The Nature of Science and Science Teaching

There has been a long tradition in education that has advocated the cultural,
educational, personal and scientific benefits of infusing HPS into science
classes, curricula and teacher education, or, in current terms, of bringing the
NOS into classrooms, curricula and teacher education. This might be called
the normative NOS tradition, the tradition that argues that, for a range of
personal, cultural and disciplinary purposes, students learning science should
also learn about science, in particular its philosophical or methodological
distinctiveness. Joseph Priestley, in the eighteenth century, could be thought
of as the founder of this tradition, as shown in Chapter 7. He wrote the first
ever books on the history of electricity and the history of optics, so that
natural philosophers could learn from the successes and failures of those who
went before them. In the nineteenth century, the central figures in this tradition
were William Whewell (Whewell 1855), Thomas Huxley (Huxley 1868/1964)
and Ernst Mach (Mach 1886/1986). In the early decades of the twentieth
century, John Dewey (Dewey 1910), in the US, and Frederick Westaway
(Westaway 1929) and Eric Holmyard (Holmyard 1924), in the UK, were
central figures. In the North American world, the tradition was continued, in
the 1940s, by Joseph Schwab (Schwab 1949); in the 1960s, by Leo Klopfer
(Klopfer 1969) and James Robinson (Robinson 1968); and in the 1970s, by
Jim Rutherford (Rutherford 1972, 2001), Gerald Holton (Holton 1975,
1978), Robert Cohen (Cohen 1975) and Michael Martin (Martin 1972, 1974).
In the past three decades, a number of science educators have extended this
normative tradition. Perhaps the best known are Derek Hodson (1986, 1988,
2008, 2009, 2014), Richard Duschl (1985, 1990, 2004) and Mansoor Niaz
(2009, 2010), and there have been many others.2 As outlined in the Preface
to this book, the IHPST Group, through its conferences held biennially since
1989 and associated journal, Science & Education, has contributed significantly to the tradition. Since its inception in 1992, the latter journal has
published more than 800 research articles on ‘History, Philosophy and Science
Teaching’, and hundreds of papers have been presented to IHPST international
and regional conferences.
As well as advocacy or normative work, there has been, more recently, a
steady growth of empirical NOS research. This has focused less on why
students should learn NOS, but more on how they learn and if they have
Chapter 11
learned the subject. This empirical tradition has studied questions such as:
Can NOS be effectively taught in elementary school? How is NOS best
learned? What are the different outcomes between explicit or implicit NOS
instruction? What NOS views are held by scientists, teachers and representative historians and philosophers? What, if any, is the connection between
learning NOS and learning science content? What ‘long term’ gains and
transferability there might be from NOS learning? How can valid, reliable
and efficient NOS tests be developed? And so on.3 The work of Norman
Lederman (2004, 2007, Lederman et al. 2014), Fouad Abd-el-Khalick (2005),
William McComas (1998a, 2014), Keith Taber (2009, 2014) and their
research teams has had a particular impact.
From the beginning, there has naturally been ambiguity and sometimes
tension over just how wide to draw the NOS net for educational purposes.
Originally, NOS was identified with philosophy of science. There was a
concentration on the epistemology, methodology, ontology and ethics of
science; on learning how evidence related to theory appraisal, what determined
theory choice, what were the characteristics of a competent experiment and
so on. The view was that this cluster constituted the distinctive, defining
feature of science. The NOS net was widened to include history of science,
alongside philosophy of science, on the grounds that the latter needed the
former, and that to learn about science required knowing something of its
history and the actual processes of scientific discovery and theory acceptance
– ‘Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science
without philosophy of science is blind’ (Lakatos 1978, p. 102). With renewed
interest in large-scale (industrial) and small-scale (laboratory) sociology of
science, the NOS net was further widened to include sociology, and then
psychology of science. At this point, NOS basically became ‘science studies’,
with philosophy and epistemology no longer accorded central status.4 Both
the normative and the empirical traditions of NOS research will adjust to how
tight or relaxed is the NOS definition adopted.
Science is a human, and thus historically embedded, truth-seeking enterprise
that has many features: cognitive, social, commercial, cultural, political,
structural, ethical, financial, psychological, etc. All of these features are worthy
of study by science students, as well as by disciplinary specialists, and different
ones come into clearer focus when considering different sciences, and when
considering different aspects of the history, achievements and practice of the
different sciences. Some of the features are shared to a large degree with other
knowledge-acquiring enterprises, some are shared to a limited degree, and
some are not shared at all. Given these characteristics of science, it is useful
to understand NOS, not as some list of necessary and sufficient conditions
for a practice to be scientific, but rather as something that, following
Wittgenstein’s terminology, identifies a ‘family resemblance’ of features that
warrant different enterprises being called scientific. Truth seeking must be
retained as a defining goal of science in order to give any limits to its
characterisation; whether science is successful and just what ‘truth’ means are
subsidiary issues.5
388 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
This chapter will recommend a change of terminology and research focus
from the essentialist and epistemologically focused NOS to a more relaxed,
contextual and heterogeneous ‘features of science’ (FOS). Such a change of
terminology and focus avoids the following philosophical and educational
pitfalls that have been associated with much of recent NOS research:
1 the confused aggregation of epistemological, sociological, psychological,
ethical, commercial and philosophical features into a single NOS list;
2 argument about just how many items should be included in an NOS list:
seven for the Lederman group, ten for the McComas group, still other
numbers for other groups;
3 the privileging of one side of what are contentious and much-debated
arguments about the methodology or ‘nature’ of science;
4 the assumption of particular solutions of the demarcation dispute;
5 the assumption that NOS learning can be judged and assessed by students’
capacity to identify some number of declarative statements about NOS.
William Whewell: A Precursor to Contemporary
NOS Debates
William Whewell (1794–1866), the formidable English scientist, philosopher,
historian, theologian and moralist, gave a lecture in Leeds in 1854 to the Royal
Institution of Great Britain, entitled ‘On the Influence of the History of Science
Upon Intellectual Education’ (Whewell 1855). He prepared the ground for
his particular argument by saying:
As the best sciences which the ancient world framed supplied the best elements
of intellectual education up to modern times, so the grand step by which, in
modern times, science has sprung up into a magnitude and majesty far superior
to her ancient dimensions, should exercise its influence upon modern education,
and contribute its proper result to modern intellectual culture.
(Whewell 1855, p. 242)
In the lecture, he provided passionate argument for the inclusion of NOS (as
it is now called) into all liberal education, saying:
In the History of Science we see the infinite variety of nature; of mental, no less
than bodily nature; of the intellectual as well as of the sensible world. . . . The
history of science . . . may do, and carefully studied, must do, much to promote
that due apprehension and appreciation of inductive discovery; and inductive
discovery, now that the process has been going on with immense vigour in the
nations of Europe for the last three hundred years, ought, we venture to say, to
form a distinct and prominent part of the intellectual education of the youth of
those nations.
(Whewell 1855, pp. 248–249)
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 389
Whewell believed that the history of science was indispensable for
understanding ‘intellectual culture’ more generally, by which he meant the
processes of knowledge creation or epistemology. One hundred and more
years before Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn made the view
popular, Whewell argued that philosophy of science has to be informed by
history of science. Whewell’s point is worth drawing attention to, as so much
NOS discussion in science education goes on in direct violation of it. NOS is
frequently taught without reference to history and is not informed by history.
Unfortunately, many teachers wishing to convey something of NOS do so by
having students ‘reflect on’, ‘brainstorm’ or ‘discuss’ just their own classroom
activities or investigations. This has only limited value. Whatever lessons
might be learned depend on extrapolating from classroom science to ‘big
picture’, historically and socially embedded science. Caution and caveats are
required in making any such extrapolation. Without such humility, the exercise
cultivates hubris and promotes narcissism: ‘I will tell you about science and
its aims, methods and values by reflecting on what I do in the classroom.’
Whewell expressed two concerns that have occupied much contemporary
NOS research when he went on to ask: ‘How is such a culture to be effected?
And also, how are we to judge whether it has been effected?’ (Whewell 1855,
p. 249).
Whewell was, in contemporary terms, asking: How can NOS best be taught?
And, how can NOS learning best be assessed? Educators and researchers are
still asking and answering these questions.
Current NOS Research
As mentioned above, contemporary NOS research is either normative or
empirical, with, of course, some overlap, as people do not usually research
topics unless they think they are important. The basic challenge for normative
NOS research is that it needs be well informed by historical and philosophical
studies of science. This challenge has been more or less well met, depending
on the researcher’s own training or grasp of the fields. Science educators have
typically taken a broad, relaxed and not overly examined view of the nature
of science; the tendency has been to ‘go with the HPS flow’ or, less kindly, to
embrace whatever HPS position is fashionable at the time: logical empiricism
in the 1960s (Matthews 1997), Kuhnianism in the 1970s and 1980s
(Matthews 2004) and constructivism in the 1980s and 1990s (Matthews
2000b);6 more recently, many educators are embracing various postmodernist
and sociocultural versions of HPS, as the following attests:
Recent scholarship in science studies has opened the way for more thoughtful
science education discourses that consider critical, historical, political and
sociocultural views of scientific knowledge, and practice . . . Increased attention
to the problematic nature of traditional western science’s claims to objectivity and
universal truth has created an educational space where taken-for-granted meanings
390 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
are increasingly challenged, enriched and rejected. . . . Thus, science’s long
accepted claim to epistemological superiority has now become bound to the
consideration of cultural codes, social interests, and economic imperatives.
(Bazzul & Sykes 2011, p. 268)
Because reasonable training in history or philosophy of science is rare in
the science-education community, many of the published claims made about
NOS, such as those in the preceding quotation, are false, ill informed or
mythical.7 This, of course, has consequences for teacher education when NOS
is included in the programme, and it has flow-on consequences for classroom
teaching when teachers attempt to promote NOS knowledge in schools.
Consider the following confident claim made in a recent article:
People with more sophisticated epistemological beliefs about science reject the
objective truth, recognize multiple realities and consider science knowledge as
human construction. These sophisticated epistemological perspectives are
promoted in the US science education reform documents as both learning goals
and teaching approaches.
(Kang 2008, p. 480)
Here, of the three NOS claims, one, ‘scientific knowledge is a human construc –
tion’, is quite true but verges on tautological (could it be a tree’s construction?
A polar bear’s construction?). The other two claims are simply false, or at
best highly contested; nevertheless, they are labelled ‘sophisticated’. This
pattern of announcing false or highly contentious NOS claims as ‘sophisti –
cated’ is widespread. Consider:
The constructivist mode of learning may be associated with teachers having
sophisticated epistemologies, and an orientation to the traditional/transmissive
conception may be reflective of teachers holding naive epistemologies associated
with omniscient authority and certain knowledge.
(Chan & Elliot 2004, p. 819)
This misdirection flows over into empirical research, where some NOS tests
are scored so that realism is the ‘immature’ postion and is indicative of
inadequate NOS understanding and of the need for teachers to ‘try again’ to
get their students to believe the more ‘sophisticated’ position (Matthews
1998). Clearly, the NOS position taken by researchers bears upon the validity
of test instruments and of informed assessment of NOS learning.8
One influential group in current NOS research is that associated with
Norman Lederman.9 The group’s definition of NOS is characteristically
catholic: ‘Typically, NOS refers to the epistemology and sociology of science,
science as a way of knowing, or the values and beliefs inherent to scientific
knowledge and its development’ (Lederman et al. 2002, p. 498). It is noteworthy that, in this definition, both epistemological and sociological aspects
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 391
of science are brought into the NOS tent. This necessitates a very large tent.
Sociology of science will include politics, commerce, professional structures,
employment and whatever else those studying the functioning of science see
as important. This stretching is an important reason, advanced below, for
moving from NOS terminology to FOS. Restricting NOS to epistemological
or methodological characteristics of science presents problems for identifying
any core, essential ‘nature’ of science; once sociology is allowed in, and then
psychology of science is also brought inside the NOS tent, then all attempts
at delimiting any ‘nature’ need to be abandoned.
The Lederman group maintains that, ‘no consensus presently exists among
philosophers of science, historians of science, scientists, and science educators on a specific definition for NOS’ (Lederman 2004, p. 303). Although
recognising no across-the-board consensus on NOS, the group does claim that
there is sufficient consensus on central matters for the purposes of NOS
instruction in K-12 classes. The group has elaborated and defended seven
elements of NOS that they believe fulfil the criteria of:
1 accessibility to school students;
2 wide enough agreement among historians and philosophers; and
3 being useful for citizens to know.
The seven elements are as follows:10
1 The empirical nature of science, where they recognised that, although
science is empirical, scientists do not have direct access to most natural
phenomena. It is claimed that:
Students should be able to distinguish between observation and inference.
. . . An understanding of the crucial distinction between observation and
inference is a precursor to making sense of a multitude of inferential and
theoretical entities and terms that inhabit the worlds of science.
(Lederman et al. 2002, p. 500)
2 Scientific theories are different from scientific laws, where they hold that:
Laws are descriptive statements of relationships among observable
phenomena. . . . Theories by contrast are inferred explanations for observed
phenomena or regularities in those phenomena. . . . Theories and laws are
different kinds of knowledge and one does not become the other.
(Lederman et al. 2002, p. 500)
3 The creative and imaginative nature of scientific knowledge, where they
hold that:
Science is empirical. . . . Nonetheless, generating scientific knowledge also
involves human imagination and creativity. Science . . . is not a lifeless,
392 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
entirely rational and orderly activity. . . . Scientific entities, such as atoms and
species are functional theoretical models rather than copies of reality.
(Lederman et al. 2002, p. 500)
4 The theory-laden nature of scientific knowledge, where it is held that:
Scientists’ theoretical and disciplinary commitments, beliefs, prior knowledge,
training, experiences, and expectations actually influence their work. All
these background factors form a mindset that affects the problems scientists
investigate and how they conduct their investigations.
(Lederman et al. 2002, p. 501)
5 The social and cultural embeddedness of scientific knowledge, where it
is held that:
Science as a human enterprise is practised in the context of a larger culture
and its practitioners are the product of that culture. Science, it follows, affects
and is affected by the various elements and intellectual spheres of the culture
in which it is embedded.
(Lederman et al. 2002, p. 501)
6 The myth of scientific method, where it is held that:
There is no single scientific method that would guarantee the development of infallible knowledge . . . and no single sequence of activities . . . that
will unerringly lead [scientists] to functional or valid solutions or answers.
(Lederman et al. 2002, p. 502)
7 The tentative nature of scientific knowledge, where it is maintained that:
Scientific knowledge, although reliable and durable, is never absolute or
certain. This knowledge, including facts, theories, and laws, is subject to
(Lederman et al. 2002, p. 502).
This list has functioned widely in science education as an NOS checklist
and it informs the group’s hugely popular series of Views of Nature of Science
(VNOS) tests, which are used in hundreds of published research papers to
measure effectiveness of NOS teaching (Lederman et al. 2014) and degrees
of NOS understanding.11 The positive side of the list is that it puts NOS into
classrooms, it provides researchers with an instrument for measurement of
NOS learning and it can give teachers and students some NOS matters to think
through and become more knowledgeable about. The negative side of the list
is that, despite the wishes of its creators, it can function as a mantra, as a
catechism, as yet another something to be learned. Instead of teachers and
students reading, analysing and coming to their own views about NOS
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 393
matters, the list often short-circuits all of this. And, in as much as it does
so, it is directly antithetical to the very goals of thoughtfulness and critical
thinking that most consider the reason for having NOS (or HPS) in the
The Contribution of HPS
The seven features of science, or NOS elements, can usefully be philosophically
and historically refined and developed in order to better achieve NOS
outcomes for teachers and students. This is not just the obvious point that,
when seven matters of considerable philosophical subtlety, and with long
traditions of debate behind them, are dealt with in a few pages, then they will
need to be further elaborated. Rather, it is the more serious claim that, at
crucial points, there is ambiguity that mitigates the usefulness of items on the
list as curricular objectives, assessment criteria and goals of science-teacher
education courses.
Empirical Base
For instance, consider the first item on the list – the empirical basis of science.
This subject has been partially discussed in Chapter 6 when elaborating the
meaning of ‘observation’. However, further elaboration is warranted, as
the distinction as stated raises question about: first, the ontological status
of theoretical entities in science and, second, the role of abstraction and
idealisation in science.
First, in discussing the empirical nature of science, it is maintained that there
is wide enough agreement on the ‘existence of an objective reality, for example,
as compared to phenomenal realities’ (Lederman 2004, p. 303). This is quite
so, but the serious subject of debate among philosophers is not the reality of
the world, but the reality of explanatory entities proposed in scientific theories.
This debate has been between realists, on the one hand, and empiricists,
constructivists and instrumentalists, on the other; it has gone on since
Aristotle’s time.
Something of the history and philosophical dimensions of the debate have
been outlined in Chapter 9. Throughout the 2,700 years since Anaximander’s
postulation of crystalline spheres to carry the planets, it has not been the
existence of the world that has been doubted – Bellarmine, Berkeley, Mach
and Bohr did not doubt the existence of objects, just the unseen entities and
mechanisms that the science of their time was postulating to explain the
visible, macro or phenomenal behaviour of the objects. This whole history is
removed from science-education discussion when the first element in the
Lederman list simply says that ‘science has an empirical base’. Well yes, it
does, but the issue is more complex, and, as with many things, the devil is in
the detail. It might be said that students cannot comprehend the detail, but
this is an empirical matter; certainly, teachers can and should comprehend
the detail, and truly useful NOS lists will lead them to these details.
394 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
The Lederman group are realists about the world, but it is very unclear
whether they are realists about science’s theoretical entities – the very issue
on which the realist/instrumentalist (constructivist) debate has hinged. It is
not the reality of the world that teachers need guidance about, it is the reality
or otherwise of entities postulated in scientific theories. Lederman asks: ‘can
it be said that a student truly understands the concept of a gene if he/she does
not realize that a “gene” is a construct invented to explain experimental
results?’ (Lederman 2004, p. 314). And he repeats the question by asking:
‘Does the student who views genes as possessing physical existence analogous
to pearls on a necklace possess an in-depth understanding of the concept?’
(ibid.) and:
Does the student who is unaware that the atom (as pictured in books) is a scientific
model used to explain the behavior of matter and that it has not been directly
observed have an in-depth understanding of the atom?
With some philosophical sensibility, it can be seen that these questions mask
a serious and misleading ambiguity concerning the existence of genes and
atoms. At first reading, the questions seem to suggest an instrumentalist, nonrealist view of these central explanatory entities; they appear to ‘in principle’
not exist, but be merely a human ‘construct’. What if the student thinks of
genes, not as pearls on a necklace, but as links in a necklace chain: is this
sufficient sophistication to rate as high NOS understanding? Or, what if a
student thinks of atoms, not as pictured in the textbook, but as some sort of
micro particle: is this sufficient to rate as high NOS understanding? The
crucial NOS issue is whether genes and atoms exist at all, exist in principle,
not whether any particular picture of them is correct. Once we grant in
principle existence, we can be reasonably relaxed about any particular picture;
this is just a matter for good science education to fill in. However, Lederman
is silent about whether it is in principle existence or just some particular
existence – pearl-like genes, or red and green atoms – that is being denied.
The same ambiguity can be seen when another member of the group, Fouad
Abd-El-Khalick, recognises that, ‘The world of science is inhabited by a
multitude of theoretical entities, such as atoms, photons, magnetic fields, and
gravitational forces to name only a few.’ All realists recognise that the entities
listed are both theoretical and central to science, but Abd-El-Khalick proceeds
to say that these are ‘functional theoretical models rather than faithful copies
of “reality”’ (Abd-El-Khalick 2004, pp. 409–410). Here, again, is the crucial
ambiguity. One wonders why ‘reality’ was put in scare quotes, as this
introduces some element of doubt about reality itself, but this can be left aside
for the moment, as Abd-El-Khalick is a realist about reality. More importantly,
however, functional theoretical models can either have a reference (denote
something existing) or merely link observables in a, usually, mathematical way
that has no ontological import. Abd-El-Khalick’s claim is ambiguous at the
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 395
crucial point of whether the listed theoretical entities are non-existing-inprinciple ‘functional theoretical models’, by virtue of them not being ‘faithful
copies of reality’ or by virtue of their very nature.
This is a rephrasing of the long-discussed distinction between hypothetical
constructs (which, in principle, can have existence, although they may, as
a matter of fact, not exist or not have the properties attributed to them)
and intervening variables (which, in principle, have no existence, but merely
link observables).12 In the nineteenth century, caloric and Neptune were
hypothetical constructs; one turned out to have existence, the other did not.
The notion of ‘average-family number’ when applied to societies functions as
an intervening variable: there is no suggestion that any particular family has
3.7 members; the latter is not meant to copy, faithfully or otherwise, any
particular reality. The crucial question is whether atoms, photons, magnetic
fields and gravitational forces are like average-family numbers? Bellarmine,
Berkeley, Mach and Bohr would say ‘yes’; it is simply unclear if Abd-ElKhalick agrees with them or not. If attention had been paid to spelling out
the meaning of ‘functional theoretical model’, this ambiguity would be
removed, and, more importantly, teachers and students could be introduced
to a long and rich philosophical conversation in the history of science.
At a surface reading, it would seem that the Lederman group are empiricists
and constructivists about theoretical entities in science. If so, this is a mistake,
and it is not the message about NOS that science teachers should convey.
The mistake is not so much the affirmation of one philosophical side,
constructivism, in this debate, but rather giving the impression that there is
no debate or no alternative position that can and has been adopted – the realist
position. Once again, a concentration on learning the NOS list rather than
open discussion and enquiry about FOS leads to this mistake.
The second problem with the Lederman group’s ‘empirical basis’ characterisation is that it disguises, if not completely distorts, the non-empirical
component of science. The very process of abstraction, and idealisation, is the
beginning of modern science. It is an ability to see the forest, and not just the
trees. Consider Galileo’s ‘thousands of swings’ of the pendulum. As has been
detailed in Chapter 6 of this book, Galileo clearly saw no such thing; it is a
claim about what he would see, if the impediments to pendulum motion were
removed. Similarly, Newton did not see inertial bodies continuing to move in
a straight line, indefinitely. This is what he would have seen, if all resistance
were removed. Fermi and Bernardini, in their biography of Galileo, emphasise
this innovation:
In formulating the ‘Law of Inertia’ the abstraction consisted of imagining the
motion of a body on which no force was acting and which, in particular, would
be free of any sort of friction. This abstraction was not easy, because it was friction
itself that for thousands of years had kept hidden the simplicity and validity of
the laws of motion. In other words, friction is an essential element in all human
experience; our intuition is dominated by friction; men can move around because
396 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
of friction; because of friction they can grasp objects with their hands, they can
weave fabrics, build cars, houses, etc. To see the essence of motion beyond the
complications of friction indeed required a great insight.
(Fermi & Bernardini 1961, p. 116)
The point of this drawn-out discussion of the first item on the Lederman
list is to indicate that such a claim about the empirical basis, and the role of
inference, needs to be elaborated at a much more sophisticated level, in order
to both be useful and to avoid massive misunderstandings of the scientific
endeavour. Further, with just the slightest HPS-informed elaboration, the
more or less uncontroversial and mundane claim – that science has an
empirical base – can be transformed into an engaging enquiry that can link
teachers and students with a central philosophical argument in the history of
philosophy, namely realist or instrumentalist interpretation of scientific theory,
a debate where the greatest minds can be found on either side. It is not a
simple, ‘open-and-shut’ matter that can be reduced to a declarative list.
The same kind of argument can be mounted against each of the other items
on the Lederman list. A general point is that such necessary elaboration
depends upon teachers having some competence, or at least familiarity, with
HPS, and, notoriously, such training is absent from teacher education
The fourth claim is that, ‘Scientific knowledge is subjective or theory-laden’.
Again, the claim is ambiguous: one can say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. First, to
acknowledge that some claim is theory-laden is not equivalent to saying it is
subjective in the usual psychological meaning of the term. A theory-laden
description is as good and reliable as the theory embodied in the description;
of itself, it has no connection with subjectivity. However, the meaning of
‘subjectivity’ being used by the Lederman group is ambiguous. For instance,
Lederman says that, ‘I am not advocating that scientists be subjective’
(Lederman 2004, p. 306). Here, ‘subjective’ must be the everyday psychological sense of the term, and assuredly scientists should avoid this subjectivity.
Previously, however, we have been dealing with what one might call
‘philosophical subjectivity’, as it has been stated that subjectivity is equivalent
to theory-ladenness, and that ‘subjectivity is unavoidable’ (ibid.). Clearly, all
science is theory-laden, as Lederman rightly points out; but, if so, then
scientists have to be subjective (as in philosophical subjectivity), whether it is
advocated or not advocated, but this is entirely different from psychological
The long history of modern science is an effort to take out, or minimise,
the psychological subjectivity in measurement and explanation – beginning
with the earliest use of measuring instruments in order to get intersubjective
agreement about weight, length, time, etc. As mentioned in Chapter 6, Galileo
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 397
created the pulsilogium so as to be able to objectively measure pulse rate for
medical diagnosis. The entirely subjective judgements of ‘fast’, ‘medium’ or
‘slow’ pulse were replaced by the length of a pendulum beating in time with
the patient’s pulse. This length could be seen by all and measured; pulse rate
was no longer an entirely internal, subjective matter. This process and concern
repeat themselves in the development of all measuring instruments in science
(ammeters, voltmeters, spring balances, etc.) and in social science (intelligence
tests, personality tests, wellness measures, etc.). The force of the fourth claim
trades entirely upon an ambiguity, which is unfortunate in something so
widely used as a checklist of NOS understanding.
The group’s fifth claim is that science is embedded in culture; that it ‘affects
and is affected by the various elements and intellectual spheres of the culture
in which it is embedded’ (Lederman 2004, p. 306). It is important that this
be recognised, but again the devil is in the detail, and the detail is not provided.
As has been outlined in Chapter 10, we know that the cultures of Nazism
(Beyerchen 1977), Stalinism (Birstein 2001, Graham 1973), Islam (Hoodbhoy
1991) and Hinduism (Nanda 2003), to take just some examples, dramatically
affected scientific investigation wherever they were powerful enough so to do.
And, of course, the impact, for good and bad, of Christian culture, beliefs
and authorities on science is well documented (Lindberg & Numbers 1986,
Reiss 2014). Clearly, indigenous sciences are affected by the worldviews and
social structures of the traditional societies in which they are practised; to be
so affected constitutes the meaning of indigenous science.
All commentators on the European scientific revolution recognise that the
blossoming of the new science of Galileo, Huygens, Newton, Boyle and others
was dependent on, though not caused by, the social and cultural circumstances
of seventeenth-century Europe. Whole research programmes have been
dedicated to cataloguing these cultural contributions.13 Running counter to
this, scholars have tried to identify the absence of such circumstances in China
at the time, to account for why there was no comparable scientific revolution
in China (Needham & Ling 1954–1965). In a famous and contentious study,
Paul Forman attempted to provide a causal link between the culture of Weimar
Germany and the creation of indeterminate quantum theory (Forman 1971).
The sociological and historical facts of the matter are not in dispute –
science depends upon technology, mathematics, communications, money,
education, philosophy, and culture more broadly – and it is useful for students
and teachers to be reminded of all this and to be given examples. However,
for this fact to be truly useful, and not just a sort of anthropological
observation, teachers (and their pupils) need to be engaged in or enquire
about issues such as: separating benign from adverse effects of culture;
distinguishing good from bad science; identifying internal and external factors
in scientific development; trying to determine just how analogous are Western
398 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
and indigenous science; being clear about how any of this information bears
upon the truth of what is claimed or the progressiveness of the science so
affected; and so on. However, the Lederman group is silent on these ultimately
normative matters.
We are told just that, although Western science dominates North American
schools, there ‘exist other analogous sciences (e.g., indigenous science) in
other parts of the world’ (Lederman 2004, p. 307). The ambiguity here over
‘analogous’ means that this item on the list gives no direction to teachers, either
in cultures that are resistant to Western science or in multicultural situations.
It is a too-easy step to move from this anthropological claim to the educational
conclusion that, where other analogous sciences exist, then they should be
The Lederman group does, correctly, say that, to teach NOS means, among
other things, identifying the ‘values and beliefs inherent to scientific knowledge
and its development’ (Lederman 2004, p. 303), but there is little, if any,
elaboration of just what these values are. This can be a good thing, if teachers
and students are meant to work out their own answer, but the list is meant
to function as a characterisation of the nature of science, and it is meant to
be useful to teachers, but, as has been argued, the usefulness depends on HPSinformed elaboration. As has been shown in Chapter 5, there is considerable
HPS literature on the role of internal and external values and cognitive and
ethical values in science, and teachers can, with benefit, be introduced to these
The history and sociology of science show the influence of personal, social,
sexual and cultural interests on the development of science. The recognition
of such influences is an important component of good science education.
Often, it is only from the perspective of history, or of another culture, that
these assumptions become apparent. Few have expressed this idea better than
Ernst Mach, who, in his 1883 history of mechanics, said:
The historical investigation of the development of a science is most needful, lest
the principles treasured up in it become a system of half-understood precepts, or
worse, a system of prejudices. Historical investigation not only promotes the
understanding of that which now is, but also brings new possibilities before us.
(Mach 1883/1960, p. 316)
The fact that scientists carry cultural baggage does not imply subjectivity
in their discoveries, or that their work is intellectually compromised. Over the
centuries, scientists from diverse cultural, racial and religious milieux have
built upon the work of scientists from other cultures and earlier centuries.
Today, ‘Western’ science is contributed to by scientists from all corners of the
globe; indeed, some non-Western cultures are putting more effort into, and
having more success with, Western science education than the UK and the
US. This fact accords with structuralist or objectivist theories of science,
theories that maintain that science has an independence from any particular
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 399
scientist’s experience, and that, in general, it is the state of science that
determines the experience of scientists, rather than the experience of scientists
determining the state of science (Chalmers 1990).
Features of Science
It has been argued in the foregoing that the seven items on the Lederman
group’s NOS list could better be thought of as different FOS to be elaborated,
discussed and enquired about, rather than NOS items to be learned and
assessed. Each of these features has been richly written about by philosophers,
historians and others – as has been indicated above for just three items on the
list. However, if they are FOS, then there is no good reason why just those
seven features are picked out, and not others of the numerous features –
epistemological, historical, psychological, social, technological, economic, etc.
– that can be said to characterise scientific endeavour, and that also meet the
three criteria of accessibility, consensus and usefulness that the Lederman
group additionally utilises to reduce NOS matters to classroom size.
The group recognises that many other things can be added to the above
list; it does not regard it as a closed list. But the in principle openness is
disguised by the essentialist terminology of the NOS. Among philosophers,
NOS discussion and debate have traditionally revolved around investigations
of the epistemological, methodological, ontological and ethical commitments
of science. However, there are illuminating, non-philosophical studies of
science, such as conducted by historians, cognitive psychologists, sociologists,
economists, anthropologists and numerous other disciplines, all of which
together can be labelled ‘science studies’. This term encompasses the complete
academic spectrum, and all components have useful things to say about
different features of science. The following are just some of the additional
features, topics, issues or questions that can usefully engage science teachers
and students when learning about science, or when teaching NOS. These
features have been highlighted in Chapters 5–7 of this book.
Item 8: Experimentation
As was shown in Chapter 6, the long-standing Aristotelian injunction about
not interfering with nature if we want to understand her was rejected first by
Galileo, with his famous inclined plane experiments, conducted so as to
understand the phenomenon of free fall, then progressively by the other
foundation figures of early modern science, most notably Newton, with his
prism manipulations in optics, where light was bent, ‘forced’ apart and
reunited. It was this newly introduced experimentalism that occasioned Kant
to remark that:
When Galileo caused balls, the weights of which he had himself previously
determined, to roll down an inclined plane; when Torricelli made the air carry a
weight which he had calculated beforehand to be equal to that of a definite
400 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
volume of water . . . a light broke upon all students of nature. They learned that
reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own, and
that it must not allow itself to be kept, as it were, in nature’s leading-strings.
(Kant 1787/1933, p. 20)
As Kant was writing this, Priestley, as shown in Chapter 7, was practising it
in his pneumatic chemistry and his investigations of what would be called
Historians and philosophers have written a great deal on this topic, with
some maintaining that it was experimentation and manipulation of nature that
marked out the scientific revolution. And the topic can connect immediately
with a more sophisticated understanding of school laboratory work and
student experimentation (Chang 2010, Hodson 1993, 1996, Jenkins 1999).
These are good reasons for having experimentation on any NOS list, and it
can easily be added without debate about what to take off, if one moves from
NOS thinking to FOS thinking. Experiments are a ‘hallmark’ of school science
and, with HPS-informed teachers, can be the occasion for elaborating an
important feature of science.
Item 9: Idealisation
As has also been documented in Chapter 6, and at greater length in Matthews
(2000a), Galileo was the first to build idealisation into the investigation of
nature, and it was this methodological move that enabled his new science to
emerge from its medieval and Renaissance milieu. What Galileo recognised
was that nature’s laws were not obvious in nature; they were not given in
immediate experience; the laws applied only to idealised circumstances. This
employment of idealisation was also in flat contradiction to the long, empiricist
Aristotelian tradition, whereby ‘science’ was to be about the world as seen
and experienced. As Aristotle maintained: ‘If we cannot believe our eyes what
should we believe?’ In contrast, Galileo, immediately after proving his famous
Law of Parabolic Motion, says:
I grant that these conclusions proved in the abstract will be different when applied
in the concrete and will be fallacious to this extent, that neither will the horizontal
motion be uniform nor the natural acceleration be in the ratio assumed, nor the
path of the projectile a parabola.
(Galileo 1638/1954, p. 251)
Of crucial importance was the fact that idealisation, and only idealisation,
gave specific direction to experimentation, so that students of nature could
mould nature ‘after a plan of its own’, in Kant’s famous words. The decades
and centuries of classical mechanics, begun by Galileo, were a long process
of transforming nature in the image of theory; that is what an experiment
was: controlling all variables identified by theory as being irrelevant, and
varying the one held responsible for the phenomenon.
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 401
The historian William Brock, in discussing Joseph Priestley’s procedures,
has well stated this matter:
When science idealizes, it leaves anomalies for later followers to add explanations
such as ‘side reactions’, the presence of impurities, altered physical conditions,
etc. But as examples from the past repeatedly show . . . simplification is a necessary
feature of scientific progress and the first step towards advancing knowledge.
(Brock 2008, p. 78)
Without idealisation, there would be no modern science. Thus, there are
strong claims for idealisation to be added to any NOS list, and once more
this can easily be done, if one moves from essentialist NOS thinking to more
flexible FOS thinking.
Item 10: Models
The ubiquity of models in the history and current practice of science is
widely recognised, indeed it is difficult to think of science without models: the
‘billiard ball’, ‘plum-pudding’ and ‘solar system’ models of the atom, the
electron orbit model for the periodic table, the ‘lattice’ model of salt structure,
the fluid-flow model of electricity, the double-helix model of the chromosome,
the ‘survival of the fittest’ model for population expansion in ecosystems,
the particle model of light, the ‘big bang’ model in cosmology, the ‘three-body’
model for Sun–Earth–Moon interaction, full dinosaur models from bone
fragments in palaeontology, the plate-tectonic model in geophysics, the scores
of mathematical models in hereditary and population studies, the thousands of mathematical models in economics, engineering, and so on. Any ten
pages of a science textbook might be expected to contain twice that number
of models, many in full glossy colour, with state-of-the-art graphics.
In the past half-century, historians and philosophers of science have devoted
considerable time to documenting and understanding the role of models
in science and social science. These studies have led scholars to examine
model-related topics, such as the nature of scientific theory, the status of
hypothesis, the role of metaphor and analogy in scientific explanation, thought
experiments in science and the centrality of idealisation for the articulation,
application and testing of models. Mary Hesse’s Models and Analogies in
Science (Hesse 1966) was of particular importance.
What gave impetus to model-related education research was the work done
on models by psychologists and cognitive scientists (Gentner & Stevens 1983),
with Philip Johnson-Laird’s book Mental Models (1983) being enormously
influential. He, and associates, provided an explanation for the ubiquity of
models in science when they detailed how models were ubiquitous, not just
in science, but across the brain in mental life itself. Johnson-Laird wrote that:
It is now plausible to suppose that mental models play a central and unifying role
in representing objects, states of affairs, sequences of events, the way the world
402 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
is, and the social and psychological actions of daily life. They enable individuals
to make inferences and predictions, to understand phenomena, to decide what
action to take and to control its execution, and above all to experience events by
proxy; they allow language to be used to create representations comparable to
those deriving from direct acquaintance with the world; and they relate words to
the world by way of conception and perception.
(Johnson-Laird 1983, p. 397)
Johnson-Laird here skirts around the central epistemic question. Although
recognising the ubiquity of models in human reasoning is important, and an
accomplishment for psychology, this recognition just makes more important
the need to combine epistemology with learning theory, the more so for the
learning of science. To realise that every individual and culture have mental
models of their natural and social world that they utilise in interpreting
perceptions and framing actions is one thing, and working out just how
these models function is a legitimate psychological and anthropological study,
but what educators, philosophers and scientists are interested in is what
mental models more accurately reflect or capture the world and its processes,
which models are conducive to development of knowledge, as distinct from
opinion, or even very useful opinion. Psychologists need not do this, as the
study of learning is neutral with respect to the truthfulness of what is learned:
the mental processes whereby astrology is learned will be no different from
how astronomy is learned; learning about psychic auras will involve the same
mechanisms as learning about arteries; the learning of falsehoods will be no
different from the learning of truths. Learning theory is epistemologically
blind, but education cannot be: the task of education is to promote truth, not
ignorance, to encourage rationality, not irrationality. It might be comforting
to say that models are involved in all reasoning, but this is premature comfort.
It is the situation that Hegel spoke of, when he said, ‘at night, all cows are
black’. In the morning, the task of separating black cows from white ones still
needs to be undertaken.
If models are seen as an important feature of science, then a competent HPSinformed teacher can provide rich materials and questions for class discussion
on the topic: How do models relate to the world they model? Is learning the
properties of models the same as learning about the world?. As with so many
FOS questions, there is no uncontested answer, just better informed and better
argued answers.15
Once experimentation, idealisation and models are accepted on to an NOS
list, then the list can simply be extended to include any number of other
important and engaging features of science, of which the following are just
11 values
12 mathematisation
13 technology
14 explanation
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 403
15 worldviews and religion
16 rationality
17 feminism
18 realism and constructivism.
Different ones of these features can be elaborated as the curricular occasion
allows, as significant, topical, science-related episodes are reported in the
media or as teachers themselves have the interest.
Goals of FOS Teaching
Teachers should have modest goals when teaching about science – either FOS
or NOS. Pleasingly, in the opening page of the AAAS Benchmarks document,
it was stated that: ‘Little is gained by presenting these beliefs to students as
dogma. For one thing, such beliefs are subtle’ (AAAS 1993, p. 5). The same
points are made in the UK Perspectives on Science course, where it is repeatedly
stated that students will gain appreciation of NOS positions and issues, and
competence in NOS thinking, rather than declarative knowledge of NOS. It
is important to stress these points: First, FOS claims should not be presented
as dogma – to do so is to confuse education with indoctrination; and second,
most, if not all, statements about FOS are subtle, and recognition of this
subtlety simply depends upon having HPS awareness. Both these points have
implications for the very vexed and much-written-up topic of the assessment
of NOS learning.
It is unrealistic to expect students, or trainee teachers, to become competent
historians, sociologists or philosophers of science. We should have limited aims
in introducing NOS or FOS questions in the classroom. Teachers should
aim for a more complex understanding of science, not a total, or even a very
complex, understanding. Fortunately, philosophy does not have to be artificially imported into the science classroom, as it is not far below the surface
in any lesson or textbook. At a most basic level, any text or scientific discussion
will contain terms such as ‘law’, ‘theory’, ‘model’, ‘explanation’, ‘cause’,
‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘confirmation’, ‘observation’, ‘evidence’,
‘idealisation’, ‘time’, ‘space’, ‘fields’, ‘species’. Philosophy begins as soon as
these common and ubiquitous terms are explained, amplified and discussed.
There is no need to overwhelm students with ‘cutting-edge’ philosophical
questions. They have to crawl before they can walk, and walk before they
can run. This is no more than common-sensical pedagogical practice. There
are numerous low-level philosophical questions that are legitimate FOS
queries: What is a scientific explanation? What is a controlled experiment?
What is a crucial experiment, and are there any? How do models function in
science? How much confirmation does a hypothesis require before it is
established? Are there ways of evaluating the worth of competing research
programmes? Did Newton’s religious belief affect his science? Was Darwin’s
‘damaged book’ analogy a competent reply to critics who pointed to all the
404 The Nature of Science and Science Teaching
evidence that contradicted his evolutionary theory? Was Planck culpable for
remaining in Nazi Germany and continuing his scientific research during the
war? And so on.
Likewise, history is unavoidable. Texts are replete with names such as
Aristotle, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, Newton, Boyle, Hooke,
Darwin, Mendel, Faraday, Volta, Lavoisier, Priestley, Dalton, Rutherford,
Mach, Curie, Bohr, Heisenberg, Einstein and others. History ‘lite’ begins
when teachers, as Westaway was quoted earlier, ‘talk to [students] about the
personal equations, the lives, and the work’ of such figures and encourage
students to do their own research on the life, work, times and impact of these
scientists.16 History ‘full strength’ begins when the experiments and debates
of these figures are reproduced in the classroom, when ‘historical–investigative’
teaching is practised, and when connections with other subjects are made.
Each day, newspapers, TVs and the Internet feature socio-scientific controversies and debates about genetics, agri-business, climate change, GM crops,
global warming and so on. If understanding FOS is embraced as a curricular
goal, then well-prepared teachers should be able to elaborate a little on
these matters as they occur and facilitate useful classroom discussion that
draws out appropriate FOS items from the individual controversies. Advancing
the discussion and understanding of each issue is one goal, but seeing the
appropriate FOS components of each debate is a second, important classroom
goal. Things such as experiment, models, objectivity, values, cognitive and
non-cognitive values and so on can all be elaborated. The change of focus
from NOS to FOS greatly facilitates this orientation; something topical and
important may not be on an NOS list, but it can be elaborated and taught.
NOS research has concentrated on the nature of scientific knowledge; FOS
includes this, but is also concerned with the processes, institutions and cultural
and social contexts in which this knowledge is produced. As argued elsewhere,
some caution is needed:
Science educators should be modest when urging substantive positions in the
history and philosophy of science, or in epistemology. . . . Modesty does not entail
vapid fence-sitting, but it does entail the recognition that there are usually two,
if not more, sides to most serious intellectual questions. And this recognition needs
to be intelligently and sensitively translated into classroom practice.
(Matthews 1998, pp. 169–170)
1 This chapter draws on research published in Matthews (2012).
2 See at least: Arons (1988), Jung (1994, 2012), Norris (1985, 1997), Schulz (2009, 2014),
Stenhouse (1985) and Stinner (1989), and the seventy-six chapters in Matthews (2014).
3 See contributions to the special issues of Science & Education (Vol.6, No.4 1997,
Vol.7, No.6 1998), McComas (1998b), Flick and Lederman (2004) and Khine (2012).
The Nature of Science and Science Teaching 405
See also the literature reviews in Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman (2000) and Lederman
(2007), and the bibliography in Bell et al. (2001).
4 The history of NOS research is extensively documented in Duschl and Grandy (2013),
Hodson (2014) and Lederman et al. (2014).
5 This point has been persuasively argued by Gürol Irzik and Robert Nola (2011, 2014).
6 In one recent article, titled ‘The Interplay Between Philosophy of Science and the
Practice of Science Education’, it is recognised that, ‘The science education community
has witnessed a paradigm shift from logical positivism or empiricism to constructivism
in recent decades’ (Tsai 2003).
7 William McComas, in one publication, ‘presents and discusses fifteen widely-held, yet
incorrect ideas about the nature of science’ (McComas 1998b, p. 53).
8 For accounts of instruments used for NOS assessment from the 1950s to the present,
see Hodson (2014) and Lederman et al. (2014).
9 Norman Lederman, now Professor of Science Education at the Chicago Institute of
Technology, was formerly at Oregon State University. His original Oregon State
students included Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, Renee Schwartz, Valarie Akerson and
Randy Bell – all of whom have published widely in this field.
10 The list is articulated and defended in, among other places: Lederman et al. (2002,
pp. 499–502), Lederman (2004, pp. 303–308) and Schwartz and Lederman (2008,
pp. 745–762).
11 See at least: Flick and Lederman (2004, Chapter IV), Schwartz and Lederman (2008)
and Chen (2006).
12 A classic discussion of the difference between hypothetical constructs (that in principle have existence) and intervening variables (that in principle do not have existence)
is Meehl and MacCorquodale (1948). Clarity on this issue is of absolute importance
in social science: Is, for instance, ‘intelligence’ to be understood as a hypothetical
construct or an intervening variable? Rivers of ink have been spilled because researchers
have not clarified the kind of thing they are looking for.
13 The classic statement of this ‘causal’ position is Boris Hessen’s 1931 ‘The Social and
Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia’ (Hessen 1931). For Hessen’s text and
commentary, see Freudenthal and McLaughlin (2009).
14 This topic has been discussed in Chapter 10; see also Nola and Irzik (2005).
15 A number of informative studies can be seen in the special issue of Science & Education
devoted to the subject – ‘Models in Science and in Science Education’ (2007, Vol.16
nos.7–8). The whole topic of ‘models in science education’ is reviewed in Passmore
et al. (2014).
16 In the 20 years since the first edition of this book, such student research has been
transformed by the ubiquity of Wikipedia and countless web-based sources of original
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