The Association for Science Education
  1. Home
  2. Resources
  3. Welcome to Sci-Tutors
  4. Professional issues
  5. P1.6 History and Philosophy of Science and Science Education

P1.6 History and Philosophy of Science and Science Education


The history and nature of science and their relationship to science education are contested areas. However, the way science is taught inevitable provides implicit messages to learners concerning the nature of science - and even explicit messages about questioning, experimentation or evidence are undermined if these processes are not central to the learning process. This paper explores the nature of science as perceived from different perspectives: as 'bodies of facts', as 'theories', 'creative interpretation', 'investigation' and 'application'. It also reviews the rationales for and the importance of science education. In our modern world science and its applications are so pervasive and powerful that they impinge on virtually every aspect of life including: ethical, legal, economic, environmental, cultural, social, medical, spiritual and religious. A number of downloads are provided that provide additional resource together with a list of useful books and web-sites.

Evidence towards meeting a wide range of the Q standards can be gathered from this unit but the main focus is on Q7 and on the quality of their subject knowledge Q14.

Keywords: History, Philosophy, Nature of Science, Science Education.


1.0 Introduction
2.0 "What is this thing called science?"
3.0 Why does an Education in Science Matter?
4.0 Views about science
5.0 Science for Whom
6.0 Assessment changes
7.0 Web sites
8.0 Books: Alphabetical order

1.0 Introduction

Arthur Koestler (1959 p503) argues that until the seventeenth century science was based around Aristotelian philosophy and logic. Since the seventeenth century science has developed around the Newtonian model of empirical science. Despite Einstein and recent great scientists Koestler argues, science is still essentially Newtonian. This view remains open to debate.

There are a number of UK national and international groups who present different views about the Nature and Philosophy of Science. For example;

  • The British Society for the Philosophy of Science (BSPS)
  • The British Society for the History of Science (BJHS)
  • The Royal Society

Additionally a web search, through Google for instance will produce many pages of sites with articles dedicated to exploring the ideas and debates about the nature of science. Academic journals provide another source for articles and a search through the BEI or EBSCO host provide a range of other sources. Access to electronic journals usually requires and ATHENS password obtained through a University. Some web sites, such as that of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science have a wide range of links to other web sites, and have both open access and member’s pages.

There have been many influences upon science in its evolution to its current form. Religion, Politics, Society, and scientific and technological advances have in the past and continue to shape the direction of science. The information presented on this web site aims to provide some information, guidance and links to more detailed sources. 

Science is often presented as having several aspects. 

A simple starting point for understanding what science is suggests that science may be viewed as:

  • The factual knowledge? A collection of discrete disciplines (biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, etc) with clearly defined bodies of knowledge
  •  The theory building? The method of exploring and extending knowledge about the world
  •  The interpretation? Activities conducted by researchers in laboratories in extending and manipulating knowledge

With each one of these statements representing a particular model, view or aspect of science. Which of these three aspects or views are we most likely to find in your classroom?

Download P1.6_1.0a 'The History and Philosophy of Science an introduction'

2.0 “What is this thing called science?”

The question posed by Chalmers (1978, 2003) “What is this thing called science?” is not an easy one to answer. Indeed scientists and philosophers have been discussing this question for centuries.

Sometimes it is an individual discovery in science that is significant, sometimes it is the combination of several discoveries, and sometimes it is the connection between science and technology, that makes the discovery useful that is important. The significance of Newton’s work was that he drew together a number of strands to make a new synthesis, some would argue that his book PRINCIPIA is the greatest science book ever written.

The ideas of Newton and other scientists throughout Europe gave rise to what has been termed the scientific Revolution. Goodman and Russell (1999 p1) citing Butterfield suggest that the European Scientific Revolution “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes.”

Whether one accepts such arguments, completely in part or not at all, it is clear that the nature of science changed. It developed into the objectivist empirical process, the scientific enquiry method we know and use today. Observation and experiment were key to this process. 

This view of science as experimental has led to the formulation of the idea of scientific enquiry. In the English National Curriculum this is Sc1, and is the element that requires pupils to be active, to work practically and to plan and undertake investigations.

However (Huff (2003) argues that the skills and processes of scientific enquiry and investigation that dominate western technological society may not be so dominant in other cultures. Huff (2003) suggests that some Islamic groups in India and North Africa may not accept the processes of scientific investigation, and that these scientific principles challenge some of the bedrock views of Chinese society. Therefore we have an argument that particular cultures may challenge and disagree with the notion of scientific enquiry.

A further challenge to the notion of scientific enquiry and investigation comes from religious perspectives. Ferngren (2002) documents very well some of these controversies. Galileo (1564-1642) presented new and challenging ideas about science. These were seen; as Heretical by the Catholic Church and it was not until the 1990s that Galileo’s works were finally removed from the Pope's Heretical Book List. The impact of Religion upon science has been extensively documented in many books and journals such as the journal of the BJHS. Thus the emergence of new scientific ideas, or new technology may be uncomfortable to religious and other groups in society. 

Genetically modified crops, use of animals for testing new drugs, and human contraception are currently issues of challenge between scientific advance and moral and religious principles. The impact of HIV on society and the refusal to use contraception on religious grounds, as a protection from HIV is just one of many fields in which objective, empirical scientific enquiry clash with cultures religions and moral standpoints.

The museum to Dr Jenner in Berkley Gloucestershire (UK), and his discovery of a cure for Smallpox, although small has some fascinating exhibits. Several remind scientists and society that controversy between new discoveries in science and medicine and popular perceptions are no new phenomena.

Philosophers of science suggest that in the early years science was completely objective, rational and empirical. Evidence was collected through the scientific method. Historians of Science might dispute this view. Karl Popper argued that scientists selected data and observations to prove a theory, but true scientific theories were temporary and new evidence might render them false. Popper argued that scientists select data, thus data is not entirely objective it is subject to human choice. 

The Philosophical and Historical debate about science asks questions about the scientific method, the justification and reliability of science experiments. It also questions developments within different branches of science. For example does research into cosmology utilise the same principles of scientific method as cancer research. Is there a universal scientific model that fits all science research situations? As with most things scientific the deeper one digs the more complex the answers become.

Download P1.6_2.0a 'Wynne Harlen Science – What is it? (1996)'

3.0 Why does an Education in Science Matter?

The great achievement of the sciences, over the past three or four hundred years, has been to tell us important and interesting new things about ourselves and the world in which we live. They by no means tell us everything, or even the most important things we want to know about the world. But what they do uniquely, is to offer a knowledge that can be relied upon for action. This reliable knowledge is much more than a compendium of things that happen to have been observed it presents the world in novel and surprising guises, saying that things are in reality often not as they seem to be (Millar & Osborne Beyond 2000 Science Education for the Future London Kings College London section 4.1).

Science tells us, for example:

  • that diseases are carried by micro-organisms invisible to the naked eye; 
  • that heritable traits are carried by a chemical code; 
  • that all species have evolved from simpler organisms – Crufts dog show is a wonderful example of evolution of the dog from a common ancestor to the variety today
  • that all substances are made of tiny particles held together by forces which are electrical in nature 
  • that the many varied substances we see around us are made up of different rearrangements of the same few types of particles 
  • that we live on a rocky ball with a hot interior which circles the sun that the universe had its origin in a huge explosion – the big bang.

Acting on the reliable knowledge which science has produced, scientists have developed a staggering variety of artefacts and products, ranging from electric motors to antibiotics, and from artificial satellites to genetically engineered insulin for treating diabetes, which have transformed our lives and lifestyles (Millar & Osborne 1998 Beyond 2000 Science Education for the Future section 4.1).

So returning to the question what is science? The New Curriculum 2000 (for England) makes the following statements about the place of science.

The distinctive contribution of science to the school curriculum

Science contributes to the whole curriculum by stimulating and exciting pupils’ curiosity and their interest in, and knowledge of, phenomena and events of the world around them. Through their work in science, pupils are helped to understand major scientific ideas, to appreciate how these develop and contribute to technological change, and to recognise the cultural significance of science and its worldwide developments. Science offers a range of activities which can engage all learners by linking direct practical experience with ideas, developing key skills and encouraging critical and creative thought, through developing and evaluating explanations. Studying science enables pupils to understand the role of experimental evidence and models in evaluating explanations of phenomena and events. Pupils learn how technologies based on science have been used in industry, business and medicine, and how these developments have contributed greatly to the quality of life for most people. Pupils engage in questioning and discussion about science based issues which affect their lives, the society in which they live and the world as a whole and, through this become more confident in expressing views and evaluating decisions about such matters.

The research report Student Review of the Science Curriculum (2002/03) produced by Michael Reiss, Ian Murray and Bobby Cerini, gives an indication of student responses to science in the national Curriculum. This report can be downloaded from the Planet Science Website.

The English National Curriculum (QCA 1999) in the introductory section p1 to p39 reminds us of some of the broader aims of teaching such as; - promoting public understanding (p13) developing pupils moral development (p19) developing problem solving P21) the promotion of thinking skills (p23) and within the Science Programmes of Study the BREADTH OF STUDY component. Each of these areas supports teachers and trainee teachers in making science interesting, practical and relevant. They present avenues through which the History and Philosophy of science can be included and expanded within the curriculum.

4.0 Views about science

The ASE (1998) in their policy paper Science Education for the year 2000 and Beyond (Education in Science February 1998)) indicate how science in our everyday lives, knowledge and understanding and methods of scientific enquiry interrelate. (see figure 1)
Figure 1 The place of science in our everyday lives

Figure 1 The place of science in our everyday lives

Dorothy Warren, (2001) suggests presents an alternative model, which explores the interrelationships of scientific enquiry [Warren D. (2001) Chemists in a social and historical context London Royal Society of Chemistry p5].

Figure 2 Scientific Enquiry

Figure 2 Scientific Enquiry

A further view of science is the table (fig 3) developed by Nott & Wellington cited by Ratcliffe 2004
Mary Ratcliffe (2004) reviews the nature of science and uses the work of Nott and Wellington to reproduce the following table suggesting a range of views about science.

Figure 3 A Table of views of science by Nott and Wellington

Figure 3 A Table of views of science by Nott and Wellington

An issue here for teachers is whether their teaching allows time and opportunity to once in a while explore some of these wider issues of what science is and particularly who works in science. Information about women in science in particular should be shown to children, to challenge the stereotype image of male scientists.

Lunn (2002) established six characteristics views of science. His research then locates primary teachers within these six characteristics.
Figure 4 Six Characteristics of Science from Lunn (2002)

Six characteristics of sciencePercentage of primary teachers with this view
Scientific method will lead to the truth. There are no mysteries that will not eventually yield. Science is the only of finding out about the reality behind the phenomena.
Naïve empiricism
Science proceeds by trying things out to see what happens, and is driven by data derived from such observations. Progress is represented by the steady accumulation of facts.
New ageisim
Progress in science is illusory. It consists in the development of new ways of talking about the world that are not intrinsically better than older ways, just different. 
Science is rooted in attempts to construct explanations, which originate in discursive speculation and imagination. The explanations are of phenomena, which form part of theory mediated experience. 
Truth, coherence and correspondence with reality are not worth pursuing or are unattainable: what matters is the usefulness of science in helping us understand and influence our experience. 
Science has no claims to special ness, and is no more likely to be true than common sense.

Can you as a teacher identify which of these various models and characteristics that match with your own views? Are you perhaps a realist (figure 3) and a pragmatist? (Figure 4), or have you different conceptions?

I return to the question what is science? Is science

  • A collection of discrete disciplines, - biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, etc With clearly defined bodies of knowledge?
  • The method of exploring and extending knowledge about the world?
  • Activities conducted by researchers in laboratories in extending and manipulating knowledge?

Is school science a reflection of science in the real world, where scientists learn from each other and extend the boundaries of knowledge by research?
Is this last point a true view of classroom science?
Do we really mirror the world of research in science classrooms?
Do children see themselves as explorers of science, or as receivers of agreed scientific knowledge? Is there a different model of science for KS1, KS2 and KS3?

Science is a distinctive form of creativity human activity, which involves one way of seeing, exploring and understanding reality.  Science is not a homogenous activity generating a single form of knowledge. On the contrary there is a variety of distinguishable, but interconnected and overlapping disciplines within the scientific domain. All of these sciences are concerned with investigating and understanding aspects of the natural and man made world, albeit from different perspectives and with variations in the methods of enquiry used. The essential humanness of science is manifested in its modes of working, in its motivations and in the ways it affects and is affected by social and cultural and historical contexts (Scottish CCC 1996).

If as teachers we are to take science beyond a body of knowledge to use interpretation and creativity then it is clear that we as teachers will transmit values. Whether these values view science as knowledge or as a creative cultural endeavour.

As Driver and Miller (1996) suggest, children should gain:

  • Knowledge and understanding of some science concepts
  • An understanding that scientific endeavours are social human activities, involving value judgements and cultural contexts
  • An understanding of the processes (and skills) involved in the conduct and reasoning about science
  • Scientific literacy so that they may have some understanding and knowledge to apply to discussions in the media relating to science

It is also important to link Science and Technology. Indeed programmes such as Tomorrows World talk about science when they really mean technology. But much of technology is the application of science. The development of mobile phones is a good example of the continuous interaction between science and technology to improve the product and make it do more in a smaller physical size.

5.0 Science for Whom

The arguments suggest that science education has a role to play in creating a scientifically literate population.

This is no new cry Michael Faraday and others were saying the same things in 1852. However the science we now teach in primary school was unheard of in 1852, but the principle of keeping the populace up to date and educated in science remains a key issue.

However we have to ask is that the only role? Is a broad science education suitable for the child who wants to specialise in science? 

I have drawn on a number of historical scientific events in this discussion so far. Where are these situated in the current curriculum where do we study scientists such as Faraday, Newton, Galileo and Da Vinci?

There is also the assumption that knowledge is constant, but it is not. DNA was discovered in the 1950’s. Only since space flight, through unmanned long range probes and manned short range explorations has our access to and hence understanding of space really expanded. Stephen Hawkins cosmology research is breaking new barriers.

The Vatican has now established a specialist scientific research group to evaluate how science fits or challenges religious beliefs. Therefore the perception of knowledge and what it is will change over time.

In 1890 The Telegraph ran a lead scare story on the front page “Does Electricity cause Blindness?” We now know it does not. However this is a good example of how new scientific discoveries, become useful artefacts but cause concern and alarm from the public as they develop. In the 21st Century there are many Science scare stories. Part of the role of science education, as Millar and Osborne (1998) argue is to support the pupil in making sense of these new ideas.

In all the fields of science the most common bits of science that concern people are the Biological bits, the genetics, the cloning, the engineered food? Are there other bits we should know about? Or is it that newspapers themselves do not understand the physics and chemistry so leave it alone? 

Whether or not children are taught science they will develop their own ideas and understanding of science. In many cases these untutored views will be incorrect, creating misconceptions for the individual. Practical experiences in science can teach children how to identify good science questions, enable them to extend and enrich their learning and existing knowledge, and help them construct concepts from their experience.

6.0 Assessment changes

Summative assessment in science at KS1, KS2, KS3

At present (2004) Science is assessed at the end of Each Key Stage. At the end of key stage 1, the assessment is conducted through teacher assessment of children over a period of time. This teacher assessment is used to allocate an English National Curriculum Level to each individual child in a year two class. That is all 7 year old children.

At the end of Key Stage two, children in Primary Year 6 (that is 11 year olds) are assessed with science standardised test papers. There are two papers an A and a B. These papers have a range of questions relating to science knowledge and science enquiry. The children sit these papers in exam type conditions.

At the end of key Stage three children in year 9 (that is 14 year olds) are assessed with a science standardised test. There are two papers an A and a B and an extension paper C for more able children. These papers have a range of questions relating to science knowledge and science enquiry. The children sit these papers in exam type conditions.

Additional science assessment material

Primary schools may choose to use the science year 4 (that is 9 year olds) optional test papers. These are used however the school wishes and are intended to give a guide to science performance midway between the ages of 7 and 11.

Additionally in 2003 to 2004 the Qualifications and Assessment Agency, produced a new range of formative assessment material for KS1, KS2 and KS3. This is called Assessing Progress in Science. 

It is linked to the Assessment for Learning Agenda. The ten principles for Assessment for learning were first initiated by the assessment reform group. They produced a rainbow listing these principles. Thus can be viewed at

The Qualifications and Assessment Authority commentary on the Assessment for learning programme can be seen at.

The national (English) science assessment programme up to Key Stage three is therefore developing both formative and summative assessment material. This is because Scientific Enquiry is still considered to be very important, but its practical nature makes it problematic to assess in written tests.

In relation to the ideas expressed above about the nature of science. The (English) National Curriculum strongly emphasises that science is factual knowledge, and scientific enquiry requiring an understanding of science process and use of science methodology.
Information relating to the Assessing Progress in Science packs can be found on the QCA website, but the packs themselves need to be purchased from the QCA. 

7.0 Web sites

The Nature of Science, some related resources:

8.0 Books: Alphabetical order

  • Asimov A. (1987) Asimov’s New Guide to Science. Penguin London
  • Atkins P. (2003) Galileo’s Finger. The Ten great ideas of Science. Oxford Oxford University Press.
  • The ASE (1998) in their policy paper Science Education for the year 2000 and Beyond (Education in Science February 1998)
  • Chalmers A. F. (2003 third edition) What is this thing called science. Maidenhead Open University Press. 
  • Davis J (2000) Famous scientists and inventors. Activities for Key Stage 2. Birmingham Question Publishing.
  • Delanty G & Strydom P. (2003) Philosophies of Social Science. The Classic and Contemporary Readings. Maidenhead Open University Press

This book explores some of the arguments presented by a range of writers between 1895 and 2002. There are useful chapters about science from Otto Neurth (1929) Karl Popper (1934) Peter Winch (1958) Ernst Nagel (1961). These chapters provide short but illuminating perspectives regarding the philosophy of science. The question of validity and universal truth, as popper describes it continues to be a factor in the argument.

  • Fensham P, Gunstone R and White R. (1994) The Content of Science. A constructivist Approach to its Teaching and Learning. London Falmer Press.
  • Ferngren G. B., Science and Religion. (2002) A historical Introduction Baltimore Maryland The John Hopkins University Press
  • Goodman D. and Russell C. (1999 second edition) The Rise of Scientific Europe 1500 –1800 London Hodder & Stoughton
  • Guillen M. (1995) Five equations that changed the world London Abacus Press
  • Guest G., Ashcroft K & Postlethwaite K (2000) The nature & purpose of primary science in Ashcroft K. & Lee J Editors (2000) Improving teaching and learning in the core curriculum London Falmer Press
  • Huff t. E. (2003 second edition) The Rise of Early Modern Science. Islam, China and the West Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  • Koestler A. (1959) The Sleepwalkers London Penguin Books
  • Lee R. (2002) The Eureka Moment. 100 Key scientific discoveries of the 20th century London The British Library
  • Littledyke M., Ross K., and Lakin L., (2000) Science Knowledge and the Environment. A Guide for Students and Teachers in Primary Education.London David Fulton.
  • Lunn S. (2002) What We Think We can Safely Say …’ primary teachers ‘ views of the nature of science British Educational Research Journal Vol. 28 No 5 London Carfax Publishing
  • Millar R. and Osborne J. (1998) Beyond 2000 Science Education for the Future. Kings College London.
  • Oxford (1999) The Oxford Dictionary of Scientists Oxford Oxford University Press
  • Poole M. (1995) Beliefs and Values in Science Education. Buckingham Open University Press.
  • Ratcliff M. (2004) The nature of science in Sharp J Editor (2004) Developing Primary Science Exeter learning matters
  • Reiss M. J. (1993) Science Education fro a Pluralist Society. Buckingham Open University Press.
  • Sherrington (Editor 1998) The ASE Guide to Primary Science Education London Stanley Thornes
  • Warren D. (2001) The Nature of Science. London Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Warren D. (2001) Chemists in a social and historical context. London Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Warren D. (2001) Climate Change. London Royal Society of Chemistry

This section authored by Gordon Guest, UWE, Bristol

Published: 23 Nov 2005, Last Updated: 25 Mar 2008