Teaching the Nature of Science, Part I

Submitted by STAO Member, Dr. Anthony Persaud, EdD, MSc

Anthony has been in science since 1993 working in pharmaceuticals, and a science educator since 2006 including as science department head, Instructional Coordinator in Science and Technology, and Seconded Faculty at York University. He is once again a classroom teacher with Peel District School Board. This is part 1 of 2, sharing his doctoral research and current experiences around the Nature of Science.

Teaching the Nature of Science, Part I

Photo Credit: Photographer_Karolina Grabowska (pexels.com)

What is the Nature of Science?

I use “science content knowledge” as a term to describe understanding of phenomena and their causes as accepted by the scientific community. It can be perceived as factual knowledge of a sort that can be remembered and reiterated. The Nature of Science (NOS) describes ways of knowing that underpin scientific activities and characteristics of science content knowledge generated through those activities (1). NOS also includes processes involved in generating science content knowledge and how those processes are applied by scientists. Science content knowledge and NOS are distinct and important parts of science. Common aspects of science I observed in my research include the following:

  • Science is based on logic, wherein conclusions follow directly from observations and inferences, trying to avoid logical fallacies or errors.
  • Evidence is needed for scientific knowledge to be considered legitimate, with sufficient data and in language that is convincing to other scientists.
  • Scientific knowledge is founded on observations, made using meticulous and repeatable methods.
  • Scientific and non-scientific ways of knowing are distinguished by their ability to be tested or not, respectively.
  • Science knowledge is tentative but robust, as it is based on induction and testing.

These aspects apply to understanding what science knowledge means and how it is generated. This is not a list for students to memorize, but a starting place for exploring science.

Why does it matter?

Science educators have a responsibility to develop NOS understanding in their students, laid out in curriculum documents worldwide (2), including from STAO (3). Even more importantly, teaching NOS poorly may have undesirable side-effects, for example an unfounded view that all knowledge claims are equally valid (4). In the context of political-societal struggles, tentativeness of science knowledge can be misused as a weapon against science, say by climate change deniers or anti-vaxxers devaluing scientific consensus. This speaks to a need to teach NOS well, not just within the curriculum document where it already exists but in classrooms where that document is interpreted into lessons.

How might it be taught?

Inquiry, historical, and contemporary case studies can be used to teach different and complementary aspects of NOS understanding (5). Experiencing science directly through inquiry investigations, observations, and experiments (a lived perspective) can act synergistically with consideration of NOS through case studies (a reflective perspective). A lived perspective provides engagement, skills, and habits of mind, while a reflective perspective allows for explicit connection to NOS understanding (6), and such explicit, purposeful connections are considered essential for developing NOS understanding (7). Regardless of chosen activities, attention must be paid to teacher-student and student-student communication to ensure that intended NOS conceptions are portrayed accurately. Students also need time and processes in place to reflect upon and revisit NOS conceptions, within and between courses and grades.

How is it often taught?

My research confirmed that there is a range of pedagogical choices employed by science teachers, depending on their NOS understanding (5). Most study participants used student investigations as their main NOS pedagogy to teach those NOS aspects that come from inquiry, with limited application of historical or contemporary references rather than full case studies, and little to no explicit description of NOS. This fits with a view of NOS that recognizes causal understanding of phenomena as science knowledge but perceives scientist and societal influences to be separate from that knowledge. Several participants expressed that there is limited value in exploring a scientist’s process if the conclusion they arrived at is what matters for students to learn, and teaching time must focus on what the curriculum requires. Many participants who included historical or contemporary references or engaged their students in socioscientific problem exploration suggested that they did so out of student interest so that they would learn and remember science content knowledge better, rather than to teach science processes.

What can we do differently? 

The second part of this STAO Blog post will go through what I’ve tried to do in my secondary science classes to have students learn NOS. If more people understood science, then perhaps there would be more acceptance of information from scientists and health professionals and less science denial, leading to appropriate decisions around socioscientific problems. Four health professionals described attacks against them on social media from science deniers, but those professionals suggested that their social media presence contributes to increased public awareness of health and science information. In that article, Dr Jennifer Kwan described her rise in social media followers as an indicator that the public wanted more science information and knowledge even though some people attacked science and her. Science educators have an opportunity to help the public understand science and NOS, and exploring teachers’ understandings and practices around NOS was my starting place for this process.

1 – Lederman, N. (2007). Nature of science: Past, present, and future. Handbook of Research on Science Education, 2, 831-879.

2 – McComas, W. (2004). Keys to teaching the nature of science. The science teacher, 71(9), 24-27.

3 –  SCCAO and STAO/APSO. (2006). Position Paper: The Nature of Science. Retrieved from https://stao.ca/cms/gr-9-applied-demos?catid=66&id=66:nature-of-science

4 – Kötter, M., & Hammann, M. (2017). Controversy as a blind spot in teaching nature of science. Science & Education, 26(5), 451-482.

5 –  Allchin, D., Andersen, H. M., & Nielsen, K. (2014). Complementary approaches to teaching nature of science: Integrating student inquiry, historical cases, and contemporary cases in classroom practice. Science Education, 98(3), 461-486.

6 –  Abd-El-Khalick, F. (2012). Nature of science in science education: Toward a coherent framework for synergistic research and development. In B. Fraser et al (Ed.), Second international handbook of science education (pp. 1041-1060). Dordrecht: Springer.

7 –  Price, R., & Perez, K. (2018). Many paths toward discovery: A module for teaching how science works. Journal of College Science Teaching, 47(3), 78-87.

McComas, W., Clough, M., & Nouri, N. (2020). Nature of Science and Classroom Practice: A Review of the Literature with Implications for Effective NOS Instruction. In Nature of Science in Science Instruction (pp. 67-111). Cham: Springer.

Clough, M., Herman, B., & Olson, J. (2020). Preparing Science Teachers to Overcome Common Obstacles and Teach Nature of Science. In Nature of Science in Science Instruction (pp. 239-251). Cham: Springer.

8 –  Capps, D., & Crawford, B. (2013). Inquiry-based instruction and teaching about nature of science: Are they happening? Journal of Science Teacher Education, 24(3), 497-526.

9 –  Kwong, E. (2021, May 13). Hacked and impersonated: Four of Ontario’s top health-care voices on being targeted and harassed on social media. Retrieved from Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2021/05/13/hacked-and-impersonated-four-of-ontarios-top-health-care-voices-on-being-targeted-and-harassed-on-social-media.html