Teaching Peer Review

Teaching Peer Review It helps school students distinguish between what is opinion and what is scientific. By Ellen Raphael © Pali Rao The Internet makes it difficult to assess the information sources that school students use.

By | May 1, 2009

Teaching Peer Review

It helps school students distinguish between what is opinion and what is scientific.

By Ellen Raphael

© Pali Rao

The Internet makes it difficult to assess the information sources that school students use. Web pages covering a wide range of subjects—from unproven stem-cell treatments, to creationism, to the predictions about the CERN super-collider precipitating the end of the world via a black hole—mean there is a growing need to help students navigate what is and isn't scientific beyond the classroom.

What insights can be taken from scientific reasoning and used as tools by the students, and the wider public, to question and evaluate scientific information? One is the peer review process.

At Sense About Science, a UK-based charity that promotes evidence and good science for the public, we are working with scientists, journal editors, teachers, and school students to create lesson plans and resources that provide insights into what scientific knowledge is, how it is acquired, and the questions to ask of scientific information in the public domain. The first version of our peer review education resource/science education resource went live in October.

Teachers have been giving feedback on what has caught the imagination of the students. The interviews with "real" scientists and editors describing their experience of the peer review system "raised a few eyebrows." The students were shocked to discover that the process existed at all, and that scientists welcomed constructive criticism from their peers about how they could improve a paper. This challenged the notion of scientists always being "right." That most reviewers give their time for free also hit a chord.

One teacher pointed out that in most textbooks, peer review is rarely mentioned. Instead students are encouraged to deliberate over news reports of controversies, meaning that when it comes to something like the food additives debate they are left trying to work out what status the different research claims have with no guidance other than their personal judgment on the newspaper the article has appeared in ("The New York Times says X, so it must be right…"). Another teacher told us that he wasn't sure the students had believed him when he told them how science worked as there was nothing to back it up in the textbook; hearing it from the "horse's mouth" made all the difference.

The new course material points out that clearing the peer review process doesn't make a piece of research "right," it's just one cog in the scientific development wheel. But it is an important cog, being the first point of distinction between what is speculation and opinion and what is scientific.

Introducing "How Science Works" into the United Kingdom's science curriculum hasn't been smooth sailing. A vociferous group of science teachers questioned whether standards of science education would decline if science lessons became debates about scientific issues and controversies rather than teaching children how to devise experiments, what scientific laws govern our universe, and sparking an interest in the natural world. But knowing how science progresses and how ideas and evidence are developed should always have been an integral part of science education. At a time when competing views are treated as equally valid regardless of the evidence, students must be encouraged to develop critical enquiry skills and to ask questions of the information they are presented or seek out online.

With declining numbers of students going on to pursue science education at a university level, it also means that many are leaving school with no understanding of the scientific method or how science progresses. Today's students are going to become the public citizens of tomorrow—they are going to be patients, mothers, fathers, teachers, politicians—they need to know how to evaluate research claims, and to be able to appreciate what is scientific and what isn't.

Ellen Raphael is Director, United Kingdom at Sense About Science (www.senseaboutscience.org)


Avatar of: Gerry Smith

Gerry Smith

Posts: 9

May 4, 2009

If they cannot see the difference between opinion and fact then they should never be allowed to be science STUDENTS. This is the main problem with science today. Peer review has always been there to maintain the status quo whether based on fact or opinion and is therefoe of no value in this regard whatever.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

May 5, 2009

Too many unknowns and uncertainites exist in biology to classify as facts to more than a few findings. The remaining data accepted as "facts" are really no more than assumptions or dogmatic assumptions about their true identities or complete functions in their natural environments.
Avatar of: Ruth Rosin

Ruth Rosin

Posts: 117

May 5, 2009

The best way to teach this subject to students is to teach them about the honeybee "dance language", which is the worst goof in the whole history of science, because this one earned a Nobel Prize!
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

May 6, 2009

I'm not surprised that the article mentions resistance to teaching students, and thereby the public, about this key feature of what science is. Right now the fad in the education community is to teach high school students to evaluate information solely on their own judgement, essentially teaching them that they get to vote on what should be accepted as science. The failure to familiarize the public with how the process works in the scientific community has produced an electorate that believes that one person's opinion on an alleged scientific question is as good as any other.
Avatar of: Michael Zimmer

Michael Zimmer

Posts: 11

May 6, 2009

@Gerry\n\nThe article is about high school students.\n\nHow are they going to learn the skills necessary to tell fact from opinion if no one is teaching them?

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