Teaching science "as it is practised" and the pedagogy of uncertainty

Philip Poronnik, Phillip D. Long


In the last decade there has been a significant move towards teaching science as it is practised (DiCarlo, 2006). This movement has spawned much laudable activity around the development of undergraduate research experiences and design of open-ended/enquiry based laboratory classes. There is however, a more fundamental reality to confront. We have recently written about creativity in science education (McWilliam, Poronnik, & Taylor, 2008) - scientists have long been recognised as being at the elite level of creative workers. One of the main attributes of creative workers is that they learn from error. We argue that in fact, learning from the instructive complications of unexpected outcomes forms one of the central pillars of scientific endeavour. Yet in undergraduate science curricula, when a student makes a mistake they are frequently penalised by losing marks. We put the case for the development of a "pedagogy of uncertainty" to provide a formalised framework for students to explore, learn and be comfortable with the very uncertainty that makes science an exciting and challenging voyage of discovery. We should therefore develop strategies to leverage uncertainties and take advantage of them.

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