Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Proposal for a Course in Which Students Invent Science

Part One: Multiplayer Mode

Every class begins with problem solving.  The question posed in the most recent assignment is written on the board.  The students, as a class, must solve it.  No one is allowed to give an actual answer to the question until a quorum has agreed on the best way to solve the problem, then executed the plan and interpreted the results.  The teacher can participate in the problem solving by posing leading questions, encouraging certain directions of thought, and suggesting that they try using tools they already have, but for the most part the students run this part of the show.  There are two main goals here: to develop their scientific toolboxes, and to encounter the inherent bugs of human minds (cognitive biases) so they can learn to recognize and patch them, thus solving problems more efficiently in the future.  Questions early in the course will emphasize revealing biases, and the later problems will emphasize empirical methods of inquiry and testing.  Overall, we’re working toward inventing something like Bayes theorem or another broad philosophy of science.

Part Two: The Meta-quest

After the question is answered, the lecture begins.  The teacher recaps everything that just happened, pointing out which things worked and which didn’t.  The methods and biases involved are given short and simple names the students can remember, like “testable hypothesis” and “availability heuristic”.  This serves as an outline for the lecture.  Lecture materials for the next several weeks should be assembled beforehand to allow for maximum flexibility in presentation order.  The lecture explicitly covers only those methods discovered by the students, showing how they’ve been used historically and how they’ve improved overtime.  (There is a little leeway here for closely related methods that are particularly difficult to discover in a class setting.)  When biases are identified, the lecture includes descriptions of studies and/or anecdotes evidencing or pinpointing the bias, a discussion (perhaps with class participation) of why we tend to think in that particular way, how we can notice when it presents an immediate danger to reasoning, and how to cope when it does.

Part Three: Personal Quests

An assignment is given at the end of every class: the students learn what question they’ll be answering the next day, and must come up with a plan for finding the answer.  These competing methods will duke it out in class debate the next day.  They must also propose problems whose solutions could be found by methods learned in class, which can be hypothetical or drawn from their lives or stories they’ve heard.

Part Four: Leveling Up

Tests will be given periodically, but their frequency will depend on how much has been discovered how quickly.  They will include simple questions about the material covered in the lectures, and a problem that can be solved only by using several if not all of the tools acquired since the last test.

Part Five: Winning the Game

The final will be cumulative.  There will be an in-class portion that is similar to the basic question and answer portions of previous tests.  The take-home portion of the test will have two parts.  The students have a choice on the first part.  They can either choose to answer one particularly difficult question, or they can answer three easier questions.  They must write an essay explaining how they went about solving the problem and why.  For the second part of the test, they must propose and defend a definition of Science.

What I'd really like to see in the comments here is a brainstorming session in which we generate a whole bunch of useful project ideas for a class like this.  In particular I'd like to focus on things geared toward 8th graders, but other thoughts are also welcome.