Why history and philosophy of science matter for science education
Students doing experiments with electric bells and discussing theories of electricity of the past
It seems to be contradictious that history and philosophy of science with their connotations of something old and dusty can contribute to modern science education. But they can. Four major aspects are of central concern.
Science as a way of knowing
Whenever a science teacher explains science he or she at the same time develops ideas about the process and justification of science. It might be the case that a science teacher for instance demonstrates an experiment and draws a general law from his or her observations. An implicit message about science will necessarily be conveyed to the students about science based on exact observations and empirical evidence. Another science teacher may highlight the role of scientific inference while a third one might stress the creative character of science. Philosophical assumptions about what science is and how it progresses are always implicit.
A more conscious and detailed emphasis of philosophy of science yields to a deeper understanding of science as knowledge and a way of knowing. Doing philosophy of science in the classroom starts with questions like: How do we know? Why are we convinced? What counts as evidence? How can we be sure that…?
Philosophy of science has not to be restricted to reading dusty old texts of philosophers of the past. Instead, it becomes a vivid activity towards a reflected involvement of students with science and the underlying assumptions of science as a process.
Science and its human face
Traditional approaches of teaching science too often demonstrate science as a system of knowledge claims, laws, theories and experiments. But, such a system is a result of a historical process shaped by human beings. The development of science has been embedded in a wide cultural context. Historical reflections help to develop deeper insights into science as a human endeavor. Students develop empathy with scientists of the past and historical awareness while reflecting on the roots of former and current knowledge. Stories about female and male scientist balance our view of science as male by offering positive role-models to students.
Science for citizenship
a complex world citizens should be prepared for well-founded opinion and
decision-making. They not just have to know some basic scientific knowledge,
but they also need criteria for whom to trust. The struggle of intelligent
Understanding scientific conceptions more deeply
Fostering conceptual understanding is of central concern. Researchers have emphasized that conceptual development will be enhanced, if students’ preconceptions will be confronted and contrasted with scientific concepts. Conceptions and theories of the past might bridge the gap between students’ and current scientific conceptions. Moreover, the history of science offers a multiplicity of conceptions and highlights the reasons for their acceptance or rejection. Therefore, students gain a deeper understanding for the reasons of why present scientists account scientific knowledge to be true.
This article first appeared in Public Service Review: Science and Technology 4, p95.