History of Science in the Curriculum and in Classrooms

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Duke of Argyll, in his presidential
address to the BAAS, stated that ‘what we want in the teaching of the young,
is, not so much mere results, as the methods and above all, the history of
science’ (Jenkins 1990, p. 274). The Duke’s exhortation has been more ignored
than followed, but there has been a minority tradition in science education
that has attempted to bring something of the history of science into science
instruction. Leo Klopfer, long active on this task in the US, made the following
melancholy observation about this tradition:
Proposals for weaving the history and nature of science into the teaching of
science in schools and colleges have a history of more than sixty years. Over this
long period, various kinds of instructional materials which entwine science and
the history of science were produced. The historical accounts, lessons, or units
usually served to convey a philosophy of science in which educators believed at
the time. Their philosophy of science identified ideas about the nature of science
which they wished students to understand or appreciate. These ideas anchored a
web, and the strands of science content and science history formed the web’s
pattern. Yet each of these webs was fragile; they rarely persisted for very long
and left little trace on the science education landscape.
(Klopfer 1992, p. 105)
This chapter will outline the changing fortune of the history of science in
science curricula and will illustrate some of the arguments for the inclusion
of history in science programmes. To illustrate these arguments, it will contrast
historical with ‘professional’ or ‘technical’ approaches to the teaching of air
pressure. Finally, it will consider and reject some arguments that have been
raised by scientists and historians against the inclusion of history in the science
Reasons for History
At different times and places, there have been appeals to the following reasons
for including a historical component in science programmes:
Chapter 4
1 History promotes the better comprehension of scientific concepts and
2 Historical approaches connect the development of individual thinking
with the development of scientific ideas.
3 History of science is intrinsically worthwhile. Important episodes in the
history of science and culture should be familiar to all students.
4 History is necessary to understand the nature of science.
5 History, by examing the life and times of individual scientists, humanises
the subject matter of science, making it less abstract and more engaging
for students.
6 History allows connections to be made within topics and disciplines of
science, as well as with other academic disciplines; history displays the
integrative and interdependent nature of human achievements.
History Promotes Conceptual Comprehension
Underlying the first argument is the belief that well-founded understanding is
necessarily historical. The importance of history for the proper understanding
of social institutions, such as political parties and churches, or of social
customs and mores, such as marriage rites and associated laws, is widely
appreciated. It is less well recognised that the same considerations apply to
understanding the intellectual products of science. Ernst Mach’s view was that:
‘Historical investigation not only promotes the understanding of that which
now is, but also brings new possibilities before us’ (Mach 1883/1960, p. 316).
For Mach, the perspective of history allows people generally, and scientists
in particular, to locate themselves in a tradition of thought, and to see how
their concepts and the intellectual frameworks that give them meaning are
historically conditioned. Thus, the historical perspective encourages the having
of new ideas, and novel conceptualisations. He recognised that the same
disposition could be developed by classical studies:
A person who has read and understood the Greek and Roman authors has felt
and experienced more than one who is restricted to the impressions of the present.
He sees how men placed in different circumstances judge quite differently of the
same things from what we do today. His own judgments will be rendered thus
more independent.
(Mach 1886/1986, p. 347)
In support of Mach’s view, Albert Einstein writes, in his autobiographical
essay, about the grip that the mechanical worldview had upon all scientists
of his generation, including Maxwell and Hertz. He says that, ‘It was Ernst
Mach who, in his History of Mechanics, shook this dogmatic faith; this book
exercised a profound influence upon me in this regard’ (Schilpp 1951, p. 21).
The importance of a historical perspective for understanding has generally
been more widely recognised in Continental thought than it has in British and
American writing. Ludwik Fleck,1 in a book that was instrumental in the
History of Science in the Curriculum 107
development of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science, succinctly states this
view as follows:
There can be no ahistorical understanding, that is to say an understanding
separated from history, just as there can be no asocial act of understanding
performed by an isolated researcher.
(Fleck 1935/1979, in Sibum 1988, p. 139)
More recently, Ernst Mayr, in the opening pages of his The Growth of
Biological Thought, commends historical study to scientists in these terms:
I feel that the study of the history of a field is the best way of acquiring an
understanding of its concepts. Only by going over the hard way by which these
concepts were worked out – by learning all the earlier wrong assumptions that
had to be refuted one by one, in other words by learning all past mistakes – can
one hope to acquire a really thorough and sound understanding. In science one
learns not only by one’s own mistakes but by the history of the mistakes of
(Mayr 1982, p. 20)
Conceptual Change in Individuals and in Science
The second argument holds that, not only does a historical perspective allow
students to situate their concepts and conceptual schemes on the larger canvas
of intellectual systems and the history of scientific ideas, but also, historical
presentation is grounded in certain psychological realities about the develop –
ment of individual cognition. Ernst Mach was a strong advocate of this genetic
method. This argument claims that the development of individual cognition
in some way naturally mirrors the development of species cognition. Hegel
was perhaps the first to enunciate this idea; Herbert Spencer followed him.
In England, the chemist and textbook writer J.C. Hogg wrote, in his 1938
text, that:
The historic development is a logical approach. The slow progress of the early
centuries was owing to a lack of knowledge, to poor technique and to
unmethodical attack. But these are precisely the difficulties of the beginner in
chemistry. There is a bond of sympathy between the beginner and the pioneer.
(Hogg 1938, p. vii)
Fifty years later James Wandersee (1985) suggested ways in which
knowledge of the historical development of a discipline can assist teachers in
anticipating and understanding the difficulties that contemporary students
have with learning subjects. The history can also suggest questions and
experiments that promote appropriate conceptual change in students. There
are approximately 3,000 published studies on children’s misconceptions in
108 History of Science in the Curriculum
science; the information on the resistance of science learning to science
instruction is overwhelming (Duit 2009). Knowledge of the slow and difficult
path traversed in the historical development of particular sciences can assist
teachers planning the organisation of a programme, the choice of experiments
and activities, their responses to classroom questions and puzzles, the ‘redoing’
of original experiments and reliving of historical interpretations and debate
about the experiments.
There have been numerous studies on the utilisation of history and historical
resources (papers, experiments, life stories) in science teaching. Table 4.1 lists
just some representative research.
History of Science is Intrinsically Worthwhile
This third argument has not been advanced as much as it needs to be. To its
credit, Project 2061 does advance the argument and lists the following ten
episodes that should be known and appreciated by all students who have had
a good education:
The emphasis here is on ten accounts of significant discoveries and changes that
exemplify the evolution and impact of scientific knowledge: the planetary earth,
History of Science in the Curriculum 109
Table 4.1 Utilising History of Science in Pedagogy: Some Studies
Topic Studies
Science (general) Cohen (1950), Conant (1947), Finocchiaro (1980), Kindi
(2005), Klopfer (1992), Kokkotas et al. (2011), Lennox &
Kampourakis (2013), Stinner et al. (2003), Wandersee (1985)
Physics (general) Brush (1969), Hong & Lin-Siegler (2012), Jung (1983), Seroglou
& Koumaras (2001)
Optics Andreou & Raftopoulos (2011), Galili (2014), Galili & Hazan
(2001), Kipnis (1992), Mihas & Andreadis (2005)
Oxygen and combustion Cartwright (2004), Pumfrey (1987)
Genetics Burian (2013), El-Hani et al. (2014), Jamieson & Radick (2013)
Electricity Binnie (2001), Leone (2014), Sibum (1988)
Chemistry Chamizo (2007), Chang (2010), Kauffman (1989), Padilla &
Furio-Mas (2008)
Quantum theory Garritz (2013), Greca & Friere (2014), Kragh (1992)
Evolution Gauld (1992), Jensen & Finley (1995), Kampourakis (2013)
Mathematics Fauvel (1990), Gulikers & Blom (2001), Panagiotou (2011)
Thermodynamics Besson (2014), Cotignola et al. (2002), De Berg (2008)
Relativity Levrini (2014), Villani & Arruda (1998)
Mechanics Besson (2013), Coelho (2007, 2009), Gauld (1998), Kalman
(2009), Schecker (1992)
universal gravitation, relativity, geologic time, plate tectonics, the conservation
of matter, radioactivity and nuclear fission, the evolution of species, the nature
of disease, and the Industrial Revolution.
(AAAS 1989, p. 111)
Others can easily be added – genetics and heredity leap out, as does the
connection of early modern science to the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, most
countries allow students to complete history courses without any knowledge
of major scientific, mathematical and technical achievements, which constitute
some of the most important episodes in the development of civilisation. If as
much history time were devoted to the scientific revolution as to political
revolutions, to Mendel and genetics as to generals, to the development of timekeeping as to the development of constitutions – then the overall education
of society would be considerably advanced, and the ‘two-cultures’ gap
lamented by C.P. Snow would be less apparent (Snow 1963).
History is Required to Understand the Nature of Science
The fourth argument has also been advocated in detail by Project 2061 and
discussed in the previous chapter. It was also elaborated in earlier discussion
on the linkage between history of science and philosophy of science. This book
endorses the qualified position that historicised philosophy of science is
required for educational purposes.
History Humanises the Subject Matter of Science
This fifth argument has often been advanced in reaction to widespread abuse
of science, and in reaction to authoritarian teaching practices sometimes
associated with naive understandings of science. Some historical study can
counteract the revulsion for science and technology felt by many witnesses of
high-tech wars, sonar-guided whale kills, napalm attacks and so on. The lives
and times of the great and not-so-great scientists are usually full of interesting
and appealing incidents and issues that students can read about, debate and
re-enact. This might go against the ‘no heroes’ school of history writing, but
members of the public vote with their wallets. It is not accidental that
biographies of scientists have got on to ‘bestseller’ lists and are published in
multiple languages: Galileo (Heilbron 2010), Newton (Westfall 1980),
Harrison (Sobel 1994), Galton (Gillham 2001), Darwin (Desmond & Moore
1991), Planck (Heilbron 1986), Einstein (Pais 1982), Curie (Pflaum 1989) and
Bohr (Pais 1991), to just name the more obvious.
The Dava Sobel case is illustrative. Academics had extensively researched
the ‘longitude problem’ and published articles and books that barely sold
(Matthews 2000b, Chapter 7). Sobel, the journalist, attended one Harvard
conference on the subject and went away, did some work of her own and
published a multi-translated international bestseller on the subject (Sobel
110 History of Science in the Curriculum
1994). This brought a history of science to the widest possible audience.
There are lessons to be learned by both historians and educators concerning
the popularisation of science (Gascoigne 2007).
The use of role-play and drama, from elementary-school level through to
senior years, has been very successful. Students who may not remember much
about Planck’s constant can remember that, as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm
Institute during the Third Reich, he was faced with the painful ‘The Dilemmas
of an Upright Man’, to use the subtitle of John Heilbron’s masterful biography
(Heilbron 1986). Science teachers can combine with history teachers and
drama teachers to enact something of the circumstances and dilemmas facing
Planck and give some dramatic expression to his resolution of them.
History is a way of putting a face on what otherwise is just foreign
terminology. Boyle’s law, Ohm’s law, Newton’s laws, Hooke’s law, Curie’s
discoveries, Mach bands, Planck’s constant, units of measurement such as volts
and ohms, and so on. James Wandersee has successfully incorporated historical vignettes into science programmes. These can be made as sophisticated
as the class and resources allow (Wandersee & Roach 1998).
History Promotes Curriculum Connections
The sixth argument, that history integrates the sciences and other disciplines,
has been the backbone of liberal approaches to the teaching of science. The
integrative function of history was recognised by Percy Nunn, James Conant,
Gerald Holton and others. It was one of the central planks of the Harvard
Committee Report, General Education in a Free Society (Conant 1945), and
was prominent in the Harvard Project Physics programme (Holton 1978,
2003). Science has developed in conjunction with mathematics, philosophy,
technology, theology, commerce, art and literature. In turn, it has affected
each of these fields. History allows science programmes to reveal to students
something of this rich tapestry and engender their appreciation of the
interconnectiveness of human intellectual and practical endeavours.
Galileo’s physics was dependent upon Euclidean geometry and the then just
translated mechanical analyses of Archimedes (brought to Italy by those
fleeing the Turkish invasion of Constantinople). It was also dependent upon
technological advances, lens grinding and the telescope being the most obvious.
His philosophy allowed him to first understand, and then to break from,
central Aristotelian concepts that constrained the physics of those around him.
His theological views also freed him to investigate the heavens and to experiment with falling objects. Even music had a role to play, as in the timing of
rolling bodies. And, of course, patronage, commerce and communications
all contributed to Galileo’s achievements. In turn, his new, mathematical,
experimental physics had an enormous effect on further physics, philosophy,
technology, commerce, mathematics and theology.
The same rich pattern of influence and effect can be seen in the achievements
of Newton, Darwin and Einstein, to name just the most obvious. A historical
History of Science in the Curriculum 111
approach to science allows students to connect the learning of specific scientific
topics with their learning of mathematics, literature, political history, theology,
geography, philosophy, art and so on. When the richness of science’s history
is appreciated, then collaboration between science teachers and the teachers
of other subjects can fruitfully be encouraged, and engaging examples can thus
be given to students.2
History in US Science Curricula: The Conant
In the US, as Leo Klopfer remarked, ‘Proposals for weaving the history and
nature of science into the teaching of science in schools and colleges have a
history of more than 60 years’ (Klopfer 1992, p. 105).3 In the 1920s, some
chemists, following Holmyard’s example in the UK, advocated a historical
approach in science instruction, and a number of historically oriented texts
were written.4
After World War Two, the generalist or contextual approach to science
teaching gained momentum. The dominant influence here was the president
of Harvard University, James B. Conant, whose case-study approach to science
education was widely adopted. He developed this while in charge of under –
graduate general education at Harvard and popularised it in a widely distrib –
uted government report, General Education in a Free Society (Conant 1945),
and paperback bestsellers (Conant 1947, 1951). His two-volume Harvard
Case Histories in Experimental Science (Conant 1948) became a popular
university textbook. The General Education report proposed that:
Science instruction in general education should be characterized mainly by broad
integrative elements – the comparison of scientific with other modes of thought,
the comparison and contrast of the individual sciences with one another, the
relations of science with its own past and with general human history, and of
science with problems of human society.
(Conant 1945, p. 155)
It then identifies crucial features of science, its abstractness and traditiondependence, that make learning difficult and that, as Mach noted, history can
render more intelligible:
The facts of science and the experience of the laboratory no longer can stand by
themselves; they no longer represent simple, spontaneous, and practical elements
directly related to the everyday life of the student. As they become further removed
from his experience, more subtle, more abstract, the facts must be learned in
another context, cultural, historical and philosophical. Only such broader
perspectives can give point and lasting value to scientific information and
experience for the general student.
(Conant 1945, p. 155)
112 History of Science in the Curriculum
Conant’s influence cannot be overestimated (Hershberg 1993). Thomas
Kuhn, in the Preface of his first book, The Copernican Revolution, which arose
from his lectures in Harvard’s General Education programme, says that:
Work with him [Conant] first persuaded me that historical study could yield a
new sort of understanding of the structure and function of scientific research.
Without my own Copernican revolution, which he fathered, neither this book nor
my other essays in the history of science would have been written.
(Kuhn 1957, p. xi)
For good or bad, Kuhn’s personal transformation caused a massive
transformation of professional history, philosophy and sociology of science
– indeed, of many other academic fields. For the past half-century, the
ambiguous and oft-misunderstood idea of ‘paradigm’ and its associated
relativist epistemology and idealist ontology has been a loose cannon on the
scholarly deck.5
Gerald Holton makes a similar admission of debt. Holton was subsequently
instrumental in developing, in the early 1960s – with Stephen Brush, Fletcher
Watson, James Rutherford and others – the Harvard Project Physics course
for secondary schools. Holton produced a number of substantial defences of
the liberal view of science education (Holton 1975, 1978) and wrote a collegephysics text embodying historical and philosophical themes (Holton 1952).
The then-young physics graduate I. Bernard Cohen worked with Conant
on his Yale Invitation Lectures, subsequently published as On Understanding
Science: An Historical Approach (Conant 1947). This hugely popular book,
among other things, argued that the history of science was indispensable for
the understanding of science. Cohen then worked with Conant’s Harvard
Committee that produced the above-mentioned 1945 report, the famous
‘red book’. Additionally, Cohen wrote a substantial essay, in 1950, on the
importance of history for the teaching of science.6 After the war, Conant
organised a series of conferences of teachers of chemistry and physics, plus
historians of science. One outcome of these conferences was the collection
Science in General Education (McGrath 1948).
The success of Conant’s Harvard Case Studies in college courses and the
example of Joseph Schwab’s historical text-based science course at the University of Chicago (Schwab 1950) prompted Leo Klopfer, then at the University
of Chicago, to emulate the approach in the teaching of secondary science.
His rationale was presented in articles with Fletcher Watson, who was later
to work on Harvard Project Physics (Klopfer & Watson 1957). One of their
major concerns was to increase students’ understanding of the scientific
enterprise and of its interactions with society. Their disquiet concerned
students’ poor grasp of what would shortly be labelled ‘scientific literacy’ –
a term introduced by Hurd (1958) and Fitzpatrick (1960). They saw historical
studies as a way of expanding and enriching students’ understanding of
science. Klopfer later said that scientific literacy encompasses five components:
History of Science in the Curriculum 113
• knowledge of significant science facts, concepts, principles and theories;
• the ability to apply relevant science knowledge in situations of everyday
• an understanding of general ideas about the organisation of the scientific
enterprise, the important interactions of science, technology and society,
and the characteristics of scientists;
• the ability to utilise the processes of scientific enquiry and an understanding of the nature of scientific enquiry;
• the possession of informed attitudes and interests related to science
(Klopfer 1990, p. 3).
Klopfer and Watson produced a course of History of Science Cases for
Schools (HOSC) (Klopfer 1969b).7 Each of eight cases was presented in a
separate booklet containing the historical narrative, quotations from scientists’
original papers, pertinent student experiments and exercises, marginal notes
and questions, and space for students to write answers to questions. Teachers’
guides and supplementary material were also produced. The experimental
version was tested and evaluated in 108 classes, with encouraging results:
The [HOSC] method is definitely effective in increasing student understanding of
science and scientists when used in biology, chemistry, and physics classes in high
schools . . . moreover . . . they achieve these significant gains in understanding of
science and scientists with little or no concomitant loss of achievement in the usual
content of high school science courses.
(Klopfer & Cooley 1963, p. 46)
After this success, the individual case studies were produced over a number
of years and published by Science Research Associates in Chicago (Klopfer
1964–1966); a version was also published by Wadsworth, San Francisco
(Klopfer 1969b). Despite their initial success, they seem to have been one of
the webs that, as Klopfer said, ‘rarely persisted for very long and left little
trace on the science education landscape’.
The liberal or generalist programme was endorsed by the National Society
for the Study of Education in its fifty-ninth yearbook, where it was advised
A student should learn something about the character of scientific knowledge, how it has developed, and how it is used. He must see that knowledge has
a certain dynamic quality and that it is quite likely to shift in meaning and status
with time.
(NSSE 1960)
However, as the yearbook was being written, the curricular and social
times were changing. The National Science Foundation was formed in 1950
and made its first grant for the development of a high-school science
curriculum in 1956. This was to the PSSC at the Massachusetts Institute of
114 History of Science in the Curriculum
Technology (MIT), whose draft text was published at the same time that the
Soviet Sputnik was launched. There quickly followed the spate of NSF-funded
curricular projects previously discussed, in which historical, technological
and cultural matters were ignored. The emphasis was upon the mastery of
science content in its most theoretical form. The NSF had a professional or
technical or disciplinary approach to school science, in contrast to the
generalist or humanistic or contextual approach recommended in the NSSE
1960 yearbook. The NSF’s credo is stated in Policies for Science Education,
prepared in 1960 by the Science Manpower Project at Teachers College,
Columbia University:
Let us note that [education] is the basic factor upon which an adequate science
manpower supply depends. We must have improved science-education programs
in the schools. . . . Then and only then, will we secure a flow of new scientific and
technological personnel adequate to meet the present and projected needs of our
(Fitzpatrick 1960, p. 195)
These science curriculum reforms of the early 1960s proceeded without the
participation of either historians or philosophers of science. There were two
prominent exceptions, the Harvard Project Physics course and the Yellow
version of the BSCS high-school biology. Less prominent were the Klopfer
and Cooley case studies for high school developed in the period from 1956
to 1960.
The BSCS text was informed by the ideas of the previously mentioned
Chicago University biologist–philosopher–educationalist J.J. Schwab. He
wrote an influential essay on ‘The Nature of Scientific Knowledge as Related
to Liberal Education’ (Schwab 1949), and he vigorously promoted the
Deweyean idea of ‘science as enquiry’.8 Schwab wrote the Teachers’ Handbook
for the BSCS curriculum, in which he advocated the historical approach,
saying that,
the essence of teaching of science as enquiry would be to show some of the
conclusions of science in the framework of the way they arise and are tested . . .
[it] would also include a fair treatment of the doubts and incompleteness
of science.
(Schwab 1963, p. 41)
History is also advocated because it ‘concerns man and events rather than
conceptions in themselves. There is a human side to enquiry’ (Schwab 1963,
p. 42).
History in British Science Curricula
In Britain, there has also been a long, if uneven, tradition of incorporating
the history of science in science education.9 The BAAS, at its 1917 conference,
repeated the call made by the Duke of Argyll at its 1855 conference. The
History of Science in the Curriculum 115
association said that the history of science ‘supplied a solvent of that artificial
barrier between literary studies and science which the school timetable sets
up’ (Jenkins 1990, p. 274). The influential government report of 1918 (Natural
Science in Education, known as the Thompson Report, after its chair, J.J.
Thompson) also saw a creative role for history:
It is desirable . . . to introduce into the teaching some account of the main
achievements of science and of the methods by which they have been obtained.
There should be more of the spirit, and less of the valley of dry bones . . . One
way of doing this is by lessons on the history of science.
(Brock 1989, p. 31)
The report went on to say that: ‘some knowledge of the history and philosophy
of science should form part of the intellectual equipment of every science
teacher in a secondary school’. These recommendations were included in the
‘Science for All’ curriculum that was developed in the immediate post-war
years (Mansell 1976).
Percy Nunn, the philosopher of science, Richard Gregory and other
historically minded educationalists argued the case for history in the interwar
years. They were influenced by the Hegelian, Spencerian and Herbartian idea
that the development of individual thinking in some sense replicates the
historical development of human thinking, a view later popularised by Piaget’s
genetic epistemology (Kitchener 1986). Popular science textbooks incorporating these ideas were written by E.J. Holmyard (1924, 1925), J.A. Cochrane
and J.R. Partington. Holmyard’s Elementary Chemistry (Holmyard 1925) sold
over half a million copies between 1925 and 1960.
The British School Science Review welcomed the founding of the first
professional journals in the history of science – Annals of Science (1936) and
Ambix (1937) – with the comment that schoolteachers,
knew from experience the value of historical details in arousing and maintaining
interest and in meeting the criticism that science is unhuman . . . [the journal] ought
to be placed in every school library.
(Sherratt 1983, p. 421)
In the 1920s and 1930s, special courses on the history of science were offered
to science teachers in teacher training colleges, and, beginning in 1921, a
Master’s degree on the subject was offered at University College, London.
After World War Two, history gradually diminished in importance. It was
a small part of the Nuffield O-level course, but, generally, the experiential
Nuffield courses ignored the historical, social and cultural dimensions of
science. A number of examining boards ran separate courses in the history
of science, but, by the 1980s, the number of candidates presenting had
dwindled dramatically. Prior to the National Curriculum, the history of science
found some place in the Nuffield programmes and in the SISCON and SATIS
courses introduced in the early 1980s.
116 History of Science in the Curriculum
This decline in the contextual dimension of school science was of concern
to the ASE, which, in a number of its reports, urged the incorporation of
more historical and philosophical material into the science curriculum (ASE
1979, 1981).10 Its 1979 Alternatives for Science Education maps three
approaches to science education, all of which emphasise HPS. Its 1981 report
Teaching science as a cultural activity: the more generalised pursuit of scientific
knowledge and culture that takes account of the history, philosophy and social
implications of scientific activities, and therefore leads to an understanding of the
contribution science and technology make to society and the world of ideas.
(ASE 1981)
In a recurring theme in all such efforts all around the world, the ASE, as
early as its 1963 report, Training of Graduate Science Teachers (ASE 1963),
recognised that teachers were not adequately prepared to teach this contextual
science. Then, as now, specific efforts needed to be made to incorporate HPS
into pre-service and in-service programmes for teachers.
Teaching About Air Pressure
The best way to appreciate the contrasts between professional and contextual
approaches to teaching science is to examine the different ways that specific
topics are taught using the two approaches or orientations. Air pressure, a
central topic in most elementary- and high-school science courses, serves as
a good example, but others could be chosen.
Historical–Humanistic Approach
There have been good historical treatments of air pressure in science programmes. Air pressure and Boyle’s vacuum pump were the subject of the
first of Conant’s 1957 Harvard Case Studies. One of three physics units in
the nine Klopfer case studies (Klopfer 1969b) is on air pressure (Case 6). The
unit comprises a collection of texts, extracts, activities, slides, hardware
and experiments. The case study combines the story of the overthrow, in the
seventeenth century, of the ancient Aristotelian doctrine that nature abhors
a vacuum with the application of hydrostatic principles to explain the
phenomena associated with atmospheric pressure. The pioneer work of
Torricelli with the barometer included the idea that the mercury column
standing at a height of about 30 inches above the level of mercury in a dish
was balanced by the weight of the ‘sea of air’ pressing on the surface of the
mercury (Klopfer & Cooley 1961, p. 10).
Case Six contains material on Galileo’s incorrect account of why the lift
pump can only bring water up 34 feet – his idea was that, if any longer than
this, the column would break under its own weight. The case asks students
History of Science in the Curriculum 117
to hold up a length of chewed gum and see what its critical (non-breaking)
length is, and asks them whether, by analogy, it is possible that a similar
situation will occur in a long column of water. The case also has material on
Pascal’s Law and recommends the building of a simple hydraulic press to
illustrate the principles. Among other benefits, the case allows students to see
that great scientists such as Galileo get things wrong and persist in erroneous
beliefs. This is even more apparent in Galileo’s commitment to a completely
false account of the tides, a subject with which he occupied the final day of
his 1633 Dialogue and which he believed provided the best argument for the
Copernican worldview.11 History shows the fallibility of science and scientists,
as well as the the triumphs – something usefully learned by students.
Each of Klopfer’s case studies has objectives listed under three headings:
1 information about science subject matter and the narrative of the case;
2 understanding of science concepts and principles;
3 understanding of ideas concerning science and scientists.
The objectives that it lists under (3) for the unit on air pressure are
instructive. It is said that, after studying the unit, students should understand
the following ideas concerning science and scientists:
• the meanings and functions of scientific hypotheses, principles and
theories, and their interconnections;
• the difference between science and applied science or technology;
• the dynamic interaction between ideas and experiments, between thinking
and doing, in scientific work;
• that a chain of reasoning, which often involves many assumptions,
connects a theory with hypotheses that can actually be tested by experiments and observations;
• that factors involved in the establishment of a scientific theory or concept
include experimental evidence, the personal convictions of participating
scientists and the theory’s usefulness;
• that scientific explanations of natural phenomena are given in terms of
accepted laws and principles;
• that scientists are individuals possessing a wide range of personal
characteristics and abilities;
• that science is an international activity;
• the nature and functions of scientific societies;
• that progress in science is, in part, dependent upon the existing state of
technology and on other factors outside science itself;
• that free communication among scientists through journals, books,
meetings and personal correspondence is essential to the development of
• that new observations have a trigger effect: they shake up established
concepts and lead to new hypotheses and new experiments;
118 History of Science in the Curriculum
• that new apparatus and new techniques are important in making possible
new experiments and the exploration of new ideas.
This list could double as a suitable statement of the objectives of any course
in HPS; it is also a list that would be at home in any ‘science studies’
programme. It is of some note that this sophisticated and nuanced
characterisation of science was first written in 1961 – that is, prior to the
publication of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which gave
wide exposure to such views. All three individuals were indebted to Conant
and their engagement in the Harvard General Education programme.
The HOSC materials aimed at providing an education about science as well
as an education in science, and with what are often called ‘intangible’
outcomes. Of forty-seven teachers participating in one review of the HOSC
materials, 64 per cent said that their students gained intangible benefits that
were not measured by tests. Some teachers commented as follows:
• The students obtained a new feeling for the meaning of science.
• Discussion and opinions of class members played a larger part than
normal . . . critical evaluation of science and scientists in our society
was encouraged.
• Students gained a feeling of being part of a great adventure.
(Klopfer & Cooley 1961, p. 128)
These unmeasured intangibles are as important as high-stakes, standardisedtest outcomes, in part because they frequently last much longer and guide
subsequent engagements with science.
Air pressure is a ready-made field for integrating history of science into
science teaching. There is a natural progression and parallelism between the
evolving ideas and investigations of students and the historical story. Thirty
years after the Klopfer case study, Joan Solomon, in the UK, also wishing to
incorporate historical and social themes into school science, wrote a booklet
on the same subject, titled The Big Squeeze, for the UK-based ASE (Solomon
1989). It promotes understanding of air pressure by traversing the ancient
Egyptians and Greeks; medieval pumps and bagpipes; Galileo’s ideas; his
student Torricelli’s famous experiment with a tube of water to create a
vacuum, and the diverse interpretations advanced to account for the ‘space’
above the water column; Torricelli’s mercury barometer; Pascal’s experiment
of taking a barometer up a mountain and recording the changes in height of
mercury supported and thus suggesting that air pressure is the result of the
weight of air above the mercury; von Guericke’s Magdeburg hemispheres; and,
finally, Boyle’s vacuum pump and his speculations about the ‘springiness of
With good teaching, students can easily be led through this sequence of
concepts and experiments. A nice sequence of such lessons can be seen in Börje
Ekstig (1990). A second-year University of New South Wales science student,
History of Science in the Curriculum 119
training to be a secondary teacher, wrote the following after reading Ekstig’s
I am a student who did not do physics for the Higher School Certificate and only
did half a year of university physics before dropping out after failing the mid-year
exam. I have heard myself say many times that I dislike immensely and cannot
do physics. After reading this article I wonder at my negative attitude. Basically
I have never given the subject much of a chance, but on the other hand I have
never heard it or read it presented in such an interesting and relevant way . . .
The thing that amazed me was that I actually understood . . . Because my
exposure to physics generally left me confused and I was convinced that it was
beyond me.
(private communication to author)
This is a pleasing testimony for the pedagogical worth of history in professional science courses. With knowledge of the history of the science of air
pressure, students can be engaged with the following problems or investigations:
• First, students can conjecture about whether there is anything in air or
whether it is essentially empty. After thinking about tests of their
conjectures, they can be shown that air is difficult to compress – an empty
test tube pushed into water shows this. If the same test tube is filled with
water and then raised out of the beaker, we see the barometer situation.
• Second, students can be asked whether there would be a limit to the length
of the water column supported in the test tube, and why the column is
supported. Holding a clear plastic garden hose clamped at one end and
placing the other end in a bucket of water and then suspending it from a
building provides an answer to this question.
• Third, students can conjecture whether a heavier liquid would have a less
high column supported, and what the predicted height of a mercury
column would be.
• Fourth, the creation of a vacuum in a cylinder and the subsequent pulling
of a piston into it can be shown, and thus the basis of Newcomen’s steam
engine can be demonstrated.
With judicious use of assignments, experiments and essays, a great many
of the objectives of the HOSC unit on air pressure and the more general
objectives of a contextual science programme can be met. The interplay
of science with philosophy on the one hand, and with technology on the
other, can be beautifully seen: The Aristotelian doctrine of ‘nature abhors a
vacuum’ can be appreciated; the influence of this on scientists as prominent
as Galileo can be seen; the efforts to support this philosophical and scientific
doctrine in the light of Pascal’s and Torricelli’s demonstrations of its seeming
falsity can be outlined; and, by students making their own primitive steam
120 History of Science in the Curriculum
engines (versions of Newcomen’s cooling-induced vacuum engine), or just
pistons and cylinders, the technical difficulties in the advancement of the
science of air pressure can be appreciated.
Professional–Disciplinary Approach
A standard professional approach to the topic of air pressure can be found
in the PSSC Physics text (1960), which was the first NSF-funded high-school
science programme; it was published in numerous languages and has been used
by millions of students throughout the world. PSSC contrasts markedly with
the above historical treatment found in the Harvard Case Studies, the HOSC,
Project Physics and British materials. It is noteworthy that, in the thirty-four
chapters of the text, not one is devoted to air pressure, nor is it mentioned in
the index of approximately 1,000 entries. Without mentioning air pressure,
its treatment of the subject begins with Boyle’s Law and a model of colliding
molecules in a chamber. The discussion of this law assumes the existence of
air pressure; however, all developments up to Boyle are ignored. There is no
mention of Torricelli or Pascal, much less are Aristotle and the horror vacui
doctrine mentioned. Boyle’s Law is explained using the mole concept, and it
is stated as:
At a given temperature the pressure exerted by a gas is proportional to the number
of molecules divided by the volume they occupy.
P = K × N/V, where K is the proportionality factor
Notably absent from the PSSC discussion is any mention of technology or
the applications of the science of air pressure. Although the expected change
in the P–V relation is discussed for rarefied atmospheres, there is no mention
of a barometer in the chapter; barometers are relegated to end-of-chapter
exercises. Children can study the gas laws in the PSSC physics programme
without their connections to barometers and weather changes being mentioned or explained. Similarly, water pumps, steam engines and all other
technological uses of air pressure are omitted. The momentous connection of
science with technology and its dramatic effect on the transformation of
economic and social life are entirely omitted from PSSC physics. Not just PSSC,
but many of the other reform projects of the early 1960s removed applied
aspects of science from their programmes. One reviewer of the 1960s reforms
has said:
The first major changes in all the NSF supported curriculum reform of the ’60s
was removing all technology and presenting pure science ‘in a way it is known
to the scientist’. It is only recently that many are proclaiming the fallacy of such
(Yager & Penick 1987, p. 53)
History of Science in the Curriculum 121
Metaphysics and Physics in the Science of Air
A teacher’s interest in history will influence how much a class learns from
discussing and re-enacting the historical progression that led to the
contemporary understanding of air pressure.
Aristotle on Air
Aristotle was one of the earliest contributors to the philosophical/scientific
investigations of air. He regarded air as one of the five fundamental elements;
air was all of the one kind, it was not a mixture of different components. This
was one of the great ‘epistemological obstacles’12 that needed to be overcome
by Joseph Priestley and the early pneumatic chemists of the seventeenth
century, whose investigations led them to the conclusion that air was a
composite of gases (a matter that will be detailed in Chapter 7). Importantly,
Aristotle, for philosophical and empirical reasons, denied that a vacuum could
exist in nature. He advanced his arguments for the horror vacui against the
atomists, for whom the existence of a void between atoms was philosophically
fundamental. Aristotle’s chief arguments against the possibility of a void are
contained in his Physics Book IV (reproduced in Matthews 1989). The
historian Ernest Moody says of this text that:
It was, in a very definite sense, the cradle of mediaeval mechanics. And for Galileo
. . . this text was a constant point of departure. Not only in this Pisan dialogue,
but in the great Discorsi of Galileo’s maturity, it was as a criticism of this
Aristotelian text that he developed his dynamic theory of the motion of heavy
(Moody 1951, p. 175)
Aristotle argued, reasonably enough given everyday experience, that the
velocity (V) of a moving body varied directly as the force applied (F) and
inversely as the resistance of the medium (R) through which it moved. (Think
of pushing a car along a smooth road and then through sand.) That is:
V = K × F/R
In a vacuum, R would be zero, and a body once pushed would move with
infinite speed. Thus, its time of movement between two points, A and B, would
be zero seconds, and thus it could not be said to move but would dissolve at
A and be recreated instanteously at B. Thus, Aristotle’s conclusion was that,
in a vacuum, there could be no motion. However, as motion can be seen
everywhere, then a vacuum is impossible. This basic belief that in nature
there could be no vacuum dominated and constrained physics for over 1,000
years, and Galileo struggled with it at the beginning of his philosophical/
scientific investigations.
122 History of Science in the Curriculum
One enduring lesson from the consideration of these early Greek
speculations on air pressure is the awareness of the way in which Aristotelian
science and philosophy are rooted in the experience of the everyday world.
The modern Aristotelian, Mortimer J. Adler, recognised this when he observed,
in his Introduction to Aristotle For Everybody, that:
In an effort to understand nature, society, and man, Aristotle began where
everyone should begin – with what he already knew in the light of his ordinary,
commonplace experience. Beginning there, his thinking used notions that all of
us possess, not because we are taught them in school, but because they are the
common stock of human thought about anything and everything.
(Adler 1978, p. xi)
The ancient world was familiar with all the phenomena that introductory
students can see and experience. The siphon was used to drain fluid; the
pipette or clepsydra was used to transfer fluid; and the drinking straw was,
of course, used. The move from all of this familiar experience to the belief
that nature abhors a vacuum was very easy. Aristotle appealed to this common
experience and then added certain logical arguments about motion and place,
and the outcome was the long-lasting and powerful doctrine of horror vacui.
A similar train of argument was used in discussing another aspect of the
question: Does air have weight? The ancients, through observation of windmills, sails, balloons made of animal bladders and so on, realised that space
contained something, namely air; it was not empty. Yet it did not appear to
weigh anything; indeed, it seemed to have a negative weight – it did not press
down, but rather it seemed to go upwards. Aristotle held that things in their
proper place had no weight, or gravitas (as the Latin speakers would say).
Stones and matter had gravitas, because they were trying to press down into
the centre of the earth, their natural home; air had no gravitas, but in contrast
had levitas, because its natural tendency was to go upwards to the sky, its
natural place. Thus, the claim that air had weight, in the sense that stones
had weight, would invalidate an important plank in Aristotle’s philosophy.
This same move from everyday experience to scientific and philosophical
doctrines can also be seen in Aristotelian theories of motion, astronomy,
biology and much else. If this point can be appreciated, then students are in
a position to grasp the most important feature of the scientific revolution of
Galileo and Newton – the reinterpretation of everyday experience and
certainties in the formulation of their new sciences; the move from Aristotle’s
explanation of the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, to Newton’s explanation
of the familiar (falling bodies) in terms of the unfamiliar (inertia).
Seventeenth-Century Debates
Galileo, from at least 1614, was confident that he had experimentally
demonstrated that, contra Aristotle, air had weight (Drake 1978, p. 231). He
persisted in his belief that the weight of air had nothing to do with the limit
History of Science in the Curriculum 123
to the height of water in siphons (Drake 1978, p. 314). His associate and
student, Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647), made the initial steps towards
proper understanding of air pressue and its explanation in interpreting
Torricelli’s 1643 experiment (repeated in France in 1646 by the child
prodigy Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)) used an inverted closed tube of mercury
placed in an open dish of mercury.13 The mercury fell a distance from the top
of the tube, but always stayed at about 30 inches or 76 cm above the level of
mercury in the dish (see Figure 4.1). This demonstration concentrated the
minds of philosophers and scientists (to use an anchronistic distinction):
the long-standing philosophical dispute about a vacuum seemed to be settled
by a simple experiment. This same experiment can also engage the minds of
contemporary students.
Students can be shown Torricelli’s apparatus – or now, in mercury-free
laboratories, some variant of it – and with or without guidance can see that
there are two questions that need an answer:
1 What holds the column of mercury up?
2 Is there anything in the space above the mercury in the column?
These are separate questions, although they are often merged. At the time of
Pascal and Torricelli, a few said the answer to the first question was that air
pressure was forcing down on the surface of the mercury in the dish. Others,
denying that air had weight, had other accounts of how the column of mercury
124 History of Science in the Curriculum
Figure 4.1 Torricelli’s Vacuum Tube 29.5 inches
weight of air
was supported. In answer to the second question, many said that there was
no vacuum; fewer said that there was a vacuum. In the middle of the
seventeenth century, all four possible answers had adherents.
The above questions can be reformulated in the following matrix (following
Dijksterhuis 1961/1986, p. 445), with representative adherents to different
answers included.
Yes No
Does air pressure hold up the mercury? Descartes All Aristotelians
Pascal Roberval
Is there a vacuum above the mercury? Roberval All Aristotelians
Boyle Descartes
The resolution of these competing views depended upon logical, technical
and experimental considerations. Some who denied air pressure and the
vacuum said that what caused the column to sink was the generation of
vapours or spirits from the liquid. To test this view, Pascal took wine and
water and asked his opponents what would sink further in Torricelli’s tube.
His audience reasoned that, as wine was more volatile, it would vaporise more
and, thus, sink further down the tube than water. When the experiment was
done, it was seen that water sank further than wine. Pascal knew this would
happen, because it was heavier than wine. So the spirits hypothesis had either
to be abandoned or reworked. Others who denied the vacuum said that a small
amount of air had been left behind in the tube. Pascal took tubes of different
diameters and established that what was constant was the height of the
column, not the volume of the space, as the rival hypothesis would have it.
Again, the rival hypothesis had to be abandoned or reworked. Students can
be led through these options – by questions, by debates, by reading source
materials – and can thus learn something of the process of scientific argument
and hypothesis testing, at the same time as they learn about air pressure. Such
historical introductions and re-enactments of actual scientific disputes provide
students with an invaluable window on to scientific argument.
This sequence illustrates the difference between simple observation and
scientific experiment, the relationship of theory to the construction of experiments, and the less than straightforward reassessment of theory in the light
of disconfirming experimental results. For instance, the horror vacui doctrine
could be reconciled with the aberrant experimental results by a simple twist:
it could have been said that the varying degrees of fall of the mercury column
established the degree to which nature abhors a vacuum. Nature’s abhorrence
is not absolute, but relative to the substance at hand. Nature is prepared to
pull mercury up a certain amount, and other liquids up by differing amounts,
History of Science in the Curriculum 125
in its effort to avoid a vacuum. So, the column height, rather than a measure
of the pressure of air forcing down on the dish, was a measure of the degree
to which nature abhors a vacuum. To combat this move requires that purely
ad hoc hypotheses be ignored, and more formally ruled out, in science.
Pascal, in his best-known experiment, had a barometer taken up the
Puy-de-Dôme mountain in 1648, confirming that the height of the column
decreased, the higher it was taken. He thought that this was because, the higher
up the mountain, the less air was pushing down on the surface of the mercury.
Students can be encouraged to imagine this experimental test and may, in
places, with very tall buildings or roads reaching to high elevations, have the
opportunity to conduct it. Pascal’s brother-in-law conducted the experiment,
and the results were as predicted. He left a barometer at the base of the
mountain to see that its level did not change during the day, a control that
students might be encouraged to think about and, by doing so, learn the
importance of controlled experiment in science (and even in educational
research). The results were wonderfully consistent with the air-pressure
hypothesis, and, indeed, Pascal looked upon it as an experimentum crucis
between the two doctrines.
It would seem that, against fundamental tenets of Aristotelian philosophy,
the existence of a vacuum had been demonstrated, and at the same time it
had been demonstrated that air has weight. But, as in life, so also in science
and philosophy, things were not always simple. The Aristotelian anti-vacuum
theorists could easily say that Pascal’s experiment simply showed that, as we
go higher towards the heavens, nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum diminishes.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and René Descartes (1596–1650), who were
both firm opponents of Aristotelianism, acknowledged all the experimental
evidence presented by Pascal and Roberval, yet denied their conclusion that
it established the existence of a vacuum. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, said
of Torricelli’s supposedly definitive proof of the vacuum that:
If the force with which the quicksilver descends be great enough . . . it will make
the air penetrate the quicksilver in the vessel, and go up into the cylinder to fill
the place which they [vacuists] thought was left empty.
(Shapin & Schaffer 1985, p. 89)
Hobbes and Descartes, respectively, thought that the void was filled with
aetherial substance and with subtle matter.14 When students are reminded that
a vacuum entails zero or very low pressure, and further that liquids vaporise
and then boil at low pressures, they might see that the subtle-matter view of
the space above the mercury is not entirely without merit. With a vacuum
above, surely the mercury will vaporise.
Methodological Lessons
At just about every stage in the foregoing development, the basic scientific
move from phenomenal evidence to invisible mechanisms has to be made.
126 History of Science in the Curriculum
Students can easily repeat the processes of evidence collection, conjecture and
testing, and thus appreciate the nature of scientific hypotheses and their
appraisal.15 By doing this, they can learn more about the nature of science.
Following the early history of air-pressure investigation reveals the
difficulties and complexities of: describing the evidence in a manner acceptable
to all competing theories; formulating empirically testable hypotheses; testing
hypotheses; designing and conducting experiments with adequate controls;
refuting hypotheses given contrary evidence; and the rescuing of hypotheses
despite this evidence. Discussion of this history can lead to such central, and
much written upon, philosophical questions as the possibility of crucial
experiments (vide the Duhem–Quine thesis), the difference between ad hoc
and justified alteration of theories in the light of contradictory evidence (vide
Popper and Lakatos), and the role of metaphysics in the maintenance of
scientific theories (vide Burtt and Buchdahl). Issues in the sociology of science
can also be canvassed in this style of instruction. The dependence of one
researcher on another can be seen – Torricelli upon Galileo, Boyle upon von
Guericke – and then the consequent importance of open communication and
truthfulness for science can be appreciated.
Most students’ initial understanding of the testing of a scientific theory is
the naïve hypothetico-deductive method:
Theory (T) implies Observation (O)
O occurs
Therefore T is confirmed
O does not occur
Therefore T is falsified
The foregoing has shown that this simple view needs to be elaborated to take
into account that it is the theory along with statements of initial conditions
(C) that constitute the test situation. Thus we have:
T and C together imply O
If not O,
Then, not T, or not C
But this is still too simple, because the test also embodies assumptions about
the reliability and validity of the test apparatus and measuring instruments
(I). Thus we have:
T and C and I together imply O
If not O,
Then, not T, or not C, or not I
History of Science in the Curriculum 127
When metaphysics (M) is assumed in a scientific experiment, we have this
M and T and C and I together imply O
If not O,
Then, not M, or not T, or not C, or not I
This is the argument structure that will be elaborated in Chapter 6, concerning
debate about the shape of the Earth.
The educational objective of critical thinking and careful reasoning can be
realised with this historical approach, because it engages the student’s mind.
A teacher well versed in the history of the topic can identify when students
are making the same intellectual moves as previous scientists, and can
encourage the reconsideration of earlier debates. This allows an appreciation
of both the achievements and mistakes of earlier scientists, and perhaps some
empathy with them.16
Opposition to History
The inclusion of history in science programmes has been opposed from two
sides: from historians who see history in science lessons either as poor history
or as downright fabrication of history in support of current scientific ideology,
and from scientists who see it as taking up valuable time that could be devoted
to science proper, and who see it as possibly eroding the student’s conviction
that their hard effort is uncovering the truth about the world. In 1970, at an
MIT conference sponsored by the International Commission on Physics
Education (Brush & King 1972), arguments from both sides were advanced.
Martin Klein’s argument was basically that teachers of science who select and
use historical materials do so to further contemporary scientific or pedagogical
purposes, that such selection is contrary to the canons of good history, and,
thus, ‘in trying to teach physics by means of its history, or at least with the
help of its history, we run a real risk of doing an injustice to the physics or
to its history – or to both’ (Klein 1972, p. 12). He quotes, approvingly, Arthur
O. Lovejoy’s caution that:
The more a historian has his eye on the problems which history has generated
in the present, or has his inquiry shaped by the philosophic or scientific conceptual material of the period in which he writes, the worse historian he is likely
to be.
(Klein 1972, p. 13)
The result of this partial or selective approach,
128 History of Science in the Curriculum
is almost inevitably bad history, in the sense that the student gets no idea of the
problems that really concerned past physicists, the contexts within which they
worked, or the arguments that did or did not convince their contemporaries to
accept new ideas.
(Klein 1972, p. 13)
Further, Klein suggested that there was a basic difference in the very enterprises
of science and history that makes their marriage most improbable and, where
it does occur, makes the union short and stormy:
One reason it is difficult to make the history of physics serve the needs of physics
teaching is an essential difference in the outlooks of physicist and historian . . . it
is so hard to imagine combining the rich complexity of fact, which the historian
strives for, with the sharply defined simple insight that the physicist seeks.
(Klein 1972, p. 16)
In support of this view of the historical enterprise and why it should be
kept out of science classrooms, he repeats Herbert Butterfield’s injunction that,
When he describes the past the historian has to recapture the richness of the
moments . . . and far from sweeping them away, he piles up the concrete, the
particular, the personal.
(Klein 1972, p. 16)
He also mentions Otto Neugebauer, the historian of classical science, who,
like Butterfield, believed that the historian’s role was to recover the complexity
of the past. Neugebauer, in his The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (1969), wrote:
I do not consider it as the goal of historical writing to condense the complexity
of historical processes into some kind of ‘digest’ or ‘synthesis’. On the contrary,
I see the main purpose of historical studies in the unfolding of the stupendous
wealth of phenomena which are connected with any phase of human history and
thus to counteract the natural tendency toward oversimplification and
philosophical constructions which are the faithful companions of ignorance.
(Neugebauer 1969, p. 208)
Klein’s conclusion was that, if good science teaching is historically informed,
then it will be informed by bad history. He prefers no history to bad history.
M.A.B. Whitaker pushed these claims further in a two-part article titled
‘History and Quasi-history in Physics Education’ (Whitaker 1979). Like Klein,
his concern was to identify the prevalent fabrication of history to suit, not
just pedagogical ends, but the ends of scientific ideology, or the view of science
held by the writer. These cases abound in textbooks.
History of Science in the Curriculum 129
One that has been much discussed is the widespread account of Einstein’s
postulation of the photon, following the perceived contradiction between the
photoelectric effect and the wave theory of light. The photoelectric effect is
apparent in the creation of current between plates in a vacuum when light
shines upon one plate. According to the standard textbook account (PSSC
1960, p. 596), anomalous aspects of the photoelectric effect – such as the
energy of the emitted electrons not depending upon the intensity of the light
and the threshold frequency levels for producing the effect independently of
the intensity of the light – were known by the end of the nineteenth century
to be a problem for the orthodox wave theory of light. In the orthodox
theory, the intensity of light was a measure of the energy of light, so that light
of any frequency, provided it was intense enough, should be able to produce
the photoelectric effect. This does not happen.
The standard account says that Einstein’s 1905 photon theory of light, with
its Planck-inspired formula of E = hf (energy of a photon equals a constant
times the frequency of the light ray), was put forward as a brilliant solution
to the anomalies and the harbinger of a new period in the physics of radiation.
The old battle between particle and wave theories of light had been resolved
in favour of a compromise view that saw light waves as coming in packages
and, hence, being particle-like. This account reinforces the public and scientific
image of Einstein, it accords with the hypothetico-deductive model of scientific
theory, it emphasises the rationality of science and it demonstrates the
progressiveness of scientific work. In other words, there is nothing in the
standard account to disturb the rational, methodical and inevitable picture of
scientific progress commonly held both by scientists and the public. The only
problem with the account is that the actual history was nowhere near as
straightforward as this.
For many years, respectable scientists such as Lenard, Thomson and Lorentz
put forward accounts of the photoelectric effect that focused on within-theatom structures and behaviour (resonance effects triggered by the light), rather
than properties of the light beam.17 These could account for the effect just as
well as Einstein’s peculiar hypothesis. Planck, the originator of the quantum
theory, rejected Einstein’s ‘wave package’ or photon interpretation in his
1912 book on heat radiation. Robert Millikan, who was to receive a Nobel
Prize for his confirmation of Einstein’s 1905 hypothesis, says in his
I think it is correct to say that the Einstein view of light pulses, or as we now call
them, photons, had practically no convinced adherents prior to about 1915 . . .
Nor in those earlier stages was even Einstein’s advocacy vigorous or definite.
(Millikan 1950, p. 67)
The mixed, indeed lukewarm, reception accorded Einstein’s hypothesis is
evidenced by the fact that he did not receive the Nobel Prize for his paper
until 1921, some 16 years after its original publication. This suggests some
slowness in the process of rational conversion of the scientific community.
130 History of Science in the Curriculum
Even when adherents began to appear, they were adherents to Einstein’s
equation, not to his physical interpretation of the equation – a big difference.
Millikan had written in 1916 that:
Despite . . . the apparently complete success of the Einstein equation, the physical
theory on which it was designed . . . is found so untenable that Einstein himself,
I believe, no longer holds to it.
(Pais 1982, p. 380)
The extremely popular Halliday and Resnick physics text makes much of
Millikan’s 1916 experimental confirmation of Einstein’s photon theory, saying
that his experiments ‘verified Einstein’s ideas in every detail’. But again, the
experiments did not confirm Einstein’s theory, only his equation. And even
the confirmation of his equation (linking the energy of the emitted electron
to the frequency of bombarding light) was far from unequivocal. A series of
experimental physicists interpreted Einstein’s data as showing that the energy
varied as frequency squared, or as frequency to the two-thirds power, or even
that it had no connection with frequency (Kragh 1986, p. 74). Millikan’s data
were open to a variety of mathematical interpretations apart from the one he
chose – energy varied as frequency – and this mathematical equation did not
carry its physical interpretation upon its sleeve; it did not prove that light
travelled in little bundles.
Klein’s and Whitaker’s charges about the inaccuracy and bias of a good
deal of history in science texts are certainly proven. The reason for these
inaccuracies is an interesting question, and its answer would reveal much about
the ideology of science education and the function of textbooks. Whitaker
says of quasi-history that it is the,
result of the large numbers of books by authors who have felt the need to enliven
their account of [these episodes] with a little historical background, but have in
fact rewritten the history so that it fits in step by step with the physics.
(Whitaker 1979, p. 109)
He does not see such history as arising from a conscious effort to support an
author’s vision of science:
I do not assume that writers of quasi-history necessarily have any philosophical
intent, even subconsciously. I see quasi-history more often merely as a result of
a rather misguided desire for order and logic, as a convenience in teaching and
(Whitaker 1979, p. 239)
Whitaker traces the mistakes of quasi-history to a neglect of the ‘public and
social nature of science’.
Quasi-history is not just Klein’s pseudo-history, or simplified history, where
mistakes of omission are likely to occur, or where the story might fall short
History of Science in the Curriculum 131
of the lofty standard of ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’;
rather, in quasi-history, we have manufactured history masquerading as
genuine history. This is akin to Lakatos’s ‘rational reconstructions’ of history
(Lakatos 1971), but for Lakatos the historical story was plainly labelled as a
‘rational reconstruction’. Historical figures are painted in the hues of the
current methodological orthodoxy. Galileo has been a fine example of the
treatment: he appears as an experimentalist in empiricist texts, as an instrumentalist in other texts, and as a rationalist in still others. He has become, as
will be documented in Chapter 6, a man for all philosophical seasons. Where
quasi-history is substituted for history, the power of history to inform the
present is nullified. If the historian rigidly selects and interprets his material
according to a prior philosophical position, it is difficult, if not impossible,
for these reconstructed data to feed back into the proper assessment of the
philosophical position.
Historical, philosophical and scientific writing on the decades-long delay
in final acceptance of Alfred Wegener’s plate-tectonic mechanism for his 1912
‘Continental Drift’ hypothesis well illustrates these problems of quasi-history
that Whitaker points out.18 The common accounts are that the hypothesis was
finally endorsed because plate tectonics was either able to make novel
predictions that were vindicated or plate tectonics unified a large body of
hitherto disparate data, and, conversely, the theory was rejected because it
left more data unexplained than explained. One commentator has noted that:
However, a careful reading of the historical record fails to substantiate any
decision of rejection or acceptance being made on the basis of any of these reasons.
A problem, I would argue, is that philosophers of science start with some
preconceived general criteria for theory acceptance, and their reading of the
history of the development of that theory selects the events that validate their
(Ryan 1992, p. 71)
Confidence Destroying
The third type of criticism brought against the introduction of history of
science into science courses is that it saps the neophyte scientific spirit. At the
MIT conference, the historian Harold Burstyn elaborated Klein’s problem in
terms of the different outlooks of students, rather than the different outlooks
of teachers or professional historians and scientists. Burstyn cautions that:
There is a lot of evidence (including my own experience in teaching history of
science to science students) that science students and students of other subjects
have different outlooks on the world. To phrase it pejoratively, the science students
are looking for the ‘right’ answers, they are ‘convergent’ rather than ‘divergent’
thinkers. The problem Klein is getting at is this: Can you in fact use the historical
materials, whose hallmark is their complexity, their diffuseness and imprecision,
in the teaching of people who are interested in getting right answers, and who, if
132 History of Science in the Curriculum
they are successful, can’t be diverted from this quest as we historians might want
to divert them? Isn’t history therefore somewhat subversive of the aims of physics
(Brush & King 1972, p. 26)
This charge was earlier made by Thomas Kuhn, in a 1959 address to a
conference on scientific creativity (Kuhn 1959). Kuhn repeated the charge in
the first (1962) and second (1970) editions of his immensely popular The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In his conference address, he drew attention
to the fact that:
The single most striking feature of this [science] education is that, to an extent
wholly unknown in other fields, it is conducted entirely through textbooks.
Typically, undergraduate and graduate students of chemistry, physics, astronomy,
geology, or biology acquire the substance of their fields from books written
especially for students.
(Kuhn 1959, p. 228)
He noted that science students are not encouraged to read the historical
classics of their fields, ‘works in which they might discover other ways of
regarding the problems discussed in their textbooks’ (Kuhn 1959, p. 229). All
of this produces a rigorous training in convergent thought, and Kuhn maintains
that the sciences ‘could not have achieved their present state or status without
it’ (Kuhn 1959, p. 228) – a position altogether at odds with Ernst Mach’s view
of the kind of pedagogy required for the advancement of science. Kuhn justifies
this training by its results: not just the production of good convergent thinkers,
but also the production of a smaller group of innovators and creative scientists
who would not have been able to be innovative unless they were thoroughly
seeped in the orthodox thought of their discipline. These ideas provided the
title both for his conference address and his subsequent book, The Essential
Tension (1971/1977). Kuhn elaborated these ideas in his The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions, where he says that, in a science classroom, the history
of science should be distorted, and earlier scientists should be portrayed as
working upon the same set of problems that modern scientists work upon,
in order that the apprentice scientist should feel himself part of a successful
truth-seeking tradition (Kuhn 1970, p. 138).19
Stephen Brush developed the Kuhn charge further in his ‘Should the History
of Science be Rated X?’ (Brush 1974). Here it was suggested, tongue in cheek,
that history of science could be a bad influence on students, because it
undercuts the certainties of scientistic dogma seen as necessary for maintaining
the enthusiasm of apprentices on a difficult task. He warned teachers that,
the teacher who wants to indoctrinate his students in the traditional role of the
scientist as a neutral fact finder should not use historical materials of the kind
now being prepared by historians of science: they will not serve his purposes.
History of Science in the Curriculum 133
Defence of History
The Klein–Whitaker–Kuhn charges are serious but not fatal; their main
concerns can be addressed without ejecting history from science courses. The
charges will be briefly restated and then commented upon.
Charge I: Science and history are very different intellectual enterprises,
because the former looks for simplicity and ignores extraneous circumstances,
whereas the latter celebrates and seeks complexity; thus, there are two
antagonistic mental outlooks to be cultivated if history is brought into the the
science classroom.
First, if this charge is true, is it such an unfortunate thing? The cultivation
of different mental outlooks should be an educational goal. A good school
curriculum is one that encourages a range of perspectives and ways of dealing
with problems; thus, students are required to study mathematics, literature,
art, history, science and perhaps morals, civics and religion. The problem
seems to be that there are different habits of mind being cultivated within the
one classroom, but even this should not be a problem. The English teacher
sometimes encourages creativity and free expression, at other times rote
learning and disciplined thought, at still other times empathic understanding
and moral reasoning. And, of course, the English teacher needs to provide
historical and political contexts to the literature being examined. Can
Dickens’ novels be appreciated without some knowledge of nineteenth-century
English society and its economic sinews? Can Orwell’s novels be understood
without knowledge of twentieth-century totalitarianism of both the Left and
the Right? These different outlooks are not regarded as disruptive to the
English teacher’s overall task of developing literate students. The science
teacher should be no more worried than the English teacher by such hetero –
geneity in a lesson programme. Further, we have myriad examples of successful
cross-disciplinary programmes that avoid the putative pitfalls and achieve
some of the objectives of a liberal education.
It is not just history that brings intellectual schizophrenia to the science
classroom. Increasingly, morals and politics are regarded as legitimate and,
indeed, necessary components of science education. This is most clear in the
numerous STS and socio-scientific-issues courses, where moral/political issues,
such as pollution, alternative energy sources, conservation, sustainability and
so on, are used as themes around which the science course is developed. Such
courses require that students think in moral and political as well as scientific
ways within the one class. But, apart from STS courses, the English National
Curriculum, Project 2061 and other mainstream curriculum developments also
require of science students that they consider their subject from a variety of
perspectives. The argument proffered against history would also rule out of
the science classroom these other considerations. However, there seem to be
no empirical grounds for so doing, apart from lack of time in a crowded
syllabus, and there are good pedagogical grounds for including the wider
Second, are the differences between a scientific and a historical approach
as great as claimed? At one level, Klein’s account of history as seeking
134 History of Science in the Curriculum
complexity and putting nothing aside is simply wrong: all historical writing
has to be selective. It is true that Klein’s empiricist, fact-finding account of
history has often been proposed. The eminent nineteenth-century historian
Ranke proposed that the task of history was ‘simply to show how it was’.
This is plainly rhetorical or silly, or both. The criticisms levelled against it by
E.H. Carr are well known (Carr 1964).
The simple point is that history cannot tell everything; it has to be selective.
A history of railway development in England will legitimately ignore
developments in the theatre; it will focus upon matters related to railways,
but there is a superabundance of such matters – patronage, arrival and
departures of trains, architecture of platforms, the work force and its costs,
railway meals, orders for steel and so on – and selection needs to occur.
A historian is not an archivist: the latter’s job may be to file away all the
timetables, meal menus, order books and so on (even this has to involve a
sense of what is likely to be useful). The historian is supposed to select and,
further, make something of the historical record. To say this, and to oppose
simple empiricist views of history, is not to endorse extreme postmodernist
accounts that maintain that history is just all construction, that there are no
facts of the matter to ascertain.
Detail of correct dates, a concern with uncovering all the relevant
correspondence, examining changes between editions and other such scholarly
endeavour can be of the utmost importance, provided some objective is in
mind, and provided some principle of inclusion/exclusion is operative. The
scientist does leave aside the colour, texture and composition of a falling ball
and replaces all this richness with a simple point mass; historians also have
to leave aside some of the richness of historical episodes and seek for some
essentials that are pertinent to the story they wish to tell. In this sense, their
discipline is not so different from science. A scholarly article might concentrate
upon the trees, but, in classrooms and student texts, there should not be such
attention paid to trees that the forest can no longer been seen.
Charge II: Inevitably, the history used in science courses is pseudo-history
in virtue of its being in the service of science instruction.
This claim is a variant of the first and need not deter a science teacher. Its
apparent strength lies in a confusion between writing history and using history
in science classes. With some notable exceptions, such as F.W. Westaway and
E.J. Holmyard, a science teacher is not a historian. There may be problems
with writing history in order to serve ulterior ends, if this results in the
distortion of history. Writing for a purpose need not result in pseudo-history.
Be this as it may, a science teacher is explicitly using history for pedagogical
purposes, and his or her use of history is to be judged on criteria different
from those of a practising historian: the two activities are very different.
It needs to be remembered that science teaching is not historical research:
they are different activities, with different purposes and different criteria of
success and authenticity. Standards of sophistication required for historical
research are misplaced when applied to science pedagogy. In pedagogy, the
History of Science in the Curriculum 135
subject matter needs to be simplified. This is as true of history of science as
it is of economics or of science itself. The pedagogical task is to produce a
simplified history that illuminates the subject matter and promotes student
interest in it, yet is not a caricature of the historical events. The simplification
will be relevant to the age group being taught and the overall curriculum being
presented. The history can become more complex as the educational situation
demands. To criticise elementary-school teachers for hagiography is to
misunderstand what they are doing, namely trying to interest students in
important figures in the history of science; to criticise secondary-school
teachers for simplifying the history of genetics is again to misunderstand what
they are doing, namely trying to teach about genetics in a way that is
interesting and comprehensible to adolescents. The pedagogical art is to
simplify subject matter, and historical stories, in such a way that the inevitable
approximations and distortions are educationally benign, not pernicious.
This art results in what Lee Shulman usefully called ‘pedagogical content
knowledge’ (PCK) (Shulman 1986, 1987) and what is commonly labelled as
‘didactical transposition’ in European didactic traditions.20 It is the everyday
classroom practice whereby good teachers make formal professional knowledge into teachable school knowledge. As Shulman says, PCK requires the
subject specialist to know ‘the most useful forms of analogies, illustrations,
examples, explanations, and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject in order to make it comprehensible to
others’ (Shulman 1986, p. 6). This seems sensible and laudatory; nevertheless,
Shulman’s view has been criticised by educators having a more constructivist
and postmodernist orientation, because it is ‘informed by an essentially
objectivist epistemology’ and it ‘focuses primarily on the skills and knowledge
that the teacher possesses, rather than on the process of learning’ (Banks
et al. 2005, p. 333).
Mindful of these supposed problems, history is one element that can usefully
contribute to PCK. Helge Kragh well expressed this defence of history:
In an educational context, history will necessarily have to be incorporated in a
pragmatic, more or less edited way. There is nothing illegitimate in such pragmatic
use of historical data so long as it does not serve ideological purposes or violate
knowledge of what actually happened.
(Kragh 1992, p. 360)
Charge III: It is likely that the history used in science courses will be quasihistory, because of the purposes and limitations of the science teacher.
First, as has been said, there is a great deal of truth in this claim, and as
such it serves as a timely caution to those advocating the use of history. The
problem of ‘revisionist’ history is notorious in the political realm and often
destroys the mind-expanding purpose of school history. We know that official
Soviet histories of the Communist Party are historically worthless, the official
history itself changing with each change in party leadership. After August
136 History of Science in the Curriculum
1991, all such histories are being consigned to the dust heap; and, across the
entire ex-Soviet bloc, school history curricula have been rewritten. Despite
law suits brought by the courageous, non-postmodern historian Saburo
Ienaga, the official Japanese school history texts have rewritten the history of
the Pacific War: the period is largely omitted, and, where it is mentioned, it
is in terms of Japan’s efforts to encourage Asian economic growth. Many
American histories, of the ‘Opening of the West’, of the conquest of Mexican
territories, of the 1905 Spanish–US war, of the Vietnam War, of labour history
and so forth, are themselves driven by ideology and distort the historical
record. Notoriously, there are as many histories of the Middle East as there
are national, religious and commercial interests. Communist party histories
of China dealing with Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, and Tiananmen
Square are as corrupted as their Soviet counterparts.
Given the importance and status of science and its accomplishments, it is
not surprising that various political and ideological groups should write
histories of science showing their own group as the champions and as
responsible for the achievements of science. The Nazis wrote Aryan histories
of science that demonstrated that Jewish scientists either did poor research or
stole good ideas from Germans (Beyerchen 1977). The Soviet Union produced
its own ideological version of the history of science (Graham 1973). In the
history of warfare between the Church and science, both sides produced
histories appropriate to their case. Sometimes, the distortions are conscious;
other times less so. Many have claimed that the monumental histories of
science of Duhem and the case studies of Poincaré are both influenced and,
some would say, compromised by their Catholicism (Nye 1975, Paul 1979).
Undoubtedly, myths and ideologies abound in histories of science, just as they
do in political, social and religious histories;21 it is salutary for everyone to
recognise this and to tread warily in classrooms. Howard Zinn, the US
historian, well expressed the point:
By the time I began teaching and writing, I had no illusions about ‘objectivit

if that meant avoiding a point of view. I knew that a historian (or a journalist,
or anyone telling a story) was forced to choose, out of an infinite number of facts,
what to present, what to omit. And that decision inevitably would reflect, whether
consciously or not, the interests of the historian.
(Zinn 1999, p. 657)
Charge IV: Good historical study is corrosive of scientific commitment.
This is an empirical claim for which the evidence is slight. The author has
taught ‘History and Philosophy for Science Teachers’ courses for many years,
without seeing any such deleterious results. In fact, comments such as ‘teachers
are hungry for this information’, ‘I never realised that Galileo did such things’,
‘this makes me want to teach science better’ are commonplace. The experience
of Einstein, when given Mach’s The Science of Mechanics by his friend Besso,
might be more typical: exposure to history enlivened Einstein’s commitment
History of Science in the Curriculum 137
to science. Certainly, for the history to make sense, a body of scientific
knowledge and technique has to be mastered, but there is no evidence that
this mastery is impeded or threatened by historical study. On the contrary,
the extensive research done on the subject-matter mastery of the hundreds
of thousands of students who studied the Harvard Project Physics materials
in the 1970s is impressive and contradicts the pessimistic claim of Kuhn.
Likewise, the much more restricted evidence from the Klopfer and Cooley
high-school case studies suggests that history enlivens student interest in, and
understanding of, science. Independent of the effectiveness claim, there are
serious educational issues involved in trading putative student commitment
to science for historical truthfulness about science (Siegel 1979). This merges
very quickly into the issue of indoctrination in education.
The History of Science and the Psychology of
Apart from all the foregoing curricular and pedagogical considerations in
appraising the role of history of science in science classrooms, there is an
important theoretical issue, namely the putative common cognitive mechanisms involved in transformations in the history of science and in the conceptual development of children. Jean Piaget famously connected the history of
science with his psychological account of accommodation and assimilation
in the maturing mind of individuals; he advanced his own version of the
‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’ thesis.22 In Piaget’s words: ‘The fundamental hypothesis of Genetic Epistemology is that there is a parallelism
between the progress made in logical and rational organisation of knowledge
and the corresponding formative psychological processes’ (Piaget 1970, p. 13).
In turn, Piaget’s research was launched into the HPS community by Thomas
Kuhn’s remark in the 1962 Preface of the first edition of his The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions, where he says:
A footnote encountered by chance led me to the experiments by which Jean Piaget
has illuminated both the various worlds of the growing child and the process of
transition from one to the next.
(Kuhn 1970, p. vi)
A decade later, Kuhn reaffirmed his debt to Piaget:
Part of what I know about how to ask questions of dead scientists has been learned
by examining Piaget’s interrogations of living children . . . it was Piaget’s children
from whom I had learned to understand Aristotle’s physics.
(Kuhn 1971/1977, p. 21)
The linkage was reinforced for Kuhn when Alexandre Koyré told him that,
‘It was Aristotle’s physics that had taught him to understand Piaget’s children’
138 History of Science in the Curriculum
The recapitulation thesis has been exhaustively researched and debated.
There have been thousands of studies on children’s thinking about nature and
astronomical processes, their reasoning, their concept acquisition, mental
maturation, epistemology and ‘scientific ideas’.23 Not surprisingly, a common
thread in all of these studies is the recognition that cognition is social, the
‘I think’ is dependent upon the ‘we think’; our thoughts and concepts are
expressed in language and for this we require degrees of participation in a
community. Abstraction theories of concept acquisition fail because they are
circular; we cannot, Robinson Crusoe-like, abstract ‘hard’ from experience
of a number of hard things, because, along with hardness, there are always
other properties. The concept has to be given to us.
If one study might be identified as the major link between the body of
Piagetian/Kuhnian research on conceptual change and science pedagogy, it
would be Posner et al.’s (1982) ‘Accommodation of a Scientific Conception:
Toward a Theory of Conceptual Change’. This enormously cited study draws
upon the accounts of scientific theory change given by Kuhn, Toulmin and
Lakatos. They propose that, for individual conceptual change or learning to
take place, four conditions must be met:
1 There must be dissatisfaction with current conceptions.
2 The proposed replacement conception must be intelligible.
3 The new conception must be initially plausible.
4 The new conception must offer solutions to old problems and to novel
ones; it must suggest the possibility of a fruitful research programme.
The study, along with others, sparked thousands of classroom and laboratory
conceptual-change interventions and researches.24
A decade later, Strike and Posner pointed out something that was being
overlooked by many researchers in the field, namely that their original
conceptual change theory was: ‘largely an epistemological theory, not a
psychological theory . . . it is rooted in a conception of the kinds of things
that count as good reasons’ (Strike & Posner 1992, p. 150). Their original
theory is concerned with the ‘formation of rational belief’ (p. 152); it does
not ‘describe the typical workings of student minds or any laws of learning’
(p. 155). Their theory of individual learning is dependent upon the historical
and philosophical analyses of scientific change provided by Thomas Kuhn,
Imre Lakatos and Stephen Toulmin. Once Strike and Posner focus on ‘rational’
conceptual change, then clearly philosophy enters the psychological picture.25
This point goes back at least to Aristotle (Jastrzebski 2012) and was made by
Ned Block in the Preface to his important anthology on Philosophy of
It is increasingly clear that progress in philosophy of mind is greatly facilitated
by knowledge of many areas of psychology and also that progress in psychology
is facilitated by knowledge of philosophy. [. . .] A host of crucial issues do not
‘belong’ to either philosophy or psychology, but rather fall equally well in both
History of Science in the Curriculum 139
disciplines because they reflect the traditional concerns of both fields. The problems
will yield only to philosophically sophisticated psychologists or to psychologically
sophisticated philosophers.
(Block 1980, v)
This, of course, supports the thesis of this book, that there are many theoretical
issues in science education that require the input of HPS for their elaboration
and resolution.
Science has been enormously influential in shaping the material, technical,
religious and cultural dimensions of the modern world, and in turn it has
been shaped by these societal aspects. Modern science is one of the major
accomplishments of the human race. We are seeing something of the
constitution of the largest and smallest bodies in the world around us and
understanding more and more about our own bodies, brains, health, and more
about our environment and the other species with which we share it. The
professional purpose of science education is to introduce students into the
conceptual and procedural realms of science. It has been argued that history
of science facilitates this introduction. But science education also has a wider
purpose, which is to help students learn about science – its changing methods,
its forms of organisation, its methods of proof, its interrelationships with the
rest of culture and so forth. It has been argued that this requires contextual
and historical approaches to science teaching.
The integrative function of history is perhaps its fundamental value to
science education. History allows seemingly unrelated topics within a science
discipline to be connected to each other – Einstein’s analysis of Brownian
motion to confirm the atomic hypothesis with Brown’s attempts to prove
Vitalism in biology, and maybe even Brown’s botantical work in the early
exploration of Australia. History also connects topics across the scientific
disciplines – unravelling of the DNA code connected geology, crystallography,
chemistry and molecular biology. Historical study shows the interconnections
between different realms of knowledge – mathematics, philosophy, theology
and physics all had parts to play in the development of, for instance,
Newtonian mechanics. Darwinian theory depended upon advances in geology,
botany, chemistry, zoology, philosophy, theology and genetics. Finally, history
allows some appreciation of the interconnections of realms of academic
knowledge with economic, societal and cultural factors. Darwinian evolutionary theory was affected by, and in turn affected, religion, literature, political
theory and educational practice. Historical presentation can weave all sorts
of seemingly separate topics into strands within disciplines and connect the
strands into an intellectual tapestry. Having students develop such a picture
is a central concern of liberal education. The cultural significance of science
education is, in part, fulfilled to the extent that it contributes to students having
a picture of the interconnectedness of human achievement (Suchting 1994).
140 History of Science in the Curriculum
As with most educational matters, teachers are the key to successful
historical teaching of science. Teachers need to be interested in, and to an
appropriate degree trained in, history. If they are so prepared and resourced,
then, in numerous formal and informal, planned and unplanned ways, history
will contribute to the professional and cultural tasks of science education; if
they are not, then merely legislating for history, or including it in the
curriculum, will have little effect. As has often been said, good teachers can
rescue the worst curriculum, and bad teachers can kill the best.
1 For the writings and arguments of Fleck, see the collection of essays in Cohen and
Schnelle (1986).
2 This ‘integrative’ function of history will be developed below in separate chapters on
pendulum motion (Chapter 6) and photosynthesis (Chapter 7).
3 Reviews of the chequered career of history in US science education can be found in
Brush (1989) and Klopfer (1969a, 1992). Kauffman (1989) examines specifically the
use of history in teaching chemistry.
4 See the articles of Sammis (1932), Oppe (1936) and Jaffe (1938, 1955) and the muchreprinted text of Jaffe (1942).
5 For early critical accounts of Kuhn’s theory, see: Gutting (1980), Lakatos and Musgrave
(1970), Shapere (1964) and Shimony (1976). These did not slow the almost out-ofcontrol enthusiasm across the academy for all things Kuhnian. For ‘Kuhn and
Education’, see Fuller (2000), Kindi (2005) and Matthews (2000b, 2004).
6 This was a 1950 address to the American Association of Physics Teachers – ‘A Sense
of History in Science’ (Cohen 1950). After obtaining his PhD in the history of science,
the second such degree awarded in the US, Cohen taught in the general science course
and wrote his own best seller, The Birth of a New Physics (Cohen 1961), for the PSSC
school physics committee.
7 The first edition contained eight cases: three in biology – The Sexuality of Plants, Frogs
and Batteries, Cells of Life; two in chemistry – Discovery of Bromine, Chemistry of
Fixed Air; and three in physics – Fraunhofer Lines, Speed of Light, Air Pressure.
8 Joseph Schwab was long associated with the University of Chicago and was imbued
with its ‘great books’ tradition. He had, independently of Kuhn and contemporaneously
with him, enunciated a distinction between ‘fluid’ and ‘stable’ periods of scientific
enquiry, which parallels Kuhn’s better known distinction between ‘revolutionary’ and
‘normal’ science (Siegel 1978). Selections of his articles are in Ford and Pugno (1964)
and Westbury and Wilkof (1978). His work and achievements are reviewed in DeBoer
9 The philosopher and historian William Whewell was one of the first to advocate the
contributions of the history of science to education more generally (Whewell 1855).
This tradition has been well documented by Bill Brock (1989), Edgar Jenkins (1979,
1990) and W.J. Sherratt (1983).
10 These reports were the subject of much debate and controversy, with some labelling
them ‘Alternatives to Science Education’ (Jenkins 1998).
11 For a discussion of Galileo’s erroneous theory of the tides, see Brown (1976) and Shea
12 This is the expression coined by Gaston Bachelard (Bachelard 1934/1984) to indentify
deep-seated conceptual barriers to scientific investigations. These categories blocked
completely some lines of investigation and shaped the form of others. The notion was
elaborated and utilised by Louis Althusser (Althusser 1969).
13 The torr, the unit used in vacuum measurement, and the pascal, the international
pressure unit, perpetuate their names in the present day.
History of Science in the Curriculum 141
14 For a discussion of the sixteenth-century controversy about a void, see Schmitt (1967).
15 For non-realists, as will be elaborated in Chapter 9, the postulation of invisible
mechanisms is tout court; they are just shorthand ways, or a convenience, for connecting
phenomenal regularities.
16 The history of the science of air pressure is complex, and experts disagree on various
aspects of it. A useful beginning is Middleton (1964). Shapin and Schaffer (1985) have
provided an extensive case study of the interactions of science and philosophy in the
debate between Hobbes and Boyle over the latter’s famous air-pump experiments.
17 See Kragh (1992) for an account of these.
18 On this episode, see Dolphin and Dodick (2014).
19 On Kuhn’s views of science education, see Andersen (2000), Kindi (2005), Matthews
(2004), Siegel (1979) and contributions to Matthews (2000a).
20 The expression was introduced in 1975 by the sociologist Michel Verret and elaborated
in 1985 by Yves Chevallard, in his book La Transposition Didactique.
21 See Chapter 10 of Kragh (1987) for a review of such influences.
22 Piaget’s position is stated most fully in Piaget and Garcia (1989). See Franco and
Colinvaux-de-Dominguez (1992) and contributions to Strauss (1988).
23 Among the better-known contributions are: Carey (2009), Gopnik (1996), Kitcher
(1988) and Vosniadou (2013). This tradition of research is reviewed in Dunst and Levine
24 For some of the literature see: diSessa and Sherin (1998), Limón and Mason (2002),
Nersessian (1989, 2003) and West and Pines (1985).
25 To understate the problem, Strike and Posner do not fully engage with the problem of
using Kuhn to identify rational conceptual change, this was the very thing that Kuhn,
in his ‘purple passages’, denied the possibility of.
AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science): 1989, Project 2061: Science
for All Americans, AAAS, Washington, DC. Also published by Oxford University Press,
Adler, M.J.: 1978, Aristotle for Everybody, Macmillan, New York.
Althusser, L.: 1969, For Marx, Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.
Andersen, H.: 2000, ‘Learning by Ostension: Thomas Kuhn on Science Education’, Science
& Education 9(1–2), 91–106.
Andreou, C. and Raftopoulos, A.: 2011, ‘Lessons from the History of the Concept of the
Ray for Teaching Geometrical Optics’, Science & Education 20(10), 1007–1037.
ASE (Association for Science Education): 1963, Training of Graduate Science Teachers,
ASE, Hatfield, UK.
ASE (Association for Science Education): 1979, Alternatives for Science Education, ASE,
Hatfield, UK.
ASE (Association for Science Education): 1981, Education Through Science, ASE, Hatfield,
Bachelard, G.: 1934/1984, The New Scientific Spirit, Beacon Books, Boston, MA.
Banks, F., Leach, J. and Moon, B.: 2005, ‘Extract From New Understandings of Teachers’
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