why do students need to learn about the nature of science?

You’re probably aware that the Achievement Standards used to assess senior school students’ learning are being reviewed. Science is one of the ‘pilot’ subjects in this process, where a ‘Subject Expert Group’ has developed 4 draft Science standards¹ (a significant step away from the current 30+, and a response to advice from several high-level advisory groups). These drafts have been out for consultation, and are all intended to develop and assess students’ understanding of the nature of science, with subject content providing the contexts for this learning. (That is, the subject content has definitely not disappeared.)

Why is this important?

Back in 2007 New Zealand implemented a new national curriculum. One of the features of the science component of that document is the overarching importance of students gaining an understanding of the nature of science (the “unifying strand” of the curriculum). In that context, it expects that:

students learn what science is and how scientists work. They develop the skills, attitudes, and values to build a foundation for understanding the world. They come to appreciate that while scientific knowledge is durable, it is also constantly re-evaluated in the light of new evidence. They learn how scientists carry out investigations, and they come to see science as a socially valuable knowledge system. They learn how science ideas are communicated and to make links between scientific knowledge and everyday decisions and actions.

And the document specifically adds that these outcomes are pursued through the following major contexts in which scientific knowledge has developed and continues to develop.

The development of that list recognised that the country’s future prosperity depends on students continuing to study science and entering science-related careers. This is because – as the late Sir Paul Callaghan observed –‘rich’ countries depend on high-end science and technology, and NZ needs to invest far more heavily in these fields to maintain and enhance its standard of living. That is, we need more scientists, scientifically-literate politicians, and a community that understands what science is done and why it’s relevant to everyday life.

But in practice, since then we’ve probably focused more on subject content than on explicitly teaching what science is, how it works, why it is such a powerful tool for understanding the world around it, and that it is a human/social endeavour. (I’m sure it’s implicit in many programs, but things like this aren’t universally picked up by osmosis: practice reinforces learning.)

Does this matter?

Well, yes it does. Knowledge of content is important, but I’d argue that it is far from being enough. Around 60% of year 11 (NCEA L1) students won’t go on to take science subjects at year 12 or 13. They need – all students need – more than content to be science-literate (as this recent PISA document makes clear). To that end, the NZ Curriculum document asked that in addition to content knowledge, students gain the ability to critically evaluate science ideas and processes; to communicate about science; and to recognise that science is a human endeavour² (people develop our scientific knowledge and that their ideas change over time).

And having the knowledge, understandings, and competencies that should be delivered by a teaching & learning program assessed using these standards, students should then be able to critically engage with the various science-based & science-informed issues that they’ll encounter, now & in the future. (And to deal with claims such as “well, science got it wrong in the past, so it can’t be trusted now”; and “science is always changing its mind”, both of which are hallmarks of those arguing against established scientific knowledge.)

That’s what the draft standards are intended to deliver, together with the acquisition of content knowledge. And I think that’s a very good thing.


¹ disclosure: I am a member of this group.

² The concept that science is a human endeavour is explicit in the title of one of the draft standards.

7 thoughts on “why do students need to learn about the nature of science?”

  • you’d agree I’m sure that since science is “constantly re-evaluated in the light of new evidence” there is not necessarily any shame in being critical of “established scientific knowledge”?

    on the contrary, doing so is absolutely essential to the process of science, right?

    • If the ‘questioner’ is just JAQing off, John, then there is absolutely shame attached. Same applies when the critique is not based on sound scientific evidence. (Both those comments apply to a wide range of ‘anti-‘ commenters: AV, denying climate change, & so on.)

  • Alison, I have been reading these posts for years and enjoy them immensely but this has awoken me. I find it insulting that the SEG group is implying that NOS has not been at the forefront of teachers curriculum planning for the last 5 years. It has been and our students encounter all this in year 9 and 10 through multiple contextual contents. This does not mean I support this current direction. There is a major problem with this process. You are forcing a pedagogy that is not supported by the majority of teachers onto the teaching body. You are defining teaching and learning via assessment and not by curriculum resources. At the same time the curriculum is being reviewed and this will be released AFTER the assessment so by definition this is assessment leading curriculum. I know you are on a group that is forced to make this happen but wow, assess the concepts, think of the 40% that will continue and either keep the subjects at L1 that allow some specialised knowledge to be tested or listen to the teaching community. Currently I see the SEG group all liking each others posts with members of KAHA leading. Every teacher I have spoken to over the last few days holds the same viewpoint.

    • Hi Hayley – thanks so much for engaging and responding to my post. (Sometimes I wonder if anybody ever reads what I write, so it’s really nice to hear that you do.

      The SEG certainly didn’t intend to cause insult through the material that went out for the first round of consultation. It might help if I explain how we ended up with these particular four standards? We spent a fair bit of time throwing around ideas of how that reduction (from 31 to 4) might be done. The idea of having a standard for each of the subject areas was certainly canvassed but we ran into issues when we started to talk about how the assessment would work – ‘investigate’ couldn’t be used for all, for example. Then we took the achievement outcome statements for each of the standards & looked for commonalities between them. That saw us end up with four piles that corresponded to investigation, engagement, communication, & ‘being a scientist’ (ie the human endeavour one). And that resulted in the development of the drafts we’re currently discussing.

      Personally I think that teaching and learning are defined by assessment now. From my perspective the current ASs have definitely had the effect of narrowing teaching and learning – we see that in students coming on to uni, who frequently have heavily compartmentalised their learning and aren’t good at seeing the ‘big picture’. (And who – more and more often – ask not only for re-sits of assessment but also whether something that’s being discussed in class will actually be assessed.) My hope would be that the draft ASs would see acquisition of conceptual and content knowledge decoupled from assessment to some extent.

      There’s been no discussion of any curriculum review in our mahi and as far as the SEG is aware there is nothing underway. Obviously there is continuous clarification of the curriculum going on though.

      Nor is the SEG “making this happen”. The SEG was tasked with developing four draft ASs (and all the supporting information) for discussion. The decision as to whether these are implemented is not ours. But we’re certainly aware of the sector’s feedback and there will be a response coming out. As I said to Mike, I hope that once the SEG’s response to the sector (with some accompanying exemplars) is published, you’d see that we’re closer than it might appear at the moment.

      PS Currently I see the SEG group all liking each others posts Something of an over-generalisation, surely?

  • Hi Alison, I have read every post on your blog since about 2007ish around when I started teaching Bio and have also shared it with thousands of my students – its great. This is probably the first time I have had an issue with your post. I see this as a clear example of an assessment being designed to drive a pedagogical shift. A shift that is not supported by a large number of the teaching community and a complete disregard for the current achievement objectives. Also one before the curriculum review, which is happening after?? the release of the assessments. Yes there are some vocal supporters and that’s great, it works in some schools and should be encouraged as that’s their teaching philosophies. The ministry always pushes the line “we want students to not only know science, but to be able to use that knowledge.” The problem with the interpretation of NOS with these standards is students will be assessed on doing without a clear definition of what that knowledge is or the levels it is required to be assessed. NOS is essential, Concept understanding is essential. This has swung too far.

    • Hi Mike
      Thanks for your comments – I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to engage with it. I suspect it’s a subject on which we’ll have to agree to disagree on some aspects, but I also think that once the SEG’s response to the sector (with some accompanying exemplars) is published, you’d see that we’re closer than it might appear at the moment. (I certainly hope so!) That could well address your concerns about how far the pendulum has swung.

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