Scientific Method: The Forgotten Step

John Dewey, the most influential American educational philosopher, was one of the first to emphasize the teaching of scientific method, rather than scientific facts. There are two ways to treat “facts” in science. If the second law of motion starts and ends at the recitation of the “fact” that “force is inertia times acceleration,” then it is utterly useless. On the other hand, if the “fact” becomes the first step in learning the universality of the law by examining a multitude of examples of how it explains the fall of an apple, the projectile of a cannon ball, the acceleration of a car, the oscillation of a mass attached to a stretched spring, the elliptic orbit of a planet, etc., then it is a good thing to learn. But my intention in this post is not to talk about how science should be taught and learned. It is rather to analyze the teaching of scientific method.

Some trendy STEM practices of elementary school teaching have adopted Dewey’s advice and, instead of having pupils “memorize scientific facts,” they emphasize the notion that science is a “process” — or method — and it is only necessary to learn what this process is, leaving all the facts to searches on the internet. It is ironic that the same educators who discourage memorization have their students memorize the scientific method: a student “learns” the parrot-like regurgitation of the process — observation, hypothesis, test of hypothesis, change of hypothesis if it fails the test — without understanding the actual scientific process, which goes beyond the triad. The discovery of the first law of motion serves as a typical example.

Galileo studied motion by placing blocks on inclined planes of varying smoothness and inclination angles and seeing when and how the blocks moved. He noticed that the smoother the surfaces were the smaller the angle required to initiate the motion of the block. So, at least in his study of motion that produced a significant result, he didn’t start with observation but with carefully designed experiments. But that’s a minor distinction, and we can call his first stage “experimental observation.” The second stage — coming up with a hypothesis — was the conclusion that “the smoother the surfaces were, the smaller the angle required to initiate the motion of the block.” And if he were to stick to the “scientific method” as taught to elementary pupils today, we would not have the first law of motion, because

the “scientific method” leaves out a crucial stage in the development of science: the intervention of the human mind!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *