History and Nature of Science: Active Transport might work but Osmosis does not! Fouad Abd-El-Khalick

Fouad Abd-El-Khalick


Department of Curriculum and Instruction

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

1310 South Sixth Street, Champaign, IL 61820

E-mail: fouad@uiuc.edu


Scientific literacy for informed citizenry has been a central theme in pre-college science education reform documents during the past two decades (e.g., American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990; Beyond 2000: Millar & Osborne, 1998; National Research Council, 1996; National Science Teachers association, 1982). The goal of preparing students who, as future citizens, are capable of meaningfully engaging in public discourse about science and making informed decisions regarding science-related personal and societal issues has entailed a set of curricular and pedagogical imperatives for pre-college science education. For example, covering less content in greater depth and providing students with opportunities to experience authentic science (whatever that means) are two prominent curricular and pedagogical reform themes respectively. Yet, foremost among the curricular priorities is helping students develop informed conceptions of nature of science (NOS), that is, an understanding of the epistemology of science and its underlying values and assumptions. Indeed, the objective of helping pre-college students and science teachers develop informed views of NOS has been the subject of an extended line of research and associated curricular development activities during the past 40 years. Achieving this latter objective, nonetheless, has only met with partial success (see Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000a).

Scientific literacy and NOS, however, are not equally prominent in the discourse or goals of the culture of college science education, which I will refer to as the culture of “scientific education.” College science programs are still, by and large, preoccupied with preparing students for disciplinary-based science careers. This objective entails a focus on disciplinary content and associated methodologies and processes. Science students typically spend their early years learning the content and discourse of their disciplines through content-specific courses, and later learn the associated processes, methodological commitments, and instrumental preferences through one form of apprenticeship or another. Scientific education rarely, if ever, focuses on learning about science as an epistemic and historical endeavor. Indeed, as Kuhn (1970) suggested, scientific education is both a-philosophical and a-historical. On the one hand, Kuhn argued, initiating science students into disciplinary traditions includes having them take the processes and methods of those disciplines, and consequently the underlying ontological and epistemological values and assumptions, for granted. Epistemological and ontological issues put aside, and the conviction that the methods at hand will generate valid and reliable knowledge at bay, students can engage the (normal) activities of their science disciplines and invest the time and energy required to vigorously pursue answers or solutions to specific questions or problems related to some restricted aspect of a minute corner of the natural world. Thus, exposure to, or coursework in philosophy of science is usually not a required part of scientific education. As Medawar (1969) pointed out, if one were to ask a scientist about scientific method, one is likely to get a “solemn and shifty-eyed expression” because the scientist “feels he ought to declare an opinion . . . [and] . . . is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare” (p. 11). On the other hand, Kuhn continued, science students’ exposure to the history of their disciplines is limited to the kind of history often found in scientific textbooks. Such historical narratives or vignettes present history of science (HOS) “re-constructed by scientists” to convey images of a seamless and logical progression of problems and problem solutions within the discipline, and to celebrate the achievements of the scientist-heroes of that discipline. Such exposure to HOS is pedagogically motivated and chiefly aims to promote certain problem-solutions that have proved successful in dealing with what is perceived—in hindsight, to have been the major problems that fraught the development of a certain discipline. As such, HOS proper—as an endeavor to learn about science, is rarely a mandatory component of scientific education.

I am not in a position here to question the ways or effectiveness of scientific education as far as the sciences are concerned. Such education seems to be working: The scientific enterprise continues to be successful and disciplinary scientists continue to achieve major breakthroughs in a goodly number of scientific fields. Yet, if we broaden the circle beyond the scientific enterprise itself and concern ourselves with the interface between science and society, we may take issue with several aspects of scientific education. The lack of attention to the epistemological and historical dimensions of the scientific endeavor—to NOS, is of particular interest to the present discussion. The issue here is twofold. First, as Ryder, Leach, and Driver (1999) argued, scientists participate in public life as citizens and they too are faced with science-related personal and societal issues that lie outside their immediate disciplinary specializations. As such, narrow scientific education disadvantages scientists by not preparing them to engage in informed discourse about science and science-related public issues. This is especially the case at the present times where the image of scientists as disinterested objective individuals is (slowly) being displaced by more realistic images. Second, scientific education is generalized within the academy and disciplinary science departments do not offer genuinely different programs for students who plan to pursue (or end up pursuing) scientific careers and those who do not. The difference between so-called science courses for “majors” and “non-majors” is only a matter of degree and not kind. As a result, all students who go through science programs end up with naïve images of the scientific endeavor. Research studies indicate that college science majors harbor seriously naïve views of NOS (e.g., Fleming, 1988; Gilbert, 1991; Ryder et al., 1999). This shortcoming of scientific education is all too well known within the science education community where prospective science teachers (most of whom hold BS degrees) continue to join teacher preparation programs with naïve views of NOS. Science educators continue to struggle with the task of helping science teachers internalize more informed NOS views that are commensurate with current pre-college science education curricular and pedagogical priorities (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000a).

Pending systemic reforms of undergraduate science education—reforms that do not seem to be forthcoming any soon, it is only natural to look within the academy for venues to help college students develop more informed views of NOS. Intuitively, coursework in the philosophy and history of science serve as primary candidates. Indeed, during the past 70 years science educators have repeatedly argued that HOS can play a significant role in furthering students’ and teachers’ understandings of NOS, and many advanced that science teacher preparation should include coursework in HOS. However, despite their longevity, these arguments seem to be solely based on intuitive assumptions and anecdotal evidence: No empirical research in the science education literature has examined the influence of college level HOS courses on learners’ views of NOS (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000b).

Additionally, science educators seem to have overlooked the conceptual difficulties associated with using history to learn about NOS. Such difficulties were long recognized by historians and given different labels such as, “putting on a different kind of thinking cap” (Butterfield, 1965, p. 1) or “recapturing out-of-date ways of reading out-of-date texts” (Kuhn, 1977, p. xiii). Historians recognize that to discern “lessons” about science from history, learners should not “read” or indiscriminately judge historical materials from within the spectacles of present scientific ideas or practices. Otherwise, subtleties of the historical narrative are likely to be lost and “lessons” about NOS disregarded. Rather, when interpreting historical materials, learners need to disregard their assumptions and conceptions, and situate themselves in the “scientific,” social, and cultural contexts of the historical period under study. Next, learners need to “step back to the future” and discern the relevance of the lessons learned to understanding the nature of current scientific assumptions, values, and practices.

Nonetheless, getting learners to “step out of their shoes” while examining historical narratives would prove much more difficult and complex than what historians might anticipate. Learning theories and research in science education indicate that (a) learners make sense of their experiences from within personal ideas they bring into learning environments, (b) learners’ ideas are usually entrenched and survive formal traditional instruction, and (c) often, these ideas are at odds with, and impede internalizing more accurate disciplinary conceptions. An extended line of research in science education indicates that it is highly likely that learners would join HOS courses with a host of entrenched naïve conceptions about NOS (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000b), and consequently interpret historical materials from within such naïve notions, let alone abandoning their views and adopting alternate frameworks that are radically different from their own.

The need to “put on a different kind of thinking cap” while examining HOS and the difficulties associated with achieving such a conceptual shift might seriously compromise the effectiveness of a historical approach in helping learners enrolled in one or a few HOS courses develop more informed NOS views. One possible way to overcome this difficulty is to provide learners with a conceptual framework consistent with current views of NOS prior to their enrollment in HOS courses. Such framework might provide learners with an alternate way of reading HOS, thus increasing the likelihood of them discerning target NOS ideas and enriching their understandings of these ideas with relevant examples or “stories.” With these ideas in mind, findings from an empirical investigation (Abd-El-Khalick, 1998; Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000b) that assessed the influence of HOS courses on college students’ NOS views are summarized next.

Participants were all 171 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in three HOS courses offered in a mid-sized Western state university. Ten participants were preservice secondary science teachers and had received explicit activity-based NOS instruction in a science methods course prior to their enrollment in one of the participant HOS courses. One HOS course (the “Controversy” course) used case studies of controversial scientific discoveries to highlight the rational, psychological, and social characteristics that typify the natural sciences. Another course (the “Survey” course) surveyed the period from ancient civilization to the post-Roman era focusing on the interaction of scientific ideas with their social and cultural contexts. The third course (the “Evolution” course) explored the origin, development, and reception of Darwin’s evolutionary theory from its inception to the present.

During the first and last weeks of each course, participants were administered the Views of Nature of Science Questionnaire–Form C (Abd-El-Khalick, Lederman, Bell, & Schwartz, 2001) to assess their NOS views. Each questionnaire administration was coupled with follow-up individual interviews with a 20% random sample of participants. The HOS course professors were also interviewed to generate profiles of their course objectives, priorities, and teaching approaches. Additionally, the researcher sat through the courses, audio-taped all course sessions, and kept detailed field notes to document instances where NOS aspects were addressed. Data were qualitatively analyzed and systematically compared to assess changes in participants’ NOS views.

At the beginning of the study the greater majority of participants held naïve views of several aspects of NOS. These aspects included the tentative, empirical, creative, inferential, and theory-laden NOS; the functions of, and relationship between scientific theories and laws; the aim and structure of scientific experiments; and the logic of hypothesis and theory testing. For example, an alarming majority of participants believed that scientific knowledge was certain, that theories become elevated to the status of “law” when they are “proven correct,” and that scientific theories are non-substantiated opinions.

At the conclusion of the study change was evident in the views of as little as 16%, 17%, and 31% of the Survey, Controversy, and Evolution course participants respectively. Moreover, of nine NOS aspects explored in the study, almost all the observed changes in individual participants’ conceptions were related to only one aspect of NOS or another. Change was evident in the views of relatively more participants who entered the HOS courses with more informed views of NOS. Indeed, the percentage of these latter participants whose views have changed is twice as large as the corresponding percentage among participants who entered the HOS courses with relatively less informed NOS views. Additionally, of the 10 participant preservice teachers, the views of eight were influenced. These preservice teachers, it should be remembered received some explicit NOS instruction prior to their enrollment in the Evolution course.

Almost all of the changes that were evident in participants’ NOS views could be directly related to those NOS aspects that were explicitly addressed in the respective HOS courses, as compared to ones embedded in the historical narrative. The Evolution course, which was relatively more effective in influencing participants’ views, featured more explicit attention to certain NOS aspects (e.g., relatively extended and explicit discussions of the nature of scientific theories) and explicit attempts to help participants’ approach the historical materials from within frameworks that were more consistent with the relevant historical period (e.g., during the midterm examination, students were asked to evaluate Darwin’s Origin of Species as if they were living in the 19th century). Moreover, of the participant HOS courses attributes that could account for the observed results, besides explicit attention given to NOS, the most likely ones were course objectives and instructor priorities. The Evolution course professor articulated an explicit commitment to helping students develop more informed NOS views, which he believed were relevant to their everyday lives in an increasingly scientifically-laden world. The Survey and Controversy course professors did not explicitly express a similar commitment.

The relatively limited influence that the participant HOS courses had on learners’ NOS views does not lend empirical support to the intuitively appealing assumption held by many science educators and probably many historians of science that coursework in HOS would necessarily promote student understandings of NOS. Learning by osmosis does not work in this case, in the same way that it does work in most cases! The present results indicate that if historians of science aim to enhance students’ NOS views, then an explicit (which should not be mistakenly equated with a didactic) instructional approach that targets certain NOS aspects can be more effective than an implicit approach in which lessons about NOS are embedded in or implied by the historical narrative. An “active transport” approach (as compared to osmosis) might be helpful here! Historians of science need to explicitly guide students in the process of interpreting historical narratives from within alternative perspectives. Students also should be encouraged to reflect on, and explicitly helped to discern relationships between any generalizations derived from the historical narrative and the nature of current scientific knowledge and practices given the well documented limited ability of learners to transfer acquired understandings from one context to another (Gage & Berliner, 1998).

However, an explicit approach might not suffice to substantially change students’ entrenched naïve conceptions of NOS. For even though an explicit approach generated relatively more change in participants’ views (as was the case with the Evolution course), much is still desired. A conceptual change approach (Posner, Srike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982) might be more effective. In the context of HOS courses, such an approach entails several stages. Students’ views of certain NOS aspects are first elicited. Next, specific historical examples are used to help students discern the inadequacy of, and raise their dissatisfaction with some of their current NOS conceptions. Students are then explicitly presented with informed and plausible conceptions of the target NOS aspects. The historical narrative can then be employed to provide students with opportunities to perceive the applicability and fruitfulness of these newly articulated views in making sense of various aspects of scientific knowledge and practice in a variety of historical and disciplinary contexts. Thus, HOS has the potential to help college students develop more informed views of NOS. Such potential, however, will not be automatically realized. A conceptual change approach, for that matter, is time consuming and demands a specific commitment on the part of HOS course instructors to enhance students’ views of NOS probably at the expense of other instructional objectives.





Abd-El-Khalick (1998). The influence of history of science courses on students’ conceptions of the nature of science. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Oregon State University, Oregon.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., & Lederman, N. G. (2000a). Improving science teachers’ conceptions of the nature of science: A critical review of the literature. International Journal of Science Education, 22(7), 665-701.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., & Lederman, N. G. (2000b). The influence of history of science courses on students’ views of nature of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(10), 1057-1095.


Abd-El-Khalick, F., Lederman, N. G., Bell, R. L., & Schwartz, R. (2001, January). Views of nature of science questionnaire (VNOS): Toward valid and meaningful assessment of learners’ conceptions of nature of science. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Education of Teachers in Science, Costa Mesa, CA.


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1990). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.


Butterfield, H. (1965). Origins of modern science, 1300-1800. New York: Free Press.


Fleming, R. (1988). Undergraduate science students’ views on the relationship between science, technology and society. International Journal of Science Education, 10, 449-463.


Gage, N. L., & Berliner, D. C. (1998). Educational psychology (6th ed.). Princeton, NJ: Houghton Mifflin.


Gilbert, S. W. (1991). Model building and a definition of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 28(1), 73-80.


Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Kuhn, T. S. (1977). The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition and change. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


Medawar, P. B. (1969). Induction and intuition in scientific thought. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.


Millar, R., & Osborne, J. (Eds.) (1998). Beyond 2000: Science education for the future. London: King’s College.


National Research Council (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academic Press.


National Science Teachers Association. (1982). Science-technology-society: Science education for the 1980s. (An NSTA position statement). Washington, DC: Author.


Posner, G., Srike, K., Hewson, P., & Gertzog, W. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66, 211-227.


Ryder, J., Leach, J., & Driver, R. (1999). Undergraduate science students’ images of science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(2), 201-219.


Sarton, G. (1952). A guide to the history of science. New York: Ronald Press.