Sunday, September 12, 2010

How to Teach Curiosity in the History of Science?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/12 at 02:35 PM

In my history of the scientific revolution course I have devised an assignment that asks the students to select, describe, and analyze a primary source from our (Haverford’s or Bryn Mawr’s) special collections. The book, pamphlet, or letter has to have been written/published during the period covered in the course—roughly 1500 to 1700—and has to be related to science (broadly understood). Some aspects of the project are pretty easy: What is the text? Who is the author? When and where was it published? Etc. Other questions require that they do more work: What other texts did the printer produce? Who paid for the work? Who read the text? When and where? How does the text relate to other works by the same author or other similar works by other authors? Are there any marginalia? Etc. Over the next five weeks students will try to answer as many of these questions as they can. They will then use their analysis of this document as the starting point for their research papers.

The biggest challenge for this assignment seems to be teaching them how to be curious. Or, to put it more specifically, how to formulate and ask questions. For example, the other day we looked at a copy of Newton’s Principia mathematica that contains some marginalia. They seemed uninterested in the marginal notes or how they could be used to understand how a particular person had read the text.  When pressed, one student offered: I guess somebody wrote in the margin. While I wasn’t expecting fully formulated book history type questions, I had hoped that they might think about whether or not the person who had written his name in the front of the volume might also be the person who had annotated the book. Or to ask if all the notes were by the same person. When we looked at a few different kinds of notes, e.g., “vid. errata” or “N.B.” or they occasional keyword, they seemed at a loss as to what to do with them.

That same day we compared copies of Sacrobosco’s De sphaera, Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, and Newton’s text. The first was a little school textbook. The Copernicus and the Newton were larger format texts. The different sizes of the texts, both their formats and their lengths, didn’t elicit any comments or questions.

What surprised me was the students’ lack of ability to or lack of interest in noting these features—marginalia, owner’s signature, size and format. How do you teach students to be curious about these things? And what else do they miss because they are not encouraged to ask questions?

My goals for this assignment include getting the students to see that knowledge is always embodied in particular forms, that readers encounter those texts in particular contexts that shape how they interact with them. And those readers often leave traces of their readings that help us understand how they made sense of, or did not make sense of, the texts. Further, by struggling with primary sources—unsanitized, marked up, defaced, misunderstood, etc.—they can gain an appreciation for the strangeness of the past. Students can also begin to recover some of the effort readers expend to make sense of the texts. Rather than see Newton’s or Copernicus’s text as fundamentally right, they get a chance to see how 16th- and 17th-century readers thought they were right or wrong. They get a chance to see how much effort was exerted to make a point, sometimes a counterintuitive point.

But to achieve any of these or related goals students need to be able to ask questions of the sources. They need to be able to see the sources as more than imperfect versions of some Platonic text in which the pellucid light of truth was sufficient to compel all readers to understand and accept the arguments put forth. And that’s where curiosity and questions come in.

History of science is certainly not unique in requiring some curiosity on the part of its students. However, it seems particularly susceptible to an assumption of progress and contribution. Whereas it makes little sense to ask if Marlowe or Shakespeare “got it right” or to ask which king was closer to the“Truth,” students want to hear about how particular actors contributed to modern science or to modern mathematics. They want to asses the Galileos, Gilberts, Keplers, Hookes, etc. in terms of right and wrong. And while they seem to be able to say the right thing when sitting in class and discussing some point, they were singularly flummoxed by the actual primary sources.

How then do we encourage curiosity? How can we instill habits of questioning in 18-21 year olds? Without some sense of wonder or surprise, some desire to ask questions, how much and what exactly can we really hope to teach them? Any thoughts or suggestions welcome.    

Tags: pedagogy, teaching


Comment posted by Roberto Belisário on 09/13 at 10:04 AM

Hi, Darin. I am a physicist and science writer. I have some abstract ideas, but unhappilly no concrete examples, as I am also building them. (Obs.: Sorry for eventually bad English...).

I think the lack of curiosity for “details” of the text has to do with the traditional pathways we are used to think. We use to think along rigid tracks and it is very difficult to escape from them. Academic activities themselves privilege some standart tracks.

So maybe we have to teach the students how to go out of our standart thought tracks. In the case of the analysis of the originals, that seems to relate to the difficulty of seeing the different possible dimensions through which we can see a text: the text itself, the way people read it, the historical context in which the author was inserted, the author’s non-scientific beliefs and how they appear and influence the content etc. We tend to see the originals as pure texts.

One can recall to the students the history of the blind people trying to recognize what they have in front of them - we know previously that it is an elephant. I don’t remember the source of this tail. Somebody touch its legs and say “it is a tree”. Somebody touch his trunk and say “it is a snake!”. And so on.

So are the originals. The analogy is: each part of the elephant is one dimension through which we can see an original. Each dimension we discover is another part of the reality of our object of study that we can see - and then we can articulate the different points of view and have another vision of the whole - what the blinds of the tail didn’t do.

So the main question - how to make people curious about such details - becomes: how to have access to such “hidden” dimensions?

That requires to go out our common thought tracks, to go beyond the “obvious”. It is important to notice that the features of the originals to which the students usually pay attention seem obvious not necessarily because they are the most substantial parts of the object of study, but because they fits our thought tracks. Sometimes other people (of other areas such as exact sciences or Spirituality or even out of Science) may privilege other dimensions. So the “details” are not proper details, but obvious signals that are not reachable by our thought tracks. The other dimensions are “hidden” in them.

Examples. What is more strikingly visible in an old book than written notes with another calligraphy “barbarianly” written at the margins of an original? What is the first thing we see - the content inside a book or the cover and the size of the book? How a children would describe such book? Certainly not describing its content - she would say: “It is a big and heavy and old book, and it is yellow, and its cover is very different from common books.” And probably would add a question typical from children: “Daddy, why it is so heavy?”

Children are tremendously curious and have a large ability to identify the obvious. As adults, we forgot to think as children. Maybe this is why we are often taken by surprise by their questions.

Maybe one can do an exercise with the students: they should take an original and find apparently unimportant details; then each student should choose one of them that please him the most, in the most ludic way. Then he should try to find some important hidden dimension of the object of study that can be explored through this detail, as if this detail were a window to it. Then they should try to convince the class that it is really an important feature of the original that can be a window to new important dimensions and add relevant knowledgement. And finally to show how to articulate the new discovered dimension with the dimensions we already know, in order to have a representation of the original closer to the whole, including its insertion in the historical and cultural context.

The danger is to find “hair” in “eggs” - to “force” the importance of some really unimportant detail. This is why I suggested to try to convince the class that it is important. That may be useful to separate the “good” and “bad” grains. Besides, there are no “good” and “bad” grains - we don’t know if they seem bad just because we didn’t manage to go out from our thought tracks far enough. So what is important is not to decide if they are good or bad, but to do a more neutral activity - as an example, to try to convince people.

I think it is also important to tell explicitly the students what we are doing. To tell them that we are bound to thought tracks, that if academic activities are not articulated with methodological criativity they may make these bound tigher, that these exercises may be userful to make us free from our standart thought tracks, to tell them about the abilities of the children, the tails and so on.

Another classic exercise that may call their attention to this subject is: to ask them to count all the blue objects in the class (you wait some minutes for them to perform the task) and then to ask them how many red objects there are around. This shows the meaning of “standart thought track”.

Comment posted by Babak Ashrafi on 09/14 at 08:46 AM

A teacher once gave me a novel to read.  When I came back, he asked me to tell him about the novel.  I gave him a plot summary.  He suggested that we read the last few pages together.  He read a few sentences at a time and paused to reflect on how that passage related to other parts of the book, highlighting structures of significance and meaning throughout the book.  That was an enormously instructive performance of a mode of reading that he has mastered.

Asking good questions is a set of skills, different in different disciplines, to be demonstrated, learned and practiced.  Maybe what students need is a compelling performance that they can emulate—at least to start.  So what do you think those skill are?  How are you at performance?

Comment posted by jwseitz on 09/14 at 08:50 AM

Tough issue. Part of the problem is that when they look at these books, what they see is not “a book” but “an Old Book.” And Old Books are, as anyone who has watched movies knows, crusty and hard to read and often manuscripts and generally weird. And since that’s exactly what they see there’s nothing to explain. They don’t think to ask why the books were created in these particular formats or have handwritten bits in them any more than they think to ask why a car has four wheels and not three or five or why it has bumper stickers.

Oh, you were looking for suggestions and not just a restatement of the problem?

Well, maybe (echoing in a way the previous commenter) you can take the pose of a four-year-old: asking them “why?” over and over again until they start to ask themselves “why.” Start with the “stupid questions” like “which book is smaller?” Then, why? (because it’s in smaller type) why? (because it was for a student?) why?..... Or, “what’s that in the margin?” Then, why why why.... If you make clear that you’re going to expect them to follow the train of “why"s as far back as they can in their written work as well, they may internalize that more easily than the command to contextualize or analyze the source, which means much to us, but little to them, I fear.

Of course, they’ll probably become as irritated as any parent, but that may be feature rather than bug. They’ll begin thinking of ways to answer the question more completely, preventing the follow-up why.

Another starting question, though lacking the simplicity and easy transferability of the “why why why” approach: Ask them to envision this book brand new on the shelf of the bookseller. Then, ask them to explain how (and why why why) the it got from new book to Old Book. Again, that can make visible the elements they discount as “normal” or, one might even say, “natural” in an Old Book.

Comment posted by Darin on 09/14 at 01:30 PM

Thanks for the comments, I’m off thinking about them right now and will post my thoughts later today.

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