© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber. 

  • Emily Rose Seeber

Do science teachers need to have a working knowledge of philosophy?


It's often been put forward that one of the aims of science teaching is to make students scientifically literate, to ensure that they can read and criticise science in the media, to understand scientific practice and how scientific knowledge has been developed, and to understand the limitations of science. This is supposed to make them more engaged in learning science, as science is then not just a boring 'body of facts', and more likely to take it on to further study, and also to give them a toolkit of skills which they need to be an informed scientifically literate citizen, even if they stop studying science at 16.

In this blog, I am going to briefly explain my issues with both of these aims. Firstly, why teaching students about the nature of science, instead of teaching scientific content, is problematic. And then secondly, why 'scientific literacy', based on this kind of science education, is nonsense.

Researchers who hold this view think that we need to teach students about various aspects of the nature of science:

  • science is tentative

  • there is no single scientific method

  • science is culturally embedded

  • scientific terms are theory-laden

  • scientific ideas change and adapt over time

  • models are developed by researchers to allow them to develop new ideas

  • classification schemes are imposed by scientists, not inherent in the materials/organisms studied

  • science cannot prove something to be true

  • the difference between a scientific theory and a scientific law

And many others. This list is not exhaustive, and the items on it have changed over time as different people have contributed to the philosophy of science.

To teach students about these things, it is a necessary condition that teachers also understand them, but the research has shown over and over again, that teachers do not have adequate conceptions of the philosophy of science. Furthermore, even when they do (they may have taken a philosophy of science course at university for example), they do not have the pedagogical subject knowledge (PSK) to teach it. They don't have a wealth of examples, a deep knowledge of the history of science, exemplar resources to draw upon, experience of identifying and dealing with student misconceptions about these areas.

If teaching the nature of science is a key goal, it firstly implies that without it science is just a list of facts and is extremely boring. I have a problem with this assumption. It implies that philosophy is intrinsically more interesting than science. It also presupposes that 'science' is what is entailed in the GCSE and A-level curricula we teach. These are interpretations of what science is made by other people, then as teachers, we need to interpret that and teach what is being examined. If what is on the curricula is content and factual knowledge, then that is what we will end up teaching. If it is boring, that is, in a large part, defined by the exam boards and Ofqual.

Secondly, we are science teachers, not philosophy teachers. Some of us have backgrounds in both, but I think we are few and far between. There is already a teacher crisis in Physics and Chemistry, and requiring, not just desiring, teachers to be competent philosophers as well as scientists is a fairly unreasonable expectation. All we can be sure of is that any philosophy of science that is taught will be misinterpreted by many teachers, poorly taught due to the lack of exemplar material and expertise in the science education field, and not be any more interesting than the pure science it would be replacing in the curriculum time.

Instead of switching to teaching philosophy lessons, we should be focusing on making science lessons less boring by teaching better science lessons.

Thirdly, there is no evidence at all that teaching students about the nature of science has any of the effects that the advocates of nature of science teaching claim. The people teaching science have weak understandings of the nature of science. Having a weak or incoherent view of science did not prevent them from choosing science degrees, becoming science educators, or training students to become scientists in their own right. Professors have weak understandings. Students have weak understandings. This may all be very sad from the perspective of the philosopher of science, and advocates for a philosophical curriculum more generally, but is that enough to say that teaching the nature of science matters for increasing student uptake of science? I think not. Ironically, for people with an interest in philosophy, their premises have not been shown to lead to the desired conclusion.

On the theme of scientific literacy, I have to say that teaching the nature of science, instead of scientific content, and then expecting students to be able to evaluate modern scientific debates seems to be extremely naïve. To be able to debate the issues surrounding climate change at any realistically informed level, requires a vast wealth of content knowledge, not just to understand the tentative nature of science. In fact, I think emphasising the tentativeness of scientific knowledge without students having a deep comprehension of the power of science through developed an appreciation of the extensive scope and predictive power of scientific knowledge and understanding. So teaching about the nature of science matters, but teaching science matters more.

Now I do think that science teachers becoming more informed about the philosophy of science is extremely admirable, and I recommend the following books if you are interested (click for a link):

I also recommend the following online courses: one at Oxford Department of Continuing Education which does entail a cost, but comes with university credits, and another from the University of Edinburgh which can be completed for free.

Discussing some of these issues as departments is a great way to invigorate discussion and to think of interesting and creative ways to teach a certain topic, but this should not become a necessary part of science education at the cost of teaching science itself. It is a misguided attempt to make science 'more engaging' in the classroom, and places an unrealistic burden on science teachers to also be philosophers too.

#philosophyofscience #teachereducation #science #philosophybooks #broadercurriculum

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