by Joanne Olson and Renee Schwartz
Students have many stubborn misconceptions about the nature and process of science. It is the job of the teacher to help them build more accurate understandings of these topics. However, this often requires the teacher to address some of his or her own misconceptions about how to teach the nature and process of science. Doing so can make the act of teaching the nature and process of science more effective and more fun! The following list of teaching misconceptions was developed by preservice teacher educators and researchers.
Misconceptions about whether and why to teach these topics | Misconceptions about preparing to teach these topics | Misconceptions about teaching methods and approaches | Misconceptions about student abilities and attitudes
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Misconceptions about whether and why to teach these topics
MISCONCEPTION: The nature and process of science are add-ons to the curriculum, and there is no time to address them.
First, remember that students need to understand the nature and process of science and that these are worthwhile learning goals in and of themselves, not add-ons. Students use their conceptions about the nature and process of science— accurate or not — to make decisions about whether to accept scientific ideas (e.g. evolution, climate change), about whether they will pursue a major in science, and about other important political, personal, and social issues. This is critical knowledge for all students, as suggested by the important position such concepts occupy in the National Academies’ Framework for K-12 Science Education. Second, teaching about the nature and process of science can, and should, be fully integrated with teaching other science content. Science teachers are always conveying messages about what science is, how it works, and the nature of scientific knowledge. The key is to take opportunities to strengthen these messages, ensure that they are accurate, and make them explicit so that students draw appropriate connections between what they do in science class and real science. Teaching about the nature and process of science does not have to take lots of “extra” time, but can be accomplished in the context of science topics that are already taught.
MISCONCEPTION: Teaching about the nature and process of science is not allowed because these topics are not included in standards.
For decades, science education standards and reform documents have made it clear that instruction regarding the nature and process of science is a crucial part of children’s and young adults’ science education. For example, see the section on Scientific and Engineering Practices in the National Academies’ Framework for K-12 Science Education.
MISCONCEPTION: Standardized tests only address scientific content knowledge, so there's no point in teaching about the nature and process of science.
The nature and process of science is knowledge that can be taught and assessed. In fact, concepts relating to the nature of and process of science are increasingly present in standardized tests. Furthermore, what we teach should not be solely dictated by a test, but by what is good for students. Students use their conceptions about the nature and process of science — accurate or not — to make decisions about whether to accept scientific ideas (e.g., evolution, climate change), about whether they will pursue a major in science, and about other important political, personal, and social issues. This is critical knowledge for all students.
Misconceptions about preparing to teach these topics
MISCONCEPTION: An instructor can't teach the nature and process of science unless he or she knows everything about these topics.
The nature and process of science are indeed complex topics with important nuances, particularly in how language is used (e.g., proof, theory, truth, etc. — for more on this, see our misconceptions on vocabulary mix-ups); however, this website provides a friendly introduction to the field. Furthermore, not knowing everything about a topic is not an excuse to avoid it altogether. Remember that everything one does as a teacher has the potential to convey messages about the nature and process of science, so addressing these topics even in small steps can eventually lead to far more sophisticated teaching about it over time and with deliberate effort. This is like any other science content; as one teaches and studies a topic, one gains more sophisticated understandings of those concepts.
MISCONCEPTION: The curriculum materials provided to teachers contain sufficient information about the nature and process of science. In this regard, teachers do not need to supplement or go beyond the standard curriculum to accurately teach these topics.
In multiple studies, curriculum materials have been shown to portray the nature and process of science inaccurately or implicitly. Furthermore, textbooks are notorious for misrepresenting science in many ways — e.g., by depicting it as a simple linear process with conclusions emerging in a straightforward manner from the data, by showcasing scientists as working alone instead of collaboratively, and by overemphasizing the cases in which knowledge develops quickly or in which an entire field changes based on the results of a single experiment. Because of these inaccuracies, few teachers will be able to rely solely on standard curriculum materials provided. However, this does not mean that teaching the nature and process of science has to be difficult or require expensive materials. This website provides many free tools and tips for strengthening instruction in this area. For details, see our teaching guides. In addition, simple tactics, such as helping students explicitly compare the portrayal of science in their textbooks to their understanding of how science really works, can leverage problematic curriculum materials in an effective way.
Misconceptions about teaching methods and approaches
MISCONCEPTION: Students will automatically learn the nature and process of science by doing hands-on science or authentic, inquiry-oriented investigations.
Research shows that students do not automatically make connections between their science activities and what scientists actually do. Furthermore, students will use their existing misconceptions to interpret class activities. For example, students may do a flexible, inquiry-based lab and then argue that they were following the scientific method, even when they did not and were actually engaged in a more flexible, non-linear process. In order for students to make these key connections correctly, teachers must explicitly draw students’ attention to aspects of nature and process of science that their activities demonstrate, making these clear, cognitive objectives for the lesson and assessing these outcomes along with basic science content. For more on basic research into teaching and learning about the nature and process of science, visit our introduction to some of the research literature.
MISCONCEPTION: The nature and process of science can't be taught unless the teacher uses an inquiry-based instruction method.
The nature of science can be taught in a variety of ways, including: short, puzzle-solving activities that can start a lesson or end a class, historical episodes to enhance content area reading, homework assignments, class discussions, cartoons, analysis of scientists’ notebooks and publications, and of course, inquiry labs and activities. Whatever the nature of the lesson, teachers must explicitly draw students’ attention to aspects of nature and process of science that their activities demonstrate in order for students to make these connections.
MISCONCEPTION: The nature and process of science can be understood by memorizing items on a list.
To make it easier to remember and communicate important aspects of the nature and process of science, these characteristics are often summarized on a list (e.g., see the Science Checklist or Lederman and Lederman’s seven aspects of the nature of science); however, understanding the nature and process of science involves a lot more than being able to rattle off items on a list. Just as teachers would not expect students to memorize a list of cell structures to represent their knowledge of what cells do, teachers should not expect students to memorize a list of topics on the nature and process of science. Such lists simply serve as handy reminders of a much more complex set of concepts, with many implications, nuances, and interconnections. Check out our Science in Action story Asteroids and dinosaurs to see a demonstration of how doing science incorporates multiple aspects of scientific processes simultaneously, as well as an illustration of multiple aspects of the nature of science.
MISCONCEPTION: The nature and process of science must be taught in lessons distinct from the science content.
If you are teaching science subject matter, you can teach something about the nature and process of science and integrate it within the curriculum. This allows students to see how those ideas apply to real science. For examples of lessons that integrate teaching the nature and process of science with science content, check out the Exemplary Lessons listed in each teaching guide. Of course, effective instruction on the nature and process of science can also occur within activities and experiences that are not entangled with a specific content topic, but that can be related to a variety of content areas. For examples of this sort of lesson, see the Sample Starting Activities within each teaching guide. All nature and process of science lessons can and should be related to some science context.
MISCONCEPTION: The nature and process of science can be taught in a single unit at the beginning of the year.
Concepts regarding the nature and process of science need to be introduced and revisited throughout the school year in multiple contexts (e.g. laboratory activities, examples of historical and contemporary scientists, etc.). Some of these concepts are complex and nuanced, and students need many opportunities to see them at work. Students are far less likely to understand the nature and process of science if these concepts remain isolated from basic science content.
MISCONCEPTION: The nature and process of science have to be incorporated into all science instruction.
Teachers are professionals who determine when they will teach what, based on context, content, student needs, etc. Depending on these factors, teachers may address different concepts regarding the nature and process of science in different units or lessons — and some lessons may simply not be appropriate for emphasizing these concepts. To be an effective teacher of the nature and process of science, these concepts needn’t be emphasized in every single lesson. Instead, the key is to teach and revisit these concepts in multiple contexts as appropriate throughout the semester.
MISCONCEPTION: When teaching a lesson that deals with the nature and process of science, all concepts regarding these topics should be addressed.
Just as a biology teacher might not address all the parts of DNA transcription and translation in one lesson, concepts regarding the nature and process of science can (and should) be spread over multiple lessons as appropriate. For example, one lesson may not demonstrate how scientists are creative when analyzing data, but may do a great job illustrating the tentative nature of scientific knowledge.
MISCONCEPTION: Student learning regarding the nature and process of science cannot be assessed; it's all subjective or affective.
Student learning regarding the nature and process of science can and should be assessed like any other learning objective. Assessments on these topics can take many different formats — multiple-choice, short answer, essay, portfolio, performance-based, etc. For example, the Thinking about science survey is a multiple choice instrument appropriate for high school and college students.
MISCONCEPTION: The nature of science is the same thing as the process of science.
These are two different aspects of science. The nature of science deals with issues in the philosophy, sociology, and history of science. It includes concerns, such as the nature or attributes of scientific knowledge itself — e.g., that scientific knowledge is durable, but is always inherently subject to change. The process of science addresses what scientists do in order to develop that knowledge. It is important to realize that one can teach students about the process of science, but miss addressing the nature of science. Since both are key in understanding how science really works, teachers need to attend to both.
Misconceptions about student abilities and attitudes
MISCONCEPTION: Students aren't interested in the nature and process of science.
Even young children enjoy learning about what science is and what scientists do. When students come to understand issues relating to the nature of science, they frequently want more of such instruction. If you feel that your students are not interested in nature-of-science instruction, consider emphasizing the human side of science — who scientists really are. Research has found that students opt out of science majors because they see science as devoid of humans.
MISCONCEPTION: Students cannot really understand the nature and process of science; the philosophical issues are too complex for them.
Research shows that students from pre-kindergarten to college can learn important concepts regarding the nature and process of science. Furthermore, the Understanding Science website presents an accurate, consensus view of these topics that doesn’t get sidetracked by philosophical debates. Students at all grade levels can understand key concepts from this website. View our conceptual framework to see what concepts are appropriate for different grade levels. For more on basic research into teaching and learning about the nature and process of science, visit our introduction to some of the research literature.