Benchmarks for Science Literacy: Chapter 15 THE RESEARCH BASE


Research into student understanding of the history of science is limited. Much of the literature consists of descriptions of exemplary practices or untried prescriptions for effective teaching (see, for example, Herget, 1989; Hills, 1992; Matthews, 1991; Shortland & Warwick, 1989). Claims for the effectiveness of the methods recommended are seldom supported by systematic research into what learning and how much of it took place. Some evaluation of instructional materials for bringing the history of science into high-school science classes was undertaken during the sixties. These evaluations did not yield consistent conclusions about the effect these materials had on teaching students about the nature of science, although they hint that historical materials can help change students' image of science so they come to see it as a more philosophical, historical, and humanitarian discipline than they had thought (Klopfer & Cooley, 1963; Welch, 1973; Welch & Walberg, 1968, 1972). Recent research in middle-school classrooms has shown that learning some history of science can lead students to a better understanding of the nature of science as well as the science itself (Solomon et al., 1992).

Research into the development of students' broader historical thinking (beyond just the history of science) reflects conflicting views on when history should be taught. On the one hand, some research indicates students are limited in their historical understanding before they reach Piaget's formal-operations stage (Hallam, 1970, 1979; Joyce et al., 1991). Elementary students, for example, have difficulties with time and related aspects like duration and succession (Downey & Levstik, 1988). These results have been used to argue that adolescence is the better time to begin history instruction (Joyce et al., 1991). On the other hand, recent studies indicate that young children know more history facts than has been thought and can think more maturely when they have good background knowledge (Downey & Levstik, 1991). Also, although some children have difficulty with some time concepts, young children can and do understand historical time in a variety of ways (Egan, 1982; Levstik & Pappas, 1987). They can see patterns and sequences in real events, though some of the patterns may be general and imprecise. These results have been used to argue for an earlier introduction to historical study (Downey & Levstik, 1991). Clearly, more research is needed to assess when and how historical understanding develops in young children and how it can be improved by instruction. Research is also needed to assess whether and how children's conceptions of time are connected to the development of historical understanding.

Some educators claim that simplified historical stories are appropriate content in the elementary school because they deal with basic emotions familiar even to young children (Egan, 1982). There is indeed evidence that historical narratives motivate historical interest (Levstik, 1986) and provide helpful contexts for historical learning (Levstik, 1988; Downey & Levstik, 1991). Specific research will help decide the value of using narratives to introduce young children to the study of history of science and technology.

Even high-school students have difficulties understanding the points of view of people in the past (Lee, 1984; Shelmit, 1984). In particular, students may think their predecessors were intellectually and morally inferior or may account for their thoughts and behavior with stereotypes before they understand that past values, beliefs, and attitudes were often different from those of today (Shelmit, 1984). Research suggests students may have similar difficulties in understanding the points of view of scientists in the past. Middle-school students show little regard for the thinking of scientists whose theories they know have been superseded (Solomon et al., 1992).