No Right Answer?

Last week we had the pleasure of speaking to a class of pre-service teachers at Loyola University in Chicago.  After discussing the basics of citizen science and the origins of Zooniverse, the teachers took time to explore projects of their choice.  Always being keen to show-off  Zooniverse’s new educational offerings, we then demonstrated ZooTeach and a beta version of Galaxy Zoo Navigator.

Many of these pre-service teachers are preparing to begin or are in the midst of their student teaching placements. We spent the rest of the class discussing ways they could incorporate Zooniverse projects into the classroom, specifically how they could be used to facilitate scientific inquiry.  Over the course of the discussion the notion of “right” answers emerged.  This was a real ah-ha moment for me.  I suddenly remembered my own fears of getting the wrong answer as a first-time Zooniverse user. Whether a Zooniverse volunteer or a student, encountering a project for the first time can be a bit intimidating.  There is the fear, however irrational, that by submitting an inaccurate classification you could single-handedly break science.  If you look closely all of the different Zooniverse project sites are peppered with reassuring messages of “don’t worry you’re good at this” and “just give it your best try”.

Laura has previously blogged about how Zoonverse projects are used to engage museum audiences at the Adler Planetarium on the Planet Hunters blog.  Whether working with members of the public or groups of students, we often encounter “Did I get it right?”.  This is a tricky question to answer; Zooniverse volunteers are supplying the answers from which scientific interpretations are drawn.  Projects employ measures of checking for accuracy.  That’s why any given object be it a galaxy to classify or a bat call to listen to, is looked at by more than one individual.  The “power of the crowd” yields more accurate results than one single person.  Needless to say the idea of crowdsourcing as a quality-control mechanism is easier to convey to adults than to a bunch of eleven year olds.  It’s difficult to get students over the hurdle that, in the instance at least, being right isn’t so important.

I don’t know about you, but this leaves my head full of more questions than answers.   How do we as educators model for students that science can’t only be about getting the right answer?  How do we encourage students that being wrong can be oh-so-right?  Taking a risk of being wrong is brave and necessary to advance this thing we call science.  So how about it, how do you encourage a risk-taking culture in your own classroom or other learning environment?

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