Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Role of Geoscience Education Research in the Consilience between Science of the Mind and Science of the Natural World

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Role of Geoscience Education Research in the Consilience between Science of the Mind and Science of the Natural World

Article excerpt


William Whewell is credited for coining the word consilience, composed of the Latin word for "together" (con-) and "jumping" (-siliens) (Whewell, 1840). His "consilience of inductions" was defined as when an induction (a derivation of a general principle from a specific observation, and a term also coined by Whewell) obtained from one class of facts coincided with an induction obtained from another class of facts (39). While Whewell used this term in the sciences, E.O. Wilson (1998) both popularized and expanded this usage to all human knowledge.

Regardless of whether you accept the details of Wilson's account of the mind or reject it (Pinker, 1998), we advocate considering the question: Can education research in the geosciences embrace consilience as a way forward? Geoscience education spans the affective domain and the learning domain (McConnell and van Der Hoeven Kraft, 2011). We argue that it also spans the domains of the mind and the natural world. Geoscience education can be supported by understanding how students learn (the realm of cognitive science and education research) in the context of understanding the natural world (the realm of the geosciences). As such, geoscience education research has created an intellectual domain between these two realms. Furthermore, it is the natural meeting ground for the consilience between these approaches, because no community knows the other communities' approaches sufficiently enough to use them fully. Galison (1997) argues that an interdisciplinary approach-one that brings two fields together-to work toward a common concrete goal has major advantages. For example, such an interdisciplinary approach can accelerate progress by removing barriers and foster progress in the absence of a Kuhnian (Kuhn, 1962) revolution.

In this commentary, we argue that consilience exists between cognitive science and geosciences and that this intersection has significant implications for geoscience education research. The perception-cognition cycle developed from cognitive science as an account of how humans understand ongoing events-articulated clearly by Neisser (1976)-has clear parallels to the observation-prediction cycle used by geoscientists. This parallelism emphasizes the role of the conceptual model in the observation-prediction cycle for both practicing geoscientists and traditional students. In this context-in which experts and students are learners-the traditional dichotomy between these groups disappears. Explicitly teaching conceptual models is one possible way in which to use the richness of this consilience.


The framework for discussion of the union of the social and natural sciences draws from a theoretical framework developed from Neisser's perceptual cycle. Neisser's (1976) approach was proposed as a way to think about how the mind developed an understanding of the world drawn from ongoing perceptual input. We recently explored this topic in detail (Shipley and Tikoff, 2016): Herein we summarize the results with an emphasis on the implications for geoscience education. But first, we must be explicit about the central issue: What is a conceptual model? A conceptual model is a mental model of the world that accounts for most observations and encapsulates current thinking in the field. More concretely, it is an interrelated set of representations of the world that allows inferences to be extracted that would answer "how" or "why" questions. For a geoscientist, it might include either a template or an exemplar of geometry, kinematics, or some causal process (dynamic, thermodynamic, etc.). In the central part of Fig. 1, it is shown as a three-dimensional geometric model (represented as a solid model to illustrate the importance of accurate threedimensional representations for useful geoscience conceptual models), but this is merely one type of conceptual model. Conceptual models, including geometric ones, are not necessarily solid or continuous; they need only be runnable (Gentner and Stevens, 1983) to make predictions. …

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