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Volume 17, Number 5
September/October 2001

Why Controversy Belongs in the Science Classroom

From bioengineered food to global warming, science is rife with dispute, debate, and ambiguity


We generally think of science as a practice of calm and studied observation, a method of discovery that valorizes facts in the search for clear, unambiguous answers. We also treat controversy as somehow antithetical to the work of science. After all, controversy involves debate, personalities, and ambiguities, all of which seem to have no business in a genuine scientific discussion.

Yet controversy is an important part of scientific practice. Furthermore, as the recent debate over stem cell research shows, controversy is part of the process by which society understands and comes to grips with scientific progress. For the classroom science teacher, controversy can also be a means of engaging students’ imaginations and bringing the subject to life.

Science controversies come in many flavors and affect scientific progress in different ways. Research controversies push the process of scientific investigation forward by highlighting the absence of information on a particular point. One such controversy in neuroscience has to do with whether certain structures in the brain develop before visual activity or as a result of visual activity. By raising awareness of the question, the debate has sparked further research that, ultimately, could improve our understanding of the connection between brain development and learning.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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