If you have spent much time on twitter this week, you have probably seen the hashtag #overlyhonestmethods, in which scientists volunteer some of the messy bits about science that don’t usually make it into published papers. There are some nice lists of tweets here and here, and the whole thing reminded me of PhD comics‘ methodology translator explaining how science actually gets done.
The hashtag is funny if you have spent much time in science, but the thing I really like about it is how clearly it shows that our ideal of how science operates—craft a hypothesis, run simulations, perform carefully controlled experiments, learn something new about nature—is just that, an ideal. Very often things shake out differently than you were expecting when you started, or you’re constrained by resources or lab availability that’s unrelated to the project, or you get a big surprise and have to check your premises. And of course, the way that science is published, disseminated in popular press, and used practically (or not) often depends not only on the science itself, but on the lives of the researchers involved, and what their aims and constraints are. Which is another way of saying that the study of science is a part of life, and is affected by people’s agency and random chance in all the ways you’d expect.
In many ways this mirrors the difference between experiment and theory. We can have a theoretical idea of what the scientific method is, just as we can have a theoretical explanation of some observed phenomenon. But in the end, we are working and living in the real world, and as much as we want to understand the laws beneath everything, we also have to be adaptable to the unexpected! As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'”
Edutainment can be a dirty word, depending on who you ask. While the blending of entertainment and education seems to be a positive step – why wouldn’t you want people to enjoy learning? – it can be viewed with distaste by those who consider themselves ‘real’ educators. Very few of them would claim that their own flavours of educational work are without enjoyment, so why this disconnect?
Edutainment centres around the idea that all learning should be ‘fun’, and often incorporates technology including video games, films and radio, often with an interactive focus. It’s informal and revolves less around a central teacher figure and more around the engagement of the student with a narrative designed to impart information while it also engages with them emotionally. And while edutainment principles can be used to deliver any curriculum, it often seems to be focused on making science fun and enjoyable for otherwise unengaged students.
The benefits of this type of engagement are myriad: it addresses the challenge of catching and keeping peoples’ attention, it can make traditionally ‘boring’ or ‘difficult’ subjects more engaging, and it does so in a way that requires little in the way of preparation or resources for those delivering it (after initial development, of course). So what objections could possibly be lodged against it?
One of the main criticisms seems to boil down to the fact that in ‘making learning fun’ traditional learning is relegated to the ‘unfun’ sector; it becomes an obstacle to cover up or transmute into something palatable and shiny. While scientists and engineers hopefully enjoy their jobs and are passionate about their subjects it’s doubtful than any given individual would agree that their progression and learning had been all fun, all the time. Should we be encouraging young people to engage only with that which tells them a nice story or catches their eye with well-designed graphics, or should we level with them that STEM isn’t always fun? Facts need to be learned, abstract theories must be understood, and above all critical thinking and hard work and dedication are key to becoming successful learners and contributors to the wider sphere of understanding.
That being said, as educators we should be willing to see our methods evolve and change with time. Edutaintment activities can have value as long as they are vetted and evaluated for impact (both on attitude and uptake of content) properly. Some developing technologies are especially exciting – for example, http://www.teachwithportals.com/ is a free-for-schools initiave launched by distribution platform Steam, allowing teachers to use the Puzzle Maker and other templates to explore physics, maths, technology and even literacy topics while students play their way through derivatives of a wildly popular video game. This will not be a solution for all – there comes the problem of timetable integration, of whether school computers are capable of running the appropriate software, of the training of teachers to make use of yet another new tool – but it might work for some. And if it doesn’t, well, there’s always the classics: