Thinking As a Geologist: Master-Novice Relations and Metacognition

David W. Mogk, Dept. of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

For geoscience majors, and to a lesser extent for all students in my classes, one of my main learning objectives is to help students to "think as a geologist". I certainly want to help students to:

  • develop cognitive skills (concept and content mastery) and to work towards higher order thinking skills as defined by Bloom (1956; comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation);
  • develop a variety of skill sets (e.g. in the psychomotor domain; Simpson, 1972; Harrow, 1972) that include technical skills that pertain to the geosciences (mapping, sampling, use of instruments, etc.), and life-long learning skills such as communication (writing, speaking, graphical representations), quantitative skills, and interpersonal skills (collaborative and cooperative group work); and
  • engage the affective domain (Krathwohl et al., 1973), and directly address their motivations and barriers to learning, personal feelings about learning and about Science, and issues of ethics and values related to the scientific enterprise.

Overall, I hope to help my students develop "scientific habits of the mind" (AAAS, 1989; a compiled list of these attributes is attached at the end of this essay). But to be an effective professional geoscientist (and I would also argue, to be a responsible citizen living on Earth), learners must be given the tools to go beyond simple mastery of knowledge and skill sets. To be able to make truly new contributions to understanding the complex Earth (rather than just recycling old ideas and concepts), learners must also be self-aware about how they learn in Nature and from each other in our scientific society (i.e. what are they doing, why are they doing that, with what expected outcomes?), they must be able to monitor their learning(i.e. assess whether or not they are effectively meeting their objectives), and know how to adjust their learning strategies(i.e. to be able to recognize dead ends, internal inconsistencies, impossible relationships, and to be able to respond appropriately). That is, they need to learn metacognitive skills to fully realize their potential as contributing scientists. Here are some of the abilities I hope my students will (begin to) develop in my own instructional activities, and in preparation for future development in graduate school or in employment. Like learning to play a fiddle or hit a baseball, these skills should be practiced early and often:

  • The ability to extend observations and interpretations from the limited cases we can present in our classes and laboratory exercises and apply these to related situations found in Nature with all its variations and complexity; in petrology courses we try our hardest to provide collections of good, representative samples—but Nature is not always so kind (and not all plagioclase shows good lamellar twins...what other approaches can be used to identify minerals and thus classify rocks?).
  • Similarly, the ability to transfer and apply skills (methods, approaches, techniques) appropriately in new situations, and to sufficiently understand the underlying principles and assumptions so that adjustments can be made to accommodate additional factors that may confound established protocols (i.e. to be able to work beyond "cook-book" and prescriptive approaches; and, the ability to pick the "right tool for the right job").
  • To think critically about what approaches should be used and why. In igneous geochemistry, we can rapidly produce any number of geochemical variation diagrams—but why? All too often, students produce reams and reams of graphs because the computer makes it easy and they saw such a presentation in a lecture, departmental seminar, or journal article. But they should be able to understand why we care about high field strength element (HFSE) depletion, or "enriched" light Rare Earth elements (LREE; and enriched compared to what, and why?)?
  • To become critical producers and consumers of data; to understand the full context of how samples were selected and prepared; what analytical instruments were used (were these the best or most appropriate?); what data reduction routines were used and how are the data represented? If any of these factors are unknown or suspect, my hope is that the students will immediately, and rightfully, question the results and interpretations and ask critical (yet respectful) questions; in short, to utilize Cartesian "hyperbolic skepticism" (see end note).
  • Making decisions in the field or in the lab about what is important to observe (record, measure, sketch, photograph, etc.), and what can be ignored; this means working within the full context of what we know: about the nature of science, about Nature, about accepted methods and strategies (i.e. our community of practice); and in the selection of appropriate tools and their utilization.
  • The ability to recognize when something is "not quite right". Perhaps there are inconsistencies in the evidence, or perhaps outright contradictions. This should raise a red flag and cause the student to stop and assess the situation. In thin section, a green, high relief mineral, with high birefringence might be interpreted as olivine, but in the presence of quartz the student should know that olivine and quartz don't occur in Nature together, and a reassessment would indicate that the green mineral is actually epidote. The ability to have an understanding of what is to be expected in a geologic setting, and what is required, permitted (but equivocal in terms of interpretation), possible or impossible in Nature is essential. I hope my students will leave my class being able to make arguments that are at least internally consistent (being "right" is not really an option in most cases when dealing with the incomplete geologic record), and that they will be able to recognize inconsistencies in their own work and in reviewing the work of others.
  • Questions asked of Nature, and strategies and methods used to address these questions should be purposeful, not rote (or done by mimicry). Flexibility is a virtue as questions evolve and strategies/methods change as the unexpected is encountered and in light of new evidence. Students should be able to clearly articulate the problem that is being addressed, the significance of the question and how it fits into the context of what is known, what the expected outcomes are, and methods that will be used to test the hypothesis and how to formulate interpretations that are constrained by the evidence.
  • When obstacles are encountered, students should know when to stop, reflect, back-up, re-do, test, confirm, go back to first principles, and start over if necessary. Blind adherence to a charted course without critical reflection can lead to useless collection of information (not data), incorrect interpretations, and professional embarrassment.

My personal interest related to metacognition in the geosciences is to study master-novice relations in an attempt to "unpack" the metacognitive strategies and skills employed by "master" geoscientists as they seek to understand Earth in the field, lab, experiment, and models. Much of what we do as professional geoscientists is done instantaneously, and without conscious thought on our part. I hope to explore the many ways master geoscientists look at Earth in its raw form in Nature, and in its distilled form through our various representations of Earth (maps, graphs, etc.). I hope to begin to clearly articulate the "what" geoscientists are thinking and "why" they choose a particular approach or strategy among the many options available to us. By identifying these strategies and approaches

  • These can be explicitly built into class, lab and field activities to provide students the opportunity to develop these skills; at this time, we know very little about how to teach metacognition in geoscience classes, and what skills can best be developed by different types of learning activities and environments; and
  • By articulating these skills, this will also help contribute to geoscience research as geoscientists become more self-aware of how we do our Science this will hopefully feed back positively on the development of researchers and the quality of research products.

As a final introductory thought, I have long thought that it is important to take an historical look at how our science has advanced in our standard coursework and have tried to introduce the "greats" of our science to our students by reviewing who they were, what their goals and motivations were, and some of the truly remarkable contributions that they made as examples of how we could conduct our own scientific investigations. I didn't know it at the time, but I have actually been teaching metacognition in my Mineralogy class by presenting one of the earliest contributions to metacognition: René Descartes' Discourse on the Method (1637):

The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

References Cited

AAAS (1989), Project 2061 Science for All Americans, AAAS, Washington DC.

Bloom, B.S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook Domain. New York, David McKay Inc.

Harrow, A. (1972) A taxonomy of psychomotor domain: a guide for developing behavioral objectives. New York: David McKay.

Krathwohl, D.R., Bloom, B.S., and Masia, B.B. (197) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, the Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook II: Affective Domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.

Simpson, E.J. (1972) The Classification of Educational Objectives in the Psychomotor Domain. Washington, DC: Gryphon House.

Scientific Habits of the Mind

—an unabridged collection of attributes collected from the literature and from the participants of previous workshops (no doubt incomplete, and constantly growing)... compiled by D. Mogk

Reasoned use of evidence
Acquisition and evaluation of the quality of evidence
Critical thinking; address questions, methods, interpretations
Inquiring, evaluating
Verifiable data, testable hypotheses
Rigorous proof
Curiosity – Wonder- Awe
Skepticism; question authority; be open minded
Openness to new ideas
Comfortable with revision to ideas
The ability to identify and avoid bias
Integrity, fairness, intellectual honesty, ethical behavior
Computational, estimation skills
Communication skills
Observational, measurement skills; detail
Ability to keep records
Ability to see patterns, relations
Check, verify, validate data
Synthesis and Analysis—know when either is appropriate
Internal consistency between data and interpretations
Data manipulation and presentation skills
Ability to make connections
Sense of wonder, excitement
Asking questions is as important as finding answers
Ability to relate data, explanations, process to a non-scientist
Multiple working hypotheses vs. "linear" thinking
Ability to communicate (accurately) what you know
Comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity
Connections of data to other things
Positive thinking
Perseverance, follow-through
Learn from failure
Modeling, comparison