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15. The Research Base

  1. The Role of Research
  2. The Nature of the Research Literature
  3. Research Findings By Chapter and Section
    1. The Nature of Science
    2. The Nature of Mathematics
    3. The Nature of Technology
    4. The Physical Setting
    5. The Living Environment
    6. The Human Organism
    7. Human Society
    8. The Designed World
    9. The Mathematical World
    10. Historical Perspectives
    11. Common Themes
    12. Habits of Mind
  4. References

The references that follow are organized to match chapters and sections of Benchmarks, which in turn mostly match those of Science for All Americans. The list is very selective and includes only those references that met two criteria. One was relevance—some excellent papers were not included because they did not bear on one of the Benchmarks topics. The other criterion was quality—papers, however relevant, were bypassed if they were seen to have design flaws or their evidence or argument was weak. Even then, however, not all relevant and good papers are included. In many cases, a single paper has been used as representative of a number of similar reports.

It will immediately be clear that mathematics and the physical sciences have had the benefit of many more studies than have other fields. Perhaps that is because the subject matter lends itself to research more easily; in the next few years, though, perhaps the attention to cognitive research will increase in all fields.

Research Findings for Chapter 1: The Nature of Science

Research on students' understanding of the nature of science has been conducted for more than 30 years. The earlier part of the research investigated students' understanding about scientists and the scientific enterprise and about the general methods and aims of science (Cooley & Klopfer, 1961; Klopfer & Cooley, 1963; Mackey, 1971; Mead & Metraux, 1957; Welch & Pella, 1967). More recent studies have added students' understanding of the notion of "experimentation," the development of students' experimentation skills, students' understanding of the notions of "theory" and "evidence," and their conceptions of the nature of knowledge. The available research is reviewed in Lederman (1992).

Research on the nature of science focuses mainly on the middle-school and high-school grades. There are few studies that investigate what elementary-school learning experiences are effective for developing an understanding of the nature of science, although Susan Carey's and Joan Solomon's work is a beginning in that direction (Carey, Evans, Honda, Jay, & Unger, 1989; Solomon, Duveen, Scot, McCarthy, 1992).

Research in the 1960s and 70s used multiple-choice questionnaires. Recent studies using clinical interviews reveal discrepancies between researchers' and students' understanding of the questions and the proposed answers in those questionnaires. This finding raises doubt about the earlier studies' findings because almost none of them used the clinical interview to corroborate the questionnaires. Therefore, the following remarks draw mainly upon the results of the relatively recent interview studies.

Although most students believe that scientific knowledge changes, they typically think changes occur mainly in facts and mostly through the invention of improved technology for observation and measurement. They do not recognize that changed theories sometimes suggest new observations or reinterpretation of previous observations (Aikenhead, 1987; Lederman & O'Malley, 1990; Waterman, 1983). Some research indicates that it is difficult for middle-school students to understand the development of scientific knowledge through the interaction of theory and observation (Carey et al., 1989), but the lack of long-term teaching interventions to investigate this issue makes it difficult to conclude that students can or cannot gain that understanding at this grade level.


Upper elementary- and middle-school students may not understand experimentation as a method of testing ideas, but rather as a method of trying things out or producing a desired outcome (Carey et al., 1989; Schauble et al., 1991; Solomon, 1992). With adequate instruction, it is possible to have middle-school students understand that experimentation is guided by particular ideas and questions and that experiments are tests of ideas (Carey et al., 1989; Solomon et al., 1992). Whether it is possible for younger students to achieve this understanding needs further investigation.

Students of all ages may overlook the need to hold all but one variable constant, although elementary students already understand the notion of fair comparisons, a precursor to the idea of "controlled experiments" (Wollman, 1977a, 1977b; Wollman & Lawson, 1977). Another example of defects in students' skills comes with the interpretation of experimental data. When engaged in experimentation, students have difficulty interpreting covariation and noncovariation evidence (Kuhn, Amsel, & O'Loughlin, 1988). For example, students tend to make a causal inference based on a single concurrence of antecedent and outcome or have difficulty understanding the distinction between a variable having no effect and a variable having an opposite effect. Furthermore, students tend to look for or accept evidence that is consistent with their prior beliefs and either distort or fail to generate evidence that is inconsistent with these beliefs. These deficiencies tend to mitigate over time and with experience (Schauble, 1990).

Theory (explanation) and evidence

Students of all ages find it difficult to distinguish between a theory and the evidence for it, or between description of evidence and interpretation of evidence (Allen, Statkiewitz, & Donovan, 1983; Kuhn 1991, 1992; Roseberry, Warren, & Conant, 1992). Some research suggests students can start understanding the distinction between theory and evidence after adequate instruction, as early as middle school (Roseberry et al., 1992).

Nature of knowledge

Students' ideas about the nature of knowledge and how knowledge is justified develop through stages in which knowledge is initially perceived in terms of "right/wrong," then as a matter of "mere opinion," and finally as "informed" and supported with reasons (Kitchener, 1983; Perry, 1970). This research provides some guidance for sequencing the benchmarks about the nature of scientific knowledge. For example, it suggests that students may not understand before they abandon their beliefs about knowledge being either "right" or "wrong" that scientists can legitimately hold different explanations for the same set of observations. However, this research does not say when, how quickly, and with what experiences students can move through these stages given adequate instruction. Several studies show that a large proportion of today's high-school students are still at the first stage of this development (Kitchener, 1983; Kitchener & King, 1981). Further research is needed to specify what school graduates could understand, if from a young age they were taught that different people will describe or explain events differently and that opinions must have reasons and can be challenged on rational grounds.

When asked to describe their views about science in general, high-school students portray scientists as brilliant, dedicated, and essential to the world. However, when asked about science as a career, they respond with a negative image of scientific work and scientists. They see scientific work as dull and rarely rewarding, and scientists as bearded, balding, working alone in the laboratory, isolated and lonely (Mead & Metraux, 1957). This image of scientists has also been frequently documented among elementary- and middle-school students (Fort & Varney, 1989; Newton & Newton, 1992). Some research suggests that this image may represent students' knowledge of the public stereotype rather than their personal views and knowledge of science and scientists (Boylan, Hill, Wallace, & Wheeler, 1992).

Some students of all ages believe science mainly invents things or solves practical problems rather than exploring and understanding the world. Some high-school students believe that moral values and personal motives do not influence a scientist's contributions to the public debate about science and technology and that scientists are more capable than others to decide those issues (Aikenhead, 1987; Fleming 1986a, 1986b, 1987).

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