Monday, July 19, 2010

Feeling Science

How does it feel to engage with Science?

20 years ago I wrote a book called Talking Science: how we use the language of science to describe, explain, design, investigate, teach, learn, reason, read, and write. Later on, I also wrote about how science integrates language with mathematics and graphs, tables, charts, maps, diagrams, and images.

But all that was about the meanings we make with words, images, and equations. It left out how we feel about them, how we feel about doing science and using its tools. Feelings are important in themselves, but also because they guide our judgments: about what research to do, what solution or design to try, whether an idea seems likely or not, a fact important or not, a procedure comfortable or not, an approach attractive or not.

At a recent conference on the Learning Sciences in Chicago, I tried to deal with just one part of the role of feelings in science: how we feel about images, equations, and a wide range of representations in science. I began by recalling that a lot of us got interested in science early on because of the feelings we had for dinosaurs and galaxies – things we experienced through awe-inspiring reconstructions and computer-enhanced photographs.

Most scientific images today are products of both data and human esthetic choices about to render that data in ways that highlight it meanings, but also in ways that engage our feelings. This is nothing new in science, as the famous drawings of bird species by Audubon easily remind us.

Not all the feelings we have about scientific images are pleasant ones, but they can certainly be very powerful ones:

We have feelings for and about the modes of representation (e.g. visual vs. mathematical), the media (diagrams vs 3D models), the technologies (print vs. video), the genres (topographic maps, star charts, chemical formulas, etc.), and even the individual styles in which these are rendered. Usually in science these come as packages, so it does not make sense to try to separate out our feelings for say a medium or a technology in the abstract. We don’t feel in the abstract; we feel as we experience real, concrete instances.

How we feel about scientific images or scientific tools, how we feeling in using them (comfortable or not? pleasurable or not? appropriate? proud? inspired? mystified? frustrated?) is part of our identity as a scientist or just as a person who encounters these images, tools, and ideas. What do we identify with? What do we distance ourselves from? Learning science, even in school, is not just about learning to reason like a scientist, it is also about learning to feel like one, even if only in some limited ways.

Feelings, which may also be called more elegantly affects or just emotions, are generally ignored, denied, or pushed to the side in the teaching of science (and mathematics) and in school curricula. But they are fundamentally important for motivation, for long-term memory, for developing attitudes, for career choice, for decision-making, and in fact for scientific reasoning itself. All reasoning requires choices, choices depend on values, values are grounded in or appear to us as feelings. Judgment and evaluation are fundamental to science, and both depend critically on feelings.

Feelings are not animal instincts; in human beings, at least, they are also learned and cultured. Feelings of appropriateness and moral rightness, of guilt or pride, are learned, built on top of whatever basic capacity for emotional response our biology gives us. So also with “a feeling for the organism” in biology (in the famous phrase of Nobel geneticist Barbara McClintock), or a feeling for the pathways of complex organic chemistry reactions, or for the world of quantum physics.

Feelings, like meanings, usually come to us through our engagement with words, images, sounds, and hands-on experiences. A famous chemist once told me that I couldn’t understand chemistry just by manipulating equations; I had to “smell” it and see it in the laboratory. I needed, in other words, to get a feel for it. No less obviously, we have feelings about meanings (ideas, proposals, explanations). Maybe we ought to say that how we feel when we make sense of something is an inseparable part of the meaning we make, of the activity of making that meaning?

And so feeling is also fundamental to learning, to development, to education. And not just in science. Why do we so often try to pretend that it isn’t? Well, that’s another story.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Moral Struggles Matter -- to Learning!

Even in fiction and games, we care about what’s right and wrong.

I’ve been trying to work out a puzzle lately: why do our feelings matter to how we make sense of the world around us? The answer, I think, lies in the contribution of feelings to the process of making evaluations and judgments. Not just about what is good or bad, but about what’s important or trivial, what’s surprising or ordinary, what to take seriously or just as a joke.

Last week at the International Congress of the Learning Sciences, where I was talking about the role feelings play in how science represents the world [see my next blog entry], I attended a session on learning through computer games. There’s no doubt that games play on our emotions; that feelings matter to what we do next in the game. But what hit me in this session was how deeply engaged we get when there are moral issues at stake, when we’re trying to figure out what’s right and wrong, and having problems deciding what’s right.

Many theories of learning imagine that all learning is like problem-solving, but then they mistakenly assume that problem-solving is or should be purely logical and rational. It never is; it never can be. Solving a problem always requires us to make choices and decisions along the way, about what is relevant, important, likely to succeed, etc. Take away our feelings about what to do next and we can’t do much of anything (that can, unfortunately, happen; read Antonio Damasio).

Likewise, most problem-solving involves the use of tools, especially information tools like books, notes, computers, or just counting on your fingers. And we always have feelings about those, too (my topic at the conference). Computer games put us in imaginary worlds full of problems to be solved and tools to solve them; they offer us adventures that rev up our feelings. And it turns out that what can draw us in most deeply is not the shooting or thinking, but puzzling about what is right and wrong when our choices matter to ourselves and other people.

Schools, on the other hand, seem scared to death of both feelings and moral issues as essential elements in learning. The main feeling reported by most students about most of their time in school is: boredom. The last thing the curriculum wants students to engage with, it seems, is issues of right and wrong. It’s all about knowledge and not about life. So most students learn little, forget most of that, and basically just don’t care. They feel that everything that matters is missing, and I think they’re right.

We learn when we have a need to know, when something really matters to us. It can be imaginary, but it has to feel important. Like being fair, like choosing between justice and forgiveness, like making the right decision when the wrong one will harm innocent creatures. No one can learn how to always make good choices, but we do learn passionately when we believe learning something can help us make a better choice here and now.

A century ago, and for a long time before that, the purpose of education was to build good moral character. When our society lost its consensus about what was morally right, education lost a critical link between learning and life. And schools lost a key principle for engaging students emotionally with learning.

We can’t teach students right and wrong. But we can engage them in deeply felt and learning-rich projects of trying to figure it out for themselves.

If we have the courage to try.

Images: Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice; Pilot of the Hiroshima bomber, years later; the Dalai Lama. People who faced and had to live with profound moral choices and their consequences, with no easy answers.