DidacBiol

Annie Champagne Queloz, PhD. ETH Zürich

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Debunking Nature of Science (Part 2)

The Duplo Vitruvian Man. Background figure presented by Prof Galili (not that one, but the original!). The anatomy of Science education = subject matter, pedagogy and didactics, cognitive sciences, philosophy and history. Who knows? Whom to ask?

Last Monday, I have been to an interesting presentation (see previous post here) titled: “The need of refinement of the features of the Nature of Science sometimes stated to be the “consensus view” in science education discourse” by Igal Galili, professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Prof Galili has background in physics and has a very strong interest in physics education (see here his remarkable contribution in divers scientific journals). The structure of knowledge into a discipline and perceptions of students on knowledge that educators tend to teach them are central themes of his research. In addition, he suggests an alternative model of the nature of science (NOS) features often taught to future science teachers. The presentation was interesting because it reflected quite well the development of knowledge: (re)-elaboration, refutation and re-elaboration of a model. You will see why by reading the following post…

Who knows? Whom to ask?

In general, NOS refers to the study of knowledge, i.e. the epistemology of science. Philosophers and historians of science, scientists and scientist educators are contributing to analyzing scientific conceptualization models or paradigms (Kuhn 1962) and attempt to determine the origin, the value and scope of knowledge (Lederman et al. 2013). The underlying questions of NOS are who knows and whom to ask (here is an interesting chapter about Prof Joseph Schwab (1939-1986) and his contribution in the emergence of contemporary NOS debates). The nature of science (NOS) is always more promoted in teaching biology. Indeed, it is well reported that many students do not realize how scientific knowledge (or data) are elaborated and are they can be “fixed” over time (Sadler et al. 2007; Burgin & Sadler 2015; Lederman et al. 2013). The teaching of NOS can improve scientific literacy, i.e. “an individual’s ability to make informed decisions about scientifically-based personal and societal issues” (Campanile et al. 2013, p. 206). In addition, the consideration of the NOS helps to understand the fallibility of science and consequently, driving the scientific research process continuously through new discoveries or innovations. We can easily understand how important learning NOS can be for students who expect working in scientific or technology research (and also for all students).

NOS characteristics

The NOS underlying 7 characteristic guidelines (Lederman et al. 2013) (read here for a complete description of each characteristic):

  • There is a distinction between observation and inference.
  • There is a distinction between scientific laws and theories
  • “Even though scientific knowledge is, at least partially, based on and/or derived from observations of the natural world (i.e., empirical), it nevertheless involves human imagination and creativity”.
  • “Scientific knowledge is subjective or theory-laden”.
  • “Science as a human enterprise is practiced in the context of a larger culture and its practitioners (scientists) are the product of that culture”.
  • “It follows from the previous discussions that scientific knowledge is never absolute or certain”.
  • “Individuals often conflate NOS with science processes (which is more consistent with scientific inquiry)”. There is not a single scientific method.

Features of Science

At first sight, the Ledermann 7-NOS features make sense for many people in education, including me, who often observed students’ weak scientific literacy. Such features are accessible (philosophical or historical backgrounds are not required to understand them) and can catalyze very interesting discussions between educators and students in science courses. However, as everything, there is a “but” to address the 7-NOS features with students. Here comes the main theme of Prof Galili’ presentation, who explained some limits of this model. The main concern is the overgeneralization of the features. For example, the distinction between laws and theories is quite debatable. A theory can be everything! It includes laws, models, principles, rules, definitions, experiments and epistemology aspects. This dichotomised thinking is not relevant in teaching science. Another example is about the subjectivity of science. Being subjective means for the majority of people that knowledge are influenced by someone’s personal feeling rather the facts. Or that knowledge exists only in someone’s mind. Biology or physics teachers can be unsafe to introduce the subjectivity of science to students. Being potentially destabilized in their learning, students may question the knowledge they have learned and asking why they have to learn it (which I’m considering this questionning totally relevant). As Prof Galili suggested, being objective does not presume being universally correct. “Knowledge is objective in certain conditions (the facts) over which arbitrary will have no control”. Here are its suggestions to specify the 7-NOS features in an educational context (see also Matthews 2012, available here):

  • Theory-empirical symbiosis.
  • Theories and laws in a based cultural structure
  • Enculturation
  • Objective product (theory) subjective inquiry (form)
  • Socially independent essence
  • Hypothesis, tentativeness, certainty
  • Scientific method, rules and procedure not anything goes

I will not detail all Prof Galili 7-NOS revisited features. Rather, I simply recommend to read this chapter: “Changing the Focus: From Nature of Science to Features of Science” by Michael R. Matthews in Advances in Nature of Science Research (M.S. Khine, ed.), available here. As Prof. Galili, Matthews considers the 7-NOS list incomplete and superficial. He suggests additional features covering realities of science studies and to change of focus from NOS to FOS, for Features of Science. Prof Galili argues “for addressing the features of science in the span of variation objective-subjective, tentative-certain, and so on depending on the context” (as cited in the presentation abstract, below).

Conclusions (tentative of…)

The idea of this post is not to decide who suggest the best model for teaching the construction of scientific knowledge. Both demonstrate the necessity to explore NOS with students to induce the development of scientific literacy. Interestingly, this debate reflects quite well the development of knowledge: (re)-elaboration, refutation and re-elaboration of a scientific model. All knowledge are subject to negotiations and consensus (Kuhn 1962).  To conclude, I quote Prof Galili’s argument: “that comparing and contrasting the contributions of scientists addressing similar or the same subject could not only enrich the picture of scientific enterprise, but also possess a special appealing power promoting genuine understanding of the concept considered” […] Considering this difference is educationally valuable, illustrating the meaning of what students presently learn in the content knowledge […], as well as the nature of science and scientific knowledge” (Galili 2015, in the abstract). I could not conclude better!

 

References

Burgin, S.R. & Sadler, T.D., 2015. Learning nature of science concepts through a research apprenticeship program: A comparative study of three approaches. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, pp.n/a–n/a.

Campanile, M.F., Lederman, N.G. & Kampourakis, K., 2013. Mendelian Genetics as a Platform for Teaching About Nature of Science and Scientific Inquiry: The Value of Textbooks. Science & Education, 24(1-2), pp.205–225.

Galili, I., 2015. From Comparison Between Scientists to Gaining Cultural Scientific Knowledge. Science & Education, 25(1), pp.115–145.

Kuhn, T.S., 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th Edition, 2012, University of Chicago Press.

Lederman, N.G., S, L.J. & Antink, A., 2013. Nature of Science and Scientific Inquiry as Contexts for the Learning of Science and Achievement of Scientific Literacy. International Journal of Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology, 1(3), pp.138–147.

Sadler, T.D., Chambers, F.W. & Zeidler, D.L., 2007. Student conceptualizations of the nature of science in response to a socioscientific issue. International Journal of Science Education, 26(4), pp.387–409.

 

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