Teaching a child to cheat

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Tony Sherborne explains how an adaptation of an old game, provides a new way to encourage scientific literacy


Cheat is part of a complete "How Science Works" package from science upd8, a science-in-the-news service from the Centre for Science Education and ASE.

The activity can be downloaded at www.upd8.org.uk

"More data about the patients, please" said the pupil. The teacher revealed the next screen. A moment's thought. "Cheat!" came the pupil's response.

"The sample size is too small which means the evidence is not reliable enough."

What's remarkable about this snippet, is the fluency of the argument, as it's well known how difficult pupils find it to put together coherent scientific reasoning. Yet, from September, that is what the GCSE aspires to. The new buzzword is scientific literacy and it is packaged in the "How Science Works" strand. It is data, evidence, hypothesis, theory, prediction, model, reliability, uncertainty, and a lot more. And if that sounds like a new language to your pupils, that's because it is.

Scientific literacy means learning scientific discourse, the language of science.

It's not enough just to do investigations, you have to teach all the associated concepts and how to use them. How Science Works lessons are challenging. But they don't necessarily have to be dull. After all, scientists derive a lot of pleasure from talking science. Unless you've been to a scientific conference, you might assume it's a refined affair where scientists politely listen to their colleagues' claims. Not a bit of it. I've seen one researcher jump out of his seat and accuse another of plagiarism. And when evidence is wanting, scientists can become so passionate that it's almost a case of blood on the PowerPoint. In the classroom, the problem is the reverse. Pupils often have little motivation for arguing about scientific claims. What could get them more excited?

Playing Cheat, of course.

Think of Cheat as a simplified representation of the conference. In the card game, one person makes a claim for the cards they're laying down, eg "three Kings". The others then consider whether they want to challenge the claim. To adapt it for the classroom I've simply transformed playing cards into presenting scientific conclusions.

The teacher takes the role of the scientist presenters. He starts as Dr Wakefield, claiming that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. The pupils play scientists in the audience. They can request further details about the data. Then they have to decide whether to challenge. They only get points if they can back the challenge up with a coherent argument. The supporting material includes a checklist of what makes claims reliable and valid.

Games are often looked down on, but their pedagogical power extends beyond revision quizzes. Teachers have reacted positively to Cheat because it steers pupils towards critical evaluation. The game takes pupils out of their normal "identity" and gives them a new one - a "doubter of claims".

Science shouldn't always be taken too seriously. When Dr Hwang, the infamous stem-cell scientist, originally stood up to present his breakthrough, I wish someone in the audience had stood up and yelled "cheat!"

Tony Sherborne is using a NESTA fellowship to study engagement techniques, and is creative director for the Centre for Science Education

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