lecture is unlikely to engage all students or to encourage them to think deeply, neither is simply setting all students free to pursue their passions. People are all different and students begin class with widely varying sets of beliefs and bodies of knowledge. Good teachers learn to meet their students where they are and figure out what activities their students can do to learn more. They help students fit what they are learning into the larger body of knowledge. They help students understand how to approach their questions. They often answer questions with questions, but not always. They occasionally become the sage on the stage, but not often. They help their students challenge their existing belief systems and, sometimes, to change them. They also expect to continue to have their own “aha” moments alongside their students. (Listen to this episode of “This American Life” for a reminder of how amusing your own moments can be. It refers to unicorns. And it is one of my favorites.)

As I stated earlier, humans have built systems of knowledge and ways of thinking about the world collectively over time. Science is one of these systems and it is incredibly powerful. It allows us to predict the future and to make informed decisions. Learning to think like a scientist takes practice which is helped by the guidance of a good teacher. Understanding that thinking like a scientist is just one way of understanding the world also requires practice—probably more than simply thinking like a scientist. Effective teachers create opportunities to practice these ways of thinking and provide feedback and corrections to students as they incorporate new knowledge into old. Students learn when they are doing, but to learn how to think like a scientist or a philosopher or a musician or a Stormtrooper that doing should be guided by a skilled teacher.

In conclusion, when you are teaching, don’t be a dinosaur (lecture only) and don’t be a unicorn (a mythical creature that provides no guidance). Just be a dinosaur with feathers. And be ready to shed them if necessary.


*The views in this post are those of a retired physics teacher and do not necessarily reflect those of the scientific community as a whole. Feel free to disagree!