To know about the nature of science, you can’t just rote learn a set of characteristics or tenets of the nature of science. For a teacher, these tenets of the nature of science, like any list of key ideas, could easily become something to be transmitted rather than investigated. For students, the tenets could become something to know rather than to appreciate and understand.

For example, when thinking about the tenet that scientific knowledge is tentative, it is true that teaching about the tentative scientific knowledge certainly does reflect the changes in scientific knowledge throughout history. However, this ignores the durable character of well supported scientific knowledge that has stood the test of time and is backed by many lines of evidence. So scientific knowledge is both tentative and durable, and students must understand both aspects.

Rephrasing tenets as questions

Michael Clough suggests that the key to avoid rote learning a list is to explore these tenets as questions rather than statements:

  • In what sense is scientific knowledge tentative? In what sense is it durable?
  • To what extent is scientific knowledge empirically based (based on or derived from observations of the natural world)? In what sense is it not always empirically based?
  • To what extent are scientists and scientific knowledge subjective? To what extent can they be objective? In what sense is scientific knowledge the product of human inference, imagination and creativity? In what sense is this not the case?
  • To what extent is scientific knowledge socially and culturally embedded? In what sense does it transcend society and culture?
  • In what sense is scientific knowledge invented? In what sense is it discovered?
  • How does the notion of a scientific method distort how science actually works? How does it accurately portray aspects of how science works?
  • In what sense are scientific laws and theories different types of knowledge? In what sense are they related?
  • How are observations and inferences different? In what sense can they not be differentiated?
  • How does private science differ from public science? In what ways are they similar?

Posing these ideas as questions rather than statements challenges teachers and students to realise that each situation is different and complex and that it is the context of the research that is important.


Clough, M. (2008). Teaching the nature of science to secondary and post-secondary students: Questions rather than tenets. California Journal of Science Education, 8(2), 31–40.


Activity ideas

You might like to use these to help your students develop their understanding the nature of science. No science content knowledge is required, and they can prompt lots of discussion.
The extra piece
Mystery boxes
Scrambled sentence

Published 7 October 2011