Why teach the nature of science? The short answer is that the curriculum requires it and research supports it. These are compelling reasons.

The curriculum requires it

Accurately conveying the nature of science is common to most science education curricula worldwide. There is a clear message that understanding the nature of science is crucial for effective science teaching, for valuable science learning and for responsible participation in society. New Zealand’s curriculum document clearly and strongly emphasises the importance of the nature of science by placing it as the overarching and unifying strand.

Research supports it

Research shows that students often have significant misconceptions about science. Students’ views about science have been picked up from what they learn via popular media (TV, the internet, advertising, magazines, newspapers and so on) as well as from classroom experiences. Science is often misrepresented in the media, and classroom teaching can overemphasise what we know rather than how we know it. Consequently, many students see science as a boring enterprise – the tedious accumulation of facts about the world, the following of a ‘scientific method’ and totally lacking any imagination or creativity.

An accumulation of facts is no more science than a heap of stones is a house.

Henri Poincaré.

Therefore, we need to include the nature of science in planning and teaching. We want our students to gain an understanding of the nature of science so that they can see how science is connected to their real world. Science education research over recent decades has also shown that teaching about the nature of science:

  • enhances students’ understanding of science content
  • increases students’ interest
  • helps show the human side of science.

Reasons for the individual

We live in an increasingly scientific and technological society in which many personal decisions involve scientific understanding. Should I take vitamin supplements? Are sunbeds safe? Could my cell phone cause a brain tumour? Will eating organic vegetables make me live longer? Does the lower environmental impact of a hybrid car justify its price? Will smoking kill me really?

To make decisions on issues like these, we need to understand:

  • what scientific knowledge is relevant
  • how reliable the knowledge is
  • how the knowledge was generated
  • the limits of the knowledge
  • how much confidence we can have in that knowledge.

To be able to make use of science in their daily lives, students need to have an understanding of the nature of science. Our students need to be able to evaluate, critique and respond to data presented as ‘scientific evidence’ in media reports and in advertising in order to make informed personal decisions and make judgements about scientific and pseudo-scientific claims. They need to become critical consumers of science.

Reasons for society

Many debates and controversies at all levels from the media to government relate to socio-scientific issues. Is genetic modification the future of medicines and global food supply? How conclusive is DNA evidence in a murder trial? Is climate change really as big a threat as scientists tell us? Should I oppose or support the building of nuclear power stations? Should I protest against stem cell research? These are examples of typical socio-scientific issues that impact us all.

A fundamental reason for teaching about the nature of science is to help our students to think for themselves and reach their own explanations and conclusions in ways that consider the scientific dimensions of socio scientific issues. We want students to be able to make informed decisions about such issues, to voice their opinions, to take action and to participate in the decision-making process of a democratic society.

The cultural argument

The modern world would not be modern at all without science. Science is deeply woven into our daily lives. For example, without scientific understanding, we would not have electricity, modern medicine, communication, exploration and so on. The list is endless. The ability to think with a scientific lens helps students to appreciate science as a major element of contemporary culture in the same way that they can appreciate art or music as cultural achievements.

The awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable… to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver.

Richard Dawkins.

 

Activity idea

Continually there are good and bad messages about the nature of science in our classroom teaching and in popular media. The activity, What might we miss?, uses two video clips as a fun way to introduce this idea to the students. They show how easy it is for them to miss the real meaning of the nature of science if they are not looking for it.

Published 7 October 2011