Thinking Like a Scientist?


“Knowledge is an unending journey on the edge of uncertainty” (Bronowski)

We’ve been looking at scientists this week. Not really learning science, but learning about the people behind the science and how their ideas come to life and are expressed.

The idea is to try to identify what they have in common, whether there are concepts and ideas that connect, and how we can represent these through theatre. We start off with Copernicus and end in the quantum world of Feynman. The children are fascinated by the words and actions of these men. For Copernicus, the long wait to publish his findings on the movements of planets; for Feynman, the fascination with doubt and uncertainty as he worked with the unpredictable nature of quantum worlds. It made me think.


How does a scientist differ from a teacher of science? Can you be a scientist or an artist if you don’t practice at the edges of what you teach? Reading Newton, Copernicus, Hawking, Feynman, Bronowski, in preparation for this teaching, I was struck by something in particular. Their comfort with uncertainty and doubt; their curiosity; their commitment to pushing beyond the limits of what is known; their humanity. Does a teacher of science get to do this? Is the curriculum designed to teach children that science is certain; that facts are facts? Does it deaden the very curiosity that great scientists seem to insist is a prerequisite for scientific progress? I ask not to upset anyone, but to genuinely inquire – does the teaching of science have a responsibility to engender wonder in children that takes them beyond the known into the not-yet known? How recent is our teaching? What do children know of discoveries made in the 21st century – of those theories being tested right now? How real do they feel science is to them? How connected to philosophy and to art? Every scientist who discovers something new, or who turns something old around, has to find the language and metaphors to make the discovery explainable. Images, representations, words have to be created and invented. What opportunities are children given to think about how they might represent the abstract, the conceptual, the unfathomable?


Every now and then, you tell children a little known fact that really captures their imagination. In his brilliant book “The Ascent of Man” (thanks to Mike Cameron for recommending it to me), Bronowski writes that the second meaning of the word “revolution” – the one related to uprisings and turning orthodoxy on its head – came from the title of Copernicus’ book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. His theory, a truth so radically opposed to what was believed to be true at the time, began a reaction that set science and religion apart in a battle for supremacy for centuries. Judging from the assertion of Richard Feynman, some 500 years later that “Religion is a culture of faith; Science is a culture of doubt,” the chasm remains. Anyway…

The 110 chidren we recounted this fact of etymology to in Warsaw last week – children drawn from international schools in Poland, Romania, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Holland – were fascinated by this information. They were fascinated by the interactive discoveries they saw in the Science museum. They were interested in how understanding gravity helped them to carry and rotate each another way above their heads in a theatrical lift. They were interested in all the quotes and pieces of information they found out about Copernicus and others. They discussed it in their groups (yes, groups) and came up with comments and questions that drove the learning for the whole weekend.

“One person can change the meaning of a word with an idea that spreads!”


“Is the truth a good thing?” another ponders

“It depends on how it affects us,” says another. She writes a poem containing the line:-

“The beautiful truth of life; the terrible truth of death.”

We turn the poem into theatre.


She brought her thoughts on her learning about Copernicus to a philosophical and artistic realm. They all did. Those words will needle traditionalists, I know. But what are we as teachers if not sculptors of future thinkers, doers and changers?

Others spoke of what it must be like to see something that rocks what you thought to be true; to see it and to know that it is important information and yet to be afraid of the consequences of sharing it. They spoke of power and control, of freedom and defiance, of beauty and terror. They spoke of life. Then they wrote of life and performed it.

For them, science was no longer a subject in school – a set of facts and tests (though they carry on) – it was now part of their world; their language, histories, sense of self.

Children are commonly told to “think like a scientist” but what does this mean? It means taking knowledge and testing it. Accepting as Feynman said that “we can only ever know when we are wrong; we can never be certain that we are right.” It requires a capacity to be curious – to look at everything with a questioning eye. It demands persistence in the pursuit of an idea and humility to accept when you are wrong. It demands a capacity to explain, to clarify, to represent and depict – an ability to draw together the factual and the metaphorical; to invent, create, test, dispel and try again. When science ceases to be a culture of doubt, it becomes a religion. How would our teaching of science – indeed our teaching of everything – have to change if we attempted to not simply make children understand what was, but what might yet be?

8 thoughts on “Thinking Like a Scientist?

  1. What a brilliant article. I am going away for a few days, but will try to respond at more length when I get back.

    A short answer to Debra’s question is that the best science teachers have something of the scientist about them, just as the best scientists, including all those inspirational ones she mentions, are very much also excellent teachers.

    See this article about Richard Feynman.

  2. I seem to remember that Bronowski also thought that the act of creating a work of art was virtually the same thought process as that made by a scientist when he or she makes that vital link in interpreting his data and formulating a new theory. When teaching in Bucks I was lucky to have the advice and assistance of Doug Kincaid who was a great fan of “What Happens if ?” and the Plowden principle of “Never teach directly something the children can be lead to discover for themselves” with the key word being “lead”. I think I still have his wonderful sheets of possible ways of exploring various topics to exploit their scientific aspects in beautiful italic and copious illustrations. He was the best of the old advisory system. His sense of humour was also a great asset; even when he discovered that a very conscientious member of staff in a first school had taken his sheets as a scheme of work to be followed and told him it was all wonderful stuff and the children really enjoyed it but she’d been working on it all term and was only on page 2. When children are encouraged to think this way they are capable of overturning existing textbooks. There was the TV series where children proved the existing texts on the transfer of gas molecules through certain membranes was incorrect; Doug had a class discovering that the existing instructions for building an electric motor were incorrect and didn’t work. A primary school outside Sawbridgeworth under John Emmanuel studied how long it took for swallows to rebuild there nest in the church porch next to the school after the verger knocked them down. All good and genuine science from young scientists.

  3. Every year the National Gallery encourages schools to take part in ‘Take One Picture’. Primary school teachers use one picture chosen by the Gallery on which to base work. Every year the Gallery displays work from some of the school which took part. In 2012, one Year 3 child from one of the schools whose work was eventually displayed asked during the project, ‘Are we doing Maths, Art or Science?’.

    What school did this Year 3 pupil attend? It was Downhills, the school Michael Gove denounced as so bad it needed to be taken over immediately by Harris. Look at the work produced by Downhills’ pupils based on the picture and ask, was this school really inadequate?

    This year’s display is here:

  4. This article resonates with me and a teaching style I really aspire to. Trying to get learners to have confidence and resilience when confronting the unknown is something that has always been a challenge to me as a science teacher. I find that often students expect me to know the answers and are more content when I am teaching biology and more of the subject is certain and can be seen. Often, when I am teaching Physics, there is a great deal more uncertainty about the large expanse of the universe and the quantum world, further still much of this cannot be observed in the science lab. It is often very difficult to get teenagers comfortable with this unknown. i also find that some aspects of the way science is assessed does not help with this.
    With recent changes to the KS4 science assessment such as the removal of investigation skills, we now have no allowance for students to plan their own investigations and truly explore an area of the curriculum for themselves. Even the experimental skills themselves have been condensed in to the memorisation of variables and equipment, rather than a true exploration of how we could approach a new phenomena. Too often now in science classrooms teachers will be forced to test science as memorisation of facts and figures, which will, in turn, force all teachers with performance-related pay to enforce the memorisation of ‘science’.
    I truly agree with you that thinking like a scientist should be our goal. Science should be a verb, not a series of facts collected together in a module within a textbook. I would argue that until the curriculum allows this flexibility to well-meaning teachers and gives them the assessment space to do this, it will just appear to some students as a subject of fact regurgitation.

    1. Thank you for this Mike – love the “Science should be a verb, not a series of facts…” I agree, but then I’m not a scientist, and I know from speaking to so many teachers of science that it’s so hard to move beyond content delivery in the current system.

  5. Thanks for the article Debra, and @mikebwtaylor makes some excellent points about how the change the of the curriculum in secondary schools has moved away from the more investigatory – there is some truth above this in the new primary curriculum as well (though not as much as the first iteration of this with its list of things to know). I work with trainee primary teachers and they are (mostly) scared and ignorant (as in not knowing) about science so there is a temptation to “fill them up with facts” in order to prepare them for their role as teachers of science in primary schools.

    However, whilst I provide for them lots of resources to support their subject knowledge development (and emphasise that knowing stuff is good and important) I develop with them a different kind of ontology for the primary science pupil and the primary science teacher. This has three dimensions:

    (i) that we are scientists – being curious, interested and involved in finding out about the world using a range of scientific tools and skills;

    (ii) that this involved investigatory, experimental science where we all push our own boundaries and finding out new (and exciting) things and;

    (iii) we realise that what science “finds out” are not immutable truths but models of the world that we develop and make more sophisticated over time, or sometimes which we abandon for something new.

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