Intellectually honest explanations

21 01 2011

Jerome Bruner is a psychologist who is most famous for his concept of a Spiral Curriculum. His writings have been massively influential and helped shape most modern education systems. He speaks of the importance of intellectually honest explanations and his work contains challenges that are relevant to us as science communicators.

In The Process of Education (1960) he suggested that we should view students as active problem-solvers who are quite capable of learning about complicated subjects. Prior thinking was dominated by the view that children were in school to learn facts and that some facts were just too difficult and so had to be postponed until a child reached a particular age. Bruner said:

We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

Any subject can be taught to any child at any stage of development… Is this right? Surely there are some subjects that you just couldn’t begin to explain to a child? Bruner would say, no.

The key to this process is the Spiral Curriculum. Instead of waiting for a child to reach a particular age before telling them about something you introduce the concept at a basic level and then you periodically revisit it. On each visit you systematically build on what has been said utilising the experiences the children have gained since the last time the subject was considered.

Imagine walking up a spiral staircase. As you snake around the view from each window becomes successively higher. More is revealed to you as you climb. In the spiral curriculum more is revealed about a subject as you progress through school. Most of us don’t realise that is how education works as it is very difficult to remember the many times a subject was visited. We leave school with a body of knowledge about a topic and don’t remember how it was carefully built up over time.

Take chromatography as an example. You might experience this first in nursery where you’ll be encouraged to choose a colour and then observe a difference over time. In lower primary you might revisit it as one of your first science investigations learning that some colours are made up of a mixture of inks and some of those inks are stickier than others. In upper primary it might be used to introduce the concept of solvents. Finally in secondary school you might use chromatography as a technique to investigate a scientific problem.

So the challenge for us as science communicators must be to always resit the urge to say “he is too young to understand” or “you need a degree before I can explain this”. We must constantly strive to find ways to explain that makes sense to whoever it is we are speaking to whilst ensuring that the explanation is intellectually honest. And we will ensure our explanations are honest by using appropriate language.

When writing a show take the time to investigate what language you should be using. Ask the teacher of the class or look up the relevant curriculum document for that year group. English National Curriculum Scottish Curriculum for Excellence

Bruner believes that “Intellectual activity is anywhere and everywhere, whether at the frontier of knowledge or in a third-grade classroom” and as a science communicator who works with nursery school children through to school leavers I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Jerome Bruner and the process of education

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