Reviewed by Richard Smith
This book brings a refreshingly new perspective to teaching, challenging teachers to recreate in classrooms the high drama felt at the major steps in scientific thinking. Rosenblatt harkens back to the National Research Council's 1996 call for less emphasis on discrete knowledge and more on understanding and reasoning; less emphasis on demonstrating and verifying content and more on investigating and analyzing; and finally, less emphasis on exploration and experiment and more on argument and explanation.
He proposes involving students in historical classroom arguments to foster understanding and connection, and encourages students to design and conduct and analyze experiments to settle such arguments. He also encourages teachers to think critically about what and how they teach, doing a more thorough job with less, but critically selected, content.The heart of his proposal is for teachers to introduce puzzles and questions that are connected to profound issues or historical turning points in our understanding of nature. Examples include Aristotle's rejection of atomic theory, Ptolemy's rejection of the Earth as a planet, Cuvier's rejection of evolution and Laplace's rejection of heat as a form of energy. According to Rosenblatt, the teacher should present not the answers to such puzzles or questions, but the legitimate understanding and support for each contrasting interpretation, describing and defining fundamental issues for students to work with. Instead of presenting science as a body of discovered knowledge (even if the process is described), students are forced to work through the process themselves. Rosenblatt says "The question we had set ourselves was: what do you teach when you don't teach the answer. And our answer has been: you teach several answers."
The students are then required to describe what new observations or experiments would help settle each issue. Before conducting experiments, teachers present available materials, but students work through the procedure, the teacher directing through questions and excluding dangerous procedures. The resulting experimentation is therefore rich in meaning for the students and well remembered rather than confusing and meaningless. During the lab the teacher roams the classroom asking what students are doing and why, encouraging critical thinking. Learning begins to focus not only on facts but their meaning and relationships, improving thinking and learning in science. Rosenblatt says "The habits of mind, cognitive skills, and critical skepticism schools nurture will both reflect and reinforce a student's place in society and the differences between the managed and the managers."
Rosenblatt also challenges teachers to use analogies requiring critical thinking, for example, when dealing with the concept of potential energy and pendulums, to ask students "How would you connect acorns and Michael Jordan to this pendulum swinging back and forth?" The answer deals with the young Michael Jordan, who while talented was not yet ready for the NBA, showing potential not yet realized. Likewise pendulums convert potential energy to kinetic energy, and acorns have the potential that allows them to grow to great oak trees.
The critical thinking for teachers is, "What are the fundamental questions in this material and what's a good way to ask them?" The challenge is to analyze content for its significance, not in terms of career preparation or current relevance, but in terms of our understanding the universe and how it functions. Rosenblatt calls this search for significance story, and says: "The absence of story is, I'm convinced, the single most deadening quality of today's classroom. There is nothing so pointless as an endless sequence of items." Science is a way of learning about the world, but ironically can be presented as a set of answers provided by authorities represented by the teacher.
Where could this book be used? Any science teacher or science team (middle school to college) who is serious about wanting their students to understand and remember the material they teach will want to read and digest this book. It might not all be applicable, especially given time constraints teachers work under, but even if bits and pieces are integrated into teaching, it can make a difference. It's not a ready–made curriculum, but suggests a way of creating meaningful change that enhances the ability of students to think critically, to ask questions, and to appreciate science as a way of thinking rather than a set of answers.
Review posted on 11/28/2012