About physics and teaching

Scientific Habits of Mind

with 3 comments

Inspired by a recent post by John Burk on his blog Quantum Progress, our department has been discussing scientific habits of mind during our last two meetings. John spoke of the Park School (Baltimore, MD) and their math department’s curricular reorganization around the habits of mind they see mathematicians possessing. The Park School’s own description is well worth reading, and I sent this link to the department before our first meeting.

I actually had a list of “important habits, skills and ethics of the best scientists” from Dan (biology teacher), who had passed this out during a discussion last year on essential questions (perhaps I’ll write later about my half-baked and failed attempt to shepherd that particular discussion). I decided not to share this again, as I wanted us to start with a blank slate and think cleanly about what habits of mind we want our students to develop as a result of taking science at St. Andrew’s.

Our first meeting on the subject netted us a grand total of one scientific habit of mind! I was initially (optimistically? naively?) hoping for more, but after our fantastic and energizing discussion, I realized that one habit of mind per meeting was going to be an excellent pace. The habit of mind we initially discussed involves the way we look at the world around us. I’m going to try to sum this up, knowing that I’ll need to say more to expand on it, and knowing that I need to think more about how to whittle this down to a single verb:

  • Scientists approach the everyday and commonplace with a sense of wonder and awe. We make careful observations, aware of the limitations of our observing capacities. We ask questions that lead to further observations.

Now that I type it out, I think that might be more than one habit. We discussed the behaviors that indicate the possession of this habit: the ability to see patterns and disruption in patterns in our everyday surroundings (why does the snow melt there first? why do my glasses unfog in the center first? what are those little black smudges on the edge of that mud puddle? what’s that ball of hair under the pine tree?), the drive to explain these sometimes unnoticed details in our surroundings, and the drive to connect our explanations to larger patterns and descriptions of nature. We see a few students arriving on our campus who possess the drive, curiosity and ability to spot interesting questions within seemingly banal situations and surroundings, but many of our students find these kinds of questions about commonplace scenes to be bewildering and perhaps a sign of nerdiness that is to be avoided, lest it distinguish them from the herd.

About halfway through the meeting, our discussion veered to the students who were developing this habit of mind, but became embarrassed when “caught” practicing it. They become worried that their fellow students will ostracize them for “geeking out,” blushing and beginning to mumble in the middle of a beautiful explanation of some detail of their world that they have suddenly noticed. We all had stories where students engage in excited descriptions of how they used their scientific skills and knowledge in some new situation away from school or classroom, then in one way or another expressed embarrassment. We find it hard to believe they would be embarrassed if they were showing off sketches they had made over spring break. Curious, no? How do we teach the habit and convince them it is ok to practice it?

Our second meeting focused on dealing with frustration. We all believe that how we deal with our own frustration is key to our ability to learn. We, as adults, have come to understand that without the feeling of “I don’t know where this is going, or how I’m going to deal with it,” we aren’t actually making as much progress as we could and should be. This habit of mind could be described as:

  • Scientists tolerate frustration, developing different strategies and approaches for dealing with frustration. Such strategies include recognizing one’s current habits of mind, analyzing what is working and what is not.

(It is inevitable that our discussions involve at least one strange loop, as some of us came of age carrying about dog-eared copies of Goedel, Escher, Bach.)

As a result of our discussion of how to get students to realize that frustration with new knowledge, skills or concepts is a natural part of the learning process, we started to pick apart how scientists approach new problems. The first thing that came up was:

  • Scientists start thinking through problems by drawing diagrams, thereby anchoring their fleeting mental images.

Now this sounds like a strategy, rather than a habit of mind. This got me thinking: what is the difference between scientific thinking strategies and scientific habits of mind? Kelly brought up that the Park School’s list of mathematical habits of mind could be read as a mathematician’s list of problem-solving strategies. Certainly some of their habits of mind do read that way (examine a similar problem, use inverse thinking), but other of their habits of mind seem more like… well, habits of mind (visualize, tinker, create). Perhaps I dwell here on a false dichotomy. Habits of mind and strategies are similar, at least on some level. Some actions may seem more like habits that lead to strategies, some may seem more like strategies that become habits. I guess I really don’t care how we label them, as long as we start with the broadest and most high-minded habits/strategies.

Ideas about other scientific habits of mind or critiquing our group work are welcome in the comments!


Written by Mark Hammond

2011/04/10 at 09:28

Posted in habits of mind

3 Responses

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  1. I really like the one about frustration. I once had a very strong student doing summer research with me. She’d show me some step she had completed and I’d say something “hey, that’s cool, you got it working.” Then she’d say something like “yeah, but the whole project isn’t working yet.” I realized, especially after we talked about it for a while, that she really liked homework problems because they had an end point and she could find out if she got it right. She was amazingly good at homework, being one of the strongest students I’ve ever taught. But she wanted research to work the same way and she refused to celebrate small successes. I warned her that the research was real science work, whereas homework was just tool development. She never really came around to that way of thinking and didn’t really enjoy her summer all that much, though she did some cool work with a genetic algorithm trying to optimize the excitation of a nonlinear system. Later she went to grad school but decided to go to a different grad school a year later. At that point I talked with her and it seemed that she had finally seen some of the things I had talked with her about. Now she’s finished grad school and is loving her new job.

    Andy Rundquist

    2011/04/10 at 12:27

    • I like that story, Andy. It reminds me that as teachers, we sometimes think we should be witnessing the changes in our students right here and right now, but the seeds we sow may not bear fruit for a long time after they leave us. I sometimes hear my fellow faculty bemoan the intellectual disengagement of some student as if he will never be engaged. Yet I hear stories of the most unlikely characters turning into intellectuals once they hit college or grad school. I’m pretty sure I developed my own intellectual thirst slowly, displaying it only fitfully before, say, my junior year in college. I often wonder how my high school teachers put up with me. And I didn’t really see the beauty and unity of physics even as an undergraduate. I know this was obvious to others, because one professor let me see the grad school recommendation he wrote for me, “Mark solves problems in a competent and workman-like manner, yet with little inspiration or flair.” Ouch. I had no idea physics involved inspiration or creativity until my first year of grad school (perhaps that recommendation spurred me to look), and then it was a roommate and a particular professor who opened my eyes. At the ripe old age of 22.

      Mark Hammond

      2011/04/11 at 07:09

  2. […] I’ve also been conversing a bit with Mark Hammond, who has been leading a similar charge with his science department and blogging about it at Physics & Parsimony. […]

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