Elementary school students—even high school students—learn some fairly trite truisms about the scientific method that often aren’t clearly linked to the experimental results that are presented in textbooks as The Truth. A new paper in PLoS Biology makes a link between the codebreaking game Mastermind and teaching scientific reasoning skills to young students, in a method that I think both shows the broad applicability of inductive reasoning and makes the steps of the scientific method more than just a flowchart.
This is going to be a fairly brief commentary, because the paper is extremely readable and really speaks for itself. I encourage you to read it (link at bottom of page).
Mastermind is a simple two-player game. The codemaker picks a sequence of objects—in the boardgame version, they are four coloured balls—and the other player has to guess the code. The codebreaker make a guess at the code, and the codemaker gives feedback by saying how many elements of the guess are the right colour but the wrong position in the sequence, and how many are both the right colour and the right position. Then the codebreaker makes another guess and gets more feedback. Each round involves forming and testing a hypothesis and getting results, hence each round is like an experiment. And the results of one experiment allow the codebreaker to revise the hypothesis for the next round. The paper gives several examples of good and bad guessing strategies, and how they reveal different elements of the scientific method—appropriate controls, proper interpretation of the results, good experimental design, and (to me the most important part) the value of negative results.
Mastermind has several additional assets that make it good for bringing into the classroom: although it’s commerically available, the concept is simple and can be replicated with pencil and paper if need be. It’s also possible to vary the difficulty level by making a longer or shorter code, and the codebreaker could be a group of students rather than a single one. And, I might add, although this paper was published in PLoS Biology, it works for all areas of science, and indeed, more generally as an introduction to reasoning and logic.
Now, much as the phrase “teachable moment” makes me gag, this sounds like a very promising teaching tool. In fact part of me wonders why no one thought of using it to teach the scientific method before. (Not the part of me that played Mastermind as a kid, obviously, because I was definitely not aware at the time that I was testing hypotheses!) I think using the game provides an experiential understanding of what is often presented as a list or flowchart to memorize, like the one here. The game specifically illustrates how to construct a hypothesis as well as how to use an experimental control—steps that are left quite vague in the usual flowchart. I wonder how we could extend Mastermind to teach such things as replication, accounting for sources of error, and publication bias.
Strom, A., & Barolo, S. (2011). Using the Game of Mastermind to Teach, Practice, and Discuss Scientific Reasoning Skills PLoS Biology, 9 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000578