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Research Matters - to the Science Teacher


Authentic Science Teaching
by Glen S. Aikenhead


With the pressure to teach authentic science instead of ideal science, what can the science teacher do? Investigations of students' views on the scientific enterprise have explored the following questions:

  1. What conditions are necessary for successful learning?
  2. How can a teacher evaluate student views?

It is extremely important for a teacher to acquire reliable feedback about his or her own teaching.

Conditions for Learning

Seldom do students pick up authentic images about science from subtle comments or elements within a science course. Rather the ideas about the scientific enterprise (its characteristics and limitations) must be the center of attention. Two illustrations will illustrate this point.

  1. If a particular lab is intended to convey that human imagination is involved in scientific model building (e.g. the "black box" lab), then students must be asked in the lab to address the role of the human imagination, they must discuss it, and they must find it part of the evaluation in the course.
  2. If your objective is to teach the distinction between science (the process of designing techniques and implements to respond to human needs), then projects and problems must be presented to help students distinguish between science and technology.

Students will come to class with their naive ideas about the scientific enterprise - often the conception of ideal science or scientism. These ideals or mythical notions must be challenged before authentic images can be learned. Simulations, projects, reading assignments, field trips, forums, debates, and especially discussions are all appropriate teaching strategies to help them relearn and reformulate their views of science.

Most importantly, the teacher must realize that it usually takes a long time and considerable evidence for students to change their ideas about the nature of science. It may take a full year for students to realize that well-known scientific laws are not truths found in nature, but are man-made generalizations. It may take three years before your students develop an accurate view of the methods of authentic science.

On the other hand, ideas that are relatively new or unfamiliar to students are quickly learned. Ideas such as recognizing that the scientific enterprise is comprised of public AND private science, each employing its own set of values, may be easily assimilated by students. Similarly, students are usually amenable to learning about the social and political context of science.

Teachers find that activities that focus on the nature of the science enterprise should be introduced early in the course. Reasonable time taken for such activities does not adversely affect student achievement on traditional science content.

How to Evaluate Student Responses

Objectively-scored types of questions do offer objectivity of scoring from the teacher's point of view, but the questions are woefully inadequate in assessing student beliefs. The students' interpretations, however, are clearly evident in their written responses. Student paragraphs, typically two to five sentences in length, are more clearly written when:

1) students are presented with a situation or statement; then
2) asked whether they agree, disagree, or can't tell; and then
3) asked to explain the reasons for their choice.

This second point is important because it requires the student to take a position from which to argue. Students will often change their initial choice as they write their explanation. Somewhat surprisingly similar paragraphs will be written for opposite initial positions. (See example below.)

Teachers trained in science are not comfortable or confident in grading student writing. Here are some guidelines aimed at removing this obstacle. First, familiarize yourself with a range of answers by reading a few responses anticipated to be good or poor. Assign three points to answers that deal with the topic in a sophisticated way, given the nature of the activity and the maturity level of your class. Two different explanations may each receive three points, as long as they are logically constructed. Seldom is an answer considered right or wrong; but is analyzed as a better or poorer response.

Zero points are assigned to poor or uninformed responses, while one or two points are awarded to more informed responses--those that reflect some degree of realistic understanding. Three points are awarded to answers that are clear, precise, and logical. (See the example below.) It is very helpful to compose a scoring scheme for each individual question.

Sample Statements

The following examples are taken from the inventories used to gather the Canadian data.

1. Scientists and engineers should be given the authority to decide what types of energy this country will use in the future because scientists and engineers are the people who know the facts best.

2. Scientists should be held responsible for reporting their findings to the general public in a manner that the average person can understand.

3. Science and technology offer a great deal of help in resolving such problems as poverty, crime, unemployment, overpopulation, and the threat of nuclear war.

4. The government should give scientists research money to explore the unknowns of nature and the universe.

5. Communities or government agencies should tell scientists what problems to investigate; otherwise scientists will investigate only what is of interest to them and not necessarily investigate the problems of interest to communities or government agencies.

6. The political climate of a country affects its scientists because they are an integral part of society.

7. In order to improve the quality of living in this country, it would be better to invest money in technological research rather than scientific research.

8. Many scientific models (such as a model of the atom or DNA) are metaphors or useful stories; we should not believe that these models are duplicates of reality.

9. When scientists classify something (e.g. a plant according to species, an element according to the periodic table, or energy according to its source), scientists are classifying nature according to the way nature really is; any other way would simply be wrong.

10. When scientific investigations are done correctly, scientists discover knowledge that will not change in future years.

11. The best scientists are those that follow the steps of the scientific method.

12. A scientist may go to parties, play tennis, or attend conferences with other people. Because these social contacts can influence the scientist's work, these social contacts can influence the content of scientific knowledge he or she discovers.

13. When scientists disagree on an issue (e.g. whether or not low-level radiation is harmful), they disagree mostly because of their different personal motives (e.g. pleasing their employers or wanting research grants from the government).

14. When scientists disagree on an issue (e.g. whether or not low-level radiation is harmful), they disagree mostly because one side does not have all the facts.

15. Earning recognition from other scientists is really the main motivation of most scientists.

16. Most scientists are concerned with the potential side effects (both helpful and harmful) that might result from their discoveries.

17. Scientists should be held responsible for harm that might result from their discoveries.

18. Scientists are likely to be unbiased and objective, not only in their research work, but in other areas of their life as well.

19. There are no justifiable reasons why so many scientists are male, rather than there being an equal proportion of male and female scientists.

20. The qualities of honesty and objectivity, commonly associated with a scientific report, are largely due to the fact that other scientists might try and verify the report and could find embarrassing errors. Scientists as a group are no more honest and objective than any other group of people.

For further information about this research area, please contact:

Dr. Glen S. Aikenhead
College of Education
University of Saskatchewan Canada


Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
is a publication of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching


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