Leading Children to True Discoveries

My sister Lisa, a high school physics teacher, is back with the last post in our science series. This has been a great learning experience for me and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well.

To cap off this series, I’d like to talk about the way we generally learn about (and then teach) science. Maybe you’ll find that my experiences are similar to yours.

The Pitfalls of Science “Experiments”

I loved my high school physics class, but looking back, we didn’t do physics in a very scientific way. I remember learning about “g” – the acceleration of any object due to gravity, which is 9.8 m/s2 – and then doing an experiment in which we dropped objects from various heights and used stop watches to see how long it took them to hit the ground.

My lab partners and I quietly fudged the data so that our results would match those found from the mathematical equations we had already learned. In fact, I admit that we frequently fudged data from our experiments to fit the framework of scientific fact that we had already studied. I now call this “verification science.”

We weren’t scientists; we weren’t even posing as scientists. We spent our days trying to verify something we had already learned, rather than experimenting, observing, and contemplating to try to reach the truth – the way real scientists do.

It might be tempting for you to approach experiments, demonstrations, and activities the same way: explain a concept, define some terms, and then do the activity to try to illustrate or recreate what you have already explained. This is not real science!

For example, you might teach your students that seeds need water, soil, and sunlight to grow. Then you might plant seeds in two different pots, placing one in a closet and the other on a window sill, watering them every day and observing their progress.

Is the child discovering anything? Will she come to her own conclusion as a new thought? Or will she simply be verifying that what you told her is true?

What Is the Purpose of Science Experiments?

Whenever possible, use experiments and activities to help them reach conclusions and concepts about the natural world, rather than using them to verify what you have already told them.

In the case of the example I mentioned (growing plants), the entire activity would be different if you didn’t tell the children what plants need to grow ahead of time. Instead, have them put seeds in cups and do different things with them (put one in a dark place, and one in sunlight) and let them observe what happens.

Some might already have heard that plants need sunlight; tell them that they can learn whether or not that’s true through this experiment. Don’t affirm their statements one way or they other; let the experiment do the affirming.

Yes, you will need to lead them; give them the background information that they need; ask them specific questions to guide their thought process. And then help them reach conclusions and concepts as discoveries that they have made – just as the scientists who came before them.

Questioning Rather Than Telling

In traditional forms of instruction, the teacher is often perceived as a fount of knowledge who pours her information into the empty vessels called students. These students are not active inquirers engaged in learning, but rather are passive recipients of the information.

In this paradigm, students will find it almost impossible to wrestle with and resolve the contradictions that exist because of their misconceptions about the physical world.

In Montessori, teachers are thought of as “guides”; they try to lead students to knowledge rather than handing it to them. But in the area of science, it’s easy to fall back on the old model.

One way to help students become actively involved in the construction of knowledge going on in their minds is to ask them questions that will lead them to specific conclusions – questions which bring the students to the place where they can grasp the concept for themselves.

Using the Socratic Method

Teachers can also encourage the students to be inquirers – questioners – as well. The process of asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas is called the Socratic Method, named after the Greek philosopher Socrates who engaged in such discussions about moral and philosophical issues.

The questions you ask your students can range from simply seeking information to explaining “why,” asking them to clarify or even asking them to extend beyond this specific situation to a general principle. Here is a limited list of questions to get you started1:

What is it?
What happened?
What does that mean?
Why does it work that way?
Which is the most important?
Which came first?
How do you know that?
What would happen if…?

Give the students time to think through your questions. Don’t give up if they cannot give adequate answers right away. Perhaps you need to ask in a different way or back up a step and make sure they understand what is going on.

Such questions should lead a student to confront and work out the contradictions that exist because of his misconceptions.

To illustrate this, consider the persistent misconception mentioned in the post Shattering Science Myths. It’s the misconception that we experience seasons because of the Earth’s changing distance from the Sun (closer in the summer, farther in the winter).

Rather than telling the students that the Earth’s changing distance from the Sun produces negligible changes in temperature and that of course it is the tilt of the Earth on its axis which causes seasons, you could find a contradiction that exists in the misconception and lead them to confront it.

The answers may vary, but here’s a possible list of questions:

“Why do we experience seasons?”
“How does this work?”
“When it is summer in South America, what season do we experience in North America?” (If they don’t know, have them look it up and find out!)
“If we experience summer because the Earth is closer to the Sun sometimes, would it be possible to have two different seasons occurring at the same time on Earth?”
“Why not?”
“Let’s take a step back and look at the way the rays of the Sun strike the Earth. Why is the equator hotter than the North and South poles?”

Then you can go back through the Geography Impressionistic Charts and review the effects of vertical and oblique rays from the Sun. Lead them to the idea that the tilt of the Earth on its axis causes different areas of the Earth to have more vertical or more oblique rays during certain times of year.

This example can be applied to many different science concepts. Once you get used to the Socratic Method, it will become second nature to lead children to their own answer through questions rather than giving them the answers yourself.

When students reach conclusions by thinking through well-crafted questions, rather than by simply being told something, they have been given the chance to dissolve their misconceptions forever.


Children have already formed their own ideas of how the world works. Sometimes these ideas are correct, but often they are not. The result is that fundamental gaps are formed in their thinking which hinder scientific concepts and lines of reasoning.

Most students can close those gaps. Through repeated exercises, experiments, and challenging questions, students will begin to not just repeat back ideas; they will begin to believe them.


1. Questions taken from Engaging Students (PDF)