Don’t teach children to think like a scientist, but…

…do teach them something about how scientists think.

Agree, or disagree?


I’ve written before about the distinction between substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

It would be great if we could teach children to think like mathematicians, scientists, historians, by the end of Year 11…

…but it’s a virtually impossible goal for 100% of students, given the time available, since thinking in this way is a hallmark of expertise: enormous quantities of substantive knowledge, arranged differently even from that of novices who actually possess the same knowledge, and then framed by the disciplinary knowledge.

In this study by Chi et al., they don’t even categorise undergraduates as experts!  (they use advanced PhD students as experts, and find a marked difference in how they think, compared with undergraduates)


Probably the most egregious use of this ‘think like an x’ language that I’ve witnessed takes the form “You are all historians!” (for example,) explained to children literally before they’ve studied any history…!

Although the intent is noble in principle, it’s literally incredible, severely undermines the expertise of real historians, and teaches children that the title is meaningless, and nothing they need to work for, nothing to be earned.

I don’t think I deserve to be called a historian…  I think most adults don’t deserve to be called historians… so why on Earth would that be valid for school children?

Potential to be?  Sure.  Are?  No.


So that’s one extreme.


But looking to another extreme, most adults have no idea what professional mathematicians do.

How can you do maths all day… what would you do… add sums?  Solve random equations?



Continuum 1

Two alternative outcomes


Yet, most people have some idea of what scientists do; some idea of how conduct experiments, even if they can’t ‘think like a scientist’ themselves, or conduct a series experiment of their own…


I think this happens because people are in the throes of believing our job is to teach kids to think like scientists, which involves lots of school time being given over to setting up experiments and trying to learn the discipline of science.

While I think the time afforded to this may be disproportionate to what yields educational gains, it does at least mean we get a population who understand something about how science works.

In maths, we do virtually none of this.  No investigations, derivations, studies of proof, or building of models… we learn the substantive knowledge with zero insight into how it is created.

This is a recognised problem, and some people have tried to solve it, but in my view they’ve mis-stepped.

They’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that our goal should be to teach children to ‘think like a mathematician,’ or that they can learn the substantive knowledge by discovering it for themselves, through investigation.

Instead, investigations might be better used to learn something about the investigative process, and likewise for proof – the goal isn’t to become proficient in either, but to have an awareness of how they operate, perhaps leading to future proficiency in higher level study.


So, what if we tweak the rhetoric.


Instead of ‘learn to think like x,’ instead, ‘learn how x thinks.’


It’s a subtle but important distinction.  It’s a kind of recognition without necessarily recall.  It’s knowing but not doing – no serious attempt to close the knowing-doing gap.


Continuum 2

A third way?


I think it’s more manageable, genuinely achievable, and would achieve something important.

It would advocate for a shift in how we distribute curriculum time, away from the massive amounts of it currently dumped into the diminished returns of history and science curricula, while equally perhaps shifting maths away from a zero time investment.


I’m interested in how people feel about this.

Teach children something about how scientists / historians / mathematicians think.

Like it?  Hate it?




About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Don’t teach children to think like a scientist, but…

  1. I absolutely agree. An expert, in an area of science, probably needs to have finished their PhD and embarked on a period of postdoctoral research to be regarded as an expert. When you can legitimately call someone a scientist is more difficult to define.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s