The Community of Knowledge and Science Instruction

We are hardly the first to appreciate the importance of knowing what you don’t know. The idea has already gained some traction among science educators. Since 2006, a course entitled Ignorance has been taught at Columbia University. Guest scientists are invited to speak about what they don’t know. The scientists come from a variety of disciplines to discuss what “they would like to know, what they think is critical to know, how they might get to know it, what will happen if they do find this or that thing out, what might happen if they don’t.”

The course focuses on all that is not in the textbooks and thus guides students to think about what is unknown and what could be known. The idea is to focus not on what students themselves don’t know, but what entire fields of science don’t know, with the aim of provoking and directing students to ask questions about the frontiers of a scientific field. This course requires that students ponder not just some set of scientific theories and associated data; it requires that they begin to understand what the entire community has and hasn’t mastered.

A good way to learn about what one doesn’t know is to learn about a discipline by doing the work of the discipline. Scientists work at the frontiers of their fields. Their job is to change what is unknown into what is known. So learning to act like a scientist entails finding out what is unknown.

Associations representing a variety of fields advocate this approach to science education. The National Council for the Social Studies advocates learning history by doing history like historians do. The U.S. National Research Council (NRC) promotes a philosophy to teach science called “nature of science” instruction: Science education should mirror actual science; students should learn about science in a way that conforms to how science is actually done.

But these ideas are more easily proposed than followed. The NRC’s directives have largely been ignored. According to the editor in chief of the primary journal of science in the world — apt named Science — even college-level introductory science classes privilege fact retention over learning how science is actually done.

The problem is even greater at elementary and high school levels. “Science texts have grown fat with superficial and disconnected information,” according to education theorist David Perkins, in part because everyone has an agenda: A smorgasbord of interest groups and scholars each insist that their particular hobbyhorse gets mentioned.

By trying to satisfy everyone’s taste for what’s important, textbooks become litanies of facts and ideas without any soul — without any deep integrative principle — so that no one in the end is satisfied.

This is an extract from The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach