How Do Scientists Think?

boy holding a daddy long legs

Thinking like a scientist. Critical thinking. Design thinking.

These are words you’ll hear in all three divisions of the school—and not just from science teachers. It’s not the acquisition of scientific content we’re talking about; it’s a way of examining the world we live in. It’s about curiosity, close observation, testing ideas, open mindedness, and solving problems. As John Dewey said, scientific thinking is both an attitude and a tool.

Exciting new approaches like design thinking, STEAM, and makers’ spaces are all grounded in John Dewey’s ideas of critical thinking, which he also called reflective thinking. Since we were founded in 1935, Dewey’s philosophy has been the soil in which Renbrook students have been nurtured. Here is a quick summary of his thinking:

  • Dewey’s conception of inquiry traces the chain of connections that he established between thinking and inquiry, inquiry and experience, and experience and education. Dewey also stressed the social nature of thought.
  • Dewey said that the teaching of factual knowledge and intellectual skills cannot be separated from the development of the student’s ability to think.
  • By “thinking,” Dewey means an “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge.”
  • Role of dialogue: Dewey claims that thought comes to fruition only through communication and that its realization is most complete when we think together in “face-to-face relationships by means of direct give and take.”
  • Interplay of creative and critical thought requires reasonableness and associated traits, such as fair-mindedness, open-mindedness, and tolerance—listening with an open mind, dealing with disagreement.

New knowledge—recent brain research, for instance—builds on old knowledge—the wisdom of Dewey and the experience of generations of teachers—to meet this moment in education. In this year’s magazine, we hear from Renbrook teachers about how the principles of scientific thinking are realized in all grade levels. As you read about the career paths of the three Renbrook alumni we interviewed this year, you will see scientific thinking at work in the world, reaching across disciplines.

Renbrook faculty and staff all read Adam Grant’s book Think Again, and this quotation from Grant’s book captures the way that scientific thinking applies to the affective side of education—how we treat each other in community, children and adults alike.

“I think too many of us spend too much time thinking like preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. Philip Tetlock made a very compelling case that when we’re in preacher mode, we’re convinced we’re right; when we’re in prosecutor mode, we’re trying to prove someone else wrong; and when we’re in politician mode, we’re trying to win the approval of our audience.

Thinking like a scientist does not mean you need to own a telescope or a microscope. It just means that you favor humility over pride and curiosity over conviction. You know what you don’t know, and you’re eager to discover new things. You don’t let your ideas become your identity. You look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right. You listen to ideas that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good. And you surround yourself with people who can challenge your process, not just the ones who agree with your conclusion.

The Latin root of humility translates to ’from the earth.’ It’s about being grounded, recognizing that, yes, we have strengths, but we also have weaknesses. You’re fallible. Confident humility is being able to say, ’I don’t know, and I might be wrong,’ or ’I haven’t figured it out yet,’ which is essentially believing in yourself but doubting your current knowledge or skills.” Read on to discover how we apply scientific thinking in each division. Today we focus on the Beginning School.

Scientific Thinking from the Beginning 

In Renbrook’s Beginning School, children are naturalists. Our 75-acre campus beckons them to explore the outdoors and the creatures, plants, and rocks they find there. They are taught to stop, pause, and look more closely. Our youngest students are not bound by a curriculum; they follow their own discoveries and observations. Their teachers build on the children’s own curiosity to lead them into the process of formal inquiry.

Forming questions clearly and precisely is an essential skill and the first step in scientific thinking. Then children need the tools to pursue their inquiry. Beginning School students bring nature into their classrooms, where they use magnifiers, microscopes, and measuring tools to observe and track small changes. In one experiment, three-year-olds placed pumpkin seeds in clear boxes, some with soil, some without, and watched what happened.

Using all five senses, the children make comparisons. As they develop keen observational skills, they acquire the descriptive vocabulary they need to communicate their findings. By Kindergarten, they are comparing, contrasting, and categorizing.

Probing to learn more about the natural world that surrounds our Beginning School trains children in scientific habits of thinking and gives them tools for further study. But the benefits of their copious time outdoors go even deeper. The sounds of nature and the freedom of movement they experience reduce stress. They develop compassion for all living things, even slugs and spiders, meeting them with curiosity instead of judgment. And they take a sense of home with them into Lower and Upper School. As Howard Wright, Upper School Science Department Head, observes, when children know their immediate environment intimately, they have a basis for learning about other, more distant environments and the people who live there. Their relationship with the Renbrook forest trains them to understand the wider world.

Gardening begins in Preschool. The children love planting seeds and watching them grow. They learn what the plants need to thrive. They learn that they must pay careful attention to tending the growing plants. And they learn that the work they do can help someone. All their produce goes either to the Renbrook kitchen or to Gifts of Love, a non-profit in Hartford that provides food assistance to struggling families. Junior Kindergartners harvest food they planted as Preschoolers in raised beds near the kitchen. They keep journals, documenting their observations with drawings. In Kindergarten they will write in their journals.

Dr. Kelly Bird, Director of Beginning School, is excited, too, about the evolving STEAM curriculum, with a focus on choosing materials and learning how they can be used. STEAM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. It is a multidisciplinary approach that invites students to invent solutions to real world problems, hands-on. In Dr. Bird’s STEAM classes with Kindergartners, she takes them from two-dimensional to three-dimensional construction, using connectors, braces, and circuitry.
“How do you make things move?” And the Kindergarten students are off. They make animals from oaktag, attaching their limbs with brads. Then they create structures with Makedoo, an open-ended system of tools for creative cardboard construction. Next, they tackle woodworking, using screws, hammers, and hinges to make animals with moving parts. They learn simple coding to make robots move.

The process is filled with trial and error. Students grapple with what doesn’t work and how to move on. “What was a problem you ran into, and how did you solve it?” their teacher asks. Misfires and mistakes are learning points, not failures. Dr. Bird’s students are champions, bold and excited about problem solving.

Our youngest students are on a path of discovery, developing the scientific skills of analysis and synthesis, working together to form conclusions based on carefully gathered evidence. And throughout Preschool, Junior Kindergarten, and Kindergarten, they are becoming confident communicators, verbally and eventually in writing, as they explain their processes.

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