Though it has enjoyed some use as a model in teaching Science, its potential for use in other disciplines lies near the core of cognition, recognition, learning, discovery, deduction and development, not the least of which is development of the imagination.
Yet in education, the ‘black box’ experiment is often dismissed as a curiosity - an artefact of philosophy, relegated sooner or later to the too hard pile, while we get on with 'proper' learning.
The ‘black box’ experiment appeals to all ages. It can be used as a toy, a puzzle, a model or a teaching resource. Here's how it works:
- One or more objects are sealed in a box easily held in the hand,
- the box contents cannot be seen and are unknown to the experimenter who deduces their structures by observation,
- the box remains sealed at all times.
A collaboration tool
With the appropriate guidance, the 'black box' experiment can be used in the study of how to work as a team. Here the collective knowledge, experience and skill of each participant have the opportunity to be put to collaborative use.
One approach to this is to allow each participant to handle the box for a fixed period of time, while making observations and being observed by others in the group. Strategies for collating and considering what’s been found can be presented at appropriate points in the study, or developed according to individual or team initiative.
At no point during or after any activity is there a need to open the box. The learning goal is nothing to do with what’s inside the box. The whole point of the pursuit is unambiguously about what is unknown. It’s about how notion and ideas formed during observations can be gathered and used in developing strategies to explain what’s observed.
Devising experiments to confirm or refute belief in first formed ideas is a development of that approach. They embody recognition of the need for further experiments to find out more.
Classical black box stuff
A classical example of how the 'black box' idea was put to use is the series of developments that led to the present day vision of the structure of atoms. While atoms and their structure are now often taken for granted, they were considered ‘black boxes’ at the beginning of last (20th) century. In those days, no one knew what they contained.
In 1904, J J Thompson proposed the ‘plum pudding’ model for atoms. Thompson is accredited with the discovery of the negatively charged electron. His observations of the behaviour of matter under special circumstances led him to think that the electron was a component of atoms.
Thompson’s first formed notion of atoms was of negatively charged plums (electrons) floating around in balls of positively charged pudding. All of his deduction could be described as based on his observations made during a series of many ‘black box’ experiments.
Less than a decade later, Ernest Rutherford conducted a famous ‘black box’ experiment when he interpreted observations which suggested that atoms were not like plum puddings at all. His famous gold leaf experiment suggested strongly that, far from being solid like pudding, atoms have a huge amount of empty space within them, with tiny but heavy positive centres.
Electrons occupy only a small part of that empty space.
Each time new things are learnt about the structure of atoms, they are the result of ‘black box’ type experiments. In 2009 we have different ideas of atoms than Rutherford’s models, but those ideas are almost certain to be quite different from the vision Science will have of atoms in the year 2109.
Life in a black box
An amazing series of ‘black box’ experiments was performed in the middle of last century by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin. They used, among other observations, the intricate, complex data from
X-ray crystallography studies.
These studies involved observing and interpreting thousands of photographs taken when X-rays are scattered by strands of dna.
The elucidation of the structure of dna was an outstanding demonstration of analytical Chemistry, all of which required ‘black box’ observing, experimenting and deduction.
Cynefin and other pursuits
A model most recently developed to describe problems, situations and systems was invented and refined by David Snowden. It has very recently been given an airing on several blogs I follow, notably Tom Haskins’ and Harold Jarche’s.
Wikipedia describes Cynefin as drawing on “research into complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, Anthropology and narrative patterns, as well as evolutionary psychology. It 'explores the relationship between man, experience and context’ and proposes new approaches to communication, decision-making, policy-making and knowledge management in complex social environments.”
Given that no one really knows precisely how human communities behave and function, much of this understanding was brought together by sophisticated ‘black box’ observation and study. It began as an approach to knowledge management and has developed beyond that, in various stages, to a study of international relationships.
Have you ever taken your car to the service depot when it developed a mechanical fault? Though such faults are often apparent, their remedies are not always easily identified. Sometimes even the trained mechanic can be puzzled as to what’s wrong.
A few perfunctory diagnostics might be applied. Failing any useful information from these, a closer look at the symptoms may be made. By a process of elimination, it may be possible to identify, if not the problem, at least where the problem could lie. This approach is really following a series of ‘black box’ experiments.
Rediscovery and understanding
In recent posts on Sue Waters’ and Larry Ferlazzo’s blogs the function and behaviour of PostRank in rating blog posts have been discussed intricately. I was only too happy to provide Sue with some information and analysis data I’d gathered from my own posts. The ideas unfolding in these discussions are results of a series of ‘black box’ experiments.
I’ve no doubt that someone somewhere will know the answers to many of the questions Sue and I have asked on how these applications work. In the absence of explicit information on function, bloggers frequently utilise the ‘black box’ approach to solve problems collaboratively and to find out how things work. Incidentally, it was while thinking about Sue’s admirable pursuit of cogent answers to practical questions that the idea for this post came to mind.
And the cat
In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger rationalised one of the most celebrated paradoxes in quantum theory in a description using the closed box idea specifically applied to observation. Of course, it is not possible to tell what is really happening inside Schrödinger’s closed box.
The strange nature of quantum mechanics is that opening the box doesn’t throw any light on the matter. Paradoxical? I’ll say! What it does is to seal the fate of the poor cat.