Knowledge isn’t the same as the ability to figure things out — and the latter is crucial.
Curiosity is innate in humans. Allowing learners to observe and wonder and ask questions to investigate on their own will spark a more continuous curiosity about the world and universe. This is a better mode, compared to when we supply all the answers or have learners engage in activities with predetermined questions and outcomes.
There are lots of phenomena accessible to learners, and most people pay them little mind because they don’t really understand the physical mechanisms of what is going on. The scientific endeavor itself has done little to allow the growth of curiosity in learners from various backgrounds. Many times, the phenomena the researchers are studying are inaccessible to ordinary people, and the explanations of what they are researching are too esoteric to make sense.
And so we decide all these wonderful things are not for us to know or understand. We might marvel at what the scientists have discovered, but those discoveries remain remote and obscure.
This is particularly prevalent when it comes to seemingly disparate phenomena. Not having the opportunity to ask questions and investigate patterns leaves most people unable to make the connections needed to properly understand the larger picture of how the universe operates. Even if people don’t know the particulars about a phenomenon, they usually know someone else who does. Thus, they put their trust, or perhaps lack of trust, in these others who purport to know. Without their own knowledge and understanding, it is impossible to think critically about what they hear or are told. How are they to know who or what to trust? Issues such as climate change require people to have some experience and understanding on the topic so they can better judge what they hear about the challenges and solutions.
Knowledge isn’t the same as the ability to figure things out for yourself — and the latter is more important in determining an individual’s understanding of phenomena and associated issues. With the ability to find things out, people are able to think critically about issues rather than accepting the orations of whoever is the loudest or most charismatic speaker. One result of this is how coercion has replaced persuasion and arguing for understanding. Lacking curiosity and the ability to think critically as evidence and ideas are weighed, people are susceptible to lies and deceit to coerce them to follow the loudest or most charismatic speaker — even if that person is not in their, or the planet’s, best interest.
At the core of inquiry-based education is the idea that a direct experience with an object, process, or event will result in the ability to think. Telling people what something is or how it is behaving or giving them the model up front exempts them for having to think about it. Much better to let them directly investigate how the phenomenon behaves, let them manipulate the objects to find out what happens. Even visualizations, while they can illuminate processes, create a barrier between the learner and direct experience with a phenomenon. Incorporating an analogous phenomenon that the visualization learners can manipulate would allow them to explore what they are observing and how it might change when variables are affected — like when the phenomenon is disturbed or as time progresses.
Historically, science education has done a disservice to society and culture in not adequately fostering curiosity; this is evident by the fact that politicians can say with a straight face they don’t understand (or even believe) the underlying science and declare the excuse that “they are not a scientist.” It lets them off the hook for engaging in dialogue on important issues. In this sense, “doing science” provides a test bed for ideas, an avenue for developing critical thinking skills, and a means to develop solutions to questions and problems of great interest to culture and society. It is impossible to keep the scientific and political realms separate. Evolution, climate change, land use issues, endangered species, and many other issues are scientific in nature and yet provide information and interpretations of natural phenomena needed to make political decisions.
As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure the learners in our charge are given the opportunity to have direct experiences so they can develop the skills to engage in productive discourse about the natural world and associated issues. We can continue to offer them experiences from which they can ponder and test, and eventually apply, to their own lives —and to our mutual lives on this planet we all call home.
This post originally appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific