Evidence of Depth and Subtlety in the Representations of Science in Primary Teachers Practice

Evidence of Depth and Subtlety in the Representations of Science in Primary Teachers Practice

Lunn – Representations of science in primary teachers' practice

Evidence of depth and subtlety in the representations of science in primary teachers’ practice

Stephen Lunn, the Open University

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research

University of Lisbon, 11-14 September 2002


Science is now part of the core curriculum for children aged 5 upwards in many western countries. Primary (elementary) teachers in England have gained in confidence and success through teaching it. In the process their views of the nature of science have developed. These views form part of a 'hidden curriculum', framing the development of students’ ideas about and orientations towards the subject. Understanding them is necessary to understanding learners' experiences of it. This research explored such views through case study and survey methodologies. It showed the depth and subtlety of teachers' views of science, and analysed them in terms of six factors, provisionally named scientism, naive empiricism, 'new-age-ism', constructivism, pragmatism and scepticism. Such an understanding of how science is actually being represented in classrooms can inform current debates about the place of the nature of science in the science curriculum.


Over the last fifteen years, in much of the developed world, science has become part of the core curriculum throughout the years of compulsory education. In England and Wales a broad and detailed curriculum is specified for children aged 5 upwards. At its introduction in the late 1980s, there was widespread diffidence among primary (elementary) school teachers in relation to their perceptions of their own competence to teach science (Wragg et al. 1989). Yet over a few years they moved to positions of some confidence and success in teaching it, despite extensive research pointing out severe gaps in their scientific content knowledge (Bennett et al., 1992; Kruger et al., 1990). It seems that the act of teaching had somehow transcended the subject matter and given teachers confidence by another route.

Local, national and international evidence suggests that this confidence was not misplaced, and that primary teachers in England were and are achieving good and improving results in their science teaching. In the process their views of the nature of science and the purposes of teaching it can be expected to have developed.

Locally, for example, the Heads of Science from an LEA's secondary schools emerged not only impressed, but also surprised and 'rattled', from an encounter with Y6 pupils' knowledge and understanding of science and science investigation (Gunnell, 1999).

Nationally, the percentage of pupils in England and Wales attaining the 'expected level for age' or above, in the national year 6 (age 10-11 years) tests, is increasing by nearly 6% a year, compared with 4.5% for maths and English, despite having started from a higher base (DfEE 1996a, 1996b, 1997; QCA 1998, 1999, 2000).

Internationally, English primary pupils were found to be amongst the best in the world in science in the TIMSS international comparisons of attainment in maths and science in 1995/6, though they hovered in mid-table in maths (Harris et al, 1997). Similar results were found in re-runs of TIMSS in 1998/9 (Ruddock, 2000).

The importance of the teacher in relation to the quality of students' learning, and to the ideas about and orientations towards a subject that students develop, is well documented. There are good reasons to believe that teachers' views of the nature of science form part of a 'hidden curriculum' in their science teaching: thus an understanding of them is necessary to an understanding of learners' experiences of science (Gordon, 1984; Brickhouse, 1991; Solomon et al, 1996; Uhrmacher, 1997). The research reported here took account of Koulaidis and Ogborn’s (1995) warning to avoid 'assuming that teachers have one or other completely consistent view of the nature of science' and aimed to 'construct a collection of elements ... which can be used to analyse and represent teachers' thinking', and explored teachers’ views through both case study and survey methodologies.

The survey sample was believed to be unbiased in relation to science background, gender, and level of comfort with science teaching. The survey data yielded six factors, explaining 82% of the variance in respondents' views of science. These factors were provisionally named scientism, naive empiricism, 'new-age-ism', constructivism, pragmatism and scepticism.

The case studies showed the depth and subtlety of some teachers' views of science. The views expressed by the case study teachers in interview, and those inferred from and made explicit in their practice, were in most cases consistent with their positions on the factors, providing support for the validity of the factors.

The distributions of the case study teachers’ responses to survey questions were set against the frequency distributions for the complete sample and showed that the case study teachers were typical of the sample and, since the sample was unbiased, of the wider population of primary teachers. This suggests that the views of the nature of science of this wider population, and the representations of science communicated in their science teaching, are also of considerable depth and subtlety.

Current international debates about curriculum reform include the place of the nature of science in the science curriculum (e.g. Ratcliffe et al, 2001). These debates can be informed by the kind of analysis presented here. It may be unwise to attempt to specify what should be taught, in the absence of an understanding of how science is actually being represented in classrooms. We have to look at suggestions of what ought to be in the context of what is, if we are to decide whether they represent an improvement.

The following sections:

  • give more background on the research methods;
  • explicate six 'nature of science' factors extracted from survey data, and their distribution in the survey sample;
  • introduce five case study teachers and show how each is positioned in relation to the six factors by the survey responses that each of them gave;
  • describe the views of science each of the five teachers expressed in interview, and those made explicit in or inferred from their practice;
  • compare the case study teachers' positions in relation to the six factors with their views derived from interview and observations of practice;
  • evaluate the robustness and validity of the six factors;
  • discuss the place and nature of science in primary teachers' professional understanding.

Research methods

A pilot project conducted in 1995-96 explored primary teachers' perceptions of the nature of science and the purposes of primary science education (Lunn, 1996). An initial analysis of the literature was carried out to identify the main positions on the nature of science that might be taken, and the main issues on which these positions differed. This involved reviewing the positions of philosophers, historians and sociologists of science; the research into the public understanding of science; the research into the views of the nature of science held by teachers and students; and educationalists' views on the nature of science and science learning.

This analysis identified the following aspects as important in the characterisation of various positions:

i]the different referents of the term 'science';

ii]the disciplines within science and their inter-relationships;

iii]relationships between scientific and other disciplines;

iv]the status of scientific knowledge;

v]criteria of demarcation;

vi]scientific method;

vii]the processes of science;

viii]patterns of change in science;

ix]science in society;

x]the nature of scientists.

Each of these aspects was broken out into the range of issues that had been abstracted from the literature: for example at the next level of detail, views of the status of scientific knowledge could be characterised in terms of positions on:

i]the confidence with which it can be held;

ii]whether it has a special status in relation to other forms of knowledge;

iii]what it is knowledge of;

iv]the criteria for its acceptance as valid knowledge;

v]its scope or universality;

vi]the relationship between discovery and creation in its development.

Analysis of the pilot data suggested that individual teachers' positions could be rich and complex, and were perhaps dependent on scientific and social context (Lunn & Solomon, 2000). The results of each individual's interview were combined to give a domain mapping containing only those conceptualisations and distinctions enunciated by teachers in interview. This formed the basis for the design of the survey instrument and interview schedules used in the main project.

The research called for both depth, in terms of insights into individual teachers' thinking, and breadth, in terms of wanting to say something about primary teachers in general: hence the combination of case study and survey methods in the research design for the main project. Depth was provided by five case studies of individual primary teachers, purposively selected, each involving a series of interviews and lesson observations over an eighteen-month period. Teachers' planning was interrogated using protocol analysis (Ericsson & Simon, 1993), and biographical and reflective data were collected. The analyses looked at the views of the nature of science and the personal pedagogic theories of the teachers both as expressed in interview, and as constructed in the classroom and expressed in their practice. Breadth was provided by the survey, which also included sections on respondents' science education and their views on primary science teaching.

A major weakness of quantitative research is the lack of depth with which survey answers can be probed, leading to doubts about internal validity. In the eyes of many, perhaps including some policy-makers, a major weakness of qualitative research is its case-specificity – we want to go beyond the cases studied but run into the problem of generalisation or external validity (Foddy, 1993; LeCompte and Goetz, 1982). Here the approach taken involved 'intersecting' the case study and survey strands: the case study teachers completed survey forms, and the rather abstract questions requiring a simple response in the survey were contextualised and explored in detail in interview, enabling the internal validity of the survey to be assessed (Brickhouse et al, 2000). Further, it meant that each of the five case study teachers could be positioned in relation to the wider population of primary teachers, and thus their typicality could be gauged, in relation to the variables in the survey. The research methodology is discussed more fully in Lunn (forthcoming).

Six ‘nature of science’ factors

The questionnaire contained 36 questions relating to the nature of science, each taking the form of a statement (derived from the pilot study as described above) and a five-point level of agreement scale. Factor analysis, a way of grouping multiple variables into ‘factors’ that ‘explain’ large chunks of variance, was used to compress these data. Six factors emerged, explaining 82% of the variance (N=61, factor loadings>0.7, p<0.05). These factors were stable across various combinations of method of extraction, encouraging some confidence in their validity (Hair et al., 1995). The factors were labelled as follows (percentages show the proportion of the total variance explained by each factor):

Scientism 19%

Naïve empiricism 17%

New-age-ism 15%

Constructivism 11%

Pragmatism 10%

Scepticism 9%

These labels are shorthand tags: what each means is a set of variable loadings. For example the scientism factor loaded heavily on the views that:

  • applying the scientific method will eventually lead us to the truth (.870)
  • there are no mysteries that could not ultimately yield to scientific enquiry (.842)
  • science is the only way of finding out about the reality that lies behind the world of appearances (.794).

Translating the factors and variable loadings into English yields the characterisations of the factors and tentative interpretive commentaries given in Table (i).

Five case studies

Table (ii) summarises the backgrounds of the case study teachers. Names and identifying information have been changed to avoid compromising the anonymity of the participants.

Figure 1 shows how the five cases are positioned on the six factors.

Table (iii) summarises analyses of their observed practice in terms of an analysis frame derived from personal theories of teaching and learning expressed in interview.

Andrew and Linda seemed to have much in common in their personal pedagogies, but had very different backgrounds in science. Both were very effective teachers of science, according to colleagues and students. Irene, less experienced in teaching but with a strong technical background, may have been constrained by the demands of teaching an examination year in a difficult school. Her pedagogy was strongly connectionist. Keith was thoroughly disillusioned with teaching and was to leave the profession soon after the project ended. Howard had been teaching for a long time, and was looking forward to retirement.

The five case study teachers' views of the nature of science

The following sections attempt to give the teachers' views of the nature of science, and the views of science manifest in their practice. The accounts contain only straight quotes or close paraphrases of what was said in interview, and said and done in planning sessions and in interaction with students. Many of the points were reiterated several times in various forms and contexts.

 Andrew

Andrew sees science as playing a part, alongside other areas of learning, in understanding and explaining our lives and experiences. It is demarcated by characteristic processes, focused on the material world, which constitute ‘scientific method’. Scientific method produces facts and knowledge applicable beyond the context of their discovery, but provisional - it is not foolproof. Scientific knowledge increases cumulatively: theories can be ‘renewed and changed’ both in the light of new knowledge and new facts, and as a result of asking better questions or making better interpretations. Science investigates the reality behind phenomena, which is not necessarily accessible to the senses. To do so it uses scientific theories, ways of explaining facts and phenomena, perhaps in terms of models of the underlying reality. Theories consist of systems of ideas put into a framework. New theories often require new frameworks, new ways of looking at previous findings and theories. Different disciplines are of equal standing; the validity of a knowledge claim is established by the procedures within the discipline, and thus validity is a within-discipline rather than an across-disciplines quality.

Comparing a scientist’s and a shaman’s knowledge of rain-forest fungi, Andrew began by arguing that they are equally valid, though reached by different routes for different purposes. On reflection he decided that the shaman’s beliefs, though based on many generations of trial and error, are likely to be integrally bound up with rituals and belief systems whose validity he rejects [the parts of the shaman’s knowledge that he accepts as valid are those that are compatible with the causal models of a ‘scientific’ world view].

On scientific literacy, he quoted ‘a little learning can be a dangerous thing’ in order to disagree, saying ‘a little learning is probably better than no learning at all’. The source of the danger in a little learning is that its possessor is unaware of how little it is: thus a major goal of education for scientific literacy should be for people to learn enough to understand how little they know as individuals, and how little science knows as a whole.

He argued that science and morality are intractably connected, science being the engine of change, informing how we view ourselves and what we are, and leading to potentially unlimited restructuring of our ‘moral and value framework'.

On the role of science content knowledge in primary teaching, he argued that a good basic knowledge of a subject is necessary in order to teach it, noting that this is difficult when teaching nine or ten subjects, and more difficult the older the students are. As a minimum, a primary teacher should start at GCSE Grade C (GCE 'O' level) standard or above, in each subject they teach: if they are interested and motivated 'they will take it on from there'.

Outside school Andrew follows science in the media, including reading specialist magazines like New Scientist, and is interested in astronomy and environmental issues. Discussing a real-world issue, Andrew argued that as the research had not been done, there was no definite answer, observing that in relation to this and other issues, 'we often act on evidence which really doesn’t have much basis in reality, simply because it comes from school handouts, official headed paper, or is said very convincingly'.

Andrew's practice suggests that science should be conducted in a methodical and orderly manner. Measurement in standard units, to give quantified results, makes results comparable and communicable, and avoids inter-observer differences of interpretation. In science we are concerned to establish evidence that is as reliable and complete as possible: hence the need to repeat tests, and to test all relevant variables. Having established real differences we can then look closer to seek explanations for them. If we do not have the ideal equipment for the tests we want to carry out, we have to think hard, improvise, and get the results somehow, accepting a degree of inaccuracy if necessary, but 'never cheating': science relies on the personal integrity of scientists.