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Challenging and Changing Ways of Knowing in Science and Science Education

Contributed by Kathleen Gordon, Education, Training and Curriculum Services, Queensland, Australia


A radical change in the way we view science and science education is needed if we are to meet the social, environmental and educational challenges of the 21st century.

Modern science has long viewed nature as an object to be dominated and controlled. Science itself was seen as a set of objective knowledge existing independently of people. Our teaching of science has reflected this philosophy by seeking to transmit to students an accepted body of information established previously by others.

A new ecological science has emerged which recognises the dynamic and subjective nature of science. This holistic view, which sees all things as interconnected, is congruent with changing approaches in science education. These approaches are inquiry based, encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning, and describe knowledge as being constructed when students form their own interpretations of evidence presented to them.

The Nature of Modernist Science

The role of science in shaping the modern world view has been substantial. By looking at the historical development of modernist science we can begin to understand its role in shaping our unsustainable industrial world view.

Modernist science arose from the work of 16-17th century scholars such as Bacon, Descartes and Newton. These natural philosophers believed in a logical and ordered universe that could be controlled rationally by people. Plato had influenced their ideas of universal truths and they believed that only scientific knowledge represented truth. Others, such as Laplace in the 18th century, later reinforced their ideas of a mechanical world controlled by men. In the late 19th century, the belief that science was neutral and objective was at its height and further contributed to the status of modernist science.

The basis of this modern scientific world view is that the universe was seen as a machine governed by universal and unchanging laws, which function in a stable and orderly way that can only be comprehended by scientific intelligence. This machine theory developed along with the rise of the factory civilisation where science, technology and mathematics were celebrated as vehicles of progress. Becoming the new foundation of knowledge and value they replaced God as the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe.

The modernist scientific way of knowing is characterised by:

  • Reductionism - seeing things only in terms of their mechanistic parts;
  • Objectivism - claiming science and scientists are objective, neutral and unbiased;
  • Determinism - asserting that time is reversible and thus all future events can be accurately predicted; and
  • Dualism’s of mind/body, subject/object, humans/nature.

Scientific development was, and largely still is, seen in terms of technological progress with little regard for the social and environmental consequences of this so-called advancement. Peoples who did not subscribe to this movement were seen as primitive, inferior and uneducated and were ignored, marginalised and colonised. Traditional knowledge such as herbal medicine and indigenous land management practices were considered questionable and inefficient. The knowledge of many cultural groups and indigenous peoples were dismissed as unreliable and unscientific despite the fact they had been proven to be socially and environmentally sustainable over thousands of years.

The criteria for establishing the objectivity and rationality of science, however, are being challenged by scholars of science, philosophy, mathematics, sociology, cultural anthropology, and literary and critical theory (Duschl and Hamilton 1998; Taylor 1998). Under attack is the extent to which science can lay claim to being an objective and rational way of knowing about the natural world and the idea that science is an activity that leads to an accumulation of truth by following the scientific method (Duschl and Hamilton 1998).

Modernist science is also under siege in the public sphere. People are becoming disenchanted with science and beginning to perceive technology as its evil twin (Stinner and Williams 1998). People are returning to alternative and traditional medicine, buying organic food, questioning the safety of scientific advancements and demanding information and controls on developments such as gene technology. They have seen the negative results of scientific advancements in their polluted and degraded cities, farms, oceans, rivers and forests. According to Stinner and Williams (1998), another cause of people's disenchantment with science is the perception of science as being arrogant, all knowing and beyond the comprehension of the average person.

The Nature of New Science

The nature of the new science or post-modern science is such that it rejects modernism, seeing its expression in science as inherently repressive. Breaking from the mechanistic, objectivistic and deterministic world view of modern science, new science has been defined as an ecological science, viewing nature, people and their relationships in a holistic manner (Prigogine and Stengers 1984).

This move towards holism, now being attempted in western traditions, is being assisted by the new dialogue between post-modern science and social theory, not to mention renewed interest in and value given to eastern philosophies and indigenous wisdoms. Proponents of holistic education view this movement ‘... from the mechanistic industrial age to a global, ecological part of a larger transformation of science in western civilisation’ (Gang 1990). Many argue that this transformation is vital (Tofler cited in Prigogine and Stengers 1984, Shiva 1989, Gang 1990 and Griffin cited in Best 1991). As Shiva says, ‘A science that does not respect nature's needs and a development that does not respect people's needs inevitably threatens survival’ (1989).

Although shaped by many scientific and social influences, a new science has emerged largely as the result of three major developments in the field of physics. These developments in thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and chaos theory have systematically discredited the basis upon which the modern scientific world view was built. Not only are Descartes and Newton unfashionable, but some of their theories which have shaped and dominated our industrial world view have been proven to be false, by the very science that embraced their ideas - physics. A very brief historical overview of these developments demonstrates that these changes have been a long time in coming.

In 1811 Fourier advanced what later became known as the first law of thermodynamics, which stated that energy cannot be created or destroyed but moves from available to unavailable states. His research, which won him acclaim at the time, rejected two long held Newtonian concepts. These developments were augmented 41 years later by Thompson whose research supported Fourier’s findings and went on to suggest that energy was increasingly being lost from systems. This notion of energy loss became known as the second law of thermodynamics, although it is also referred to the law of entropy (Best 1991).

The next development which cast doubt on Newtonian physics was the rise of quantum mechanics, which proved that some of Newton’s theories do not work at all in the microscopic world. Perhaps quantum mechanics’ greatest contribution to the debunking of modern science is its rejection of objectivity and so called scientific detachment.

Whereas quantum mechanics exerts its influence in the microscopic world, chaos theory, the third component of the new science extends into the microscopic world and to physical processes in general. Emerging in the 1970s, chaos theory itself has three concepts that together form the basis of new science’s most recent and popular treatise. These are Lorenz’s strange attractors, Mandelbrot’s fractals and Prigogine and Stengers’ concept of dissipative structures. Each of these chaotic concepts proposes that reality is dynamic, complex, random and unpredictable.

New science has disproved many of the precepts of modern science and so it is reasonable to assume that new science could assist in shaping a new world view. Beliefs emerging from post-modern science advocate making fundamental changes in the modern value base, which includes transforming prevailing concepts and replacing inappropriate processes. For example, new science asserts that:

  • things should be viewed holistically
  • diversity is desirable
  • resources are finite
  • energy is running down
  • time is irreversible
  • the world is dynamic
  • science is subjective rather than objective
  • science does not have all the answers.

The Nature of Modernist Science Education

According to Taylor (1998) education has been governed largely by a modernist view with educational reformers attributing many of the ills of education to the legacy of modernist science. Science teaching itself is often characterised by a reductionistic approach (Allchin 1998) and teachers are seen as trainers rather than educators, reinforcing a deterministic culture of social reproduction and conformity (Taylor 1998).

Teacher dominated classrooms that rob students of their agency as learners persist. Teachers present scientific knowledge through lecture, text and demonstration. They maintain responsibility, authority and control. Competition is supported and working alone is often advocated and modelled.

The modernist science curricula trivialises students' beliefs and experiences and focuses on the acquisition of scientific facts and information which are tested at the end of the unit or chapter. When practical activities are included in these science classrooms, their purpose is to confirm rather than stimulate inquiry.

Challenges to Modernist Science Education

Science education requires new perspectives and a new way of viewing science itself. Fortunately a widespread acceptance of alternatives to objectivism has been developing (Tobin 1993). These alternative ways of knowing include constructivist, critical and feminist perspectives.

According to Fensham (1992) the most conspicuous psychological influence on curriculum thinking in science since 1980 has been the constructivist view of learning. Constructivism has developed many forms and become so popular that many in the education community have not only incorporated it into teaching method, learning theory and curriculum development, but they also have adopted a constructivist epistemology or way of knowing and a constructivist account of the nature of science (Matthews 1998).

A constructivist perspective views students as active constructors of knowledge and recognises the problematic role of students' prior knowledge in this process. It recognises the importance of students expressing their ideas and negotiating solutions to problems and investigations (Taylor 1998). Importantly constructivism also recognises that the final responsibility for learning lies with students. Their learning outcomes depend on the knowledge, purpose and motivation they bring to the classroom.

However while constructivism can provide teachers with a powerful perspective for taking account of students' own ways of making sense of their experiences of the natural world it can be relativistic. Some educators view this as a weakness and argue for an ethical grounding. Allchin (1998) suggests that the teaching of ethics and values is congruent with constructivism because it is not centred on teaching specific content, but rather on engaging the students in exploring values and demonstrating a process for discussing them collectively. He suggests that learning the questions in scientific inquiry might be more important than learning specific answers.

Taylor (1998) on the other hand argues that constructivism should be tempered with critical perspectives that promote ‘…culturally transformative teaching practices based on emancipatory principles of intellectual autonomy and social justice’. By linking constructivist theory to the critical theory of Habermas, Taylor proposes a critical constructivism which ‘…offers an ethical basis for regulating the discursive practices of knowledge construction’. He goes on to suggest that more than cold reason is needed and that feminist perspectives with concern for ensuring the quality of educational opportunities are necessary in order to adopt what he calls an ‘ethic of care’.

Developing a Community of Enquiry in the Science Classroom

Many educators have developed practical strategies based on constructivist and critical pedagogies. In these approaches active inquiry is predominant while cooperative learning and metacognition are valued and practised. Integration across science disciplines and with disciplines outside science (such as history and philosophy) is also valued. Students have more responsibility for their learning, negotiating shared control over the planning, conduct and assessment of classroom learning activities. Opportunities for scientific discussion and debate are provided in a classroom community based on cooperation, shared responsibility and respect.

Active inquiry emphasises process as well as product, moving away from the acquisition of facts to the development of understandings about concepts and generalisations. This approach develops students’ investigative and thinking skills and contributes to their ability to participate effectively in society. It can also contribute to enhancing self-esteem by encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Learning is viewed, as active construction of meaning and teaching as the act of guiding and facilitating learning. This approach doesn’t exclude direct teaching, which is particularly important for the development of skills both within and outside an inquiry. It does however challenge teachers to learn alongside students, handing as much control as possible over to them. Making the inquiry models used in the classroom explicit to students assists them to exercise control over their investigations and make choices about their directions.

This approach is successful because it recognises that ‘…in the final analysis meanings must be constructed for oneself’ (Splitter 1989). This process of constructing meaning requires dialogue and it is dialogue that is at the very heart of the community of inquiry; a genuine, structured and mutual dialogue that demonstrates respect for one another. According to Lawrence Splitter, a key figure in the Philosophy for Children movement, a community of inquiry:

describes any number of persons who are engaging in the complex business of building on each other’s ideas, taking intellectual risks, encouraging self-correction, accepting responsibility for their own beliefs, values and actions, exploring the “hard” questions in ways which are both open-ended and well-structured, and throughout adhering to the PRP [principle of respect for persons].
(Splitter 1989)

A major feature of the community of inquiry is that the students identify the issues to be explored and that the role of the teacher is to facilitate. Of course the teacher needs to guide the students in the ways of inquiry. As Cam (1995) says, ‘If the children are to learn how to run their inquiry, they need to be taught...Knowing how and when to ‘pass the reins’ or to take them back is every bit as important as knowing your way around in inquiry’. Developing a community of inquiry takes time and patience especially if students are not used to taking responsibility for their learning. However as De Hann, MacColl and McCutcheon (1995) explain, it is ‘…time and patience well invested’.

There are a number of skills that can enable students to participate successfully in the inquiry process. Two of these, that are very important but often overlooked, are asking questions and discussing. Using narrative to engage learners is also an under utilised strategy in science classrooms.

Asking Questions

Central to inquiry learning is knowing how to ask and answer questions. If it is true that the questions we ask often determine the answers we get; then we need to know how to ask good questions. To be effective questioners, students need to be aware of the types of questions they ask. Making the purpose of different types of questions explicit helps students to frame their questions appropriately.

Even very young children can be aware of and ask different types of questions. But whether students are very young or much older, two things will assist them to frame appropriate questions. Firstly, teachers need to regularly model the framing of different types of questions in classroom. Secondly, teachers need to provide appropriate contexts for students before inviting them to ask particular types of questions. When students are engaged with a subject, it will be easier for them ask questions about it. The stimulus could be derived from an actual or fictional event, person, story or phenomena. In the classroom context students are used to having to answer questions posed by the teacher rather than asking questions themselves, so it may take awhile for some students to get used to the idea.


Many teaching and learning materials have activities that direct teachers and students to discuss a question, issue or topic in pairs, small groups or as a whole class. Whilst classroom discussions can contribute significantly to the inquiry process, by developing thinking skills, values and conceptual understandings they can also be very frustrating for both student and teacher. This frustration often leads to abandonment of the discussion process. There is a qualitative difference between talking and discussing. Effective discussion, for example, requires active listening which is not necessarily present when people are talking to each other. The discussion process includes skills that need to be taught in much the same way reading is taught to young learners. Patience is necessary, for just as a young child doesn’t learn to read in a day, a twelve old who hasn’t learnt the skill of active listening will need time and practice to master the skill.

Attention to three things will greatly enhance discussions in the classroom; these are:

  1. setting ground rules for group discussion;
  2. knowing how to ask questions in a discussion; and
  3. being aware of group dynamics during a discussion.

Conflicting ideas about how a discussion should operate can cause frustration in a group. It is important therefore to negotiate a set of rules that everyone can agree to in principle and try to uphold in practice. Teachers can ask students to list the behaviours that contribute to a good discussion or provide a list and invite students to modify it (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sample ground rules for group discussion

  1. We sit in a circle so everyone can see and hear each other.
  2. Everyone’s contributions are equally respected.
  3. We listen to each other.
  4. We speak in turn.
  5. We cooperate with each other.
  6. We encourage others to participate.
  7. We can agree to disagree.
  8. We build on each other’s ideas.

Following the guidelines will be more difficult for some students than others, but practice and encouragement from teachers will hasten coooperation. Inviting students to assess their own and the group’s discussion behaviour can also be productive.

Students may often not know how to create and sustain dialogue in a discussion. Instead, they jump from one idea to another in a disconnected way without really exploring the ideas offered. The questions below (Figure 2) come from the tradition of philosophical inquiry. They encourage active listening, rigorous reasoning and building on each other’s ideas.

Figure 2: Questions that promote dialogue

What is it that puzzles you?
What did you find interesting?

I didn't quite understand you.
Could you explain it to me?

Why did you say that?

Is that like what X said?
It sounds like you agree/disagree with X.

How is that different from what X said?

What can we work out from that?

What have you based that on?

How could you work out if that was true?

Information gathering
What do we know about that?

Can anyone give me an example of that?

When wouldn't that happen?

Does that agree with what was said earlier?

Can anyone think of how that might have happened?

How does that help us?

How else could we think about that?
What if someone said...?

Where have we got to?
What have we found out?

Listening strategies
Am I right that you said....?
Tell me if I'm wrong, but I think you said...
Is that right?

What do you think about this?
What do others think?
Who agree? Who disagrees? Why?

I'm not the expert here
I'm not sure.
I don't know. What do you think?

Source: De Hann, MacColl, and McCutcheon 1995

Asking questions such as these is a skill that requires practice. However, students will adopt this language of dialogue with encouragement from, and modelling by, their teachers. Reproducing these sample questions on charts enabling ready reference during discussions may also be helpful.

If unhelpful group behaviour persists during discussions it can be useful to bring students’ attention to the behaviour through an activity other than a lecture. There are many activities that can assist students to identify and practice positive discussion styles. Reflecting on the discussion process, either as a class or individually, is a useful process in itself. It enables students to congratulate themselves on their productive behaviour and remind them of areas that require improvement.

Using Narrative

Stinner and Williams (1998) propose that science education must be comprehensible and meaningful to most students, reflective of the nature of science and based on sound scientific principles of teaching and learning. They advocate the use of narrative to engage students in the inquiry. They are not alone advocating this approach. The Philosophy for Children movement use narrative because of its ability to engage the affective domain of students. Splitter and Sharp (1995) maintain that, ‘…how one feels about a topic or problem is no more and no less important than how one thinks about it’. Cam (1995) says, ‘Narrative is a very powerful stimulus. It engages with children’s emotions, attitudes and values, and appeals to their imaginations’. Stinner and Williams, working with students and student teachers, have developed science stories with historical contexts. These narratives they argue can be used to build bridges between science and the humanities, by ‘…bringing to life real people engaged in real science and in the context of their times’.

Developing a community of inquiry in the classroom has many benefits including improved thinking and discussion skills. Students come to value one another as individuals, challenge ideas through discussion and accept responsibility for their own views. MacColl (1992) notes that students engaging in a community of inquiry, ‘…improve in reading comprehension, conceptual understanding, articulating questions, giving reasons, making logical connections, drawing inferences, considering other views and making judgements’. Importantly a number of writers and practitioners also report that self esteem can also be enhanced in this process. Wilks (1993) says, ‘Because the exploration and reflection occurs within an encouraging atmosphere, the self-esteem of many members of the class is improved’. Splitter and Sharp (1995) talk about the ultimate benefit of using philosophy for children and the community of inquiry in our schools:

We remain convinced that when it comes to protecting our children from harm and instilling in them a sense of hope and concern for the future, our best prospect lies in providing for them opportunities to think and talk about important issues in an environment of trust, care and respect, such as provided by the community of inquiry.

Resistence to Change

Changing science education practices are likely to be met with resistance from both teachers and students. For change to take place educators need to reflect critically on their own teaching and learning experiences and consider the impact of any changes they make on students who may be very comfortable being passive learners.

Encouraging students to take more responsibility for their learning is problematic for some teachers and students. Some teachers resist handing over control and some students resist accepting it. Clearly, students require a great deal of explanation, skill development and modelling at first. This scaffolding can be reduced as students develop expertise. But as Brophy and Alleman (1998) suggest, ‘…students cannot learn self-regulation if the teacher continuously cues and directs their learning activities’. They go on to say that if ‘…developing self-regulation is taken seriously as a goal, students must be taught the cognitive and metacognitive skills needed to function as autonomous learners’.

An abrupt transition to critical self-reflective thinking can result in confusion, despair or at times hostility towards seemingly counter-productive teaching methods (Taylor 1998). Instead a gradual change in a supportive environment where experimentation and reflection is encouraged is more sustainable. Exposure to resources and learning opportunities broadens teachers' awareness of the possibilities for change and evidence of new methods working in classrooms builds confidence as does working in a team.

When some comfort is achieved with new strategies, teachers might try reorienting a familiar unit of work. The inquiry could be wholly teacher directed giving` the teacher an opportunity to become familiar with the process. Students will also benefit from being aware of the structure of the inquiry. Later when teachers and students are more familiar and comfortable with the process, the teacher can facilitate more, increasingly handing control of the inquiry over to students. For the teacher (and student) deciding to learn and try something new, however small the first step, can be a positive and sustainable choice.

References and Bibliography

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