Philosophy of Science Teaching
Erin E. Peters

Building a Scientifically Literate Population

Last Updated on June 9, 2005

      Building a scientifically literate population is one of the many important tasks in modern education.  Americans depend on developments in science extensively, yet American educational systems are not producing professional scientists at the rate they once were (Business and Higher Education Forum, 2005).   America has not set scientific literacy as a top national priority (AAAS, 1989).   I believe that Americans need to view science as a vehicle to establish ways of thinking that are unique, instead of seeing science as too complicated and difficult to understand.  All Americans have the ability to be scientifically literate and the educational community should strive harder to help the public connect to science.  Both inside and outside the classroom, teachers need to develop skills and attitudes that will help students and the larger community comprehend the importance of science in our society. 


Balance of Process and Content:  Using Inquiry-Based Science Instruction

          The nature of scientific endeavors, which also includes math and technology, tends to be different from other ways of knowing.  Scientists have agreed upon ideas and attitudes about how science is conducted and what methods bring about new scientific knowledge.  Through systematic study, the patterns that occur in nature can be understood and applied to different situations.  Scientists agree that the world is understandable and what is learned in one part of the universe is applicable to other parts (AAAS, 1989).  Ways of establishing scientific knowledge tend to be different from other ways of knowing.  Scientists have agreed upon ideas and attitudes about how science is conducted and what methods bring about new scientific knowledge.  Through systematic study,  patterns that occur in nature can be understood and applied to different situations.  Scientists agree that the world is understandable and what is learned in one part of the universe is applicable to other parts (AAAS, 1989).  Although scientific knowledge is subject to change when new evidence does not fit into current cognitive frameworks, overall scientific knowledge is durable.  Ideas in science are more likely to be adapted rather than be discarded (AAAS, 1989).  In explicitly learning the nature of science, students can recognize the importance of the scientific ways of knowing and place value in the development of the scientific community in the United States.

         It is important that the methods in which new knowledge is gained in science be taught along with the factual content in science courses.  Knowing only the processes of science will not be valuable unless factual knowledge is gained.  For example, roughly ten years ago, science education emphasized the processes of science: making observations, gathering data, backing up ideas with evidence, and drawing conclusions.  At that time, many teachers were effectively teaching scientific processes, but without any background knowledge (Cothron et al., 2000).  Students were learning how to make observations, but would make observations isolated from other scientific principles such as observing human choice without controlling outside variables.  Students learn the ways of knowing in science best when scientific skills are taught along with scientific content.  If students are to learn how to make inferences, they should first observe events that have only one independent variable so that they can confidently infer that there is a causal relationship between the independent variable and the dependent variable.


In order to effectively teach the nature of science, teachers should use inquiry when possible in their repertoire of instructional methods.   Inquiry-based science is not restricted to one way of teaching because imagination and inventiveness are an important part of the development of ideas.  Inquiry-based science is more flexible than the rigid steps of the scientific method (AAAS, 1993).  If students pursue investigations that represent the nature of science, then the new knowledge they create is most likely accurate.   Teachers should have a strong background of content knowledge to successfully combine the delivery of content and process instruction in inquiry activities.  Teachers do not need to have the answer to every possible question a student may ask, but a deep understanding of the scientific relationships can provide a quality educational experience for students.  Since teachers play the role of facilitator in inquiry-based activities, they need to have the knowledge to guide students in a positive direction during their investigation.  Inquiry-based activities provide a strong student understanding of the nature of science and give students ownership of their learning.


Understanding Student Backgrounds and Developmental Ability

            A teacher cannot effectively teach unless he or she generally understands the students’ cognitive abilities.  Teachers can begin by understanding curriculum frameworks that are based on research in age-appropriateness such as the National Science Education Standards (NAS, 1996), the Atlas of Scientific Literacy (AAAS, 2001), or the Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy (AAAS, 1993).  Educators and researchers have collaborated on these documents to provide teachers information about how students learn.  Teachers should utilize their information to develop their lesson plans.  Once teachers have a background on the topics that are most appropriate for the level of their teaching assignment, teachers should investigate their current students’ prior knowledge.   Teachers can best help students construct knowledge when they can activate student prior knowledge.  If teachers can relate a new cognitive construct to prior student knowledge, the student can make more connections to the relationships the knowledge represents (     ).  Making the content relevant to students will also facilitate the construction of new knowledge. 


An effective science classroom has a thoughtful design of classroom activities which should include constant feedback loops informing teachers and students of the progress of cognitive issues.  Classroom activities should include formative and summative assessment in order for the teacher to establish a full picture of his or her students’ learning (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998).  Effective teachers should design activities that provide evidence of student learning so that teachers may understand when it is appropriate to progress to the next level of understanding in a topic.  For example, when teaching forces and motion, a teacher may need students to generate free-body diagrams of physical situations before going on to projectile motion.  The evidence the students provide of their understanding through the free-body diagrams help the teacher decide if remediation is required, or if the classroom activities may advance to the next level of understanding.  A summative assessment may help teachers determine the ability of his or her students to retain long-term knowledge and connect it to real situations.  A balanced combination of formative and summative assessment gives teachers solid feedback from which they can make informed decisions. 


            Scientific thinking provides an opportunity for students to express their thoughts using multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1989).  Students have very different learning styles and successful teachers are aware of student strengths and weaknesses.  Science instruction, if chosen well, can help all students learn to think like scientists.  Student designed experiments can showcase diverse talents and multiple intelligences by exploring various topics such as music as a variable.  The proper communication of the experimental results requires linguistic ability, and the analysis of the data necessitates mathematic and logical skills.  Collaboration and final presentation of the data requires interpersonal communication skills.  Teacher developed activities can help student understanding of scientific concepts by using methods involving multiple intelligences to bridge the gap to reluctant or traditionally unsuccessful learners.  Many students who are not successful in a traditional school setting are kinesthetic learners (Gardner, 1989).  Hands-on science gives students the ability to access the information that was not easily attainable in other disciplines. 


            Science content, products and process should be differentiated within the classroom so that exceptional students are challenged, and special education students have contact with the ideas presented (Tomlinson, 1999).  Science education can be structured so that learning is social and students at various cognitive levels can help each others advance.  Students who grasp concepts easily can work with students who need more instruction and time to understand the concepts.  When students are asked to explain an idea to other students, the interaction reinforces both students’ understanding of the cognitive framework (    ).   Science content can be presented at different cognitive levels and adapted to the abilities of the students.  For example, physics principles can be described on a conceptual level or on a mathematical level.  Students who are not ready to link their cognitive frameworks to abstract concepts can begin their understanding of physics on a conceptual level. 


Science teachers should ask students to produce work products that enhance acquired skills.  Processes of science in the laboratory can be altered so that each student is challenged according to the level of expertise he or she has acquired.  For example, in a chemistry unit involving acids and bases, teachers can differentiate content by explaining content ranging from properties of acids and bases to ratios of ions in solutions.  By explaining a broad range of content, teachers can provide learning opportunities that all students can access.  Science teachers can ask students to express themselves in different ways through their work products.  Students who are able to communicate using statistics can do so, yet students who are able to communicate non-verbally can use concept maps to show how their ideas link.  If students were asked only to describe the science they have learned using only text, many of the students with weak verbal skills may understand the material, but not be able to effectively communicate their knowledge. Using various means to communicate results and ideas, students can more fully demonstrate their knowledge of the content.  Scientific processes such as observation have a wide range of results and have the ability to be differentiated.  Students can observe an ant farm and notice how the overall flow of ants changes or observe more complex interactions between ants.  The discipline of science recognizes significance in all levels of observation.   Holistic observations when made in tandem with discrete observations provide a fuller picture of the scientific concept.  Allowing differentiation in the classroom can help students achieve deeper understanding in science and give all students access to the information.


Enduring Understandings and Connections

Current curriculum maps in education do not naturally lead to enduring understandings and universal themes in science (National Academy of Sciences, 2000).  National, state, and local curriculum guides provide lists of detached topics that are important in developing a scientifically literate population, but lack the explicit description of interconnections and the big ideas in science.  Teachers can efficiently cover the curriculum by teaching a series of interesting, yet disconnected activities, but may not be effectively teaching the nature of science.  Teachers should have enduring understandings guide their curriculum so that students are aware of the way scientists think and how scientists build new knowledge from the work of others.  One of the ways that science curriculum overlooks the big ideas in science is by departmentalizing each science discipline: physics, chemistry, biology and earth science.  The educational system has established mutually exclusive disciplines, although in nature these disciplines are interconnected.  Each discipline provides a lens through which the big ideas in science are viewed.  Students are not exposed to how the sciences are connected.  Teachers need to take the responsibility and learn about how all of the scientific disciplines are interconnected.  If teachers can express to students some of the interconnections of the disciplines of science, then the big ideas in science will become more apparent and education will be closer to the goal of producing a scientifically literate population. 


The pervasive ideas in science will become more apparent to students when they understand the role of history in science.  It is important to include the knowledge of history in science because teaching big ideas conceptually would be empty without concrete examples, and anecdotes of scientific endeavors are important to our cultural heritage (AAAS, 1993).  Science becomes more accessible to students when it is portrayed in a more human framework.  Students often see scientists as “super geeks” who are different from “regular” people.  When students can see that scientists have the same fallibilities as all humans, they are more willing to pursue the study of science instead of shelving it because it is only easily reached by “super geeks.”    It is also important for science educators to show students that the majority of scientific knowledge is made from daily achievements, not huge breakthroughs (AAAS, 1993).   This concept shows students that one of the attitudes of science is persistence and helps to establish the ideas of the nature of science in students.  If students can internalize the nature of science, they are more likely to become scientifically literate (  ).  The history of science also helps to express that scientific knowledge is dependent on the cultural context immersing the scientists.  The development of the idea of the heliocentric solar system was greatly influenced by the cultural factors surrounding it.  The achievements of science are illustrated to students when put into a historical context. 


            Showing students the role of technology in science helps to define how science contributes to society.  Students first need to recognize that science and technology are different.  Science is the body of knowledge and ideas that explain the world around us.  Technology is the application of some of the scientific ideas.  Many students have the misconception that technology is restricted to computers.  Students need to understand that technology is developed when humans need more efficiency or convenience.  For example, pencils developed when society had the need for more convenient writing implements.  Not only does technology make tasks more convenient, but it also helps to progress science through measurement.   Technology helps people measure events that were previously not measurable.  When new events can be measured, it leads to new scientific knowledge, which can lead to better technology.  Understanding the science/technology/society cycle can help students understand the big ideas of science more deeply and progress them toward scientific literacy. 


Safe Environment

            Students’ progress toward scientific literacy cannot take place if students believe their safety is in danger.  Students need to feel safe from potential physical accidents and safe from ridicule from their peers.   Teachers need to be informed of any safety concerns they may have in the hands-on activities by scrutinizing ancillary materials and by performing experiments prior to introduction to the classroom.  If students are afraid of the results of their actions, they are less likely to be concerned with the scientific principles that are demonstrated by the activity (     ).  Students also need to feel safe from ridicule by their peers in the classroom if effective teaching and learning is to take place.  Quality inquiry-based activities occur when students feel free to explore their own ideas.  If students are afraid to speak up in class, then their ideas would not be communicated.  If a girl in a lab group is afraid to explain that changing the mass of a pendulum bob will not affect its time of swing because she fears that the boys in the group will call her “brainy,” then she will most likely allow the group to perform this unnecessary trial.  The group may not have enough time to explore the more meaningful aspects of pendulum variables.  Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is necessary for teachers to establish physical and emotional safety in a classroom before quality learning can take place.


Professional Development

            In order to develop a scientifically literate population, science teachers have a responsibility to constantly expand their knowledge.  Teachers should continue to learn about content, methodologies, and curriculum development.  It is also important for teachers to develop many different learning communities on a national, state, local and school level (     ).  Taking advantage of professional development on only one of these levels leads to a one-dimensional perspective.  Teachers are faced with problems on many different levels, and will not be able to attend to various problems if their knowledge base has only one source.   If teachers rarely take the time to leave their school building to learn the new trends of their profession, they cannot see the purpose to their profession or make advances in their classrooms.  Teachers need to have as many professional experiences as possible, so they can develop a wide repertoire of ideas to share with their students.


            Time is one of the rarest commodities of the teacher, and time is an essential for any type of teacher reflection.  Effective teachers constantly evaluate their actions and the responding actions of their students for evidence of learning.  Administrators should build in time in the school schedule so that teachers can reflect on their classroom operations.  Teachers should also be given time to discuss the results of their reflection with peers.  Having a person outside of the classroom comment on the events in a classroom can give classroom teachers insights that would not otherwise be available.  Reflection and peer collaboration as a learning tool for teachers is effective, but only if time is allocated for this purpose (   ).


            Teachers have the largest learning curve regarding classroom best practices in their first year of teaching (    ).  More experienced teachers should mentor new teachers because teachers have a responsibility to reinforce a strong identity in the profession.  Mentoring offers the new teacher access to unwritten concepts, such as classroom management or time management, which are essential to effective teachers.  The veteran teacher also benefits from a mentoring relationship because the new teacher offers a fresh perspective from which to view the teaching profession.  When teachers are more informed about their surroundings, then they are better equipped to give students access to scientific literacy.


Research in the Classroom

            Decisions about curriculum, scope and sequence, and methodology should be driven by research.  Since science teachers expect student ideas be supported by evidence, science teachers should also be expected to support ideas with evidence.  The decisions made in a classroom should be based in research.  Teachers need to inform themselves of current research being done in science teaching and react to it.  Teachers should also inform themselves of the quality of their assessments by using the student scores to drive future instruction. 


            Teachers can best inform their decisions through research by becoming action researchers.  In the process of reflection, teachers with questions about their practice should design experiments to determine best practices within their classroom.  Teachers should explain their rationale to students so that students can see the importance of gathering knowledge through a scientific lens.


            A major goal of science educators in America should be to have all students achieve scientific literacy.  American society is dependent on scientific advances, but America is not producing scientists through our educational system.  It is important to show students that science is an accessible and appealing subject by showing the big ideas that are pervasive in the scientific culture.  Teachers have a large responsibility to learn about their students’ prior knowledge so that they can connect to student cognitive frameworks and expand student understanding.  Students have diverse ways of learning and knowing and teachers must utilize this diversity and make science accessible.  Most importantly, in doing so, teachers will instill a love of learning in their students which can propel them into seeking knowledge for the rest of their lives.     




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