The Scientific Method: Not Just for Science

Teaching Critical Thinking through the Scientific Method

The National Commission on Excellence in Education reported in 1983 that “Many 17-year-olds do not possess the ‘higher-order’ intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay, and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.” 

As the amount of factual information has increased, many educators are concerned that instruction has been focused too much on what a student should learn at the expense of teaching students how to learn, or more importantly, how to think. Now more than ever, it is vitally important for students to learn how to evaluate the massive amount of information available as well as new facts that will certainly be discovered in the future.

Critical thinking skills are not only essential for interpreting and analyzing data and information but in making productive decisions regarding one’s life. The question therefore arises: How can we guide our children so that they develop critical thinking skills?

Contemporary science curriculum introduces students to the Scientific Method, a process of inquiry that follows a series of steps to predict, verify, or refute a hypothesis or theory.  This same method can be used to organize one’s plans, thoughts, and to solve problems in everyday life.  Young children do this naturally when throwing food from their high chair to see what happens, or by building block towers and knocking them down. As they grow we need to help them become more conscious of this process. By becoming comfortable with the Scientific Method, parents and teachers can adapt this method and integrate it into various academic and daily activities so that it will become second nature for the child.

The first step is to form a question. Children naturally love to ask questions and often ask questions based on their observations about the world around them. It is important to encourage children to use all their senses to observe the world and freely ask questions to support their learning. Let’s explore how we can take a question a child might ask such as, “Will ants eat my cereal?” and use the Scientific Method to find an answer.

The second step is to make a prediction or theory which is usually based on an educated guess. Encourage your children to use other observations, experiences, and knowledge to try and guess or predict what will happen in a certain circumstance. In this example, the child might remember seeing ants being attracted to honey in the kitchen and since the cereal is sweet, predict that the ants would eat the cereal.

The third step is to design an experiment to test the theory or prediction that ants will eat a specific cereal because it is sweet. Questions need to be answered to design this experiment. What type of cereal to use? Where to leave it, so the ants will find it? How long to leave it out? The child might pick two types of cereal, one sweetened and one non-sweetened and leave some out overnight in the kitchen where ants have been observed in the past. It is important that the child learn to write down clear steps along with the supplies that will be needed to conduct the experiment.

Then finally, the child should record the data and analyze what occurs to determine if this verified or refuted the theory. Depending on the results of the experiment, it might conclude that the prediction was correct, or if not, further experimentation may be needed to reach an accurate conclusion.

Parents and teachers can create opportunities for children to try this way of thinking in many circumstances. Encourage children to try different ways of doing things to see which method works best. When they have questions such as “What happens when I mix all the colors together, or how much sleep do I need to feel rested before a big game?”, encourage them to follow the Scientific Method to make a prediction and experiment to find out the answer.

The Scientific Method steps can be adapted to solve everyday concerns. First, recognize a problem, gather data, list possible solutions, test solutions, and then select the best solution, implement the solution and follow-up to see if it solves the problem. Having lots of opportunities to practice approaching questions in this manner will strengthen a child’s Critical Thinking Skills. So remember, the Scientific Method is not only for Science.

*This article first appeared on the Calvert Blog on October 1, 2009