CEPA eprint 3888

Constructivism-in-action: Students examine their idea of science

Désautels J. (1998) Constructivism-in-action: Students examine their idea of science. In: Larochelle M., Bednarz N.& Garrison J. (eds.) Constructivism and education. Cambridge University Press, New York: 121–138. Available at http://cepa.info/3888
Table of Contents
Representation and the relationship to knowledge
Epistemology and the appropriation of scientific knowledge
The educational setting
Student statements
Our ideas originate in the knowledge we had to start with…. You have to have had knowledge in order to have ideas and be able to observe. – A student
To uphold, as this student has, that: (1) observation derives from the frame of knowledge a person has developed, and (2) in order to know, a person must already have some knowledge, may amount to adopting a constructivist point of view on the production of knowledge. We should, of course, guard against reaching hasty conclusions on the basis of a single statement which has been removed from its overall discursive context. It is worth noting here, however, that this assertion was but one of the conclusions reached by this student following personal reflection on the process involved in producing scientific knowledge.
It was thorny questions such as these which provided the basis of a series of exchanges Marie Larochelle and I undertook with a group of thirty-five students in the first year of Cégep, a Quebec two-year tertiary institution;[Note 1] the starting point for the exercise consisted in the simulation of a number of conditions presiding over the production of scientific knowledge. Thus, it was not the discourse of accredited epistemologists which students were asked to reflect on, but rather the personal and collective cognitive processes which students themselves engage in when they attempt to solve bona fide puzzles. To borrow a metaphor, these students were called upon to engage in an in vivo, not an in vitro, type of epistemology, by means of a reflective, informed examination of their own epistemological framework.
As will be seen below, the way that participants went about accomplishing this demanding exercise shows to what extent criticism has been unfair to young people. According to some authors, who draw a rather superficial comparison with the youth of another time (read: their own), young people today do not master the rudiments of language, mathematics, and science by the time they have completed high school. In addition, they have purportedly developed negative attitudes toward knowledge, and they display only the shakiest sort of determination when confronted with the inevitable intellectual difficulties which emerge in connection with the appropriation of school knowledge. However, if the teaching context is made to undergo even the slightest shift; if students are seen as the actors of their own cognition, and not merely as reciters of other people’s knowledge; finally, if this context is allowed to open onto a range of potentialities and is not used to relentlessly drive at one solution, and one alone (i.e., the “right” answer) – then these young people may well impress us, in terms of the enthusiasm and panache they bring to their work.
Details of the context of this simulation are provided below; space will also be devoted to examples of student discourse which attest to the epistemological virtuosity of participants. It is necessary at this point, however, to explicate the reasons justifying the integration of a constructivist approach to epistemological reflection within science teaching.
Representation and the relationship to knowledge
The first of these reasons is ideological in nature and is due to the fact that all approaches to science teaching convey, explicitly or implicitly, a certain representation of science. Students are presented with a certain notion of the nature of scientific knowledge and of the historicity and sociality of this knowledge, which is particularly important to the way students form their own notion. A good example of this is to be found in the point of view put forward by this high school senior, whom we interviewed in the course of a previous research project.
Scientific knowledge is always the same thing. Scientific knowledge is F = ma. It’s a formula, it’s always the same. Whereas religious knowledge … can be affected by your family: if you are born into a Catholic family, you will believe in the Catholic religion. It depends on your nationality, it depends on what you’ve lived through, your environment … on society. [On the other hand, if scientific knowledge] is true, it is also true for the working class. I think an apple is an apple, and when it falls, it always accelerates at a rate of 10 meters per second squared: the Martians would find the same thing, too. (Larochelle and Désautels, 1991, p. 382)
Quite obviously, this student has, over the course of his studies, developed a representation of the nature of scientific knowledge as well as of its sociality and historicity, regardless of whether we intended this or were aware of this. From the outset, he imbues scientific knowledge with intemporality (“it’s always the same”), although he is aware that his formulation does not refer to the present day, as is shown by his recourse to the anecdote concerning the falling apple to support his argument. Scientific knowledge is also granted a kind of ideological immunity, since, in contrast to religious knowledge, it is not marked by the sociohistorical conditions which were present at the time of its production, in particular, the conditions relating to social classes: scientific knowledge transcends all this. According to this student, such knowledge would also be universal, as is evidenced by the allusion to the “Martians [who] would find the same thing.” The object of scientific knowledge would, as it were, fit hand in glove with the objects of ordinary reality, and would, accordingly, describe their behavior with exactness – for example, the apple that falls to the ground. Furthermore, scientific knowledge in this view boils down to mere calculations and formulas, as is indicated by the references to numbers and the famous equation F = ma. To sum up, scientific knowledge is exact, true in the sense of standing in a relationship of likeness to reality (adequation), transcendent, and universal, or, for all intents and purposes devoid of history, removed from society. This negation of the historicity and sociality of scientific knowledge constitutes a representation of these very same aspects nonetheless.
Admittedly, there is room for an interpretation of these statements that differs from my own. Nevertheless, this exercise has enabled me to reach a dual objective: to show that students do indeed produce representations of scientific knowledge and to provide an illustration of what we mean by representation. For present purposes, however, let us examine in what way the study of these representations is of ideological, hence social, interest.
When most students complete high school, they also end any contact they have or will have with the sciences in a classroom setting. Thus it is via the representations of science these students constructed during their high school years that they will interpret the discourses and social issues connected to the presence of science in our societies, as has been well illustrated in the work of Driver, Leach, Millar, and Scott (1996) and Ryan and Aikenhead (1992). It remains, however, that these representations embody relationships to knowledge and the producers of knowledge which render the student more or less capable of working out a critical position, or of ultimately becoming involved in action consistent with the social implications of scientific activity. How, for example, is the adolescent referred to above to become capable of criticizing the adage that scientific knowledge is neutral, it is only the uses of science which are potentially harmful? It would appear at the outset that, equipped with the attitude that scientific knowledge transcends the sociocultural conditions of its production, an informed skepticism is unlikely to be generated spontaneously. In addition, what sort of appreciation is the adolescent likely to develop of the social responsibility of scientists, when, in a certain way, the knowledge which they produce is also beyond their control? How is he to embark upon the examination of the ins and outs of theses having sociobiological or eugenic overtones, especially when these have received the support of scientists and experts? In contrast to politicians, do not these same individuals embody the same qualities (objectivity, neutrality, etc.) that are generally attributed to the knowledge they produce? In short, and for a variety of reasons, one is quite justified in thinking that ignorance of the relative, discontinuous, and historically located character of the development of scientific knowledge (Serres, 1989) will leave this student quite unprepared to gauge the limits of this type of knowledge and to appreciate the real worth of other knowledge forms and knowledge games. Will this student not indeed be prone to casting depreciative judgments on knowledge that has been developed within the context of other cultures or civilizations? In other words, how will he avoid equating the economic and technical hegemony of the West with the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge?
Questions such as these obviously have no meaning except in connection with a certain representation of the historicity and sociality of science. As we have elaborated elsewhere (Larochelle, Désautels, and Ruel, 1995), our viewpoint on the subject was and is of a piece with contemporary research in the history, sociology, and anthropology of science (Callon and Latour, 1991; Shapin and Schaffer, 1989), which has mapped out a representation of scientific knowledge and its production which is radically at odds with the somewhat triumphant representation passed down by the adherents of positivism. As Jenkins (1992) has stressed, the idea of an ahistorical, asocial kind of science, one which methodically leads on to objective truth, has now been relegated to the status of “ideological relic.” One of the turning points in the challenge to this representation of science no doubt came with the publication of Kuhn’s celebrated work (1983), which not only rendered the idea of continuous historical progress in scientific knowledge inoperative but also made it possible to envisage the sociality of science from a new angle. Indeed, the “hard core” of science is where the social character of science comes to the fore, since neither adherence to a paradigm, a change in a paradigm, or even the choice of criteria and norms for validating knowledge are entirely rational decisions. Such knowledge as is produced has no meaning outside of the context provided by a shared worldview, a view founded on postulates which are metaphysical and epistemological, aesthetic as well as ethical. Continuing in the same vein, with their ground-level approach, research and publications in the sociology of science (case studies, laboratory studies) have shed light on the conditions under which scientific knowledge is produced (Pickering, 1992), showing, for example, how the interpretation of experiments inevitably entails the negotiation of their meaning. In short, what these studies generally tend to show is that science is a social practice insofar as the conditions present at its origins and throughout its development are social. If, moreover, it is asserted that science is not only a kind of social production but is, as well, recursively productive of society, it must henceforth be viewed as a social problem, meaning, as Restivo (1988) has pointed out, that “modern science is implicated in the personal troubles and public issues of our time” (p. 209). Hence, major social stakes are involved in the adequate understanding of the scientific enterprise; it is for this reason that we looked into the representations students formulate concerning the nature of scientific knowledge and its production and ways by which to help them complexify these representations.
Epistemology and the appropriation of scientific knowledge
The second reason we think it necessary to integrate epistemology within science teaching relates to arguments of a pedagogical nature. Over the last twenty years, research in science education has helped shed new light on the problems arising in connection with science teaching programs. In particular, this research has enabled researchers in science education to rediscover, in their own way, one of the basic propositions of Piagetian constructivist theory, namely, that children do not wait until their first science classes to begin developing their own ideas of so-called natural phenomena. Even as youngsters, they construct their own explanations of phenomena occurring in their everyday lives, whether this be the fall of an object, suction of liquid through a straw, or the fragility of the neighbor’s windows!
As we have examined in greater depth elsewhere (Benyamna, Désautels, and Larochelle, 1993), however, what took science educators aback, so to speak, was the discovery of the long lease on life which such explanations enjoy, however long schooling may last. To be sure, students make liberal use of words which denote a certain familiarity with scientific terminology (molecule, kinetic energy, etc.), but the core remains fundamentally unchanged, so that the “new words” become endowed with a kind of materiality which is scarcely compatible with the relational character of scientific concepts. The following excerpts from interviews with Cegep-graduates who have a concentration in science and who will also go on to do further studies in their field at the university level (Benyamna, 1987) offer convincing evidence of just this tendency. Thus, one of these students explains the transparency of glass with the claim that “glass particles don’t have color, but [instead] are transparent”; another explains the spread of heat in the following terms: “Heat is conveyed by electrons.” All of which gives teachers and researchers much food for thought: Is the problem one of teaching, one of learning, or one involving the accessibility of scientific content matter?
At first glance, were one to use scientific conceptions to gauge the worth of these students’ conceptions, one might conclude that the latter represent a degraded version of the former, that they, indeed, are misconceptions, hence the proof of a learning problem. However, as numerous studies tend to show (Hills, 1989; Tiberghien, 1989), such an assertion would amount to ignoring the particularity of these conceptions, which serve to provide a kind of intelligibility to the scientific knowledge being taught, which, more often than not, has been stripped of all contextuality. It is exceedingly rare in science teaching that the conditions and rules obtaining in the construction and validition of scientific contents are presented in addition to the contents themselves (Sutton, 1996). Take only the example of the expression scientific fact: In the absence of any information whatsoever concerning the genesis of any one particular fact and the various operations which have led to its being endowed with the status of scientificity, what will be retained by students? How are students to give meaning to this expression? Will they not, indeed, tend to detach this fact from its original context (concerning which, moreover, they were not provided with any background) and classify it according to a frame of reference with which they are familiar (thus, by the same token, modifying the scope of this fact)?
In short, it is clear that students’ knowledge can no longer be dispensed with in teaching. Whether in terms of its contents or organization, this spontaneous[Note 2] knowledge serves as a basis for interpreting the information and events being taught, as research on the subject has shown. Students are neither tabula rasa nor some as yet unmolded putty. Rather, they are both actors and authors of their cognition: they compare, translate, symbolize, and transform. No better illustration of this is to be found than in the multiplication, indeed, the explosion, of studies on spontaneous conceptions. It is the examination of such conceptions which has given rise to major reformulations of the hypotheses and propositions used as a basis for teaching scientific laws, concepts, and theories, as is attested by the research carried out within a constructivist perspective (Driver, 1989). However, such propositions have their limits, which are in part due to the lack of consideration generally given to the epistemological dimension involved in the appropriation of scientific knowledge by students (Vosniadou, 1994). I should like to provide a succinct overview of this question.
I mentioned that students make scientific knowledge “easier to digest,” to borrow the Moscovici and Hewstone expression (1984); that is, they assimilate this knowledge within their conceptual structure via a process of reconstruction, and they endow concepts with a kind of meaning compatible with the more or less tacit epistemological postulates which drive this structure. Thus the concept of light ray is likened to an ultrathin beam of light which may be perceived. Likewise, the concept of atom is likened to a miniature sphere of the kind which may be seen in the models of molecules on display in laboratories (Harrison and Treagust, 1996). In both cases, the underlying postulate holds that the sensory organs provide immediate access to reality and that explanation of a phenomenon is primarily a matter of describing that which is perceptible by the senses. Now, it is our hypothesis that for many students, beliefs such as these constitute a major stumbling block to appropriating the meaning of scientific concepts. Indeed, how is one to understand that heat is but one form of energy, that particles may annihilate one another during interaction; or that electromagnetic waves require no material support in order to be propagated? Such phenomena must indeed appear as even so many closed books if one is unaware of the postulates which habitually underlie one’s own understanding of so-called material phenomena, when one is unable to conceive of other possibilities – in other words, as Piaget and Garcia have pointed out (1983), when one is unable to invent a problem where apparently there is none.
It is not my intention here to call into question or invalidate everyday knowledge. I am aiming instead at bringing out the contextual relevance of different forms of knowledge (Cobern, 1996). The explanations individuals usually construct are quite viable, in the sense that they are adapted to the goals an individual is attempting to reach. It is possible, for example, to tell someone to shut the door in order to keep out the cold (a concept which does not exist in science), so that the temperature remains at a comfortable level and heating costs are kept to a minimum. What is there to criticize in this way of thinking? Nothing, except that it is unsuited to the objectives pursued by scientists, who formulate questions that are unconceivable within the framework of everyday knowledge, arising as these do in connection with another system of epistemological referents. Whence the necessity, if one wishes to participate in the conversation of scientists, of understanding how the latter impart meaning to the notions and concepts they use; whence also the importance of epistemological reflexivity. Only when knowing subjects become aware of the postulates which underlie their usual ways of knowing, and when they place these postulates at some distance, as it were, and thus problematize their own knowledge will they become able to open themselves to other potentialities. Although this intellectual process of reflexivity is often associated with metacognition, it is distinct from the latter in that it does not involve the intellectual operations or strategies used in developing this or that bit of knowledge. Instead, reflexivity draws attention to “that which goes without saying” – that is, the unspoken assumptions or the unreflected aspects of thought which lead one to assert that something is obvious. It is this examination of what may be referred to metaphorically as the blind spot of a conceptual structure[Note 3] which is a condition necessary for beginning that process whereby thought is complexified and autonomized (Varela, 1989). When such a condition obtains, it is possible at that point to make discriminations and grasp the notion that kinds of knowledge are viable according to the context of their production. Hence, it is not a question of evaluating the truth or falseness of either the common tendency of substantializing heat or the scientific tendency of dematerializing the same. Instead, it is the interpretation one makes of the context which will determine the appropriate signification.
Engaging in epistemological reflexivity along the lines I have just set out is an exercise which, assuredly, demands as much if not more intellectual effort than is the case with studying the contents of various scientific disciplines. However, in the educational setting we provided, the participating youths undertook this exercise with enthusiasm and panache.
The educational setting
Epistemological reflection can be integrated within curriculum by drawing on a variety of educational strategies. Our choice consisted in organizing a classroom simulation of a number of conditions involved in the production of scientific knowledge – in particular, the constructed, negotiated features of this knowledge – so that students would reflect on their own cognitive activity rather than on scholarly discourse on the subject. This was how we facilitated the students’ task of questioning their own representations, so that they might surpass these representations. This does not imply that personal options were rejected, only that they were dialecticized. Specifically, students were to accomplish this goal by developing a capacity for critically reflecting on the postulates underpinning their own and others’ strategies for constructing knowledge.
As part of this approach, we designed a computer program capable of generating a series of puzzles for which (true and false) answers could not be gotten from a textbook or an instructor (Désautels, Lauzon, and Larochelle, 1987). The puzzle to be worked out by our apprentice researchers involved the unexpected behavior of unknown entities emitted by any one of four emitters placed around an opaque square; the traces of this emission could be located on the screen. Thus, as may be observed in Figure 1, the traces left by an entity changed direction following possible interaction “beneath” (a reasonable postulate for sure) the black square, although it was expected to continue along a straight path.
Ultimately, it was the gap between the expectations of the researchers and what they actually saw on the screen that offered the possibility of formulating a problem for which a solution could be attempted. What did this apparent deviation mean? How was one to solve this puzzle? It was in a framework such as this that the studentscum-apprentice researchers were called upon to invent and test out a number of solutions. In addition, the plausibility of the solutions proposed was the subject of a debate among participants in a scholarly colloquium. That way, it was the students themselves who produced the data upon which they based their reflection. They were aided in this process by the epistemological considerations to which we unceasingly drew their attention. Questioning in connection with epistemological issues could also assume a number of different forms. Thus we offered students two workshops devoted to reflection and knowledge production, the first bearing on inventive conceptualization (led by Professor Wilfrid Bilodeau) and the second on logical reasoning (led by the professor in charge of the course). On several different occasions, we gave students short, somewhat informal memos in question form to portray a number of problems and issues which their research activities raised. However, it was particularly during the team projects using the aforementioned computer program that we called on students to specify the implicit postulates they make use of for the purpose of: (1) constructing “scientific explanations” – for example, extending the paths in order to locate a point of impact beneath the square assumes that the entities continue along a straight path at the moment they disappear from sight; (2) formulating coherent lines of argument; and (3) developing awareness of divergences of opinion which debate brings into play. In addition, students were encouraged to keep an “epistemological journal,” in which they wrote down their reflections concerning the production of scientific knowledge. In these, we added our comments in question form, thus enabling us to keep up a dialogue with each student concerning these thorny questions.
Figure 1: Potentiality-generating puzzle
This strategy was implemented in a regular, required philosophy course offered during the first year of a two-year tertiary institution. The class met twice a week, for a total of three hours, over a twelve- week period. The group was comprised of thirty-five students, male and female, of whom the average age was seventeen years and five months. On average, they had taken six science courses at the secondary level and three at the tertiary level. At the time we conducted our research, seven students had opted for a concentration in the social sciences, three were pursuing a vocational track, and twenty had chosen a concentration in the pure sciences, while another five noted that they were transferring from one program to another.
Although the present discussion does not lend itself to entering into the details of how implementation of this strategy proceeded, the “metalogue” – that is, a conversation concerning “problematic subjects” (Bateson, 1981, p. 1) – provides an interesting metaphor for this process. There can be no doubting the problematical nature of the issues which were dealt with in class (truth, evidence, objectivity, models, postulates, etc.). Evidence of this complexity may be found not only in the point of view of the students themselves, as indicated by their statements, but also in the perspective of epistemologists of science, for whom such matters provide their daily bread and the subject of unending debate. In addition, the very structure of the dialogues which took place between the various actors involved in the research is intertwined with the problems this long conversation was prone to give rise to. Throughout this process, and in keeping with the constructivist orientation of the strategy used, we constantly confronted students with their own reflections and made no effort to impose the “right” point of view on them. This did not mean, however, that we refrained from suggesting avenues along which to pursue reflection. By focusing on their statements, actions, and lines of inquiry, our questions provided students with many springboards for their own reflection and avoided dictating the direction which such reflection was to follow. As a result, the students enjoyed the necessary autonomy for developing a model of knowledge production whose solidity they could adjudge by means of reflexively examining their research activity, which ultimately generated problematic subjects anew. Furthermore, since the outcome of these research activities could not be defined in terms of a right or wrong response, new problems accordingly arose in connection with the epistemological status of knowledge. The question remains, however, of whether this strategy is relevant in terms of the stated objectives. It is to this question that I shall now turn.
Student statements
Understandably, it is impossible to provide here a synthesis of the some four hundred pages of writings produced by the students in their journals. Instead, I will attempt to illustrate how these adolescents engaged in epistemology, and indeed how, by doing so, they developed a better-informed representation of science in action.
Generally speaking, after reading through the statements, one cannot help but notice the lack of familiarity with the kind of reflection at issue among a sizable majority of students, as the following excerpts illustrate. Thus, one student candidly admitted that she had never asked herself any questions about the production of scientific knowledge, whereas another classmate noted how she had once thought she knew everything there was to know on the subject. (Subjects are identified by a number at the beginning of each excerpt.)
S9 – I admit I had never thought of the process of production (of scientific knowledge). At first, I thought it was something like an inspiration from heaven. I quickly changed this simplistic interpretation of the process of production.
S12 – I thought I knew it all about the production of scientific knowledge, but the further we go along (in the course), the less I have the impression of knowing something about it and the more I discover things I never dreamed could exist.
Continuing in the same vein, the following comment offers a number of glimpses into the strangeness of epistemological reflection and how this reflection fills a person with no end of questions:
S26 – It is quite hard to ask yourself why you think something is so. This is because until now we’ve rarely been called on to ask ourselves such questions. Usually what we learn are previously established relationships. Now it’s our whole way of reflecting on things which is thrown into question.
Once the surprise was over, how did the students tackle the problematic subjects that are dear to epistemologists? It is worth noting at the outset the multitude of problems which students reflected on, ranging from the role of metaphors in the production of scientific knowledge to the distinction between private and public forms of science, with concepts such as truth, objectivity, postulates, and so forth, undergoing examination in the process. It is at this point that I would like to present how a number of these problems were dealt with.
The workshop on inventive or metaphorical conceptualization sparked numerous reactions. Of the thirty-five students who participated in the experiment, twenty-two provided statements on the role of metaphorization in the production of scientific knowledge, emphasizing how the former should be seen as something more than mere figures of speech. Fourteen of these subjects characterized meta‑phorization as having a pedagogical or communicative function, in reference to the way in which it smooths out the difficulties engendered by abstraction.
S25 – It would be harder to understand all that, because oftentimes, we’re dealing with things which do not exist – i.e., that can’t be seen, touched, or smelled. The only thing we have left to define these things is in fact our imagination. And to make our imagination work, we have to rely on metaphors or something else that I can’t put my finger on but which would have the same function as metaphor or would be related to it.
The other eight subjects drew on their own research activity to illustrate how metaphorical activity plays a constitutive role in the production of scientific knowledge:
S12 – Metaphors are indispensable because they allow us to create models of things that it would be impossible to discover otherwise. Metaphors provide the real basis of all conversation, hence of all human thinking. The production of scientific knowledge is obviously no exception to this rule. In order to arrive at some conclusion as to what was contained in the black square, we had to compare the deviations of the emissions with material things with which we were more familiar, such as the deviation of a ball of wood when it hits a wall, for example. We linked all the phenomena which we observed on our screen to things we were familiar with; hence, we continually used metaphors in order to understand.
This reflective insight into the role the imagination plays in the production of scientific knowledge can also be linked to recognition of the role of postulates in this same production, as is borne out in various forms by the statements of twenty-eight students. For example, some of the students offered a definition of the concept of postulate:
S19 – In our opinion, postulates are thoughts that don’t require looking into. They are the underlying beliefs that we think we know but which have not necessarily been proven. Now, these postulates have to be properly identified and then reflected on with greater attentiveness.
For a number of students, reflection on the role of postulates led them, on the one hand, to realize the necessity of postulating in order to know and, on the other, to recognize the conventionality of postulates, in which the latter stand as neither true nor false.
S10 – Two parallels never intersect: this goes without saying, except that there’s nothing to prove it…. It’s more than clear that the evidence in and of itself cannot always be relied on. Every step along the progression has to be continually tested out because this [assumption] can never be true or false.
Following upon this realization, these students also arrived at a number of inferences concerning the consequences of adopting such a position for the production of knowledge. Thus, after having brought out the fundamental necessity of postulating the stability of the object of analysis, one student came to the conclusion that “obviously, this assumption implies that when the ray is emitted twice from the same point and in the same direction, its deviation will be exactly the same from one time to the next” (S12).
There were some students who adopted a position which recalls one of the propositions of constructivism. They recognized that knowledge is invented, and that this knowledge is based on previously held knowledge:
S9 – I do believe it’s true that the way things are seen is created on the basis of the assumptions that people make and the ideas that people have. That is why, although the project was the same for everyone, each team approached the problem differently, in keeping with its own background. The approach is different because each person has his or her personal way of seeing things, which has been influenced by each person’s experiences. Thus, it is we who create our way of seeing things, based on our assumptions.… [This is] because people don’t analyze a phenomenon the same way; everyone goes at it according to their ideas.
Even in partial form, the results presented thus far provide clear illustration that these students performed epistemology by engaging in an examination of their own cognitive activity. One might wonder, however, whether, as a result of this process, they did not also develop a better-informed representation of the production of scientific knowledge. There is an abundance of indicators which suggest that this is in fact the case. First of all, many students were able to critically appraise their experience of learning science and, in particular, of school varieties of scientific knowledge. In particular, they mentioned that they have never been called on to reflect on the foundations of the knowledge which they have been presented with, nor have they been asked to relate these epistemological considerations to “science in the making,” to use Callon and Latour’s expression (1991). According to these students, such negligence warps not only the attitude they develop toward learning but also the type of relationship they develop with knowledge, as may be seen in the following excerpt:
S32 – All the courses I have taken are based on learning scientific contents that must be absorbed without questioning the basis of this research. Our critical capacity is reduced to nothing; we receive this information as though it were absolute truth. Once you’re inside the system, I think you develop a liking for it because you become used to this sort of method that demands only some understanding and a little memorization; our curiosity gradually withers away, and I would go so far as to say that we become intellectually lazy, and that our interest declines, which could prove to be harmful at some point in the future.
These students have brought to light the dogmatism of science teaching and have identified the illusory nature of the representation of science which it conveys. In so doing, they have enabled themselves to bracket off and transform their notion of the production of scientific knowledge, and they have thereby developed a critical point of view. Illustration of this evolution is to be found in the following statement, which deals with the hypothetical and relative character of not only their own productions but of the production of scientific knowledge as well:
S7 – The same applies to science. Researchers are confident of their own theories, but they often forget that these are only assumptions for as long as nobody comes up with anything better, and so on. A conclusion that all teams arrive at wouldn’t be a certainty either, since no one can ever see through the square; this [conclusion] will always be an assumption. On the other hand, postulates are quite useful, because there always has to be a starting point for our research. How else are we to begin?
The absoluteness of scientific truth was implicitely thrown into question on a number of other occasions, particularly in statements in which students identified the convention-bound character of scientific knowledge, as illustrated in the following excerpt:
S21 – In our research, as in the research of other scientists, we had to devise postulates, in other words, conventions among ourselves. These conventions had a determining influence on the results and on the model generated by the research. For example, by postulating at the outset that the ray continued along a straight line after having gone beyond the limits of the opaque square, we obtained a model which was completely different from that which would have obtained if we had begun with another set of postulates. An example such as this provides good insight into the importance of the postulates or conventions on which research is based.
On the other hand, some students took different cognitive routes to develop better-informed representations of the production of scientific knowledge for themselves. For example, in what appears to us as an example of epistemological reflection achieving “takeoff,” one student proposed an emancipatory conception of research, one which integrates the concepts of error and detours and which, via a process of arborization, does not restrict itself to the idea of truth but instead opens onto that of the enrichment of potentialities:
S2 – Here is how I could describe [it]:
Figure 2: Student’s conception of the research process
The arrow represents the shortest route to a result. The other lines form an infinite number of detours. As can be seen, one detour can lead to another and then lead back to the main path of research. But when all the detours are worked through, you may end up with a result which is unlike any other. Perhaps things would become complicated and entangled to the point of producing no result even. Or perhaps the paths or detours could make it possible to verify that it is in fact impossible to achieve a similar result. Or then again, these detours could spark new discoveries. So here, as with the other form of detours, the result will be research which is more solid, more thoroughly analyzed, and subjected to greater verification. One might conclude that these detours ought to be mentioned primarily in the research report and during a public conference.
In light of these statements, it is plausible to think that a good many students – two-thirds according to our evaluation – were able to construct better-informed representations of scientific knowledge. It is indeed plausible that once these students gained awareness of the constructed, relative character of this knowledge and were able to recognize the collective, consensual aspects involved in its production, they also acquired the basic intellectual tools which would enable them to develop a more emancipative, critical relationship to knowledge and its producers. This relationship may be described as being more emancipative for two reasons. First, from the moment that scientific knowledge is conceived as one knowledge game among others, it can no longer be invoked as a criterion by which to appraise the worth of other forms of knowledge, including one’s very own. Secondly, scientists are no longer perceived as geniuses serving as mouthpieces through whom the secrets and commandments of Nature are revealed, but rather as people who, not unlike these students, imagine solutions to the problems they have invented and test these solutions by means of the collective implementation of the appropriate technical procedures. We have also described this relationship as being more critical because students have gained greater awareness of how a number of issues are at stake in the production of scientific knowledge, in particular the necessity of persuading one’s peers of the solidity of one’s research.
S8 – In my opinion, a scientist has to be good not only in conducting a research project, he or she must also be good at presenting it. What I mean is this: to begin with, you do a research project within a certain period of time and within all kinds of limits. You come up with a final result, which does not mean that research is over and done with or that the answer has been found. It is this result which the researcher believes in; he or she believes it is the best answer (or hypothesis). Now, I would compare this answer to a product that must be sold…. What I mean is that the experimenter must have certain aptitudes for communication in order to sell his/her product and to get across the message that this project is the best one.
Another issue, by no means a minor one, involves the image of scientists in society:
S9 – One other point: I don’t think scientists stand to benefit from making known all the difficulties they have run into. This would detract from their status as scientists. Society needs heroes, and often scientists are put into a somewhat of a special category. They do research, so it doesn’t serve them any purpose to mention they encountered a lot of difficulty during their work.
Thus stripped of its aura of transcendence, the production of scientific knowledge becomes, somehow, a more human experience, as well as a critical one. It is legitimate to ask, however, whether such relativist students will not indeed become prone to solipsism and turn away from science forever.
After working with these students for three months, and reading and rereading their journals, we encountered no evidence to that effect. Obviously, one may find traces of a rather fashionable sort of cynicism peculiar to adolescence or an occasional hint of ontological angst. Generally speaking, however, these students did not adopt an absolutely relativistic position. More importantly, demystifying the production of scientific knowledge made science more accessible for some.
Moreover, in connection with research into spontaneous conceptions (among other topics), the question may be put as to whether the epistemological reflection performed by these students enables them to revise the materialistically tinted significations with which they habitually endow scientific notions and concepts. No answer may be provided to this at the present time. However, the majority of these students displayed sensitivity to how, fundamentally, scientific knowledge is model based and provisional in nature – that is, this knowledge is a map but is not itself the territory it purports to describe. Thus, there are grounds for believing that these students will demonstrate greater vigilance toward the relational aspect of the concepts made use of in such knowledge, for here, as elsewhere, these concepts are not to be taken for the thing itself!
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This research provided the basis of a book, a number of excerpts from which have been included here with the permission of the publisher (see Larochelle and Désautels, 1992).
The term spontaneous underscores the notion that the contents of this knowledge (or conception) differ from that of scientific knowledge on the subject (for a listing of studies on the subject, see Pfundt and Duit, 1994).
This “looping back” of thought upon itself may give rise to intellectual vertigo of a kind which might provoke anxiety among some. There is always a blind spot in a conceptual structure, which makes searching for an absolute basis to knowledge an absurdity. As von Foerster (1990) has shown, however, the reiteration of an operation does not necessarily lead to an instance of infinite regression.
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