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Nature of Science and its relevance in Science Education

ABSTRACT

A good science curriculum needs to teach not only some science (the products of science) but also about science (the process of science). However, the science curriculum in many countries overemphasizes on teaching the products and undermine the teaching of the process of science, despite many high profile calls for the importance of teaching about the nature of science. Just as teaching the (scientific) process without the product fails to provide students with some of the major conceptual tools for making sense of their world, teaching the (scientific) products without process fails to give students an authentic experience of the nature of scientific thinking. In order to ensure that students get relevant exposure to nature of science, teachers themselves should be equipped with the same. The textbook for B. Ed, Pedagogy of science clearly states the qualities a science teacher must possess – “It goes without saying that the teacher should herself be competent in the area she teaches; she must be familiar with all the aspects of the nature of science; and she must have imbibed scientific temper herself”. In order to test the extent to which this objective has been met, a survey of about 60 high school teachers was conducted. This article explores the preliminary data analysis of the pilot study conducted. The initial results indicate a low awareness of the scientific process and application of scientific principles in real life context when contrasted with the awareness of the scientific concepts itself.

INTRODUCTION

What is science? What is the purpose of science education? It is quite possible that there are several (maybe differing) answers to these questions. However, the following statement can put these questions into perspective -

Science is built up of facts as a house is of stones, but a collection of facts is no more a science than a pile of stones is a house.

- Henri Poincare, La Science et l'Hypothese (1908)

The above statement indicates that science is not just about a collection of facts, though these facts are an outcome of practicing science. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) outlines certain objectives of science education, but only a fraction of them are concerned with knowing the facts of science.

Some of these objectives can be classified into 3 categories.

1. To know about the products of science –

  1. To know the facts and principles of science and its applications, consistent with the stage of cognitive development

  2. To acquire the requisite theoretical knowledge and practical technological skills to enter the world of work

2. To know about the process of science –

  1. To acquire the skills and understand the methods of processes that lead to generation and validation of scientific knowledge

3. To develop a scientific bent of mind –

  1. To cultivate scientific temper, objectivity, scepticism, critical thinking, logical thinking, respect for evidence and freedom from fear and prejudice

Are these objectives met by science education? If not, what do we need to understand about these objectives in order to meet them? Understanding the relationship between these categories of objectives, how to achieve them and the implications of not achieving them are very pertinent to science education research.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

Science curriculum across the world has always focussed on teaching the products of science with very less attention to the process that goes behind finding those products, in spite of the fact that education researchers have emphasised the importance of teaching the scientific process. There are difficulties associated with teaching the nature of science, but whether they overweigh the difficulty caused because of not teaching nature of science is a serious question to ponder. By removing the creative process and leaving only the results of that process, it is almost certain that no one will have any real engagement with the subject. It is like saying that Michelangelo created a beautiful sculpture, without letting anyone see it (here the beauty of sculpture is compared with the beauty of the scientific process). What’s worse is that it is understood that there is an art of sculpture, but appreciating it has been prevented. Previous research suggests the need for teaching the nature of science in order to give students an authentic experience of the nature of scientific thinking. This opens up avenues to research about curricula which over emphasize products of science and under-emphasize process of science.

The following are some of the key research questions in this regard.

  1. Are students of science aware of the scientific processes behind the scientific concepts they have learnt?

  2. In order to inculcate a scientific bent of mind and to have a rational outlook, which of the two aspects hold the key? Is it the product or the process or both?

  3. What are the implications of learning science if it is devoid of the necessary element(s) required to inculcate a scientific bent of mind?

  4. How can the missing element(s) (if any) be incorporated in the school science curriculum?

RESEARCH METHODS

A. Survey for pilot study –

In order to explore the scope of the above mentioned research questions, a preliminary survey was conducted.

Questionnaire - A questionnaire with 9 multiple choice questions (see supporting information) was designed with the following features.

Objective – The questionnaire was designed with the following objectives:

  1. To test the knowledge / understanding of a scientific concept (1 question each from chemistry, physics and biology), awareness of the scientific processes associated with the corresponding products and application of scientific principles while making decisions in real life contexts among practising high school science teachers across 3 boards (State, CBSE and ICSE).

  2. To see whether our education system focuses more on scientific content in comparison to scientific process.

  3. To see whether there exists a correlation between awareness of scientific processes and application of scientific principles while making decisions in real-life contexts.

Sample – Practising high school science teachers were chosen for the survey for the following reasons:

  1. Bachelor of Education (B. Ed) course, which is a necessary qualification to become a high school teacher in India, contains a detailed chapter on ‘Nature of Science’.

  2. The textbook for B. Ed, pedagogy of science clearly states the qualities a science teacher must possess – “It goes without saying that the teacher should herself be competent in the area she teaches; she must be familiar with all the aspects of the nature of science; and she must have imbibed scientific temper herself”.

Because of the above 2 points, high school science teachers are an ideal sample set for the survey as teachers are expected to know the content, the process and have a scientific bent of mind.

Data analysis – A total of 59 high school science teachers took the survey, 5 of whom were also researchers in the field of science education. Each correct answer was awarded 1 mark and 0 for the wrong answer.

The above graph compares the responses on process and implications categories by the ones who got answers to the questions on corresponding products right.

  • Out of 24 correct correspondents on models about atomic structure, 6 of them knew the required condition for a hypothesis to be scientific and 3 of them could identify a falsifiable hypothesis in a real-life context.

  • Out of 52 correct respondents on a particular causation phenomenon, 20 could identify correlation doesn’t imply causation and 21 could apply the idea in a real-life context.

  • Out of 42 correct respondents on role of certain medicines, 19 knew how science validates working of a particular medicine and 15 could make a scientific decision when choosing a particular medication for themselves.

The above graphs indicate that, generally, teachers were better informed about certain concepts of science in comparison to scientific processes or application of scientific processes in real-life contexts (Graph 1). This pattern was observed among all the 3 categories of falsifiability, causation vs co-relation and subjective bias (Graph 2, 3 and 4). Among the teachers who got answers to questions on scientific products right, a smaller fraction got answers to questions on corresponding process and implications right (Graph 5). Lastly, among the teachers who got answers to questions on scientific processes right, a smaller fraction got answers to questions on corresponding implications right (Graph 6). Though the analysis indicates certain shortcomings in meeting the required objectives of science education by NCERT, it does not establish a link between knowing scientific processes and making scientific decisions in real-life contexts. Therefore, it is required to conduct a more controlled study and a detailed scientific analysis. And so I propose the following.

B. Proposed research –

Though the preliminary survey gave some idea about the nature of the problem, it is far from a full-fledged scientific research. In order to test the proposed hypothesis, the following studies need to be conducted.

  1. A full-fledged survey with appropriate questionnaire to figure out whether students (Pre-16) are aware of the scientific processes behind the scientific concepts they have learnt.

  2. Another survey to figure out whether the same set of students is able to apply scientific principles in dealing with situations which are not directly dealt within the school curriculum.

  3. If there is trouble in dealing with situations which are not directly dealt within the school curriculum and if there is lack of exposure to nature of science, studies to be conducted in order to figure out whether there exists a co-relation between the two.

  4. If correlation does exist, then the next step would be to check whether there is causation. To achieve that, the following methodologies can be adopted:

a. Have an experimental and a control group.

b. Take a pre-test in order to gauge the level of exposure to NOS and ability to apply scientific principles in dealing with situations which are not directly dealt within the school curriculum for both the groups.

c. A chosen topic is taught to both the groups where the control group gets conventional teaching but the experimental group gets exposure to NOS also. This can be achieved in 2 ways.

  1. NOS is taught in a formal way, i. e., explicit teaching of NOS.

  2. NOS is taught implicitly by teaching the chosen scientific concept through NOS.

d. A post-test to analyse the level of exposure to NOS.

e. Another post-test to analyse the way in which situations are dealt which are not directly a part of the school curriculum.

THE IMPACT OF THE PROPOSED RESEARCH

Research in science, about science, in science education, has been happening for a long time. Needless to say, understanding of the nature of science has been considered as one of the most important objectives of science learning. In fact, Saunders went so far as to describe it as the most important purpose of science teaching. But research in science education over the years, including the preliminary survey conducted as a part of this proposal, clearly indicate the shortcomings in meeting this objective.

On the other hand, the objectives of science education do not end with knowing the products and nature of science. They go beyond the 4 walls of the classroom or laboratory. They are meant to inculcate scientific temper, objectivity, scepticism, critical thinking, logical thinking, and respect for evidence (scientific bent of mind). But how far these objectives are met, and the consequences of these objectives not being met are serious questions to think about. In our daily life, we have to make a lot of choices, and many of them are not trivial to make. If we do not have a scientific outlook in approaching these issues, it can cost dearly. The following examples might just barely scratch the surface.

  1. Victim of prejudice - Alan Turing was convicted of homosexual acts. How scientific has our approach become towards homosexuality nearly 65 years later? The Alan Turing law might not be enough of an answer.

  2. Victim of “No side effect” – It’s common that medicines have side effects and in rare cases, they can be fatal too. Can substances with no side effects be fatal too? Probably because it has no effect at all in the first place. Gloria Thomas, a nine-month infant died due to denial of scientifically validated medication. Her parents were charged with criminal negligence and subsequently convicted. Is lack of rational evaluation of medicines costing lives?

  3. Victims of Barnum effect - How long are we going to delude ourselves into believing stars, planets, and constellations are having a direct influence on our personal lives?

  4. Victims of correlation – Should people let their teeth rot since root canal treatment correlates with cancer incidents?

  5. So on and on and on...

Irrational and superstitious beliefs are plaguing the world from time immemorial. There could be multiple factors contributing to this problem. The question this research proposal is asking is whether lack of exposure to nature of science in the science curriculum is one the contributing factors. This question is quite intuitive because, in order to understand the (ir)rationality behind some of the above-mentioned issues, the concepts from scientific products like electrostatics or reaction kinetics will not be of direct help. Instead, the scientific process of experimentation, objectivity, establishing causality etc can provide the necessary tools to ask the right questions and hopefully arrive at meaningful answers. If this research establishes that lack of exposure to NOS is indeed one of the causes of not having a scientific bent of mind, remediation measures in science curriculum can be thought of. This is of utmost importance now and is going to impact the way we look at science curriculum in a big way. In the words of Voltaire, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

FUTURE DIRECTIONS

The current research proposal intends to find the effect of lack of understanding of NOS on developing a scientific bent of mind. However, there is plenty of scope to explore the effect of knowing (or not knowing) NOS on different aspects of learning. I am listing a few potential research areas in this regard.

NOS and Products of science

  • Whether the understanding of NOS can facilitate understanding and appreciation of scientific concepts themselves?

NOS and Scientists

“Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. This quote (supposedly by Richard P Feynman) compels us to ask the below questions.

  • How aware are practising scientists about NOS?

  • What is the effect of knowing (or not knowing) NOS on practising science?

NOS and Religion

The debate about science and religion is probably one of the longest-standing debates without a doubt. Though times have changed from scientists seeking validation from religious bodies in the past to religious bodies seeking scientific validation in the present, the debate about how science and religion should co-exist has never been put to rest. On one end of the spectrum, the belief is that science and religion should co-exist ("Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind" – Albert Einstein) whereas on the other end, the belief is that anything to do with religion is delusion ("When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion” – Robert Pirsig). This is where an understanding of the nature of science and the nature of religion might be of help to evaluate the products of science and products of religion.

REFERENCES

  1. Pedagogy of Science, A textbook for B.Ed, Part I, NCERT

  2. Taber, K. S. Science education, An international course companion, Volume 31, Sense Publishers, 2017

  3. Lockhart, Paul. A Mathematician's Lament, Bellevue Literary Press, 2009

  4. Taber, K. S, Ruthven, Kenneth, Mercer, Neil, Riga, Fran, Luthman, Stefanie and Hofmann, Riikka, Developing teaching with an explicit focus on scientific thinking, Social Science Research, June 2016, 97(361)

  5. Taber, K. S (2010), A comprehensive vision of ‘the nature of science’ in science education, Studies in Science Education, 46:2, 245-254

  6. Abd-El-Khalick, F. (2012). Teaching With and About Nature of Science, and Science Teacher Knowledge Domains, Science & Education, 22(9), 2087–2107.

  7. Kimball, M.E. (1968). Understanding the nature of science: A comparison of scientists and science teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2( l), 3-6.

  8. Saunders, H.N. (1955). The teaching of general science in tropical secondary schools. London: Oxford University Press.

  9. Turing Memorial Plaque, The Alan Turing Memorial, situated in Sackville Park in Manchester, England

  10. R v Thomas Sam; R v Manju Sam (No. 17) [2009] NSWSC 803

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