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Elementary Science Education


Thinking! Teaching Critical Thinking

Consider people who test as knowing the same information (have learned the same facts). Yet, some are able to utilize that information in solving problems and reaching rational conclusions, i.e., think critically, and some aren’t. What makes the difference?

Research (see: Carl Wieman Education Initiative) shows that the first group has their information “networked” such that they see how different bits of information relate and fit together to provide a pathway to the solution. Likewise, they see how certain facts contradict wrong notions and prevent forays down erroneous paths and false conclusions. Members of the second group, on the other hand, have the same information in their minds, but they apparently have it stored in separate packets such that they fail to see how different pieces relate or how certain bits preclude false notions. In short, the first enables critical thinking; the second does not.

This has profound implications for education. At present, K-12 science education is, in large measure, geared toward having kids learn separate packets or bits of information (facts). To be sure, some kids are able to automatically network the packets and become proficient problem solvers and critical thinkers. These kids are typically classified as academically talented of gifted. But what about the others? Do we just let it go that they are not so gifted, or, can we adjust the curriculum and teaching methods in a way that brings more kids to a proficient level of critical thinking.

I am firmly convinced that the latter is the case. The adjustments in order are not a matter of cramming more information into the curriculum. Kids will not learn to network facts by cramming in more facts. We need to focus on key concepts and providing kids with practice in networking those core ideas. There is the added advantage that networking ideas reinforces and aids retention. Thus, beyond presenting key concepts and ideas, networking is the impetus behind “Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding” (BFSU) by B. J. Nebel (Outskirts Press).

Therefore, recognize at the outset that BFSU should not be used to simply cherrypick and teach facts. To achieve the goal of bringing kids to network information and think more critically one will need to heed the instructions provided the introductory chapters/sections of BFSU. Prime among these are: 1) following the top-down sequence in each subject area such that understanding is built in  systematic steps, 2) moving among the subject areas to stress connections and integration, and 3) using an abundance of Q and A discussion that brings kids to reflect on connections and exercise their own thinking in drawing logical conclusions. Bernie Nebel

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