Thinking like a Scientist

I’ve been reading a great deal of advice and research on remote teaching, distance learning, pandemic pedagogy, and the like but there is one call from Twitter which deserves reiteration: cite your sources. I think this is important, not only to credit the source of your inspiration, but also to recognize the source of your own growth and learning. It’s important to know the origins of your thinking, the seed of your inspiration, and to recognize the credibility of that source. 

I’ve immersed myself in the arts for much of my life and since this is my field, I often use analogy and metaphor to help me understand. But, I began my academic career in the sciences and know that longitudinal studies matter for reliability. Since few among us have much experience with teaching online during a pandemic, I now feel the need to find a meaningful comparison; I’m searching for a new COVID-19 pedagogy of praxis.

With this in mind I went for my daily run in the neighbourhood, my thoughts wandering while listening to the renowned physicist, Carlo Rovelli in conversation with Krista Tippet. His imaginative and passionate love for his field of study reminded me of the moment in high school when I fell in love with science. It fascinated me with its ceaseless questioning, its constant clarifying, and its collaborative uncovering of answers which hoped to be truths. Science gave me a sense of hope and a place to play with others and a way to experiment knowing that finding out I was wrong is still meaningful, still approaching some sense of understanding. In this moment, with my legs moving freely beneath me, I felt the good fortune which running allows me: time for reflection and contemplation, for thought experiments where mistakes in my metaphorical thinking can happen.

On this day, there was a light rain and I stopped at a red streetlight waiting for it to change, but, instead, I did. His narrative of quantum physics suddenly became understandable. His words punctured the thin veneer of my physical world creating one of those mystical moments of magical thinking where ideas both expand and collapse at the same time, where they explode and implode upon themselves. I heard him say,

Things which seem separate collapse into one and make sense…

a world of happenings not of things…

you see, a thing remains equal to itself…

a happening is limited in space and time… 

we don’t understand the world by things but by happenings…”

The light went green and my mind connected his words to teaching and learning. I created the analogy that I don’t understand my students by products (things) but by interactions (happenings). The ideas knitted previous wonderings into concepts and I thought, relationships online don’t typically happen in time and space and those “happenings” move in different ways. Maybe online happenings which are asynchronous are stretched out and this “happening” demands greater memory because the focus of our attention is perforated. We have to return to some past thinking and recall it in order to make the current interaction or happening understood. I crossed the barren main street and continued listening: ““We must accept the idea that reality is interaction…we understand the world better in terms of the interaction of things not through things.”

That’s it, I thought. Students learn not through the technology or the products that students submit, but it is in the happening, the interaction – it is in the process of experimenting and finding where they are wrong, or partially wrong, or partially right, or really right that they learn. The product at the end matters less than the process; it is the interaction which creates real learning.

I continued running, my mind weaving comparisons of remote teaching and learning with scientific thinking, and quantum thinking was starting to making sense through application of this analogy – two disparate fields collapsed and seemed, in that moment, to understandable. Listening to Rovelli made me think about my pedagogical stance for teaching right now, during this pandemic and I’ve decided that I need to teach and learn like a scientist. I need to realize this is an experiment, that certainty is unknown, but there can be learning in promoting the interactions. 

I turned the corner on the final stretch home, a flicker of doubt caused me to wonder if I had actually completed my usual running route; my body had done this according to my data collector, but my mind had been elsewhere, wrapped in tangled threads of thought so fascinating that time and space vanished. Rovelli mentioned to his host that “Einstein makes a lot of mistakes but comes up with new discoveries.. and it’s not about perfection or certainty as science is about the capacity to change ideas…science has the capacity to be wrong and is a way of thinking that accepts change. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

There is freedom in looking through new eyes and returning to visit a former first love has me thinking like a scientist.



9 thoughts on “Thinking like a Scientist

  1. I love the way your mind works. We learn through interactions, and despite Zoom, our interactions are limited these days. It’s worth the effort to open ourselves and our students to the necessity of change and to encourage ourselves to embrace that change.
    By the way, I’m a big Krista Tippet fan. Love her voice, don’t you?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One fascinating aspect of your conflation is the realization about timeframe: “relationships online don’t typically happen in time and space and those ‘happenings’ move in different ways. Maybe online happenings which are asynchronous are stretched out and this ‘happening’ demands greater memory because the focus of our attention is perforated. We have to return to some past thinking and recall it in order to make the current interaction or happening understood.” I love what this makes me think about, how without the immediacy of day-to-day, face-to-face encounters, the burden is on participants to be truly attentive, to count on the memory, and needs to be recursive in a different way. Thanks for feeding my mind this morning, a great breakfast!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hung in there through physic! I too love to run to work through things and often have my best thoughts and ideas. I do think that many things will change after this experience – I think we are learning to connect in many new ways that will continue. I also hope that we are teaching kids to use technology in more connected, interactive ways.

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  4. Firstly, I can definitely relate to the wandering thoughts while running. I often find myself breaking down the littlest parts of my life searching for a hidden truth or meaning, usually coming to conclusions that could only be understood by others if they had been following my full train of thought along with my emotions of that moment. Here you have managed to express and explain your conclusion. Not only that, it has made me fall into a cycle of questioning this topic. I fully agree with your thought that learning is created by interactions and happenings, not by a product. As a student, I understand that the only way that I have learned anything is by doing a task incorrectly, realizing it is wrong and then finding a different approach that works. After reading this, I realized that as a teacher you don’t really see that process unless you are with us every step of the way. Which is obviously hard with this new reality. Thank you for sharing this piece; I am curious to see how this interaction and happening will add to my learnings 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your response and you are so right about this “new reality”. I’m wondering how you could suggest ways that teachers could “see” more of the process.


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