Correctness vs. Truth

Last week I started a new unit on density with my 6th grade science class and began that day’s lesson with the usual hook of showing a demonstration lab. I asked the students to predict what would happen when I dropped two items, a candle and a steel washer, in a beaker of water. Students worked hard and very quietly for about a minute, and then the questions started coming. “Is the water room temperature?” Is the wax soluble in water?” “Will you leave the washers in long enough to form rust?” Students wanted to make sure that their prediction was specific, detailed, and correct.

I stopped the class. How, as a previous practicing scientist could I instill in these students the idea that a hypothesis is a tool, not a judgment or an answer? In science, we use hypotheses to frame thinking about a problem and create a structure for an experiment, but frequently, as predictions, they fail. How could I help students see that there is much to be learned in the face of this type of “failure?” To not be invested personally in a concept or claim that must change as new data is obtained?

In the end, we had a great discussion about having an investment in being right vs. an investment in finding the truth. In a way, being invested in “correctness” looks backwards at knowledge produced by others. It’s much easier to memorize the “facts,” process and interpret them, and come up with what is perceived as an “answer.” Far more difficult is the mind shift required to look at old knowledge as a ladder to finding a completely novel truth, which then may subsequently require adjusting our old knowledge.

Although our experiment with the candle and the beaker of water will not bring earth shattering or life saving discoveries, if I can help students be comfortable with the idea that finding new truths may mean discarding previous ideas in the face of new evidence, then I will have moved them one step further in their development as scientists.