Changes in Science Education
Changes in Science Education

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Changes in Science Education

3 Problems of teaching the Nature of Science

3.1 Introduction

In reality, most mainstream science curricula relegate explicit teaching about the nature of science to the margins – a situation almost universally condemned by science educators. Donnelly (2001) describes recent history in one particular example of curriculum design, where Nature of Science (NoS) issues still remain a peripheral element within the National Curriculum for England and Wales. Donnelly describes the policy confusions that reflect tensions about some fundamental issues about science – for example, the notions of objectivity and rationality that are assumed to underpin science itself. One line of argument (reflecting the rationalist tradition) sees science understanding as something set apart from other types of knowledge about the world. By this logic, science is characterised by our impartial observation of a real and ultimately comprehensible world that we access through observation and measurement. Others emphasise that science is inevitably conditioned by social and cultures forces – the view forcibly articulated by Michael Reiss in the first reading. By this logic, the practice of science inevitably involves subjective interpretation and human judgement – of a type that is difficult to reflect in a prescriptive curriculum.

Perhaps the nature of science can simply be defined as the operation of ‘the scientific method’; certainly such a view held sway amongst philosophers of science as recently as 50 years ago. More than likely, the definition of some form of ‘scientific method’ formed a part of your own education in science.

Activity 1

0 hours 15 minutes

Write a couple of sentences that attempt to describe what the process of ‘doing science’ represents. Then think about what types of scientific work might not fall within your description.

Discussion

It's likely that you refer to some form of scientific experimentation in your response – perhaps testing and revising hypotheses in the light of experimental data. In terms of exceptions, I hope you picked up on some of the points made in Section 2, referring perhaps to the more theoretical branches of science. And if you took on board any of the arguments from Michael Reiss' paper, you need no persuading that such a bald and rule-bound description of doing science does scant justice to the true nature of the subject.

Henry Bauer's influential 1992 book Scientific literacy and the myth of the scientific method was a provocative and ground-breaking attempt to offer a more realistic assessment of how science works. His arguments built on the seminal work of the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who was similarly sceptical about the existence of a logical and impersonal ‘scientific method’. Incidentally, Kuhn was roundly condemned for such a belief by many scientists of his generation, who felt such heresy undermined the authority of scientific knowledge. In a similarly controversial way, Bauer argued that the classical, formal descriptions of how science is done paint an overly rigid and idealised picture.

In educational contexts, experimentation has often been singled out as a key indicator of ‘doing science’, usually portrayed as an essential element of the making and testing of hypotheses. School laboratory work has the potential to practice just such competencies. What is built up is a perception of science as ‘systematic, controlled observation or experiment whose results lead to hypotheses, which are found valid or invalid through further work, leading to the theories that are reliable because they were arrived at with initial open-mindedness and continual scepticism’ (p. 19). Bauer argues persuasively that ‘historians (among others) have inescapably demonstrated that what actually happens in science cannot be described like that’. For example, he quotes a wide range of examples, across a number of disciplines, where particular theories have been believed, despite a mass of contrary evidence. The eminent physicist Sir Arthur Eddington commends such a practice when he advises ‘it is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they are confirmed by theory’. Even in physics – the subject that has most strongly shaped classical ideas about ‘the scientific method’, the formal rules of scientific practice can be stretched. The notion that impartial observation always precedes theory-making is also fanciful. Effective observation in science requires a pre-existing theoretical frame of reference – an idea neatly summed up in the words of the eminent biologist Sir Peter Medawar, who said that what a person sees ‘conveys no information until he knows beforehand the kind of thing he is expecting to see’ (Medawar, 1967).

A contemporary description of the key processes of science tends to express the nature of science more loosely. For example, Claxton (1997; p. 74) talks of science ‘loosely characterised by an interplay of observation and experimentation, deduction and intuition, governed by criteria of coherence, elegance and parsimony, which results in interesting speculation, productive explanation and/or successful prediction’. He goes on to talk of this ‘core cognitive cocktail’ being ‘mixed, consumed and judged within a context of personal, social, political and financial pressures which influence the process in a variety of ways’.

It's clear then that establishing a neat, consensual understanding of the practices that underpin science is not easy. Perhaps eminent scholars of the history and philosophy of science could provide the lead. Alters (1997) surveyed the opinions of 210 members of the US Philosophy of Science Association on the subject. Their replies brought out at least 11 different fundamental positions relating to the philosophy of science, leading Alters to confirm that ‘there is no one agreed-on philosophical position underpinning the existence of the nature of science in science education’. A UK study (Collins et al., 2001) found some measure of consensus when members of the ‘expert community’ (e.g. science teachers, scientists) were asked what ‘ideas-about-science’ should be essential components of the curriculum for 5–16 year olds. In the later stages of the study, experts were asked to rate the degree of importance of 18 distinct ‘themes’ relating to the nature of science, a flavour of which is evident from just six examples:

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