Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Nature of Science in the Science Curriculum

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_32


The earliest example of nature of science (NOS) focus in school science education is Henry Armstrong’s heuristic approach, published in 1898, which involved students conducting the experiments, making the observations, and following the reasoning of the scientists who first generated the scientific knowledge being studied. It is important to note that Armstrong’s promotion of NOS was mainly pedagogical and motivational; the real purpose was to acquire and develop scientific knowledge. In contrast, John Dewey argued in Democracy and Education (published in 1916) that familiarity with scientific method is substantially more important than acquisition of scientific knowledge, particularly for those who do not intend to study science at an advanced level. Some 45 years later, similar rhetoric formed the basis of Schwab’s (1962) advocacy of a shift of emphasis for school science education in the United States away from the sole concern of learning scientific knowledge towards an understanding of the processes of scientific inquiry and the structure of scientific knowledge – a line of argument that eventually led to a string of innovative curriculum projects such as PSSC, BSCS, and CHEM Study. Parallel NOS-oriented developments in the United Kingdom included the Nuffield Science Projects (with an emphasis on “being a scientist for the day”) and the Schools Council Integrated Science Project. Mainly because of their reliance on an impractical pedagogy of naive discovery learning, these courses failed to deliver on their initial promise, prompting a shift to the so-called process approaches to science education such as Warwick Process Science and Science in Process, both of which envisaged scientific inquiry as the application of a generalized, all-purpose algorithmic method. Similar shifts had occurred earlier in Australia and the United States, with the publication of the Australian Science Education Project and Science – A Process Approach.

Interest in NOS continued to grow throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with the publication of numerous opinion pieces and commissioned reports, culminating in the incorporation of NOS into the National Curriculum for England and Wales and the publication of the highly influential Science for All Americans and National Science Education Standards, both of which promoted NOS as a key element of scientific literacy. Later, NOS became firmly established as a key component of the Programme for International Student Assessment (www.pisa.oecd.org) and the Next Generation Science Standards (www.nextgenscience.org) and is now a major explicit focus in the science curriculum of most countries around the world.

Establishing NOS Priorities

Throughout the long battle to establish NOS in the school science curriculum, concern was often expressed by researchers and educators about distorted or over-simplified views of science, scientists, and scientific practice promoted by science textbooks, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly – notably, observation provides direct and reliable access to secure knowledge; science always starts with meticulous, orderly, and exhaustive gathering of data; scientific inquiry is a simple algorithmic procedure comprising discrete, generic processes; experiments are decisive; science is procedural more than creative and its methods can answer all questions; science is a value-free activity; scientists are driven solely by logic, rational appraisal, and the pursuit of truth; and science is an exclusively Western, post-Renaissance activity. By the end of the 1990s, the urgent task for teachers and science curriculum developers keen to implement NOS in the science curriculum was to produce a consensus view of science that avoids these myths and falsehoods. According to McComas and Olson (1998), the authors of important reform documents such as Science for All Americans and National Science Education Standards are in reasonable agreement on the elements of NOS that should be included in the school science curriculum: scientific knowledge is tentative; science relies on empirical evidence; observation is theory laden; there is no universal scientific method; laws and theories serve different roles in science; scientists require replicability and truthful reporting; science is an attempt to explain natural phenomena; scientists are creative; science is part of social tradition; science has played an important role in technology; scientific ideas have been affected by their social and historical milieu; changes in science occur gradually; science has global implications; and new knowledge claims must be reported clearly and openly.

Seeking to shed further light on this matter, Osborne and colleagues (2003) conducted a Delphi study to ascertain the extent of agreement among 23 participants drawn from the expert community (scientists, historians, philosophers and/or sociologists of science, science educators and teachers, and science communicators) on ideas about science that should be taught in school science. With minor variation, there was broad agreement on nine broad themes: scientific method and critical testing, scientific creativity, historical development of scientific knowledge, science and questioning, diversity of scientific thinking, analysis and interpretation of data, science and certainty, hypothesis and prediction, and cooperation and collaboration. A comparison of these themes with those distilled from the science education standards documents in McComas and Olson’s (1998) study reveals many similarities.

A broadly similar but shorter list that has gained considerable currency among science educators can be found in Lederman and colleagues (2002): scientific knowledge is tentative, empirically based, subjective (in the sense of being theory dependent and impacted by the scientists’ experiences and values), socioculturally embedded, and, in part, the product of human imagination and creativity. Moreover, there is a distinction between observation and inference; there is no universal recipe-like method for doing science, and there are key differences in the functions of and relationships between scientific theories and laws. This view, reinforced by a purpose-built assessment regime (the Views on Nature of Science Questionnaire), has become very influential and has gained ready acceptance in many countries around the world as a template for curriculum building and research into students’ and teachers’ NOS understanding.

Some Problems with the Consensus View

A disarmingly simple specification of NOS items, especially when allied to an assessment protocol, can quickly become established as the norm for building a curriculum and designing teaching and learning materials. Items in the approved list can become oversimplified by busy teachers and taught as truths about NOS. In consequence, criticism of the so-called consensus view of NOS has been mounting.

At a general level, the decision to restrict the definition of NOS to the characteristics of scientific knowledge and exclude consideration of the nature of scientific inquiry is highly problematic, given that the status, validity, and reliability of scientific knowledge are inextricably linked with the design, conduct, and reporting of the scientific investigations that generate it. At a more specific level, there are several items in the consensus list that are problematic. First, the naïve proposition that there is a crucial distinction between observation and inference is singularly unhelpful to students trying to make sense of investigative work. When theories are not in dispute, when they are well understood and taken for granted, the language of observation is infused with theoretical assumptions. Terms such as reflection and refraction, conduction and non-conduction and melting, dissolving and subliming, all of which are used regularly in school science as observation terms, carry a substantial inferential component rooted in theoretical understanding, without which further progress is impossible.

Second, too literal an interpretation of statements about the tentative character of science can be counterproductive. There is little value in encouraging students to doubt every scientific proposition they encounter. While it is sensible to regard quantum theory, string theory, and accounts of dinosaur extinction (one of the items in VNOS) as tentative, it would be absurd for students to regard the heliocentric view of the solar system or our understanding of the human circulatory system as tentative. Much of the scientific knowledge that students encounter in class is no longer tentative. Rather, it is well established, taken for granted and used in building further knowledge. Indeed, if scientists did not accept some knowledge as well established, they would be unable to make further progress.

A further concern is that the consensus view fails to acknowledge some very substantial and significant differences among the day-to-day activities of scientists in different subdisciplines, including the kind of research questions asked and the investigative methods employed to answer them, the kind of evidence sought, the technologies used for its collection, the standards by which investigations and conclusions are judged, the kinds of arguments constructed to justify those conclusions, and the extent to which mathematics is deployed. In practice, the specifics of scientific rationality change between subdisciplines, with each playing the game of science according to its own rules.

A number of critics conclude that it is time to replace the consensus view of NOS, useful though it has been in promoting the establishment of NOS in the school science curriculum, with a philosophically more sophisticated and more authentic view of contemporary scientific practice.

Alternatives to the Consensus View

Matthews (2012) argues that we should consider NOS “not as some list of necessary and sufficient conditions for a practice to be scientific, but rather as something that, following Wittgenstein’s terminology, identifies a ‘family resemblance’ of features that warrant different enterprises being called scientific” (p. 4). To that end, he advocates a shift of terminology and research focus from the “essentialist and epistemologically focussed ‘Nature of Science’ (NOS) to a more relaxed, contextual and heterogeneous ‘Features of Science’ (FOS)” (p. 4). Such a change, he argues, would avoid many of the pitfalls and shortcomings of current research and scholarship in the field – in particular, the confusing conflation of epistemological, sociological, psychological, ethical, commercial and philosophical aspects of science into a single list of items to be taught and subsequently assessed, the avoidance of debate about contentious issues in HPS, the neglect of historical perspective, the failure to account for significant differences in approach among the sciences, and the assumption that students’ NOS understanding can be assessed and judged by the capacity to reproduce a few declarative statements about scientific knowledge. Features of science included in the consensus list should be elaborated, refined, and discussed, not simply learnt and assessed. A number of additional features should be addressed: experimentation, idealization, modeling, mathematization, theory choice and rationality, realism versus instrumentalism, and values and the impact of world views.

The great strength of the family resemblance approach is that there is no one definition of science; rather, a cluster of related features that many sciences share, although a particular scientific discipline may lack one or more of them. In elaboration of the family resemblance notion, Irzik and Nola (2014) draw a distinction between “science as a cognitive-epistemic system of thought and practice” and “science as a social-institutional system.” They describe the former in terms of four categories: (i) activities (planning, conducting, and making sense of scientific inquiries); (ii) aims and values; (iii) methodologies and methodological rules; and (iv) products (scientific knowledge). They address key historical, social, cultural, political, ethical, and commercial dimensions of scientific practice also in terms of four categories: (i) professional activities; (ii) the system of knowledge certification and dissemination; (iii) the scientific ethos; and (iv) social values. Recently, Erduran and Dagher (2014) have provided a detailed discussion of the implications of Irzik and Nola’s theorizing for curriculum content, pedagogy, and learning outcomes.

For Allchin (2011), the key to a broader and more functional view of NOS is the ability to judge the trustworthiness of scientific knowledge, that is, knowing whom to trust and why. His version of NOS curriculum priorities, which he calls “Whole Science,” is designed as a framework to guide students as they investigate socioscientific issues, conduct scientific investigations, and engage with case studies. It seeks to specify the dimensions of reliability and trustworthiness in science in terms of three major dimensions: observational evidence (issues of accuracy, precision, investigative procedures, and instrumentation), issues of conceptualization (patterns of reasoning, historical dimensions, and human dimensions), and sociocultural aspects (institutional characteristics, biases, economics, and effective communication). There is a very strong echo here of Ford’s (2008) research examining differences in the ways scientists and non-scientists react to scientific claims. Scientists scrutinize the ways in which data were collected and analyzed and focus strongly on whether the evidence is sufficient to justify the conclusion(s). Non-scientists rely less on how the claims are constructed than on personal anecdotal experiences that reflect their opinion of the claim (i.e., whether they agree with it or not). They are also much more inclined towards uncritical acceptance of authoritative statements by scientists. Ford’s conclusion is that the key to confident and successful evaluation of scientific claims is “a firm grasp of practice”.

Hodson (2009) uses the similar term Understanding Scientific Practice to describe the NOS knowledge and the understanding needed to achieve satisfactory levels of cultural and civic scientific literacy: the distinctive language of science and ways of thinking about, investigating and explaining phenomena and events (especially the linguistic conventions for reporting, scrutinizing, and validating knowledge claims); the capacity to access and interpret information conveyed through symbols, graphs, diagrams, tables, charts, chemical formulae and equations, 3-D models, mathematical expressions, photographs, computer-generated images, body scans; the characteristics of scientific inquiry (including its range of subdisciplinary variants and strategies for generating new knowledge and solving problems relating to further development); the role and status of the scientific knowledge generated and the modeling that attends the construction of scientific theories; the community-regulated and community-monitored rationality for scrutinizing and evaluating all new knowledge claims; the social and intellectual circumstances of significant scientific achievements and developments; and how scientists work as a social group (including the conventions and underlying values guiding the continuing practice of science) and the ways in which science impacts and is impacted by the social context in which it is located.

Other NOS-Related Developments

Argumentation and modeling are two aspects of scientific practice that have been subject to remarkable growth in research attention and curriculum development in recent years. Both raise important questions about students’ knowledge of how these processes are used by scientists and how students can develop the ability to use them appropriately and productively for themselves. There has also been a substantial growth of interest in engaging students in addressing socioscientific issues (SSI), which has precipitated the need for a much richer and more robust understanding of NOS.

Because scientific literacy entails a robust understanding of a wide range of scientific ideas, principles, models, and theories, students need to know something of their origin, scope, and limitations; recognize important differences between speculative models and well-established theoretical structures; understand the role of models in the design, conduct, interpretation, and reporting of scientific investigations; and recognize the ways in which a complex of cognitive problems and factors related to the prevailing sociocultural context influenced the development of key ideas over time. They also need to experience model building for themselves and to give and receive criticism in their own quest for better models. Current research interest can be categorized into three principal areas of concern: the particular models and theories produced by scientists as explanatory systems, including the history of their development; the ways in which scientists utilize models as cognitive tools in their day-to-day problem solving, theory articulation, and theory revision; and the role of models and modeling in science pedagogy.

Students need to understand the standards, norms, and conventions of scientific argumentation in order to judge the rival merits of competing arguments. In particular, they need a robust understanding of the form, structure, and language of scientific arguments; the kind of evidence invoked; how it is organized and deployed; and the ways in which theory is used and the work of other scientists cited to strengthen a case. In recent years, a vigorous research agenda has been developed, focusing on why argumentation is important, its distinctive features, how it can be taught, the strategies available, the extent to which particular strategies are successful, the problems that arise, and how difficulties can be overcome. Much of this research utilizes variations on Toulmin’s (1958) description of the structure of an argument in terms of six components: claim, data, warrant, qualifier, backing, and rebuttal.

Because much of the information needed to address SSI is of the science-in-the-making kind, rather than well-established science, and may even be located at or near the cutting edge of research, it has to be accessed from the primary literature rather than textbooks. Hence, students need to know how to evaluate the quality of scientific reports and research papers, including the validity of a knowledge claim, how it was generated, communicated and scrutinized by the community of scientists, and the extent to which it can be relied upon to inform critical decisions about particular SSI. They need to know what constitutes a well-designed inquiry and a well-argued conclusion. They need to be able to interpret reports; make sense of disagreements; evaluate knowledge claims; scrutinize arguments; distinguish among facts, arguments, and opinions; make judgments; and form personal views on issues. Because of the social, political, and economic dimensions of SSI, students also need the capacity to access material from magazines, newspapers, TV and radio broadcasts, publications of special interest groups, and the Internet, thus raising important issues of media literacy.

One final point relates to equipping students with some intellectual tools for addressing and resolving contentious issues that cannot be solved solely by scientific or economic considerations, those situations in which students ask “What is the right course of action?” or “What ought we to do?” Recent developments in biotechnology, for example, raise many important questions and concerns about whether certain lines of research should be permitted. This is not to suggest that students be required to follow a rigorous program in moral philosophy, but it is to suggest that they need some basic understanding of egoism, consequentialist notions (including utilitarianism), deontological ethics, social construct theory (or social contract theory), and virtue ethics if they are to get to grips with such problematic issues.

More detailed discussion of issues arising in the long struggle to establish NOS as a key component of the school science curriculum is provided by Hodson (2014).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand