Teaching the Nature of Science
“Science is more than a body of knowledge,” Carl Sagan said. “It’s a way of thinking; a way of skeptically interrogating the universe.” And teaching science means teaching more than groups of facts – it means teaching the natures of science (NOS).
A 2010 study of three elementary students found that, “Although each had robust knowledge of instructional strategies for teaching NOS, teachers lacked the requisite knowledge of assessment that would provide a feedback loop to support continued development of their knowledge of learners and lead to improvement in their teaching of NOS” (Hanuscin and Lee 2010).
A sample size of three is not enough to make broad statements about elementary teachers across the US, but the study does point out that teachers could benefit from “professional development that focuses on developing aspects of [pedagogical content knowledge] for NOS such as teachers’ knowledge of assessment as well as educative curriculum materials…” (Hanuscin and Lee 2010).
This curriculum might include “knowledge of a wide range of related examples, activities, illustrations, demonstrations, and historical episodes. … Moreover, knowledge of alternative ways of representing aspects of NOS would enable the teacher to adapt those aspects to the diverse interests and abilities of learners…” (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000). Teachers should be able to help students contextualize their learning about NOS with examples or “stories” from science (Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman 2000).
For example, teachers might combine their content knowledge about the nature of science with their pedagogical knowledge to create posters with “kid-friendly” NOS aspects to display in the classroom – “empirical” becomes “scientists collect data and use evidence to explain their ideas” (Hanuscin and Lee 2010). The study also found that explicit instruction of NOS aspects worked better than implicit instruction.
Teachers in a number of studies (Appleton 2006, Hanuscin and Lee 2010) requested “pre-packaged activities that work” for teaching NOS to students; Hanuscin and Lee note “these may play an important role in the development of elementary teachers’ [pedagogical content knowledge] for teaching science” and that “teachers need assistance to integrate NOS into their own science teaching.” Hanuscin and Lee caution against a “cookbook” approach; instead, teachers need some scaffolding of their own to help integrate NOS activities and instruction into their teaching.
Check out the paper here (access to more than the abstract is by subscription).
What activities do you use to teach the nature of science?
Developing an understanding of the nature of science is so challenging but so very important. My first years as a Ph.D. student in science (chemical and physical biology) were incredibly challenging (and also rewarding) because suddenly educational expectations flipped. I found myself facing the inverse of what most of my secondary and udnergraduate education had prepared me for. Rather than being asked to come up with a correct answer. I was expected to come up with a process or define the problem in solvable steps in order to achieve an already known and highly desired answer. The big answers that we're all hoping for that I pursued in my scientific research was cure cancer. The lab I was in more specifically focused on preventing death from cancer by stopping cancer cells from migrating into and invading other parts of the body. If we could just trap the cancer in one location, then current radiation and surgical treatments would cure it. We knew the answer that was needed. Suddenly, rather than being asked by my teachers for C as in A + B = __, I was asked to study C and combine resources and process in a way that would likely help us achieve it. This is the inverse of what my education had trained me to do which was to solve problems for correct answers, but this is how the world works for the most part. Generally, the desired answer or goal is apparent and the process to be used to get there is not.
Though at first I felt like I was going through culture shock, the increased freedom and room to be creative of my graduate years in research were enriching, exciting, and empowering. As a result I feel capable of not only doing research but of creating an organization that will help kids get this kind of experience sooner rather than later, so that when they pursue science, engineering, or business they will be ready to handle the freedom and challenge that comes from trying to define a problem correctly as opposed to trying to create a correct solution. As Einstein put it, "The formulation of the problem is often more important than the solution." Part of teaching students the nature of science is to train them in the skill of correctly formulating or defining problems. Without this skill, your likelihood of creating something that answers the world's problems is no better than random chance. With this skill, innovations are inevitable as long as you are willing to keep learning from and trying again after each failed attempt.
Science plays an important part now-a-days.At present students are unaware of the term NOS. In order to bring this term to all the students, teachers should provide more NOS activities to their students.
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