History of Science and Science Teaching

History of Science

Teaching Science using History of Science

Physics Teaching

I mean “Science” widely conceived, inclusive of applications, medicine, technology etc. as well as the sometimes forgotten branches of science e.g. geology. This is the meaning of the word in the name of “The British Society for the History of Science“, an organisation which is well worth exploring, or if you are a teacher, try the BSHS education section.

If you are a teacher in the UK, you will may already know about the Association for Science Education, ASE, the Science Museum the STEM project (an internet data base of museum resources for students and teachers), the Institute of Physics, IOP, or your subject group. Or, internationally try theĀ Resource Center for Teachers Using the Sociology, History and Philosophy of Science in Science Teaching, SHiPS, History and Philosophy of Science Science Teaching group (HPSST), or the International Commission for the History of Science and Technology Teaching Section. There is a pretty comprehensive source of international sites about history of science here.

I have never worked with science the way in which I originally wished to. My childhood dream was to be a scientist – something in astronomy or cosmology – and I was still on this kind of track when I got my first degree in Applied Maths ( a First Class from Queens University Belfast). However, even though I became side-tracked, for quite a while I was a physics teacher. I feel strongly that the teaching of science, like much teaching, somehow manages to be quite competent, but at the same time misses the point of living and learning (as many enterprises seem to – so many of us seem to feel only half-alive for much of the time). My discoveries seem to have been about learning, and interest in what it means to be human in a wonderful world. Why are more people not interested in science? Is it because there is a misperception that it is about facts and believing what one is told – by the book of nature, or the school text-book? In wondering what happened to curiosity, apart from its being idle or killing the cat, I found myself involved in thinking about thinking (see ways of thinking page), rather than thinking about science. Read on, for thinking about science, and the teaching of science, with wonder and curiosity…

Science is essentially about NOT knowing, and the journey from there to knowledge about something – something real. The history of science, from its theories to its social and institutional contexts, shows us how people have thought in order to discover, and in order to demonstrate, justify or use what has been discovered. The notion that science is about facts seems to me to be a matter of trust in people who have already done some of this work, but this is only half the story.

In my doctoral thesis, I studied the ideas of Michael Faraday, one such person who trusted what was already known and at the same time queried the anomalies and uncertainties and wondered about ‘prejudiced thinking’. What he could do, was hold an apparent contradiction in mind. He bridged a dependence on authority with the capacity to question authority. From his work and the way he did it, I found the idea of a kind of psychological bridge. It allows learning which is new and imaginative, and which can be shown to be real and usable. My thesis explored Faraday’s work and his own thoughts on “Mental Education”, concluding that his capacity for discovery and creativity was an instance of what psychoanalytic thinking calls ‘learning from experience’, something which demands emotional courage and self-questioning. [Where Faraday learnt this is another story, which can only be guessed at]. It is however significant that Faraday began the Christmas Lectures for Children, as it would seem that he was empathically able to understand curiosity, wonder, and imagination, at the same time as doing what psychoanalysts would now call reality testing. He said “subjecting it (the imagination) to the ithurial spear of experiment“. Most of my papers on teaching science refer to Faraday’s own views on learning, because they are as alive now as they were when written, however Victorian the language. Make contact if you would like to discuss Faraday, or ‘learning from experience’, or get copies of publications.

The use of the history of science in teaching furthers and enhances thought about science itself. One most important consequence is that students can become thinkers and develop an attitude characterized by enjoying thinking. The historical material is used as a psychological bridge to allow pupils to become involved with both feeling and reason in ideas, to identify subjectively with the process by which more objective knowledge in science has developed. They become learners who appreciate what “not-knowing” and “finding-out” can mean and are thus less dependent on their teachers for thought but will use a teacher’s knowledge as a resource for their own thought. The consequent resolution of learning anxieties means that pupils are better able to think for themselves and develop a surer internalized knowledge of scientific concepts.

In a more general sense, a list of ways in which the history of science enhances teaching of science might be:

1. History is a quarry of experiences
2. It clarifies similarites and differences between old and new science
3. It illustrates science as a powerful and dangerous adventure of mankind
4. It illustrates limits and boundaries within science (the valid and the invalid)
5. It shows science as process
6. It allows predictions and extrapolations
7. It illustrates science as a cultural synthesis
8. It opens the eyes for mythical and imaginative dimensions in science
9. It introduces philosophy, what is knowledge, what is real etc

and last, but so important that the BSHS education group leads with it,

10. History re-establishes humanness in science.

The latter is more than ever needed now, as it is humanness and human values, which enable the power of science to used with humility and wisdom, ethics and empathy. The world and its people need this kind of being in touch and caring.

Needless to say, it is not only history which establishes humanness in science. There are many other ways by which ideas can be developed through the subjective experience of science, rather than through the notion of objectivity more usually associated with it. For example, Drama and Art also make psychological bridges. (I have given talks on Drama in science teaching – Comedy Tragedy or Documentary at ASE in Reading, 1999, and elsewhere). Some comment about these and other important ways to recognize humanity and identity in teaching science are also on the BSHS education site and are often part of the programmes, meetings and publications of BSHS, or its counterparts in Canada, USA and elsewhere.

History of science is cross-disciplinary, as well as containing a spectrum of approaches, attitudes and explorations of the ways in which assumptions, thoughts, beliefs and bodies of knowledge come into being. Both history of science and psychodynamics, usually separately, explore relationships between individual identity, personality, and thought, and the cultures which create change and growth. They can however inform each other as BSHS showed with its imaginative conference in July 1998, Psychoanalysisng Robert Boyle, published in a special edition of BSHS Journal.

At any level, and any age, learning through the unknown and complex, and with human subjectivity, also seems to connect naturally with a sensitivity to ethics and values, seeing science as part of an ecological way of being in relation to the world and the universe. Lets have more of it.

Learning science as a way of thinking about unknowns can happen at any age, but only if the context for learning allows it and allows the mistakes and errors which arise while learning. Until science teaching, and teaching in general can model such a context, it is not surprising that many learners reject the idea of science, or worse, learn a kind of science which is concerned with omnipotent controlling rather than relating. I found teaching with a use of history of science helped to make the inner bridges which enabled pupils to start from unknowns. (Crawford,1993, Using History to Develop Thinking here or

If you find what I have said interesting, I would like information about your activities or site, so that sites can become more collaborative, a joint way of finding more human, less invasive, ways to teach and learn.

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