Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 7, Issue 1

Research on Nature of Science:
Reflections on the Past, Anticipations of the Future


Chair, Department of Mathematics and Science Education
Past-President, National Association for Research in Science Teaching
Editor, School Science & Mathematics

Illinois Institute of Technology
3424 S. State St., Rm 4007
Chicago, IL 60616, USA




Later this year, a new Handbook of Research in Science Education will be published by Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates (edited by Sandra Abell and Norman G. Lederman). As one might expect, there will be a chapter on nature of science. The chapter will represent the fourth systematic review of research on nature of science (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000; Lederman, 1992; Meichtry, 1992). What follows is a brief review of the history of research in the field and some speculations about WHAT research the future may hold.

The construct ‘nature of science' (NOS) has been advocated as an important goal for students studying science for approximately 100 years (Central Association of Science and Mathematics Teachers, 1907). Most recently, NOS has been advocated as a critical educational outcome by various science education reform documents worldwide (e.g., Australia, Canada, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States). The observation that NOS has been a perennial goal of science education, and is now receiving increased emphasis, can be construed to mean that high school graduates, and the general citizenry, do not possess (and never have possessed) adequate views of NOS. The research clearly supports this notion. That said, has anything been lost?

Perhaps, the most concise way of answering the question of why understanding NOS is important is to consider the five arguments provided by Driver, Leach, Millar, and Scott (1996). Their arguments were as follows:

Utilitarian: understanding NOS is necessary to make sense of science and manage the technological objects and processes in everyday life

Democratic: understanding NOS is necessary for informed decision-making on socioscientific issues

Cultural: understanding NOS is necessary to appreciate the value of science as part of contemporary culture

Moral: understanding NOS helps develop an understanding of the norms of the scientific community that embody moral commitments that are of general value to society

Science learning: understanding NOS facilitates the learning of science subject matter

Certainly, these are all important and noble reasons for why science educators value NOS as an instructional outcome. However, at this point, the arguments are primarily intuitive with little empirical support. Much like the general goal of scientific literacy, until we reach a critical mass of individuals who possess adequate understandings of NOS we have no way of knowing whether achievement of the goal will accomplish what has been assumed. If we become generally more successful at teaching NOS to our students, will they become better decision-makers? Will their science achievement improve? My goal is not to contradict or cheapen my life's work. Rather, my goal is to emphasize that the jury is still out. The most important questions are still left to be answered and there are most assuredly many questions that have yet to arise. Students' and teachers' understandings of NOS remain a high priority for science education and science education research. As mentioned before it has been an objective in science education (American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], 1990, 1993; Klopfer, 1969; National Research Council [NRC], 1996; National Science Teachers Association [NSTA], 1982) for almost 100 years (Central Association of Science and Mathematics Teachers, 1907; Kimball, 1967-68; Lederman, 1992). Indeed, “the longevity of this educational objective has been surpassed only by the longevity of students' inability to articulate the meaning of the phrase 'nature of science,' and to delineate the associated characteristics of science” (Lederman & Niess, 1997, p. 1).


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