Nature of science (NOS) is a critical component of scientific literacy that enhances students’ understandings of science concepts and enables them to make informed decisions about scientifically-based personal and societal issues. NOS is derived not only from the eight science practices delineated in the Framework for K–12 Science Education (2012), but also from decades of research supporting the various forms of systematic gathering of information through direct and indirect observations of the natural world and the testing of this information by the various research methods used in science, such as descriptive, correlational, and experimental designs. All science educators and those involved with science teaching and learning should have a shared accurate view of nature of scientific knowledge, and recognize that NOS should be taught explicitly alongside science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts.
It is important to know that this new iteration of NOS improves upon the previous NSTA position statement on this topic (NSTA 2000) that used the label “nature of science,” which included a combination of characteristics of scientific knowledge (NOS) and scientific inquiry. It demonstrated the common conflation of how scientific knowledge is developed and its characteristics. Since the recent NSTA position statement on science practices, previously referred to as “inquiry” (NSTA 2018), clearly delineates how knowledge is developed in science, a more appropriate label for the focus of this position statement would be “nature of scientific knowledge” (NOSK). This would clarify the difference between how knowledge is developed from the characteristics of the resulting knowledge. Clearly the two are closely related, but they are different (Lederman & Lederman 2014). However, introducing a new label (i.e., NOSK), given that the NGSS refers to the characteristics of scientific knowledge as NOS, would create more confusion. It will be clear that the discussion of NOS here is about the characteristics of scientific knowledge. Additionally, the word “the” is removed preceding NOS to avoid implying that a single set of knowledge characteristics exists.
Understanding of NOS is a critical component of scientific literacy. It enhances students’ understandings of science concepts and enables them to make informed decisions about scientifically-based personal and societal issues. Although NOS has been viewed as an important educational outcome for science students for more than 100 years, it was Showalter’s (1974) work that galvanized NOS as an important construct within the overarching framework of scientific literacy. Admittedly, the phrase scientific literacy had been discussed by numerous others before Showalter (e.g., Dewey 1916; Hurd 1958; National Education Association 1918, 1920; National Society for the Study of Education 1960; among others), but it was his work that clearly delineated the dimensions of scientific literacy in a manner that could easily be translated into objectives for science curricula. NOS and science processes (now known as inquiry or practices) were clearly emphasized as equally important as “traditional” science subject matter and should also be taught explicitly, just as is done with other science subject matter (Bybee 2013). The attributes of a scientifically literate individual were later reiterated and elaborated upon by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA 1982).
The National Science Teaching Association endorses the proposition that science, along with its methods, explanations, and generalizations, must be the sole focus of instruction in science classes to the exclusion of all nonscientific or pseudoscientific methods, explanations, generalizations, and products.
NSTA makes the following declarations for science educators to support teaching NOS. The following premises, as well as the terminology (e.g., tentative, subjective, etc.) of nature of science, are critical and developmentally appropriate (for precollege students). They should be understood by all students by the time they graduate high school. The understandings are elaborated slightly beyond the items listed in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
These premises combined provide the foundation for how scientific knowledge is formed and are foundational to nature of science. The NGSS (2013) lists the following eight components of NOS. Given the previous discussion about the differences between how knowledge is developed and what is done with that knowledge as scientific practice, items 1, 5, and 6 are arguably more aligned with science practices (or inquiry) than characteristics of scientific knowledge. Practices and knowledge are obviously entangled in the real world and in classroom instruction, yet it is important for teachers of science to know the difference between science practices and the characteristics of scientific knowledge to best lead students to a comprehensive understanding of nature of science. Items 5 and 7 are a bit vague for concrete use in K–12 classrooms. Consequently, a more concrete discussion of what these items mean was provided in the previous section.
NSTA recommends that by the time they graduate from high school, students should understand the following concepts related to NOS:
NOS (i.e., the characteristics of scientific knowledge as derived from how it is produced) has long been recognized as a critical component of scientific literacy. It is necessary knowledge for students to make informed decisions with respect to the ever-increasing scientifically-based personal and societal issues. The research clearly indicates that for students to learn about NOS, it must be planned for and assessed just like any of the instructional goals focusing on science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts (Lederman 2007; Lederman & Lederman 2014). It is not learned by chance, simply by doing science. NOS is best understood by students if it is explicitly addressed within the context of students’ learning of science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. “Explicit” does not mean that the teacher should lecture about NOS. Rather, it refers to reflective discussions among students about the science concepts they are learning (Clough 2011).All aspects of NOS cannot and should not be taught in a single lesson, nor are all aspects developmentally appropriate for all grade levels. For example, understandings of the differences between theories and laws or the cultural embeddedness of science are not developmentally appropriate for K–5 students. Nevertheless, NOS should be included at all grade levels as a unifying theme for the K–12 science curriculum. All too often, NOS is only taught explicitly at the beginning of a science course, independent of any of the science content that will subsequently follow. Instead, NOS should be taught as a unifying theme with the expectation that students’ knowledge will progressively become more and more sophisticated as they progress through the K–12 curriculum.
—Adopted by the NSTA Board of Directors, January 2020
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