Yet the predominant view in schools and among the general public is that science is completely rational, objective, procedural, authoritative and free of cultural influence a prescribed and trusted means for finding "the truth," says Fouad Abd-El-Khalick (FOO-ahd OBD-ell HOLL-ick), an education professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
It's a view of science that often warps science-related public policy discussions; probably discourages many talented and creative students, especially girls, from the study of science, and causes many to distrust science completely when research claims conflict, Abd-El-Khalick said. For those reasons and others, it is a view that he and other science education reformers are working to change.
"We need an approach to teaching science that is more authentic to (the) nature of science, to what science really is," he said. (Abd-El-Khalick avoids using "the" in front of the phrase because the exact nature of science is something that continues to be debated.)
To illustrate his point, he noted the ever-changing nature of health claims. "How many times have we heard that eggs are good for you in one decade, and the next decade, eggs are not good for you, and back again?" Abd-El-Khalick said. Many react by asking, "If science is the truth, how come the scientists are changing on us?" They grow to distrust science itself, or think the scientists don't know what they're doing.
But that reaction is a consequence of a "culture of school science" in the United States and elsewhere that says science, properly practiced, will produce certainties.
Yet "the examples are countless whereby scientific claims tend to change," he said.
Students and their teachers need to view science with more "tolerance for ambiguity," Abd-El-Khalick said. They need to develop an attitude of "committed relativism." That attitude, he said, accepts that "we do not know the truth, but at the same time, not everything goes. We can say we know certain things with certain reliability, but we do not say that these things will not change in the future."
The objective, authoritative view of the nature of science disfavors girls, Abd-El-Khalick said, because girls' learning styles tend to favor subjectivity, creativity, and collective endeavor, which allow them to feel empowered as participants in the process of creating knowledge. Scientific ideas taught in a competitive atmosphere and as the authoritative truth, only to be accepted, do not provide that sense of empowerment, he said.
"Advancing more authentic views of (the) nature of science as a historical, creative, passionate, and social endeavor aimed primarily at understanding and problem-solving ... will help create classroom environments that are likely to encourage more girls to pursue science," he said.
Changing the views of students and teachers about the nature of science is a key theme in two key science education reform documents, "Science for All Americans," published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the "National Science Education Standards," published by the National Research Council.
Abd-El-Khalick has spent more than eight years studying how and when students' views about the nature of science are formed, and how they might be influenced to change. His research has involved students and teachers from elementary school through college, as well as pre-service teachers.
"One of the most interesting things we've found is that students' and teachers' views are not necessarily coherent. They're actually fragmented, they're fluid, they're changing," he said.
His research and that of others strongly suggests that just doing science will not significantly sway students' views about the nature of science, he said, though many teachers and researchers continue to believe otherwise.
Courses on the history of science have been touted as a means for teaching students about the nature of science, but Abd-El-Khalick has found that they also have little influence on their own.
He argues that courses must incorporate activities that encourage students to reflect on what specific observations, experiments or historical episodes have to teach about the nature of science. He has written a number of those activities himself.
His more recent research is looking at children's conceptions of how we learn about the natural world, and how those conceptions change through the elementary, middle and high school years. A principal aim of this research into students' epistemological development rarely done with other than college students and adults is to learn when students begin moving away from right-and-wrong, black-and-white views of the world and knowledge. The point when that happens might be the point when students are more open to an authentic view about the nature of science.
The results are still preliminary, Abd-El-Khalick said, "but some really interesting things are coming out that show some changes might be happening in high school that we probably did not think were happening at that level."
Promoting a more-authentic view about the nature of science in our science-based culture is no small concern, Abd-El-Khalick said. "Our view of (the) nature of science has very significant implications for the way we teach science in schools, the way we talk about science in culture, the way we draw on science to make informed decisions about personal and societal science-related issues."