Teaching the Nature of Science


The ENSI program was intended to assist high school Biology teachers in the improvement of their teaching of evolution by emphasizing how evolutionary theory represents the nature of scientific thinking. It was realized from the beginning that an accurate understanding of evolution should be the integrative core of any good Biology course, and that every effort should be made to remove all obstacles toward that goal. To do this, the many myths and misunderstandings about both science and evolution that even many Biology teachers have would need to be corrected. With respect to the nature of science, that topic should be addressed first, taking teachers beyond the simplistic "scientific method" (which is about all most texts ever present), and bring out more clearly just what modern science is actually about, including its limitations.

Further, it is only within such a framework that the nature and strength of the evidence for large-scale evolution and the force of the underlying processes can adequately be understood. Within a nature of science framework, the real nature of evolution, and how it provides the most useful framework for understanding all of modern biology, medicine and agriculture can be explored. Within such a framework, teachers (and students) must be provided a chance to discover and explore their present understandings of science and of evolution: what ideas they hold, where they are weak, and where they are strong.

An introductory unit on the nature of modern science, especially in Biology, is at the heart of the ENSI approach. One of the overriding goals of science teaching today should be to help our young people become scientifically literate.

An integral element to the entire ENSI program was the active involvement of the teachers in the learning experience, in such a way that those same experiences would be used in their classrooms to bring their own students up to speed. To do this best, the lessons must have clear concepts and objectives, and they must be completely student-centered. Student-centered activities can model how science is done. There must also be assessments (and evaluations) which effectively measure the level of learning achieved, and these were modeled in the ENSI project.

One profitable approach toward these goals is to examine a list of popular myths about science: "What Science Is Not", and then take a closer look at what science IS. This would be followed with a number of student-centered activities which would illustrate these elements of the nature of science. These experiences generally fall into three overlapping categories: the Realm of Science, the Basic Processes of Science, and the Social Context of Science.

After laying this ground work, evolution could be introduced in a similar fashion: "What Evolution Is NOT", followed by what evolution IS. (In this respect, evolution should be presented as a scientific concept). As in the nature of science unit, a variety of interactive experiences serve to provide a personal knowledge of some of the major aspects of evolution, especially its underlying science.

Once both evolution and the nature of science have been introduced, both should become the major themes which permeate the entire course. Everything in Biology which follows can and should be clearly related to evolution and the nature of science. This revisits the concepts and terminology and helps students integrate and make more sense of all of biology. One learns about the foundation (nature of science), recognizes from this how the overall framework of evolution is constructed, then simply fills in some of the details in a fair sampling of the many topics of Biology.

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