• Current educational methods are failing to teach students the skills they need to thrive in the modern world.
  • There are clear societal benefits to having all students learn to think scientifically to make better decisions.
  • Recent research on learning offers a way to provide a quite different and better education for all students than what most are receiving today.

There are groups of people inside buildings mingling and chatting, many without masks or wearing masks that leave their noses uncovered, while the number of Covid-19 infections in the area soars and many people refuse to be vaccinated. Above them is a pall of smoke from the unprecedented wildfires burning across the United States due to global warming, which a third of Americans deny is caused by humans.

While the challenges are great, research is offering a way to overcome them – not research on better medical treatments or reducing CO2 emissions, although they are valuable, but rather, research on learning and education. It is revealing how we can educate our youth to make better decisions involving science and data.

Although it is seldom presented in this way, the practice of science is fundamentally a method for making better decisions, better than the usual method of untested imprecise opinions and inherent biases. Science involves systematically articulating and testing decisions such as how a system will behave if something specific is changed, to determine which are correct and why and under what conditions. That knowledge is then saved and used to guide similar decisions in the future.

This knowledge is codified in the form of scientific models which are regularly tested and refined and used to guide predictions and decisions. Scientists have developed sophisticated procedures for making the most accurate decisions with uncertain and limited data.

A fundamental shift

There are clear societal benefits to having all students learn to think scientifically to make better decisions. My research group has also shown how complex problem solving, the primary activity of scientists and engineers, is composed of making a set of specific decisions.

Research on learning explains why current educational methods are failing to teach students these valuable mental capabilities, and how we can do better. It requires a fundamental shift in how society thinks about education. Historically, the primary goal of education was learning information.

We now recognize that the brain is quite changeable and good education changes the brain, 'rewiring' how neurons are hooked together. This rewired brain has new capabilities.

—Carl Wieman

The brain was believed to be unchanging, and education was about filling up that brain, with its fixed capabilities, with useful knowledge such as scientific facts and procedures. How well the brain could use that knowledge was set by its innate 'talent.' Meanwhile, 'teaching by telling' made sense in medieval times when the printing press had not yet been invented and the only goal of education was transferring information. However, it still dominates secondary and post-secondary science teaching today.

Modern research has revealed a very different picture of the brain and learning. We now recognize that the brain is quite changeable and good education changes the brain, 'rewiring' how neurons are hooked together. This rewired brain has new capabilities.

Much like a muscle responds to strenuous exercise by becoming stronger, our brains become better at accomplishing mental tasks that they strenuously practice. Good education is about properly exercising the brain to develop these capabilities.

The brain only learns the thinking that it practices. So if it is to learn to 'think scientifically,' calling on the relevant knowledge and reasoning to make better decisions, that is what it must practice. What research shows is that such learning requires the students to be intently engaged with solving problems embedded in realistic contexts, working in small groups with their peers to make and justify the relevant set of decisions involved. The expert teacher designs good practice tasks (e.g., engaging, motivating, challenging but attainable), and then monitors the students’ thinking as they work, regularly providing timely and specific feedback on how to improve.

This is much like a good coach but in developing mental rather than athletic skills. Nearly all brains can achieve greatly improved capabilities if provided with such optimum teaching.

More than the transfer of information

The contrast between traditional and research-based teaching can be illustrated in learning your way around an unfamiliar city. Consider driving between two locations by two methods: in the first, you have a guide that tells you when to make each turn, while in the second, you have no guide.

You have to form a mental image of the city and decide which turns to make. When called upon to drive to other places in the future, the second method will leave you far more capable. While there is much hype about the potential of digital technology to transform education, it is just a tool, and like all tools, its value depends on how it is used. Most educational technology is currently being used to support the medieval education paradigm, merely providing a new way to transmit information.

However, there are novel and much more effective ways to use educational technology. These amplify the capabilities of the good teacher and make effective learning activities available to far more students. Interactive simulations, like those provided for free by PhET, which are now used over a million times a day by students all over the world, provide a novel educational experience.

They allow students to visualize and actively explore the conceptual models that scientists use to explain phenomena in the world, without the usual barriers of technical language and mathematics. Students can make predictions (a type of decision) and test them. The interactivity gives students guided discovery and decision practice that is engaging and automatically adjusts to their individual level. It taps into students’ natural curiosity and develops their science practices and ways of thinking, if appropriately integrated into good instruction.

Research on learning offers a way to provide a quite different and better education for all students than what most are receiving today. This education will develop their mental capabilities through appropriate mental practice and feedback. It will be provided by highly trained teachers using well designed instructional technology. The result will be far more people with the skills to thrive in the complex modern world, and to ensure that world flourishes.