Teaching the Nature of Science: Perspectives & Resources
By Douglas Allchin, 2013.
Review by Larry Flammer

As I was finishing this book, my brain was overflowing with ideas for researching and writing authentic science historical narratives. Unfortunately I’m retired from classroom teaching, so I can’t actually use this approach with my own students. But I certainly would if I could! Nevertheless, being retired has its advantages: I have much more flex time that I can use to develop some historical narratives. For those of you still in the trenches, doing this during your vacation times should bring great rewards.

As the author emphasizes, there’s far too much “School Science” out there. In textbooks and science teachers’ traditional approaches to teaching “The Scientific Method” (as if that was the only way that science is done), this “School Science” misses the Real Science (or Authentic Science). That’s the exciting, messy, hit-and-miss adventure that represents the real way most science is done, by real people. Furthermore, even when there is an effort to teach the nature of science (NOS), too often it becomes a dry list of features to memorize about the limits and realm of science (what it can and cannot do) and the many ways that science is actually done. Or teachers just assume that students “doing inquiries” will absorb key elements of NOS without much, if any, effort to focus on it explicitly (as research tells us we must do).

Everyone loves a good story well-told. Allchin presses on how effective it is for students to hear and reflect on (discuss) the successes and failures of working scientists as they stumble their way forward trying to understand the natural world. In this book, you will find several examples of how this can be most effective. You are also cautioned on how not to “Teach History in Science.” With proper research, planning, and presentation, your students will become deeply engaged in how scientists try to solve problems as real people. As they begin to enter the context of the background and early stages of discovery, students are encouraged to try their own ideas about solutions, and really get a feel for that. As the story unfolds, students can experience the frustrations, the joys, and re-directions that often happen in authentic science. In the process, many of the “Myth-Conceptions” and pseudoscience ideas can be exposed, along with many examples of tentativeness and change in scientific ideas.

After sharing several very interesting examples of historical narratives, with commentary, Allchin shares several online sources for historical NOS lessons. He also provides a large sampling of good historical case studies for teaching NOS (and their sources). Along the way, he shares many useful and practical tips for finding and developing effective and engaging narratives. As I read the last chapter, I started listing the sequence of main topics that I taught, and adding the names of scientists often associated with discoveries in those topics. From my past casual reading of the lives of a number of scientists, I jotted down some of the historical circumstances that eventually led to some key discoveries. In the  new TV series of Cosmos, with Neil deGrasse Tyson as narrator, I’ve already learned several fascinating events in the interactions of scientists with their work, and with each other. If I were still teaching, I’d seriously consider showing short video clips of several of the animated “revelations” presented in the series, readily available online.

If you find yourself short of time, at least get the book and read chapters 10-14. With that, you get a good sampling of what those authentic historical narratives of science are, and the excellent tips, suggestions and sources for finding or making your own. Then go back, as time allows, to focus on the rationale for doing these cases. A great summer read, and a rich addition to your toolkit.

1. Research has shown that students must explicitly experience the elements of the nature of science (NOS) if they are to truly understand and retain those elements. Here’s an excellent way to introduce NOS, and begin your use of authentic science historical narratives: Start your course with Science Surprises: Exploring the Nature of Science. This unit meets ALL expectations for NOS in the NGSS and Common Core standards. It uses several of the NOS lessons on the ENSI site, which are integrated with this text supplement: Science Surprises. The text uses an 8th grade reading level. It corrects many of the common misconceptions about what science does and how it does it. It also explains and provides practice in critical and skeptical thinking, especially as applied to science vs pseudoscience. Get the teaching guidebook and sample of the eBook: Science Surprises.

2. All of the ENSI lessons are designed to engage students with active learning. iBiology tutorials (free online) will help you do this most effectively. So, click here for these excellent interactive tutorial video clips for teaching with student-centered interactive materials. For example, the tips and strategies for using Think-Pair-Share (TPS) are helpfully demonstrated.

Larry Flammer
ENSI Webmaster

Teaching the Nature of Science (Allchin): Table of Contents and Preface

Collection of Sample Materials for use a la Allchin's Teaching the Nature of Science

Cosmos: on Hulu