8.7b Scientific Thinking Skills

Focusing on science thinking skills in the science curriculum is clearly one way of helping students become independent thinkers and problem solvers. How should secondary science teachers plan science courses to achieve this goal? Three approaches seem apparent. The first is a behavioral approach. In this approach the thinking skills of science are taught as separate skills or behaviors, e.g. observing, classifying, inferring, hypothesizing. A second approach---a cognitive or constructivist approach---and one that is favored by most science educators, is to integrate the thinking skills of science with the content or concepts of science. In this plan, science thinking skills would be taught in the context of learning biology, chemistry, Earth science and physics concepts. A third approach is called the research or science project approach. In this plan, students would engage in a science research project using the thinking skills of science to inquire about natural phenomena.

The Behavioral Approach: Teaching the Thinking Skills of Science

Teaching the thinking skills of science as a set of skills emerged as a consequence of Science - A Process Approach (SAPA), a curriculum project developed during the 1960s for elementary and middle schools. In this approach the complex set of skills a scientist uses was broken down into a number of skills which were to be mastered by the learner to develop a sound knowledge of science and its methods. In this approach, the major goal of the curriculum is to teach the processes or thinking skills of science. Science concepts and facts were introduced in the overall framework of the curriculum, but played a secondary role in the program. SAPA had a profound affect of other curriculum approaches, and a good deal of its impact remains today in science programs at the elementary as well as secondary level.

Most secondary science programs are not organized around a thinking skills approach, that is texts and courses are organized around units or chapters of content. However, on closer inspection, one discovers that middle school/junior and high school science programs include a series of "skill" activities spread throughout the textbook. In this approach, a skills approach becomes a strand in the science course. For example, in one science textbook the following skills are taught in separate lessons throughout the text:

Skills Taught in a Middle School Science Program
  • Observations and inferences
  • Determining variables and controls
  • Constructing models
  • Determining length, area and volume
  • Performing investigations
  • Constructing graphs
  • Making a map
  • Using laboratory equipment
  • Using a globe
  • Compare and contrast
  • Making scale drawings
  • Using star charts
  • Reading a weather map
  • Limiting the number of variables
  • Forming hypotheses
  • Interpreting a glacial map
  • Classifying minerals
  • Classifying rocks
  • Using tables and charts
  • Graphing data
  • Interpreting data
  • Sequencing events
  • Designing an experiment
  • Predicting outcomes

These 24 lessons constitute a behavioral approach to teaching the skills of science in the context of an (Earth) science course. Students, from time-to-time engage in a hands-on lesson specifically designed to teach a specific process of science.

Another approach that is used to teach the process of science is to include a separate chapter at the beginning of the course on science process skills. Usually the chapter is titled "problem solving in science," "the nature of science," or "how scientists think." Lessons that focus on the processes or skills of science are evident by the stated objectives, or question that is asked.

Cognitive/Constructivists Approach: Integrating Process and Content.

A second approach to dealing with the scientific skills of thinking is the cognitve or constructivist approach. In this method, science thinking skills are integrated with the learning of concepts. Joseph Novak, a leading proponent of this idea, points out that:

It should be evident...that there should no longer be a debate about the extent of emphasis on teaching the content of science vs. teaching the processes of science. If a constructivist perspective guides our work, and especially if we use compatible metacognitive tools, there is no reasonable way to teach the processes of science without simultaneously teaching its concepts and principles...

In this approach scientific thinking skills are learning strategies that enable students to interact with the environment. If students are learn about theories of rock formation, they should observe and make inferences about rocks. If they are to learn about the structure of the atom, they might construct models, and test hypotheses with regard to different theories.

In this view the processes of science are an integral part of the learning cycle proposed by cognitive science educators. That is when the teacher engages students in the "exploration" stage of the learning cycle to encounter a new science concept, the intent of the teacher is to have the students utilize the processes of science in order to explore objects, phenomena and events. Thus students would be involved in making observations and measurements, collecting and interpreting data, and making conclusions for the purpose of investigating a scientific object, event or phenomena. In other cases, students might design experiments to test the efficacy of a particular scientific theory.

The processes of science become tools for the students in order to understand the concepts of science. In the cognitive perspective, science processes are the learning strategies for students to learn science concepts. Lets examine an example of a lesson that illustrates the convergence of science processes and science concepts.