Learning Critical Thinking Through Astronomy, Week 4

This week, we wrapped up the first series of seven activities. Students were expected to have completed Activity0105 outside of classs last week (even though I know many did not) and Activity0103 outside of class this week. Class time was devoted to questions raised by those two activities (if there were any, and there were essentially none) and Activity0104 and Activity0106.

Activity 4 focuses on frameworks, aka theories, and how they are created by people. In the spirit of Feynman, the idea is to watch some “natural process” play out and try to write down the “rules” that govern the observed process. I use a simple dice game (I don’t want to divulge too much here in case students find this page) to model a “natural process” and students have to watch as I play the role of Nature, remembering that Nature doesn’t directly answer questions we pose, and try to predict what will hap”open when this “natural process” occurs again. They generate their list of rules, their frameworks, and then use them to discuss how frameworks generate questions and predictions.

Why the word “framework?” I decided years ago to tackle the problematic word “theory” by simply eliminating it entirely from the lexicon. We really don’t need it, because it’s inevitably going to be misused either accidentally by those who don’t know better and intentionally by those who do. Either way, it’s a problematic word and I feel that either “model” or “framework” would be a better replacement. I opted for the latter, mostly I’ve yet to see a way it can be misused in the way that “theory” is frequently misused.

Activity 6 focuses on scientific validity and the concepts of testability and falsifiability. I understand there is some discussion about whether or not science needs falsifiability, but I am currently not swayed by any of this. I may address this in a future revision of this activity. Students almost always confuse “false” and “falsifiable” and this semester was no exception. I had to address it with a mini-lecture.

I’ve also made use of several videos by Veritasium (aka Derek Muller) and his excellent YouTube channel. His videos on guessing numbers, wrong research, truth by repitition, why anecdotes trump evidence, and good vs. bad predictions are especially relevant.

Now, if I have done everything correctly (and there’s no guarantee that I have) and if students have properly engaged, at this point in the course students have a good foundation for what science is and how it really works as opposed to the traditional rigidly numbered steps called “THE scientific  method.” It’s sad that students are still subjected to this rigid set of steps that, unfortunately, no two authors agree on. Specifically, there’s no agreement on how many steps there are and there’s no agreement on the order of the steps. Let’s just stop presenting scientific reasoning that way and present it as a continual process that can start anywhere (but must be ultimately traceable back to some natural phenomenon…or so I think…I may be wrong).

As usual, students are still using the word “proof” in much of their conversation and I’ve been unusually silent about this so far this semester. However, I will have to address it, but I will do so as an outcome of assessments next week.

Speaking of next week, we’ll begin the next chapter and series of activities, the theme for which is observation.

I welcome feedback, questions, and constructive criticism.

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