Scitech | Inexact knowledge and intrinsic curiosity

Where is creativity in the science curriculum?

Back in high school, when I was applying to university, one of the prompts for the essay portion of an application asked me to compare poetry to scientific research. I was enlightened to discover that they share many similarities: both require a standard format, have specific natural limitations that cannot be broken, build upon ancestral knowledge, and seek to describe the world – most importantly, their need for creativity.

Though it is treated as a systematic and empirical approach toward proving the world, the process of scientific research is in fact heavily dependent upon inspiration. Many modern inventions are based upon sci-fi novels and films, poetry and futuristic art. Despite its importance, creativity is often not openly encouraged within the scientific realm – particularly in science education. The learning of science through lectures and well-spelled laboratory experiments are creating students who are, at best, thinking within the box.

This claim is supported by empirical evidence. In a recent study titled “The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy,” MIT researcher Laura Schulz explained that “teaching constrains children’s exploration and discovery” as those who were “taught a function of a toy performed fewer kinds of actions of the toy and discovered of its other functions, than children who did not receive a pedagogical demonstration, even though all children were explicitly encouraged to explore the toy.”

In their experiment, her team split four year-olds into groups. In what they termed the “pedagogical group,” the researchers taught a function of a toy, while in the “non-pedagogical group,” the experimenter revealed the function through accidental discovery. Afterwards, the team left the kids to play. The pedagogical group grew bored of the toy more quickly than the non-pedagogical group after verifying the primary function (only a few discovered other functions). The children in the non-pedagogical group spent more time exploring and discovered one more functions of the toy, if not all the possible functions.

This is not the only research conducted in this vein – nor is it the only research to find such results. An RSA animation on YouTube titled  “Changing Education Paradigms” showed that most of us have the capacity for creativity but lose it as we become more and more “educated” (a longitudinal study of 1,500 people measuring their level of divergent thinking, an essential aspect of creativity, showed that while 98% of them had genius level of divergent thinking as kindergartners, only 30% remained creative in their early teens). Teaching in the traditional sense has simply created more replaceable robots, with the same repertoire of information that leads to the same inferences.

There would be no harm if our scientific knowledge is the “truth of the world” – a truth that is singular, a truth that is finished and complete once it is unveiled, one that, once learned, cannot be improved upon. In other words, the truth is indisputable. Yet according to Nicholas Rescher in his book Epistemology: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, science is the closest to but not exactly knowledge. In a classic example, the definition and structure of an atom has changed tremendously with each new discovery. In a more relatable term, McGill professor Christopher Barrett in Teaching Snapshots strives to introduce “brand new research that nobody else has seen before” to show that four to five year-old textbooks are “out-of-date.” However, if all scientific discoveries are considered knowledge, which is the truth, how can there be “outdated” truths? As Jon Bradley of the Education department stated in an interview with me last semester about the science curriculum at McGill, “why do we seem to judge science as the yardstick?”

To make up for this constant fallacy, scientists see themselves as puzzle-solvers who are fitting in pieces without the master copy of the answers. With each new correctly-fitted piece scientists can see “the bigger picture” more clearly. Thus, lectures can be seen as formalized training for puzzle-fitting methodologies and tricks and research an attempt at the “real” puzzle. This analogy is a convincing one, for it is obvious in the aforementioned experiment that knowing to play with the toy at all comes before new functions can be found.
Many science curricula seem to be run in this manner, though as a McGillian I am best-suited to comment upon our curriculum. This is carried out by a heavy core course load with few electives. The Dean of Science, Martin Grant, reinforces the necessity for the hardcore training. In an interview I had with him, he stressed that these are not hours sitting in front of TV but instead “tough hours.” (To make up for the rigor, and the burn-outs, McGill offers workshops through CaPS, the First Year Office,and other student offices that help one deal with academic stress. This stress is inevitable as Grant sees theory hand-in-hand with research.)
Creativity in science is, of course, not solely dependent upon elective courses. As implied from Laura Schulz’s experiment, so long as an explorative environment is provided, creativity can be nurtured. That could simply come in the form of open discussions in smaller seminars and conferences, built into core courses, like those in the non-science courses. However, when I asked him about this possibility, Grant said he thought it unnecessary, citing interest groups, which are separate from classes and do not count for credit as a resource (known as FIGS “Freshmen Interest Groups” and GIGS “Graduate Interest Groups”). The message is that students must work for creativity separately. Creativity is compromised in the face of basic knowledge. Rote knowledge comes first.

Grant continually recommends participation in scientific research. Indeed, it is clear from my interview with him that he is especially proud of the Office for Undergraduate Research in Science, an entity that caters to and propagandizes the desire for research opportunities. Its brochure advertises sixteen ways to involve oneself with research, one of which is the “396” research project course that differentiates between the major and the honors track in most science programs. (For those who have gone to the Soup and Science this year you will remember that Grant stresses research as an experience and that no one who did research in their undergraduate regretted it.)

Grant understands the need to “know the rules before you can break them” – in his own words – and sees research as the creative rule-breaking of science. Yet if education is teaching future scientists to remain within the four corners of scientific puzzle, what is there to be proud of? Why are we to assume that the puzzle is rectangular instead of decagonal and one-layered instead of three-dimensional? On a more practical note, without a chance for exploration, how are undergraduates supposed to approach the creative rigor as demanded by research?

If the McGill science curriculum is to nurture creative individuals who are capable of science and innovation, it is necessary to expand beyond research opportunities. It is necessary to realize that those with the opportunity to do research are those with grants, which are those with high enough GPAs, and ultimately, as Denis Rancourt, formerly of the University of Ottawa, stated in an interview with The Daily in September 2009, “have a lot of facility in the technical things that were requested of them, or … particularly obedient.”
We can only hope that our intrinsic curiosity is not entirely destroyed by the pedagogy of education, and that honest professors who share their research and reaffirm the vast holes in their scientific knowledge will leave room for future scientists to churn their creative juices.

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