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...

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)

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