Nobel Prize Winner Carl Wieman On Why All Students Can Do Science

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There’s a very interesting and important article in the latest issue of Issues in Science and Technology, written by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman. Wieman, who has taken a passionate interest in improving science education, notes that while “there have been countless national, local, and private programs aimed at improving STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education, there continues to be little discernible change in either student achievement or student interest in STEM.”

“Absent from these discussions,” he notes, “is attention to learning. This is unfortunate, because there is an extensive body of recent research on how learning is accomplished, with clear implications for what constitutes effective STEM teaching and how that differs from typical current teaching at the K-12 and college levels.” He continues:

“The current approach to STEM education is built on the assumption that students come to school with different brains and that education is the process of immersing these brains in knowledge, facts, and procedures, which those brains then absorb to varying degrees. The extent of absorption is largely determined by the inherent talent and interest of the brain.

Thus, those with STEM ‘talent’ will succeed, usually easily, whereas the others have no hope. Research advances in cognitive psychology, brain physiology, and classroom practices are painting a very different picture of how learning works.

We are learning that complex expertise is a matter not of filling up an existing brain with knowledge, but of brain development. This development comes about as the result of intensive practice of the cognitive processes that define the specific expertise, and effective teaching can greatly reduce the impact of initial differences among the learners.

. . . Researchers are making great progress in determining how expertise is acquired, with the basic conclusion being that those cognitive processes that are explicitly and strenuously practiced are those that are learned. The learning of complex expertise is thus quite analogous to muscle development. In response to the extended strenuous use of a muscle, it grows and strengthens. In a similar way, the brain changes and develops in response to its strenuous extended use. Advances in brain science have now made it possible to observe some of these changes.

Specific elements, collectively called ‘deliberate practice,’ have been identified as key to acquiring expertise across many different areas of human endeavor. This involves the learner solving a set of tasks or problems that are challenging but doable and that involve explicitly practicing the appropriate expert thinking and performance. The tasks must be sufficiently difficult to require intense effort by the learner if progress is to be made, and hence must be adjusted to the current state of expertise of the learner.

Deliberate practice also includes internal reflection by the learner and feedback from the teacher/coach, during which the achievement of the learner is compared with a standard, and there is an analysis of how to make further progress. The level of expert-like performance has been shown to be closely linked to the duration of deliberate practice.

This research has a number of important implications for STEM education. First, it means that learning is inherently difficult, so that motivation plays a large role. To succeed, the learner must be convinced of the value of the goal and believe that hard work, not innate talent, is critical.

Second, activities that do not demand substantial focus and effort provide little educational value. Listening passively to a lecture, doing many easy, repetitive tasks, or practicing irrelevant skills produce little learning.

Third, although there are distinct differences among learners, for the great majority the amount of time spent in deliberate practice transcends any other variables in determining learning outcomes.” (Read more here.)

What a refreshing way of thinking about science education! Science is something that almost everyone can learn. It’s difficult, and requires “substantial focus and effort,” but with practice scientific expertise is achievable by all students.

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