Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Philosophy of Education and Science Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_34


 Educational aims and reforms of science education;  Educational theory;  Philosophers of education;  Philosophy;  Philosophy of education;  Philosophy of science;  Science teacher education and identity

Educational philosophy and theory (EPAT) as subjects of interest remain outside the mainstream of thinking in science education, whether the research field or professional classroom practice. Science education is known to have borrowed ideas from pedagogues and philosophers in the past – e.g., from Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Herbart, and Dewey – however the subfield of academic philosophy of education has been little canvassed and remains on the whole an underdeveloped area. At first glance such a state of affairs may not seem all too surprising since science education is mainly concerned with educating students about particular science subjects or disciplines. But this necessarily implies a tight link between subject content and educational issues and aims. Essential philo-educational questions arise at both levels, confronting researcher and teacher, often in ways that can intersect:

What should be the ultimate aim(s) of science education? Accumulation of knowledge? Should science education enhance both critical thinking and moral education? Or should it be preoccupied with preparing the next generation of specialists? Should the quality of science education be supervised by national standards? What is the nature of science, and thereto, is it authentically represented in textbooks, lab work, and classroom discourse? Does a hidden epistemology and cultural bias/ideology exist behind conventional curriculum and school science? Does a teacher’s personal beliefs and conceptions of scientific knowledge and development reflect current views of science history, epistemology, and practice? How does a science teacher’s personal philosophy and identity enhance or constrict authentic views of science and/or a learner’s capability to understand, appreciate, or critique science? Are learners’ cultural views, beliefs, and personal preconceptions more a hindrance or help? Should school science learning theories ape scientific epistemology and practices?

If science education is to mean more than mere instructional techniques with associated texts to encompass broader aims including ideals about what constitutes an educated citizen (i.e., defining “scientific literacy”), or foundational questions about the nature of education, of learning, of knowledge, or of science, then educational philosophy and theory must come into view (Nola and Irzik 2005).

An education in science has historically been associated with narrow “technical” training in specialized disciplines (e.g., conventional school science), with broader aims of liberal education (e.g., independent thinking, cultural enlightenment), with teaching science for “social relevance” (e.g., science-technology-society-environment: STSE reforms), or lately with “science for engineers” (e.g., the newest US STEM reforms) – the last one an updated version of the older vocational interest (Norris 1997; Pedretti and Nazir 2011). The vocational focus – high school science courses as prerequisites for techno-professional careers – has been a predominant aspect of teaching science since its inception in the 1900s and remains an expectation of parents, students, and society in general. Yet all these diverse curricular directions (or “orientations” or “emphases”) imply or assume a particular philosophy of education that is rarely openly articulated or even acknowledged: whether to teach science (1) for intellectual development (accumulation of knowledge), (2) for individual fulfillment (character), or (3) for socioeconomic or sociopolitical benefit (vocations, citizenship, etc.; cf. Matthews 2015; Roberts 1988). All three, in turn, have strong affinities with earlier, classically defined educational theories and perspectives: the first can be associated with the original knowledge-based educational project of Plato, the second is with Rousseau, and the last is a cross-cultural and timeless expectation of most societies, although in the USA the philosophy was modified by Dewey and progressivism (e.g., as social adaptation or reconstruction; cf. Eisner 1992; Schulz 2014).

When educational goals are examined historically, the foregoing three are ubiquitous; they persistently present themselves albeit in different guises, and they certainly can be identified throughout science educational reform history. No one normally holds exclusively to one or the other, although usually one or the other is emphasized over the other two at a given time (or two may be mixed and dominate over the third) – depending upon the defined educational or socioeconomic “crisis” at hand and under influence of respective social group interests. Such buried philosophies usually surface when diverse stakeholders (teachers, parents, science education researchers, State-controlled ministries, industry, and policy decision-makers) attempt to give voice to notions of “science literacy” and find they too often conflict and can’t seem to be “balanced” or reconciled.

The field of science education research has over the last 30 years been staked out by incompatible positions from positivism to postmodernism, from “diehard realism to radical constructivism,” the latter encompassing versions of epistemological and sociological relativism (impacted by studies in the post-positivist philosophy, history, and sociology of science). Thereto, teachers’ personal and professional identities are in conflict when curriculum orientations clash, especially when they are exposed to discordant academic perspectives on the nature of science (NoS). Modern science teacher education has tended overall to bypass philosophy and philosophy of education for courses on instructional techniques, classroom management, cultural studies, and learning theories from psychology and cognitive science – which still dominate the field – but a shift toward EPAT could have positive results for helping clarify the identity of both the research field and teacher professionalism (Fensham 2004; Schulz 2014). Minimally it would help teachers develop a philosophical orientated critical mind-set toward educational fads and ideologies that often follow in the wake of a perceived “crisis in science education,” which ensue upon economic and sociopolitical situated national and/or global disorders. At least three so-called crises have been identified: the aftermath of the 1957 “sputnik shock,” later on in the early 1980s with the US Nation at Risk report during the neoconservative Reagan era, and another in the late 1990s following various TIMSS and PISA publications, those international standardized science and mathematics education reports. All have in their time and for their own (edu-philosophical) reasons lamented the supposed deplorable state of either national or global science literacy.

Philosophy for science education has been of scattered interest among researchers for several decades, especially their limited foray into its subfields, which needs to be acknowledged (e.g., language studies, poststructuralism, postmodernism, feminism, hermeneutics, scientific argumentation, Rorty-influenced pragmatism, “critical theory”). The value of the subdiscipline of philosophy of science for science education has been generally recognized since the 1960s and has currently developed into the worldwide history and philosophy of science (HPS) reform movement (Matthews 2015). Philosophy of education itself has made a major impact on science education in the past only in so far as John Dewey’s ideas and progressivism have continued to influence educational thinking (Fensham 2004). Of lesser influence, though still significant, especially for those arguing today for the value of teaching science for liberal education purposes, have been Scheffler, Peters, and Hirst, themselves influenced by the 1950s/1960s Anglo-analytic philosophy of language and philosophy of science.

Yet the question of the necessity to develop an “in-house” philosophy of science education (PSE) has only recently been addressed, although math educators have debated the character of “philosophy of mathematics education” for almost three decades. Such a philosophy would need to take into consideration (if not to integrate) developments in such diverse fields as philosophy proper, philosophy of science, and philosophy of education (see Fig. 1; Schulz 2014):
Philosophy of Education and Science Education, Fig. 1

PSE Synoptic framework

The framework in-itself assumes neither prior philosophical positions (e.g., metaphysical realism or epistemological relativism) nor pedagogical approaches (e.g., constructivism, multiculturalism, sociopolitical activism, etc.). As a graphic organizer, it does provide science teachers and researchers a holistic framework to undertake analysis of individual topics and perhaps help clarify their own thinking, bias, and positioning with respect to different approaches and ideas. The main point is to show that any particular PSE as it develops for the teacher or researcher should take into consideration, and deliberate upon, the discourses pertinent to the three other major academic fields when they impinge upon key topics in science education. At minimum it should contribute to helping develop a philosophic mind-set.

In sum (as the figure illustrates), any philosophy of science education (PSE) is foremost a philosophy (“P”) and as such receives its merit from whatever value is assigned to philosophy as a discipline of critical inquiry – unfortunately, its benefit for the field may not appear at all obvious to science educators. Furthermore, such a philosophy would need to consider issues and developments in the philosophy, history, and sociology of science (“PHS”) and analyze them for their appropriateness for improving learning of and about science. Finally, such a philosophy would need to consider issues and developments in the philosophy of education and curriculum theory (“PE”) and analyze them for their appropriateness for education in science, as to what that can mean and how it could be conceived and best achieved. A fully developed or “mature” PSE can be understood as an appropriate integration of all three fields.

As one specific example, it could contribute to clarifying the dissimilar roles that theoretical, technical, and practical reason play (Aristotle, Habermas) in different reform initiatives which to this day remain confused or ignored. Science teachers are primarily trained in using theoretical reason (discipline-structured knowledge and instruction in traditional classrooms) and not in the other two modes, whereas STSE and especially STEM reforms presume the primary use of technical reason. Researchers arguing for science-societal-issues (SSI) and sociopolitical or “activism” reform movements expect teachers and students to not only distinguish technical from practical or pragmatic reasoning but expect proficiency, to make effective use of them in classroom discourse, research, and ethical decision-making and action. Barring such clarification and preparation, reform programs will continue to face many predicable hurdles, including being poorly implemented or, at worst, confronting resistance by science teachers.

PSE ultimately aims at improving science education as a research field as well as assisting teachers in broadening their theoretical frameworks and enhancing their practice. Likewise, it aims to raise awareness among researchers to explicitly front their educational philosophies and theories, since the tendency in the past has been to make prescriptive arguments for various reform projects (e.g., the 1950s “science for scientists,” STSE, SSI, STEM, activism) based on obscure or perhaps concealed – or partly hidden – educo-political and philo-theoretical premises. This frequently coordinates with individual authors’ own favored philosophies of science (i.e., realist, empiricist, pragmatist, social constructivist, etc.), whose biases are at best semitransparent.

In Europe, science educators have drawn upon other educational and philosophical traditions, whether Ernst Mach’s educational ideas (little known outside of Germany/Finland) or the more established and occasionally contested Bildung/Didaktik tradition, one whose roots in romanticism can be traced back some 200 years. Mach’s educational theory and Bildung – also Rousseau, Hirst, and Dewey – represent in fact what can be called metatheories of education, those that go considerably beyond learning theory (e.g., constructivism) and seek to answer broader questions of what an educated person should ideally become or what educational institutions should strive in achieving for their citizens. It is well known such theories go back to Antiquity, beginning with the Greek idea of paideia (e.g., Plato, Isocrates, Aristotle, Cicero) and are always normative and prescriptive.

Modern metatheories are required to answer the four key educational questions: what to teach (curriculum), how to teach (instruction), when to teach (stages of learner maturity), and especially why to teach (specification of outcome or aim). Some educational theorists (e.g., Kieran Egan) have argued that educational development could substantially differ from psychological development, and hence educational metatheory should proceed autonomously from the findings of scientific psychology in prescribing educational progress and aims.

It is in the contested field of educational philosophy and theorizing that science education now finds itself becoming increasingly embroiled, whether drawing with some measure upon classical theories of Plato, Rousseau, and Bildung or upon relatively more topical educational (meta)theories of Mach, Peters, Dewey, Egan, Gardner, Noddings, and others. Most importantly, it is within the confines of the framework of the specified educational philosophy that the meaning of “what counts as science education” in general, and thereto, the meaning of “science literacy,” will eventually be spelled out. One can expect that just as educational philosophies are often incompatible, so too will be the resulting expressions of science literacy programs.

This can be illustrated with some contemporary developments. A number of researchers, presently still in the minority, have sought to elaborate an unconventional or “provocative” PSE (self-described) by drawing upon ideas and values from poststructuralist, postcolonialist, and feminist theory, as a philosophy of education, intending to “envision and create a critical and emancipatory science education for the twenty-first century” (Zembylas 2006, p. 585). Approaches to employ insight from Lyotardian postmodernism, nonetheless, have been met with considerable criticism, not least of which are problematic arguments concerning PE and PS (Schulz 2007). Others have argued also on emancipatory grounds and aligned with critical theory and critical pedagogy (and drawing upon Deleuze, Foucault, and others), to develop an overt politicized and “activist” science education for students, that is, a predominant focus on “science education as/for sociopolitical action.” Such desired normative projects openly espoused by certain researchers represent a fourth, nontraditional goal (next to the common three mentioned above) that seek to fundamentally reconstruct and reorientate curriculum and the schooling of science education for social transformation (and not social adaptation) purposes, according to Eisner’s (1992) categorization of curriculum ideologies.

This newer sociopolitical variety of PSE has drawn criticism from a liberal education perspective, which points out that it significantly downplays the importance of scientific knowledge and discovery for its own sake and neglects the personal and aesthetic dimensions of science, especially the aspects of beauty, creativity, and wonder (Hadzigeorgiou 2015). It purposively seeks to shift the weight of the primary goal of science education away from the conventional one of preparing the next generation of scientists, engineers, doctors, and other techno-science-based professions for an exclusive stress instead on “science for citizens.” In other words, one aims for achieving critical citizenship for global sustainability, including a critical and ethical distancing from our “knowledge economy” with its techno-scientific base in postindustrial society, and often from Western science itself.

Turning away from the interests of researchers, and focusing instead on the immediate perspective of the classroom science teacher, PSE can be made practical if it allows for integration of the multiple philosophies that a teacher carries, linked with a heuristic teaching model that bridges philosophical abstraction with the teaching situation, allowing choices about the what, the how, and the why of science teaching (Janssen and Berkel 2015).

The latest discourse and stimulating debates concerning EPAT topics as related to the explicit emergence of various philosophies of science education (PSEs) have opened up new intellectual territory for the discipline of science education, encompassing both researchers and teachers, but to different degrees. In general it can be admitted the research field requires EPAT as a capacity to think deeper and more systematically about the unique cultural, educational, and epistemological dimensions of teaching and learning of science as philosophy, as profession, and as practice. Philosophy as a discipline of critical inquiry, and philosophy of education as a subdiscipline, would ideally enable teachers to develop a reflective, critical PSE to help integrate their teaching philosophies and identities and, hence, examine curricular, cultural, and epistemological issues as they arise: whether associated with classroom discourse, textbook exposition, curriculum change, societal identified crises, reform initiatives, or professional policy deliberations.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.IERGSimon Fraser UniversityVancouverCanada