Teaching the Nature of Science to Secondary and Post-Secondary Students:

Questions Rather Than Tenets




Center for Excellence in Science & Mathematics Education, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011 USA

E-mail: mclough@iastate.edu



Abstract.  While some characteristics regarding the nature of science are, to an acceptable degree, uncontroversial and have clear implications for school science teaching, those particular characteristics have unfortunately been reduced to a set of tenets that may easily be distorted by researchers, teachers and students. The problem is that tenets, like established scientific knowledge, become something to be taught rather than investigated in a science classroom. For students the tenets become something to know rather than understand.  This paper will address reasons and examples that raise concerns about commonly advocated tenets regarding the nature of science.  It then addresses the value of addressing nature of science issues as questions rather than tenets, and how this might be achieved in secondary and college science teaching.





            The phrase “nature of science” is often used in referring to issues such as what science is, how it works, the epistemological and ontological foundations of science, how scientists operate as a social group and how society itself both influences and reacts to scientific endeavors. These and many other thoughts regarding the nature of science are best informed by contributions from several disciplines including, but not limited to, the history, philosophy, and sociology of science.


Consensus Views Regarding the Nature of Science


            To my knowledge, all science educators interested in the nature of science and its relevance to science education acknowledge that issues regarding the nature of science are not settled (e.g. Abd-El-Khalick et al., 1998; Alters, 1997; Eflin et al., 1999; Matthews, 1994; McComas et al., 1998; Smith et al., 1997). At the same time, all these scholars except Alters argue that for purposes related to science education, an acceptable level of consensus exist on particular broad nature of science issues. For example:


While issues in the history and philosophy of science are not settled, “there is a reasonable consensus on many lower-level points. (Matthews, 1994, p. 8)


We acknowledge, of course, that there is considerable disagreement regarding certain issues in the NOS among people interested in the philosophy of science (realism vs. empiricism, etc.), but how much of this disagreement is at the level of generality relevant to K-12 education? (Smith, Lederman, Bell, McComas & Clough, 1997, p. 1102)



While we agree that particular philosophical issues and even the content of the nature of science will always be somewhat contentious, views regarding topics most important for a scientifically literate society are far less controversial. We concur with Welch’s (1984) view acknowledging a lack of complete agreement regarding what science is and how it works, but maintain that significant consensus exists regarding fundamental issues in the nature of science relevant to science education. (McComas, Clough & Almazroa, 1998)


There is clearly consensus regarding the nature of science issues that should inform science education.” (McComas & Olson, 1998, p. 48)


The disagreements that continue to exist among philosophers, historians, and science educators are far too abstract for K-12 students to understand and far too esoteric to be of immediate consequence to their daily lives. . . . There is, however, an acceptable level of generality regarding the NOS that is accessible to K-12 students and also relevant to their daily lives. At this level of generality we can see clear connections between students’/citizens’ knowledge about science and decisions made regarding scientific claims. Also, at this level of generality, virtually no disagreement exists among historians, philosophers, and science educators. (Abd-El-Khalick, Bell & Lederman, 1998)


            The characteristics regarding the nature of science that are argued to be uncontroversial for the purposes of science education range from fourteen that McComas & Olson (1998) drew from an analysis of international science education standards documents (as cited by McComas et al., 1998), to four offered by Eflin et al. (1999). The most recognized list of acceptable positions regarding the nature of science is that offered by Abd-El-Khalick et al. (1998):


In our view, the aspects of the scientific enterprise that fall under this level of generality. . . are that scientific knowledge is tentative (subject to change); empirically based (based on and/or derived from observation of the natural world); subjective (theory-laden); partly the product of human inference, imagination, and creativity (involves the invention of explanation); and socially and culturally embedded. Two additional important aspects are the distinction between observation and inferences, and the functions of, and relationships between scientific theories and data.


Concerns Regarding Consensus NOS “Tenets”


            Wheeler-Toppen (2004), taking a post-modernist position regarding the nature of science, examined five lists of tenets and argued that they appeared to serve three purposes: (1) improving students’ understanding of science; (2) advocating a more critical analysis and use of science; and (3) bolstering what she claims is “science’s tenuous position as a uniquely valid form of knowledge in society”.  Rather than emphasizing what may or may not be “true” about the nature of science, she suggests that students should be engaged in a “culture of argumentation”.  Through such argumentation and making explicit the warrants used for scientific arguments, Wheeler-Toppen believes students will learn a great deal about the nature of science and be prepared to more appropriate use science in their lives.


            My concern with NOS tenets is not that an appropriate level of consensus for science education does not exist, nor do I sympathize with the view that tenets serve the purpose of bolstering “science’s tenuous position as a uniquely valid form of knowledge in society”. Rather, NOS tenets, like any list of key ideas, may easily be distorted by researchers, teachers and students. The problem is that tenets, like established scientific knowledge, become something to be transmitted rather than investigated in a science classroom. For students the tenets become something to know rather than understand. As Eflin et al. (1999) write:


Just as science educators stress that science is more than a collection of facts, we emphasize that a philosophical position about the nature of science is more than a list of tenets. (p. 112)


            For example, stating that scientific knowledge is tentative does reflect the changes in scientific knowledge that have occurred throughout history.  However, the tenet ignores the durable character of well-supported scientific knowledge. Students who claim that science is tentative without acknowledging the durability of well-supported scientific knowledge can hardly be said to understand the nature of science.


            As another example, while perhaps all scientific knowledge has an inventive character to it, a reasonable position on a number of scientific ideas is that to varying degrees we have “discovered” something about the natural world. The view that the Earth is the third planet orbiting the sun comes to mind as an idea that I would claim represents something we have good reason to believe is the way nature really is. So in a sense, we have discovered something that was not always known. The inventive/discovered character of science may depend greatly on the concept being addressed. Eflin et al. (1999, p. 113) write “Some philosophers are realists about one scientific domain, but antirealists about others.”


            Clearly, most if not all statements about the nature of science are contextual with important exceptions. Even where consensus does exist, the key is to explore the nature of science as questions, so that science teachers and students come to deeply understand the nature of science and its contextual nature. This is critical as the point of a progressive education, including an understanding of the nature of science, is not to indoctrinate, but to educate students about relevant issues, their contextual nature, and reasons for differing perspectives (Matthews, 1997).


            Achieving these ends, while explicitly and directly confronting students’ naďve views of the nature of science, calls for investigating nature of science questions rather than promoting nature of science tenets. For instance, “tenets” can easily be turned into questions such as:


1.      In what sense is scientific knowledge tentative? In what sense is it durable?

2.      To what extent is scientific knowledge empirically based (based on and/or derived from observations of the natural world)? In what sense is it not always empirically based?

3.      To what extent are scientists and scientific knowledge subjective? To what extent can they be objective? In what sense is scientific knowledge the product of human inference, imagination, and creativity? In what sense is this not the case?

4.      To what extent is scientific knowledge socially and culturally embedded? In what sense does it transcend society and culture?

5.      In what sense is scientific knowledge invented? In what sense is it discovered?

6.      How does the notion of a scientific method distort how science actually works? How does it accurately portray aspects of how science works?

7.      In what sense are scientific laws and theories different types of knowledge? In what sense are they related?

8.      How are observations and inferences different? In what sense can they not be differentiated?

9.      How does private science differ from public science? In what ways are they similar?


            Other notions regarding the nature of science, when investigated as questions rather than tenets, create opportunities for addressing context, conceptual understanding and various philosophical positions. However, Eflin et al. (1997) warn against “an overly simplistic pluralism in which all philosophical positions are seen as equally viable” (p. 114). The very nature of posing these ideas as questions rather than tenets raises the issue of context and complexity. This does not mean that esoteric philosophical distinctions are sought, but that the nature of science is understood.




            Nature of science tenets may be easily misinterpreted and abused. Students often see things in black or white. For instance, when addressing the historical tentative character of science years ago while teaching high school science, my students would jump from the one extreme of seeing science as absolutely true knowledge to the other extreme as unreliable knowledge. Extensive effort was required to move them to a more middle ground position. Colleagues have told me of students who have asked why they have to learn science content if it’s always changing. The same was true of issues regarding invention/discover, subjectivity/objectivity, private/public science, and scientific methodology. Making overt the questions above may be useful in blunting the common extreme thinking exhibited by students.


            Nature of science tenets can easily be misinterpreted by teachers as additional declarative knowledge to be passed on to students. Changing tenets to questions may encourage them to more deeply address the contextual nature of nature of science ideas and reasons for positions. High stakes tests could also easily grab hold of tenets as they now exist and simply assess for declarative knowledge. Addressing the nature of science as questions may encourage more thoughtful questions on such tests.


            Research of Driver, Leach, Millar and Scott (1996), Ryder, Leach and Driver (1999), and Brickhouse, Dagher, Letts and Shipman (2000) illustrates that students’ perspectives on the NOS are, at least in part, dependent on the science content that frames the discussion. Given the contextual nature of science and itself being tentative, posing questions rather than tenets better reflects the nature of science itself and the desired learning outcomes we have for our students.


Avoiding “Final Form” Science


            Duschl (1990) refers to science ideas that are presented as incontrovertible facts stripped of their development as “final form science” (p. 69). He writes:


There are three dangers inherent in a final form presentation of science. One danger is the perception that all knowledge claims can be treated equally.” . . . “another danger of final form science is that knowledge claims are taken out of context.” . . . “The final danger is a natural byproduct of the first two. When the structure and role of theories are oversimplified, there is little need to accurately portray the processes of theory change. (p. 69)


His arguments apply equally well to nature of science “final form” tenets.




Abd-El-Khalick, F., Bell, R.L. & Lederman, N.G. (1998). The Nature of Science and Instructional Practice: Making the Unnatural Natural. Science Education, 82(4), 417-436.


Alters, B.J. (1997). Whose Nature of Science? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34(1), 39-55.


Brickhouse, N.W., Dagher, Z.R., Letts, W.J., & Shipman, H.L. (2000). Diversity of Students’ Views About Evidence, Theory, and the Interface Between Science and Religion in an Astronomy Course. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(4), 340-362.


Driver, R., Leach, J., Millar, R., & Scott, P. (1996). Young People’s Images of Science, Open University Press, Buckingham.


Duschl, R.A. (1990).  Restructuring Science Education: The Importance of Theories and Their Development. Teachers College Press, New York.


Eflin, J.T., Glennan, S. & Reisch, G. (1999). The Nature of Science: A Perspective from the Philosophy of Science, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(1):107-117.


Matthews, M. (1994). Science Teaching; The Role of History and Philosophy of Science, Routledge, New York, NY., p. 108.


McComas, W.F., Clough, M.P., & Almazroa, H. (1998). The Role and Character of the Nature of Science in Science Education’, Science & Education, 7(6), 511-532.


McComas, W.F. & Olson, J.K. (1998). The Nature of Science in International Science Education Standards Documents. In McComas (Ed.) The Nature of Science in Science Education: Rationales and Strategies, Kluwer Academic Publishers: The Netherlands. pp. 41-52.


Ryder, J., Leach, J., & Driver, R. (1999).  Undergraduate Science Students’ Images of Science, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(2), 201-220.


Smith, M.U., Lederman, N.G., Bell, R.L., McComas, W.F. & Clough, M.P. (1997). How Great is the Disagreement about the Nature of Science: A Response to Alters. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34(10), 1101-1103.


Welch, W.W. (1984). A Science-Based Approach to Science Learning. In D Hholdzkom & Lutz (Eds.) Research Within Reach: Science Education, National Science Teachers Association, Washington, DC.


Wheeler-Toppen, J.L. (2005). Teaching NOS Tenets: Is it time for a change? Paper presented at the Association of Science Teacher Educators (ASTE) 2005 Conference, Colorado Springs, CO. January 19-23.


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