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 (social media, internet sites, TV, advertising, magazines, newspapers and so on) as well as from classroom experiences. Science is often misrepresented in the wider 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? Do cell phone towers cause cancer? Will eating organic vegetables make me live longer? Does the lower environmental impact of an electric or hybrid car justify its price? Is vaping safer than smoking?
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, on the internet 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? Can an individual make an impact on climate change? Should I oppose or support the building of wind farms or 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 most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.Albert Einstein
Mātauranga Māori and science
Mātauranga Māori and science are independent knowledge systems. They have similarities in that each seeks to explain te taiao – the natural world. Both systems draw on centuries of empirical observations. There are also differences. Mātauranga Māori is Māori knowledge, including values and culture so its methodologies often differ from conventional science. Drawing from both knowledge bases – where one enhances the other – can present a richer and more relevant picture of te taiao and the connections with people.
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.