WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor, Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto

Science Teaching & Learning
'Conceptual' Education

'Judging' Ideas

e.g., Encouraging students to conduct their own inquiries

Welcome! This page provides perspectives and practices useful for helping students to judge alternative ideas in school science & technology. "Judging Ideas" is the third of three phases in my framework for students' 'conceptual' education; that is, for encouraging them to reconstruct their conceptions about 'products' (e.g., laws & theories) of science & technology. If you have ideas, questions, comments, etc. about anything here, write to me.
Assessing & Evaluating.

Rationale for "Judging Ideas"
Based on my constructivism-informed pedagogical approach, after teachers help students to explore their pre-instructional conceptions, they might work (in the Learning Ideas phase) to ensure students understand scientists' & technologists' conclusions (e.g., laws, theories and inventions). However, students should not be compelled to believe those conclusions. Since science knowledge has changed over history and, in some cases, been shown to be biased towards the views of dominant members of society, it must be considered tentative. Similarly, technology inventions have sometimes proven problematic for individuals, societies and environments - the level of pollution and destruction of ecosystems worldwide being prominant concerns. Ideas about the nature of science & technology, including positive and negative aspects, are available through NoST. By encouraging students to self-determine their perspectives about nature, etc., science education is more about enlightenment than indoctrination into particular ways of thinking. Citizens need a broad repertoire of ideas with which to work and then, through Judging Ideas, the right to decide which are acceptable to them.
To judge ideas in school science, students should be urged to conduct science and/or technology design projects on topics of their interests. These should be student-directed (SD) and open-ended (OE); meaning students control the methods and conclusions of proejcts.
  • Intellectual Independence: This broadly refers to the ability to make judgements about the value of a knowledge claims independent of authority figures. Students testing effects of food additives on the health of cells would be making decisions that may be challenged by food manufacturers.
  • Meta-science Knowledge: Students may various ideas and perspectives relating to NoST, STSE and WISE Problems. 'Meta-science' refers to studies of practices and products of science - including its relationships with fields of technology, societies and environments. Through a correlational study, students might find negative effects of video game playing on students' social skills - perhaps suggesting to them that scientists/engineers behind the games should consider this.
  • Inquiry-Design-Communication Skills: Because students are in control of procedures and conclusions, 'skills' they use may become more deeply learned - because, according to knowledge duality theory, there may be close associations between phenomena and representations of them. Students designing and conducting experiments to test effects of magnetic radiation (as from cell phones) on cell health may, for example, deeply learn about variable control, test duplication, graph development, and argumentation of claims.
  • Science Knowledge: This refers to 'products' of science and technology, such as laws, theories and functions of inventions - the kind of knowledge at How Stuff Works. A key point, however, is that students may not develop ideas that match those of professional science and technology - since students' projects are student-controlled. Students might, through studies and experiments, learn that oil deposits on ice from snowmobiles appear to inhibit snail reproduction.
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Teaching Suggestions

Ideally, students would be self-motivated and have sufficient expertise to get involved in independent science inquiry & technology design projects. In practice, however, it is frequently important for teachers to take various steps to assist students in getting to the stage at which they can comfortably carry out such independent (SD/OE) projects. Some suggestions - based on challenges facing teachers and students - are provided through the links at right.
Student Motivation.
Assessing Students.
Motivating Students
Students should be motivated to conduct projects if they have personal interest in the 'topics' (e.g., questions, problems, ideas, etc). This will depend, in part, on their prior experiences. Students may have a 'natural' interest in ecosystems because they live near a forest and pond. Based on constructivist learning theory, however, they may not be fully conscious of their own interests and, so, teachers can help them to become conscious of them by having students express ideas. To help ensure students are expressing their interests, it is crucial for teachers to first encourage students to observe and discuss possible projects relating to aspects of their personal lives; e.g., sports, hobbies, school and family life. This, however, can be limiting - depending on the breadth of students' experiences; something that often varies with socio-economic status. Accordingly, teachers should encourage students to observe and react to a great variety of familiar phenomena. Some contexts for new student experiences are provided at right. Again, teachers should provide these carefully; ensuring, for example, that students' own experiences and ideas take precedence. At the same time, because of the seriousness of the many WISE Problems, it seems crucial to expose students to contexts in which they are likely to notice such problems or to more formally teach about such problems. Suggestions for this are given at right.

At some point, teachers likely will have to formally give students an assignment requiring them to conduct a SD/OE science inquiry and/or technology design project. In doing so, teachers should be careful not to over-prescribe them. Assessment and evaluation criteria they set can greatly determine this. Suggestions about this are provided below.

Motivation also may derived from feelings of 'self-efficacy'; that is, belief that they are capable of conducting knowledge building and/or evaluation activities. This tends to increase as students gain experience, especially if teachers encourage them to initially take on projects with which they are likely to have some successes. Such motiviation can arise through a Skills Apprenticeship.
 Some Contexts of Possible Interest to Students
(Note: Any categorization is artificial & partial.)

  • field trip to planetarium
  • visit by amateur or prof. astronomer
  • Examination of space vs. health budgets
Earth Phenomena
  • field trip to weather station
  • field trip to rocky area
  • examination of soil samples, including near industries
  • examination of light sources
Human Structures
  • field trip to home building site
  • teaching about toxic metals in electronic devices
Human Processes
  • field trip to chemical plant
  • visit by engineer or technologist
  • field trip to natural habitats
  • field trip to industrial sites
  • teaching about Climate Change
  • examination of micro-ecosystems
  • visit to a fast-food restaurant
  • field trips to hospitals
  • field trips to zoos
  • visits by various medical practitioners, including nurses, doctors, psychologists, etc.
  • examination of their body functions
  • examination of various organisms
  • teaching about environmental causes of human health issues
  • teaching about psychological issues associated with excessive work
Because students often lack expertise, as well as motivation, to conduct SD/OE projects, some teacher intervention is frequently required. This is a delicate matter; teachers need to prioritize student independence while, at the same time, ensuring that independence does not lead to frustration. Although there are various possible approaches to helping students to develop expertise and motivation for conducting their own projects, I recommend - of course! - my constructivism-informed pedagogical framework. Briefly, this involves two 3-phase cycles for:
  • Conceptual Education: To conduct their own projects, students need a strong base of understanding of 'products' (e.g., laws, theories, & inventions) of science and technology. The 'conceptual' 3-phase cycle is  intended to help with this.
  • Procedural Education: This is a general term encompassing Skills, NoST and STSE (including WISE Problems) Education. A common approach is to focus on Skills Education, with reference to NoST, STSE and WISE Problems. Skills Education for Judging Ideas may, of course, assist students in gaining expertise (skills and confidence) for conducting student-directed, open-ended science inquiry and technology design projects. So that students' ultimate skill development is sensitive to their own needs, abilities and interests, along with the nature of contexts of their choice, internet-based project environments, like LDP, are useful.
There are many barriers to SD/OE project work. Possible actions to address some of these are given at right.
Adressing Various Barriers to SD/OE Projects
(Note: Any categorization is artificial & partial.)
Excessive Content
Among the common and persistent problems facing teachers is that government curricula demand that students learn so many products of science & technology that little time remains for addressing other important outcomes; e.g., for developing realistic conceptions about the nature of science and technology.
  • Lobby government (provincially and locally) to reduce curriculum 'content' demands, perhaps by consolidating topics into larger more encompassing themes; e.g., chemical change.
  • Integrate teaching and learning; e.g., providing a science-technology programme.
Lack of Space & Materials
Because formal education often is organized and supported such that large class sizes prevail, space for storing and conducting projects is compromised. Similarly, equipment and materials are often in short supply.
  • Encourage group work
  • Encourage some students to work on projects needing less space & materials (e.g., by conducting studies)
  • Ask groups to work on projects at different times.
  • Lobby governments for more funding.
Safety Concerns
Many projects that students may want to conduct pose hazards to them, to others and to environments.
  • Review all students' proposed projects, discouraging those posing significant hazards
  • Educate yourself and students; re safety procedures.
  • Encourage studies, rather than experiments.
Teachers' Expertise
Ironcially, many teachers have not conducted SD/OE science inquiry and/or technology design projects; and, consequently, lack expertise for conducting such projects, and for helping students to do so.
  • Teachers can participate in projects conducted at universities - e.g., in 'Summer Institutes'
  • Teachers can enrol in university-based teacher education courses that help them conduct Skills Apprenticeships

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Student Assessment & Evaluation

Among the more challenging factors often preventing teachers from encouraging and enabling SD/OE science inquiry and technology design projects is anxiety surrounding assessment and evaluation (A&E) of such activities. Particularly under influences from 'right-wing' individuals and groups, teachers tend to orient much of their teaching towards tests or perceptions about testing. Such pressure tends orient A&E towards discrete, measureable instructional outcomes. This is inappropriate, to a great extent, because science inquiry and technology design (and related communications) are idiosyncratic and situational. In other words, they are conducted differently, depending on personal characteristics (e.g., internal biases) of the investigator and situational variables (e.g., availability of equipment, and source of funding). Consequently, teachers need to exercise a great deal of professional judgement when evaluating students' projects. Some specific suggestions with these and other issues in mind are provided below.

Suggestions for Assessing & Evaluating SD/OE Inquiry/Design Projects
  • Be clear about your beliefs and understandings regarding assessment and evaluation, generally.
  • Be clear about your understanding of and commitment to science inquiry and technology design projects1. In my view, this implies that projects are, as Roger Lock (1990) points out (see also Lock), to be student-directed and open-ended. In other words, this means that teachers must allow students to decide pretty much everything about their projects - including topics, methods, approaches to data collection and display, conclusions, and approaches to dissemination. This means that there are likely to be unique and unpredictable features of each student's project. Acknowledging this is crucial, and justified in terms of NoST and STSE - including these points:
    • There is an idiosyncratic nature to project work. Each person is unique with, for example, unique personality traits, beliefs, abilities and tendencies to react to external stimuli. There are at least two crucial points about this that teachers should note: i) Much of what inquirers (including students) know and can do is tacit (i.e., subconscious). This means that often (or always) students cannot express what they know and can do. This, in turn, implies that it is very difficult for teachers to assess this aspect of students' abilities. Consequently, there always will be an element of doubt regarding the extent to which students' abilities have been fully evaluated; and, ii) 'Real-world' problem solving often is social and distributed (Roth & Calabrese, 2004). This implies that each person need not be an expert in all aspects of problem solving; rather, they likely are part of social groups with different participants contributing in different ways. On the other hand, while I agree with this, I suggest that individuals also need to solve problems on their own, frequently in their personal lives. Consequently, there may be justification for encouraging students to learn a variety of skills, strategies, etc.
    • Problem solving is highly contextual. How it proceeds often depends on myriad, often interacting and often unpredictable situational variables. According to activity theory, for instance, activity involves a system, in which subjects (e.g., students) act on objects (e.g., problems) using tools/instruments (e.g., repertoire of techniques) as mediating agents; and, these, relations are affected by the community (of others acting on the object), all of which is affected by various rules (e.g., what people are allowed to do) and division of labour (e.g., traditional roles). These systems are dynamic, and unique to each problem-solving context. This makes it highly unpredictable, making it difficult for teachers to use pre-set definitions (e.g., rubrics) of 'success.'
  • If A&E are to be faithful to the idiosyncratic and contextual nature of science inquiry and technology design (and related communications), teachers might consider the following suggestions:
    • Encourage students to be metacognitive about their problem solving. This often involves encouraging students to reflect on what and how they are learning (in their problem solving) and what they might need to do to improve it. In reflecting, students will express their ideas, skills, etc., where possible. This will make it easier for teachers to assess such ideas, skills, etc.
    • Teachers should leave room in their evaluations for a margin of error. Students should, to some extent, be 'given the benefit of the doubt.'
    • Students should be assessed and evaluated in multiple problem solving contexts. This is related to contextual teaching and learning.
    • Teachers should keep in mind elements of activity systems possibly affecting students' problem solving - including, for example, tools/instruments students have available to them. They may have been taught different strategies and perspectives about science and technology, for example. Some suggestions along these lines are at Procedural Education.
    • Evaluators (e.g., teachers) must have scientific connoisseurship to evaluate students' projects. This refers to expertise individuals might possess for carrying out a task, in this case problem solving in science and technology, in various contexts. This involves at least two general categories of ideas, skills, etc., both of which have tacit components to them: i) Conceptions of the Nature of Science & Technology, including relationships between them and amongst individuals, societies and environments, and ii) Skills Expertise, such as that related to generating testable questions, helpful data-collection techniques and appropriate approaches to relating theory to evidence. For full development of connoisseurship, teachers need experience with conducting their own science and/or technology projects. They may get such experiences in their undergraduate or graduate science and/or engineering education. Otherwise, they can take courses or workshops providing this education.
    • Evaluators also must have appropriate contextual knowledge in order to effectively use whatever connoisseurship they might have. In other words, being able to conduct and evaluate science and/or technology projects depends on general expertise - such as knowing how to develop testable questions - and expertise about the particular situations in which that expertise is to be applied; e.g., when dealing with pond living things vs dealing with electro-magnetism in industrial situations. Again, teachers can get such knowledge through their undergraduate science and/or engineering courses or take other courses or workshops.
    • Finally, teachers can refer to various rubrics, checklists, etc. These should be used carefully and with the ideas and perspectives described above in mind. The best approach is for each teacher to develop a checklist from sources like those below. In doing this, it is important to make this as general as possible (with a few broad categories), so that the teacher can make judgements in each major category.
Science Fair Judging Sheet.
Science Fair Links.
Sci-Tech Project Evaluation Form.
Toronto Sci-Tech Fair Judging Form.
Student Project Assessment.
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  • Lock, R. (1990). Open-ended, problem-solving investigations: What do we mean and how can we use them? School Science Review, 71(256), 63-72.
  • Roth, W.M. & Barton, A. C. (2004). Re-thinking scientific literacy. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
1. Student-directed and open-ended (SD/OE) science inquiry and technology design projects should not be confused with teacher- and student-directed, open-ended activities, in which students are mentored (or 'scaffolded' or 'apprenticed') in development of skills for science inquiry and technology design (and, hopefully) realistic conceptions about the nature of science and technology. Assessment and evaluation of these activities are quite different for these kinds of activities.
Perspectives, practices and resources for such activities are provided through Skills Education.
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