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The nature of science in the curriculum

The changing character of our increasingly scientific and technologically dependent society requires a science curriculum to match – one that will adequately prepare students for life and work in the 21st century. In setting the direction for learning, the curriculum must prepare all students to be citizens who can confidently engage with science on a personal and a societal level. It must also prepare sufficient students for careers in science.

Carl Sagan.

It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth.

- Carl Sagan.

A curriculum to fit

The last two decades have seen some radical rethinking of science curriculum documents in many countries. There is a marked shift in the direction of students learning about science and about how science works (the processes, practices and people of science) as well as learning science content (the products of science). We can’t give our students all the science knowledge that they will need in the future (much of the science they will need to know has yet to be discovered), but we can develop a more accurate understanding of the ‘nature of science’ – of science as a particular way of thinking.

Developing students’ understanding of the nature of science is now a goal of most science curricula worldwide. A robust understanding of the nature of science – science as a way of thinking – would enable students to leave school capable of looking at socio-scientific issues and evaluating what is fruitful, plausible and meaningful in the ‘scientific’ arguments presented – able to use scientific knowledge to make informed personal and societal decisions. Students would leave with an awareness of the role and status of scientific knowledge, an appreciation of its history and development, an understanding of the process of scientific inquiry and the awareness that the people who engage in science are part of that society and influenced by it.

The New Zealand curriculum

The revised New Zealand curriculum reflects this international shift in emphasis towards the importance of the nature of science. Rather than just learning science content (the four contextual strands), students are also required (in the nature of science strand) to:

  • learn about science and the people who do science (the ‘Understanding about science’ substrand)
  • do science (the ‘Investigating in science’ substrand)
  • communicate and evaluate science communication (the ‘Communicating in science’ substrand)
  • use their growing scientific knowledge personally in their real worlds and in relevant socio-scientific issues (the ‘Participating and contributing’ substrand).

Nature of science achievement aims

Understanding about science

  • Appreciate that science is a way of explaining the world and that science knowledge changes over time.
  • Identify ways in which scientists work together and provide evidence to support their ideas.

Investigating in science

  • Build on prior experiences, working together to share and examine their own and others’ knowledge.
  • Ask questions, find evidence, explore simple models, and carry out appropriate investigations to develop simple explanations.

Communicating in science

  • Begin to use a range of scientific symbols, conventions, and vocabulary.
  • Engage with a range of science texts and begin to question the purposes for which these texts are constructed.

Participating and contributing

  • Use their growing science knowledge when considering issues of concern to them.
  • Explore various aspects of an issue and make decisions about possible actions.

These four substrands present a broader picture of the nature of science than the science curricula of many other countries. The nature of science of most curricula would be encompassed by just our ‘Understanding about science’ substrand – where students learn about science as a way of thinking and about how science works, how scientific knowledge is built up and its special features.

However, the New Zealand curriculum recognises that the nature of science has to be concerned with science as a way of thinking (encompassed in this ‘Understanding about science’ substrand). But a way of thinking doesn’t exist in isolation, so when the students are engaged in the other substrands – investigating in science, communicating or participating in scientific issues – the curriculum intends them to bring this scientific way of thinking.

The curriculum is structured so that the ‘Understanding about science’ substrand is continually foregrounded and made more explicit in the others.

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