Skip to content ↓

Thinking scientifically

A recent article from the Guardian (April 2022) inspired one of our tutors to write the following blog... 

June 2015… My A level chemistry students were waiting for me outside my classroom door. They had just finished their final chemistry exam. But, instead of celebrating, there were tears and anger about the worst question they had ever seen in a chemistry paper!

The question had asked them to imagine that they were responsible for choosing the location of a new nuclear power station. They then had to name a country/city that was not suitable and explain why not.

They pleaded unfairness, ´a question about a nuclear power station Miss, that´s not on the syllabus, how am I supposed to know that!´

And that was the whole point, they were not supposed to know it. I had never taught them this. This information was not in their textbook.

The feedback from the exam board was disheartening, the majority of candidates had left the question blank.

So, why was the question there?

I knew the answer to that. The writer of the exam had expected them to use their critical thinking skills and scientific knowledge to propose a reasonable answer. After all, they had been studying science for the last seven years. They should have been able to think ´scientifically´.

Should we be surprised that so many, very capable candidates did not have the necessary skills and confidence to even try to answer this question?

In this article from the Guardian (April 2022) the author discusses how schools could do more to teach scientific thinking. He suggests that the ability to; examine the trustworthiness of evidence, assess uncertainty, and change our minds in light of new evidence would benefit everyone, regardless of their interest in the subject. 

So, does the UK education system place enough focus on the ´softer skills´ mentioned in the article?

Compared to many countries the UK is forward thinking in its approach to science education. Honestly, it is not just the rote learning of facts and figures. Throughout secondary school, lessons are carried out in well-resourced laboratories, where students experience the thrill of planning and performing their own experiments. They take calculated risks when they light Bunsen burners or pour sulphuric acid into beakers. A good teacher will also encourage students to explain their ideas, critically analyse information and consider the validity of their results. In my 17 years of experience, I have never met a science teacher who does not have the teaching of these skills high on their list of priorities.

But, of course we could always improve.

And, as parents, we can also help our children to develop these skills.

Here are some practical suggestions.

  1. Ask open ended questions about anything! 

    Use the ´wh´ question words ´what, when, where, who, whom, which, whose, why and how´.

  2. When something goes wrong, ask ´what could we do next time to make it better? ´.

  1. Encourage a growth mindset. So much creativity is stifled by the fear of getting a question wrong.  In the A level chemistry question about the nuclear power stations, students chose to leave the answer blank, rather than give an incorrect answer. Any answer, no matter how silly it sounds at the time, could have been awarded the mark. A blank answer has only one guaranteed outcome… zero!
  1. If a homework exercise requires research, suggest to your child that they read a couple of websites or books. If children only read the answer that appears at the top of the Google Search page, they are restricting themselves to only one viewpoint.

Think back to your time at school.

How would you have answered the question about the nuclear power station?

Would you have left it blank?

Why not put your scientific thinking skills to the test and have a go now?