What is Nature of Science? - Part 1
If you consider scientific knowledge (including facts, concepts,
hypotheses, theories, laws, etc.) as the “what we know”
in science, then a simple way of characterizing the nature of science
is that it is the “how we know (what we know)” in science.
For several decades, the literature in science education, cognitive
science, philosophy (and history) of science has debated about what
constitutes the nature of science, and while these debates are important,
it is the case that there is a general consensus (McComas 2005) about
various facets of the nature of science that students should be learning.
- Science seeks to develop both explanations and predictions about
the world (and beyond!).
- Scientific knowledge consists of facts, concepts, theories and
laws. Each of these is distinct. Each of these is a product of human
construction, meaning that there is some measure of creativity and
subjectivity in the development of scientific knowledge. This is
because scientists operate under unavoidable social, political,
and theoretical preconceptions or commitments which affects they
way in which they construct and evaluate scientific knowledge.
- Scientific knowledge is both durable and yet also tentative.
The “"strength"” of a scientific theory or
law can be judged in part by how well it explains or describes a
range of data. The larger range of data or problems a theory/law
accounts for, the more valuable the theory/law is considered. The
community of scientists seeks to evaluate theories/laws by virtue
of how well they explain/describe data. Durability is partially
determined by how well (i.e. how long and often) a theory has withstood
being “"tested."” Still, theories & laws
are indeed tentative, meaning that there is always the possibility
of a theory or law changing (or being cast in doubt) as new data
or new ways of looking at existing data come about. Tentativeness
is of course relative to the theory, meaning that scientific ideas
that have withstood refutation are more durable than newer ideas
which are being actively examined (probed, tested, evaluated, etc.)
among or within the scientific community.
What is Nature of Science - Part 2!
The NOS items briefly described in part 1 are those declarative items
often highlighted in various science education research papers and
reform documents. The various aspects of NOS are often refered to
as "tenets" or core items that students should know. While
lists that highlight major NOS tenets serve an important role in capturing
the "big ideas" about the epistemology of science, some
science educators (e.g. Allchin 2010) rightly caution that having teachers
and students conceive of NOS largely as declarative tenets presents an impoverished
perspective of what a more holistic understanding of NOS entails.
Here, we must be mindful that any declarative tenet of the nature
of science is only meaningful when it is tied to a relevant context,
where students are required to flush out how a given aspect of NOS
applies to the real world, in the context of examining real problems
(which by the nature of their own complexities, requires students
to consider multiple issues in the epistemology and sociology of science).
Why Teach Nature of Science?
Learning about science should be more than just learning about the
myriad of facts, concepts, theories and laws (as if those aren't enough
to consider!). We should be concerned in helping our students to understand
what makes the development and evolution of scientific knowledge unique.
It truly is a “"way of knowing"” about the world
that requires an informed understanding of the nature of science to
recognize the important role that scientific knowledge plays in students'
lives. One way of considering the importance of learning about the
nature of science, is that in so doing students will learn to become
critical consumers of scientific (and nonscientific) information -
a requisite skill for being an informed citizen.
How Should I Teach Nature of Science?
Research in science education over the past fifteen years has increasingly
supported the idea that nature of science must be explicitly
taught in the classroom (Howe & Rudge, 2005; Khishfe & Abd-el-khalick,
2002). This means that it should be something that a teacher plans
to have students to explicitly consider in concert with the learned
facts, concepts, theories and laws. Research also suggests that students
should be reflective about how they consider nature of science
(Howe & Rudge, 2005). This means that students should be engaged
in learning about nature of science by reflecting themselves (i.e.
not simply being told by the teacher) how aspects of one or more of
the problems about which they are learning potentially connect to
some aspect of the nature of science. In this way, explicit and reflective
nature of science learning aligns with tenets of constructivist learning,
putting students in the role of having to take what they already know
(or think they know) about science and consider how their views about
science change (hopefully a more informed nature of science perspective).
The teacher's role here is critical. You must create situations where
learners are required to explicitly and reflectively address nature
of science in tandem with the concepts or scientific problems they
are engaged in learning.
A Role for History of Science?!
Of the many reasons for using the history of science in science teaching
(Matthews 1994), it is certainly the case that episodes from the history
of science can be used instrumentally (i.e. as pedagogical tools)
to help students learn about aspects of the nature of science. I argue
for the instrumental use of the history of science in the sense that
we should be placing students in similar roles to those past scientists
who were working to solve scientific problems (questions). To this
end, students should recapitulate the thinking processes that scientists
employed as they struggled to make sense of problems from the past.
When students work with the history of science in this way (e.g. case
studies, historical "problems"), they will be in a better
position to consider the relevance of germane nature of science aspects
that apply to the problems that they themselves are struggling to
solve. In this way, nature of science becomes interwoven with conceptual
learning and problem solving.
If you are interested in doing a little curriculum development to
take an episode from the History of Science and use it to create critical-thinking
problems for students to consider one or more aspects of the Nature
of Science, click on the "links" tab in this page for references.