The mere communication of any scientific content, no
matter how brillant, interesting and clear, is
pointless if students do not analyse it critically and
do not interpret it autonomously. Similarly, the
development of any skill, should serve much more
meaningful goals than the competition for the best
mark. A school in which academic and social skills
reinforce each other, has an enormous transforming
potential. We argue in this article that this school
is within our reach, and that KEY 1.0 is a step in its
Elsewhere in this website we compile articles on pedagogy, this is the link. Some of these papers show strong scientific evidence that discussion between peers is far more effective than the traditional science class. There are several plausible explanations for this result. Eric Mazur mentions a few of them in this interview, and we point to some more here. A small minority of students, typically the 10%, easily understands physics. The distinguishing feature of this 10% minority, is not an inherent cognitive skill (this might help later on the few that will become theoretical physicists), but a mental attitude towards learning, i.e. a set of so called "epistemological believes". As Hammer points out in his article of 1994, they make a world of difference, and there are envioronmental conditions that elicit the right mental attitudes. Discussion among peers is one of them. If the students perceive that their goal is to report a content to an autoriry figure, they will less likely gain interest in the meaning of the concepts, they will be worried of a possible emberassment and thus search for the shortest way to avoid it: the right number to plug into the right formula, the algorithm one is supposed to apply, the sentence one is supposed to say .... Discussion reduces the possibilities of this to happen, because it generates a cooperative environment, where the understanding of an academic content is built collectively. Talking to peers helps students accepting error as a natural part of the process of building the meaning of things. This process is not only effective in teaching science, it is also more democratic and horizontal at its core. It has already been used to tackle gender issues among engineering students [Felder et al 1995] and KEY 1.0 aims to use it to encourage a more welcoming attitude towards the migration phenomena.
Regardless of the reasons, we know that discussion is an extremely efficient pedagogical tool. Since learning science is a matter of appropriate mental habits, and discussion among peers effectively helps in learning science, we wonder whether we could use this method to foster reasoning skills in general. We will work on this in a later phase of the project. But what is the relevance of reasoning skills? Are they really such a big deal? The role of rationality - thinking straight - is to help us make it happen what we feel should happen. This is better explained with an example, a simple thought experiment. Imagine to have a friend: Paul. He is nice and kind, you love him. Paul is happy and he likes his life, but he has a terrible disease. Let us imagine that the best cure for his disease is a medicine, Alfaprotomol (I hope that in reality there is no drug with such a name), produced respecting workers, environment, laws, and easily available in any chemist. Paul cannot leave his home, has no access to internet or to a phone, and he completely relies on you for the supply of Alfaprotomol. Arguably, your will to get the drug for your friend is a measure of how sincerely you feel for him. Any deliberate neglect in this respect, would be a very bad sign. Almost certinly, Paul can trust you. But suppose to have the strong opinion that Alfaprotomol is a fraud. Such opinion has to do with your belief system, or with some tradition of your culture that you deeply cherish. There is undeniable evidence that Alfaprotomol is the most effective drug to cure Paul's disease, and there is no reason to suspect major misconducts of its producer. But, unfortunately for poor Paul, your opinion on Alfaprotomol is an important piece of your world view, something that humans love madly and are ready to defend against the most compelling evidence. Chances are that Paul has to be content with the second best available cure. I am not questioning the strength of your affection for Paul, I am saying that there might be more powerful human motivations acting on you. Now forget Paul and his diseas, and think of the planet, society, humanity and their problems. Or think on a minority, and its social exclusion. I hope that it is now clear why thinking straight, a capacity that can develop under the appropriate circumstances, is so important: it gives us the freedom to live according to our values.
And yet, I often have the impression that rationality has a terrible reputation. I suspect that this is the result of the widespread assumption that reason and values are somewhat opposed. It's a false dichotomy. The clear-cut separation between intellect and affection, thought and emotion, clear reasoning and feelings … is a simplification of the language. Is is a useful and inevitable simplification, because understanding thought and emotion as different categories is crucial for communication. However, we should remember that they are extremes of the same spectrum. There is no boundary between them, but rather a grey area, in which most of our significant activities occur. For example, while I’m writing, I’m exercising my intelligence in order to clearly explain concepts which are emotionally charged. It’s impossible to say which part of me is thinking, which one is feeling. Actually, pure thought doesn’t exist, since thinking would be absolutely pointless without the emotions related to the object of our thought. When we say that a person is rational in the pejorative sense of the term, we are not speaking of a person without emotions. What we have in mind in this case, is a person who acts greedly, for example, rather than feeling the more noble sentiment of friendship, as we would prefer. Even psychopaths, people pathologically cold and manipulative, feel emotions. They have the scary tendency to turn off their empathy, and they feel much less distress and fear than the rest of the population. But they do experience a complex spectrum of positive and negative emotions, otherwise we would not be able to eplain most of what they do. The only possible end to a completely rational life, absolutely devoided of emotions, is suicide. Without positive feelings, thus without pleasure, the resources necessary to keep our bodies alive are just a waste of effort from a purely rational standpoint.
My point here is not to convert science opponents into science enthusiasts, which would be impossible and meaningless. The message that I hope to effectively convey, is that building unusual relations beween concepts instead of false dichotomies, is far reaching. The efficacy of science teaching, students' social skills, social inclusion and a welcoming environment for everybody ... are all aspects that benefit from the innovation we want to promote. We have good reasons to reach this conclusions, and even strong evidence in some case. Now, it is a matter of walking the walk.
Key 1.0. Team Coordinator
We encourage students, teachers, reasearchers in the field of pedagogy, and anybody interested in our work for any reason, to share with us doubts and constructive comments, pose questions or propose collaborations. You may do this either by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org OR by filling in the form on the right.