Adolescents’ emerging cognitive abilities present unique challenges and opportunities for science educators, Anderman said. However, secondary science teachers, who often have a strong background in a science, such as biology or chemistry, may not have an equally strong background in adolescent development. As a result, teachers may be unsure of what motivates their students and how they engage in scientific inquiry. At the same time, the depth and breadth of science classes expand at the high school level, offering students greater opportunities to build on their elementary and secondary science knowledge, to enroll in multiple courses, and to take specialized classes, such as anatomy and environmental science.
Sinatra explained that the good news from the research is that adolescents have the capacity to think and reason adaptively about science. However, this ability must be fostered and supported by teachers, peers, and learning environments. Even if teachers provide the required levels of support, many high school students lack the base of rich, interconnected science knowledge that is necessary for adaptive reasoning. Students’ lack of content knowledge is partly due to the weakness of current science curriculum materials, which often aim to introduce many different science topics, rather than treating a few concepts in depth (Vogel, 2007).
Sinatra said that adaptability requires not only a rich knowledge base, but also the willingness to engage in effortful thinking and to consider alternative points of view or to engage in scientific argumentation. Some students are low in what social psychologists call “need for cognition;” that is, they do not necessarily seek or enjoy opportunities to engage in effortful thinking (Cacioppo et al., 1996). Students also vary in their degree of openness to new ideas and in their beliefs about the nature of knowledge, and these factors influence the likelihood that a given student will experience a change in his or her knowledge base and be willing to engage in scientific argumentation.
Sinatra said that developing adaptable thinking in science requires that students are willing to have their ideas publicly challenged, although such challenges can be psychologically uncomfortable during adolescence, when young people are very sensitive to the perceptions of their peer groups. In some cases, a challenge to one’s point of view can even be seen as a threat to identity. For example, if students identify themselves as belonging to a group that believes in creationism, it may be difficult to learn about evolution. These social and psychological concerns can lead students to avoid adaptive thinking about scientific concepts and processes. Sinatra said that