Research Matters - to the Science
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
- What conditions are necessary for successful learning?
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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
2) asked whether they agree, disagree, or can't tell; and
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Dr. Glen S.
College of Education
University of Saskatchewan Canada
Research Matters - to the Science
is a publication of the National Association
for Research in Science Teaching