Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

What IS Science?


During the most recent #scichatNZ chat, last Thursday, a side debate started between some NZ-based educators and a Zoology lecturer/researcher from the UK. This debate made me reflect on what I think Science actually is, and what it means to be called a Scientist, or to think scientifically. Are we doing our students a disservice and creating delusion in their minds when we make them believe they are Scientists (or can "do" Science) before they are able to formalise their ponderings into high-rigour scientific methods?

A small group of us (all teaching in NZ) were arguing that Inquiry is Science. The British academic in this debate was getting very caught up on the definition of "Science", very helpfully sharing the Oxford Online Dictionary definition with us:

"The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."

The argument being made by the British academic was that inquiry is [merely] an act, while Science is a process. Ignoring the semantics of the point, particularly that inquiry is a noun, so not an act (verb), it became very obvious that one side of the argument was unprepared to accept that the process of inquiry was the same as the process of scientific research (I hope that I am not over-simplifying the stance contrary to mine). For clarity and fairness, however, I will give the Oxford Online Dictionary definition of enquire:

"Ask for information from someone."

From this definition, I can see the objection this academic had to us saying that inquiry is Science. The key difference of opinion seemed to come from a difference in understanding of what Inquiry is. In NZ, Inquiry is a process, and this is supported by the usage notes in the definition of enquire in the Oxford Online Dictionary (it is only fair to use the same source as your "opponent", after all):

"The traditional distinction between enquire and inquire is that enquire is used for general senses of ‘ask’ while inquire is reserved for uses meaning ‘make a formal investigation’. In practice, however, there is little discernible distinction in the way the two words are used today in British English, although inquiry is commoner than enquiry in the sense ‘a formal investigation’. In all senses, inquire and inquiry are the more usual forms in US English, whereas enquire and enquiry are chiefly restricted to British English."

In NZ schools (and tertiary institutes, I would infer), the rigour of the process of Inquiry is developed and improved as students progress through their studies. This happens in many subjects, including Science. As most schools have a subject called Science, does this mean Scientific Inquiry is different to Inquiry in other subjects? I would argue that it isn't. An Inquiry with high rigour is sound Scientific Research, isn't it?


We are very lucky in NZ; we have a Curriculum which focuses primarily on the Nature of Science, leaving teachers/departments to decide on the contexts and content which will best resonate with the students in front of them, year-by-year. There is some amazing inquiry work being done in Primary schools, yet many students still enter Secondary school with the perception that "Science is hard". Maybe inquiry is not Science...

One observation that I have made, is the wonder that primary school students have when they enter my secondary school laboratory. I also notice that they bravely offer inferences, not worried about being "wrong". I also notice that many of my primary school peers find Science intimidating.

Sometimes, it is as simple as being unsure of how to manage chemicals and a laboratory, but the sad thing is that it is often that they also have the fear that they don't want to "teach it incorrectly". I worry that secondary school Science teachers don't do enough to dispel these concerns. These same teachers do amazing inquiry work with the same students, but in contexts that they do not think of as Science. They embrace students' wonder and develop their open-mindedness, regardless of the context.

I genuinely believe that primary school teachers are helping every one of their students inquire about things they wonder about in a truly scientific manner: observe, predict, test/research, reflect. Is that not the basis of a sound inquiry as well as being the basis of sound Science? And we are talking about students who haven't reached puberty yet!

Without such a process, many would be turned off Science at a young age. Starting with wonder and using everyday contexts allows us to add rigour to students' inquiries, as we have "bought" their engagement. It is still Science at every stage of the process, it just becomes better Science when we add more elements of the Scientific Method.


As a secondary school teacher, this is the only "phase" I can talk about with any real authority. My biggest hurdles seem to be the perception of Science as being a "hard subject" and that scientists are super-intelligent and arrogant, along with misconceptions of what Theories really are. There is also an excitement about the equipment and chemicals we are going to get to "play with". Dealing with these preconceptions is the first thing to face...

Over the past decade, I have noticed more and more Year 9 students coming into my laboratory with the predisposition to challenge and inquire. This has given me a wonderful baseline to develop more rigour in their inquiries and to build their understanding of the content of Science. However, I am very quick to point out that they are already "scientists" when they walk into my room; I am just going to make them "better scientists".

My primary goals with junior Science classes are simple:

  1. Foster a passion for scientific contexts
  2. Foster a belief that they are scientists (but can be better)
  3. Develop more rigorous inquiry processes (including experiment planning, data interpretation and reporting).
My hope is that these same students will love Science so much that they choose Chemistry, Physics, Biology and/or Earth and Beyond as seniors. I hope that I turn students "onto" Science, rather than scaring them "off" Science, which focusing on the finer details too much at too early an age often does.

There is a transition in goals when my students become seniors. They become more focused on assessment success, while I continue to focus on refining their ability to inquire with rigour and become more independent learners. Their conclusions need to be supported with more depth. They need to be critical of experimental results and procedures. Ultimately, however, it is only the externally-set assessments that make us get caught up on pedantic definitions etc. 

The value of assessment (both formal, summative assessment and informal, formative assessment/feedback) cannot be downplayed: it helps guide students. Some students are simply not destined to be research scientists; I never was, that is for sure. It is absolutely vital that secondary schools offer the opportunities for all students to follow this road, however. This is why it is vital to teach rigorous inquiry processes.

There is also a level of content that needs to be covered to add even more rigour; this is where Science starts to become "hard", and rightly so, in my opinion. This is where I do agree with the academic who was debating with me about Science and inquiry being synonymous. Science, at this level, starts to also be a body of knowledge (Scientia is Latin for knowledge, after all) as well as a process.


This leads me back to the original issue. Is "Inquiry" synonymous with "Science"? The online discussion being carried out via the #scichatNZ hashtag was talking about Science in education, particularly in the school years. I would argue that Inquiry is indeed Science in this context. This is because NZ schools teach inquiry as a process, and this process becomes more and more rigorous as students progress through their school years.

However, within the context of research and academia, I do not believe the two are the same. Science (at this level) also includes a very high level of knowledge, and a level of peer critique that goes far beyond the inquiry process itself. It is this difference in perception that probably led to the debate that prompted this post. I do not mind having my perceptions challenged at all; good debate leads to good reflections and, in this case, a slight amendment to my stance.

I would offer a few words to academics hoping to preserve the "status" of Science. Please do offer guidance and help to teachers and our students; we will really appreciate and welcome this. We also welcome your comments on the skills and characteristics you would like us to prepare your future students and collaborators with. However, please do not judge us with you preconceptions of what we do, or what Science is. Please do not be condescending about our choice of career, either. I have peers who chose teaching after time in academia or research. We give our students passion for Science and start developing their ability to research and inquire. You are welcome.

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