The natural sciences have traditionally come the closest to disciplinary thinking by teaching the scientific method and ensuring there are labs in most schools where at least a few times a year the students are able to behave like scientists. There are, however, two common pitfalls that derail scientific thinking:
1) Many teachers didactically teach the steps of the scientific method, asking students to memorize the steps and recall their order on a quiz rather than actually using the method almost every single day in class to discover the concepts and phenomena as scientists do.
2) The other frequent pitfall is “cookbook science labs” where students follow a series of steps resembling a cooking class more than a real science experiment. Labs should be actual discovery of phenomena which are messy as next steps are determined by the scientists’ observations of the previous steps.
The good news is there are many great resources to help us get started in strategically fostering scientific thinking. The Next Generation Science Standards do an excellent job of weaving 8 Scientific and Engineering Practices throughout the standards. Students should learn how to use these skills systematically from Kindergarten to 12th grade.
Scientific and Engineering Practices
1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering)
2. Developing and using models
3. Planning and carrying out investigations
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
6. Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
7. Engaging in argument from evidence
8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
What would science class look like if students interacted with scientific phenomena in those ways? Probably pretty cool and exciting.
Two additional great resources (free PDF downloads!):
The Miniature Guide to Scientific Thinking by the Foundation for Critical Thinking
How Students Learn Science in the Classroom by the National Academy of Sciences

Similarities of Disciplinary Thinking in All Disciplines

There are some disciplined ways of thinking that can and should be fostered school wide. Imagine what classrooms would look like if we posted, taught, expected and reinforced students engaging in the following behaviors. As you read these, compare and contrast with how school is traditionally conducted.
Experts in all disciplines:

  • Ask ourselves questions, don’t wait to answer questions other people impose on us
  • Explain our reasoning and evaluate our logic and the logic of others
  • Test out a number of ideas before we are satisfied
  • Don’t wait for someone else to tell us what to do or think
  • Use the structure and rules of the discipline, not some human authority, to check to see if what we found is correct
  • Collaborate, build on others’ ideas, peer edit and peer review
  • Play with hypotheticals and imperfect analogies to increase depth of understanding
  • Arrive at conclusions via a non-linear and messy path
  • Struggle, fail, persevere; getting stuck and unstuck is normal and even rewarding
  • Spend a very long time on the same problem or situation before moving on

Wow. Is it just me who is struck by how different that list is than the way we currently do school?

Differences in Disciplinary Thinking

  • Math and Science tend to prefer precision, efficiency and simplicity
  • Humanities are uneasy by precision, efficiency and simplicity. They prefer complexity.

This key difference might be helpful if made explicit to students who often have to move from subject to subject multiple times a day.
Disciplinary thinking is only for the bravest of teachers. It involves letting go of control and resisting the urge to rescue the students as they struggle to make sense of a situation. It takes a tremendous amount of patience and delayed gratification as we all get used to this kind of learning environment.
The trouble is all our students need teachers who foster disciplinary thinking not only because the world needs saving (which should be reason enough, right?) but because this is what learning really is all about. Learning by passively receiving the results of someone else’s intellectual work is boring and our students are physically and mentally dropping out of school because they no longer just trust us adults and do as we say.
Will you commit to playing with some of the ideas from this week’s posts on disciplinary thinking and let us know how it goes?