Explanations are not enough, we need questions

On April 16, 2013

I recently read a popular science book on a topic that I felt I needed to learn more about. The book was well written, ideas were clearly explained, and I finished the book knowing a lot more about the history of the subject than beforehand. However, I don’t feel I understand the key ideas in the book any better. I won’t mention the name of the book or the author because this post isn’t really about that specific book. It’s about how I feel books of this nature often fail to deliver on what they implicitly promise: that you will understand the science contained within their pages.

There’s a notion among many science communicators and, I suspect, science teachers, that if you can simply come up with a clear enough explanation for something in science, then your audience or students will understand it. I don’t think this is always true.

I think listening to or reading a clear explanation of a scientific concept can be the first step towards understanding it, but real understanding only comes with trying to apply the explanation to a situation or phenomenon that is different to the one in the explanation given. In other words, I think a key test for understanding a bit of science is that, as my friend Ben Craven puts it, “your knowledge of it is such that you can do things with that knowledge in circumstances other than those in which you first understood it.”

Let me give you an example: All year 7 students (11- and 12-year-olds) are supposed to learn about the particle theory of matter – the idea that everything is made of particles (atoms or molecules) and that the more energy these particles have, the more they move about. This, they are told, explains the differences between solids, liquids and gases and they might be shown a diagram like the one below:

Solid, liquid, gas diagram

It’s a deceptively simple sounding idea. Yet, every year, I encounter new A-level students (16- and 17-year-olds) who are incapable of applying these ideas when answering questions in class or in tests. And that tells me they haven’t really understood it.

When they are taught about the particle theory of matter in school, students might be shown animations or be made to run around the playground pretending to be particles. They might also be shown demonstrations of a tin can being crushed by air pressure or how a ball of metal will not fit through a hole once it has been heated up – both things that you might also see in a “live science show” done by a science communicator who might also throw in a demonstration or two using liquid nitrogen. But a live science show, or indeed a popular science book, will miss out what I think are two key elements of the teaching process: discussion and assessment.

It is only through asking our students questions, first in classroom discussions and later in tests, that we give students the opportunity to try out their understanding. And it is only through observing them do this that we, as teachers, can make any judgement about the extent to which they have or have not understood whatever it is we’ve been trying to teach them.

“What do we want a student to be able to do to show they have learned the things we want them to learn?” This is the question that the The University of York Science Education Group is asking at the heart of its new project to develop resources which will “check students understanding of all the important ideas in KS3 Science”. It’s a question all science teachers should ask themselves as they plan their lessons, and perhaps a question some science communicators should ask too.

Image: Phases of matter. Credit: besmayweather.weebly.com

About Alom Shaha

Alom Shaha is a physics teacher, film-maker and writer. He works at a comprehensive school in London. He has written, produced and directed a number of TV programmes about science, as well as presented on TV and at live science shows. He is author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook.

17 Responses to Explanations are not enough, we need questions

  1. Very good point. I think one of the best ways to ask good questions is by trying to predict what happens under weird conditions… I’m thinking along the lines of “Would an aeroplane on a treadmill, whose track is going at the same speed in the opposition direction be able to take off?”, otherwise it’s too easy for students to memorise “stock solutions” to problems which says little (and will be forgotten soon). The problem is that asking good questions can often be harder than answering them!

  2. I read a slightly different meaning, Liz: “Just because you explain something doesn’t make you a teacher.” However, I don’t think the article’s entirely fair: it’s not reasonable to evaluate science communicators as teachers, their goals aren’t necessarily identical. The article carries an implicit criticism of science shows for not featuring discussion and assessment, which seems a bit of a straw man. Should we criticise GCSE exams for not being entertaining enough?

    Nevertheless, I do agree that many communicators of science (be they show presenters, teachers, film-makers, whatever) could be more careful about their aspirations for their audiences. In a coincidence everyone will assume was planned – but really, we’re not that clever – I’ve blogged about this today at ScienceDemo.org, a site I run with Alom.

  3. Ah Jonathan, I know you’re trying to challenge me, but both you and I know that plenty of science communicators make claims about the “educational value” of their shows. I’m just saying that perhaps those science communicators may be over-estimating the extent to which they’ve done anything more than just entertain their audience. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but “entertainment” is something I imagine very few science communicators put down as the sole or main purpose of their show in a grant application.

  4. Firstly, I have to wholeheartedly agree about the importance of questioning as a tool for teaching. Back in the day I used to plan entire lessons around the questions I would ask. “Effective Questioning” was the most useful CPD I ever attended!

    But my comment related to the simple fact that learning doesn’t always happen as a result of teaching. And this is where I think science communicators (of any persuasion) should think carefully when describing what it is they can achieve. Qualities like feeling more positive about science, or being more interested in science are hugely valuable and could probably be learnt from any individual capable of being positive and interesting. Teachers have a much tougher job – they have to make sure stuff gets learnt AND be positive AND interesting!

    If, as a science communicator, you place yourself in the position of teacher, you cannot escape the necessity of knowing (and showing) whether or not your audience / class have actually learnt the thing you wanted them to learn.

  5. When I was teaching physics in Botswana, I came across some research conducted by Dutch academics working in education at the university of Botswana. They had a devised a method of dismantling students’ pre conceived ideas about motion, before offering them the correct concepts. They were responding to the finding that after doing the mechanics topic, students were not much more likely to answer questions correctly, such as if a car is going uphill at constant speed, is the force acting up the hill greater than, equal to or less than the force acting down the hill. Just as many would default to the wrong answer that the force acting up the hill was greater. A process of removing the erroneous but more ‘intuitive’ paradigms had to be undergone before teaching could take place. This erasing of wrong concepts process was practical with carefully devised experiments. It’s really difficult though, because letting go of long held beliefs about the world is not a comfortable process for most people.

  6. “7 Responses to Explanations are not enough, we need questions”.
    Ha ha.
    I had to read this automatically generated heading several times before I realised that respondents were not being criticised..!

  7. I find that the most powerful questions are those to which the questioner does not already appear to know the answers.

  8. In one ear and out the other and all that. Yes questioning is important, a good teacher will ask questions to check understanding. However I think the real problem when it comes to science communicators is that the explanations are in some respects misleading. For example particles are portrayed as billiard balls. That’s one of those catch ‘em young things that’s so badly misleading that grown physicists end up peddling parallel-worlds and other bad science.

    I need to give an explanation I suppose, referring to experimental support. Bear with me:

    Consider Compton scattering, where some of the E=hf energy of the incident photon is converted into electron motion, increasing the wavelength. You could repeat this, further increasing the wavelength, and repeat again and again until there’s no photon left. The photon has been wholly converted into the motion of electrons through space. But you could put the photon through pair production instead, whereupon it’s wholly converted into an electron and a positron. So the electron itself is “made of motion through space”. It has a magnetic moment, and we can diffract it, so it has a wave nature. And QFT tells us that everything is waves and fields, so the electron’s electromagnetic field is part of what it is. Maxwell kind of got things back to front, but he didn’t call it The Theory of Molecular Vortices for nothing. And Minkowski didn’t say this for nothing: “In the description of the field caused by the electron itself, then it will appear that the division of the field into electric and magnetic forces is a relative one with respect to the time-axis assumed; the two forces considered together can most vividly be described by a certain analogy to the force-screw in mechanics; the analogy is, however, imperfect.” Wave nature, magnetic moment, vortex, screw. What they add up to is the electron is more like a hurricane than a billiard-ball. Hence electromagnetic field interactions result in linear and/or rotational motion. Because of field interaction, not magical mysterious action-at-a-distance, and not because photons are flitting back and forth. Hydrogen atoms don’t twinkle, and magnets don’t shine.

  9. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.
    Why? Because it may not be thirsty
    You can expose a child to knowledge, but you can’t make them think.
    Why? For anyone of a thousand reasons, none of which are a teachers responsibility.

    I think you expect too much. The metaphor for heating is a great one, and actually shockingly correct for something so simple. But a child or adult may not ‘get it.’ At least not the first time – may be it will take 10 goes over several years. We all have big embarrassing holes in our understanding.

    The basic problem with ‘explanations’ is that they are equivalent to giving someone directions to a location without asking from where they are starting, or if they drive a car, or whether they like buses, or the underground. To interpret an ‘explanation’ the listener/reader needs to understand that they need first to imagine their way to where the explainer is starting from – only then does the explanation make sense. And many people don’t know where they are themselves let alone their explainer.

  10. Hi Michael,

    I think I understand your analogy. But I think I disagree with your comment that it is not a teacher’s responsibility to make a child think. I think it is. I think that’s what we ought to be doing in our lessons and that there are ways in which we can do this. In fact, surely the act of asking a question is one way to do that?

    I guess what I’m saying is that “explanations” alone are not sufficient to create understanding for many of us. But providing an “explanation” and then getting people to think about that explanation, test that explanation, apply that explanation might be better.

    Just “thinking in public” and grateful for any further thoughts you have on this.

    Alom

  11. We need much greater dialogue between teachers and science communicators. There are opportunities for science communicators to entertain and educate but you need to know your audience. Sixth form physics students are studying the subject at advanced level. Most of them are also studying A’level maths. Certainly not all, but most are ambitious, enthusiastic students. A science communicator should see this as an opportunity to engage with the students. Ask probing questions, Set challenges in small groups. Introduce them to the highly mathematical nature of physics/engineering at undergrad level etc etc
    As a teacher, the two best responses from a student can be a “wow! that was cool” or the mouth half open expression when they’ve experienced that Eureka moment. This is what a science communicator should be aiming to achieve from his/her audience.

  12. Hi. I think there is a limit to a teacher’s responsibility.

    Teachers can provide students with the opportunity to think. They can provide them with the space to do and motives to do it. They can provide an environment which thinking – or questioning – is accepted. But they can’t make students do it. And if – having provided the opportunity in a very real sense – then at some point students (and their parents) have to take some responsibility.

    Don’t you? Or is it always the teacher’s fault?

    M

  13. Hi again Michael,

    Am in total agreement with you that there is a limit to the teacher’s responsibility that it’s not always possible to *make* students think. And I make it clear to my students that they have a responsibility for making the most of the opportunities presented to them in school. But, you know, I think it might sometimes be the fault of teachers if our students aren’t learning as well as they could be and I think it’s important for teachers to think about what they do in class, and what they *could* do in class, to maximise their students’ opportunities for learning.

    God, “maximise students’ opportunities for learning” sounds like some dreadful Ofsted criteria. But I think it’s what I mean…