A More Scientific Approach to Science Education

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November 9-11 • The Heights School, Potomac, MD

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From the Initiative for the Renewal of Science Education series.

Not scientific?

A serious problem in science education today is an ironic one: science education too often fails to be scientific. This is admittedly an odd statement. How can science education be non-scientific? Isn’t anything that has to do with presenting scientific knowledge necessarily scientific?

To begin with, what is being asserted is not that scientific knowledge is somehow not scientific. That would be nonsensical. What is being asserted is that science education today too often fails to proceed in a scientific manner, in a manner that fosters both scientific understanding and thinking. The problem is not with what is being taught. For the most part, the scientific knowledge that is being conveyed is accurate and scientific enough. The problem is with how this knowledge is being taught and with what is not being taught.

And this points toward a need for educators to more deeply understand both what modern science is and the methods by which it advances. To develop this deeper understanding of the nature of science, it is useful to start with considering how the concept of science evolved as the medieval era gave birth to the modern era.

The meaning of science before modern times

The meaning of the word “science” has changed somewhat over time. In medieval times, before the scientific revolution, the word meant a unified body of knowledge that considers a particular subject matter according to a point of view. Medical science is concerned with understanding the human body and what influences it so as to promote health. Ballistic science is primarily about propelling objects through space, often with a military objective. The human body could be considered as a projectile under the science of ballistics, but in this case it really does not matter that the body is a human body.

In this older understanding, scientific knowledge is certain because it is derived from previously known principles. Deductive reasoning is fundamental. Euclidean Geometry is an excellent example of a traditional science, since it starts with known principles and proceeds to derive a clear body of knowledge. Beginning with five reasonable assumptions, Euclid rigorously derives a significant body of geometrical knowledge.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) has this understanding of science very much in mind when he notes that the highest science is the divine science,[1] which is God’s knowledge of Himself, the knowledge present in the dynamic inner life of the Trinity. For us the highest science is Theology, based on God’s revelation to us, a revelation patterned on the divine science and intended to draw us into a relationship that culminates in participation in the fullness of God’s inner Trinitarian life. The truths of Theology have certitude on a higher level than any human science, as these truths are based on the truthfulness of God’s communication to us. Theology rightly makes use of philosophy, especially metaphysics, to understand and express its truths. And other sciences, such as aforementioned medical science and ballistic science, have a rightful, although limited, autonomy based on their particular principles. It is the place of theology to judge other sciences but not to provide their principles. This respect for the relative autonomy of human sciences and the created order in general, of nature with its intrinsic principles, opened the space necessary for modern sciences to develop.

Modern science

Today people sometimes still use the word “science” in the traditional sense to refer to knowledge. A modern science like chemistry has both a subject matter – specifically materials – and a point of view important for considering this subject matter – specifically the structure, properties and reactions of these materials.

The main difference between traditional and modern science has to do with method. Both traditional and modern science begin with previous knowledge or information and proceed to conclusions. But whereas traditional science favors beginning with analytical principles like Euclid did, modern science starts with data collected from observations, commonly gathered with the aid of instruments of varying degrees of sophistication.

Scientists use inductive reasoning to develop models based on this data. They carefully study the data, looking for signs of order, especially patterns that can be stated as scientific laws. Deductive reasoning plays a role in using developed models to make predictions and to discern further causal relationships. Scientific theories provide a coherent system of principles that explain stated laws and can be used to make further predictions, which ideally can be empirically tested. A good theory is supported by consistent and properly analyzed data from replicable experiments.

Since scientists use an inductive process to develop laws it is fair to say that most laws are approximately true, accurately describing phenomena under certain conditions. It is not surprising that a law, as is the case for any scientific model, can break down under extreme conditions. Newton’s famous law that force equals mass times acceleration (F = ma) works well under typical terrestrial conditions but, as Einstein explained, breaks down at unusually high speeds. All scientific laws and theories necessarily lack complete certainty. They are working models that have explanatory power and limitations. New data which challenges the existing laws or theories can emerge at any time. Indeed, good scientists look for such data, using controlled experiments to determine conditions where predicted results actually occur. Settled science, while possible for traditional science, is a myth for modern science inasmuch as theories can always be improved.

Scientific thinking and human knowing

That modern science does not yield absolute certainty should not bother us. The methods of modern science are actually not that different from how we commonly approach knowing things in everyday life. A typical person gradually comes to a better understanding of various human matters through reflecting on the data of his or her experience. The speculative exercise of deducing truths from givens does have its place; but this type of reasoning is often integrated with a more inductive approach, especially when making practical judgments. To make a prudent judgment in a particular situation one needs to consider a broad range of factors, converging probabilities based on experience as well as sound moral principles.

The best thinking in science involves coming to a comprehensive understanding of where theories and laws come from so as to accurately assess their explanatory power and limitations. Scientific thinking, as in human reasoning broadly considered, consists in evaluating the evidence for certain claims and how this evidence holds up under careful scrutiny. For scientists, this necessarily requires some familiarity with experimental design, data collection, statistics and all the analysis that supports correlating different factors. Admittedly some of this knowledge is specialized and can be somewhat technical. But equally important is a grounded understanding of the history of how thinkers have gathered and interpreted evidence, and how subsequent thinkers have advanced our understanding through further analysis based on new evidence and expanded conceptual frameworks. This story of science is accessible to those with limited technical expertise. It can be presented to students in an age-appropriate way, with varying levels of sophistication.

Science education and human agency

Science education will only be able to form future scientists if it proceeds in a scientific way, if it encourages scientific thinking. This means that students need to be treated as rational agents who are capable of evaluating evidence and reaching conclusions that are proportional to the evidence. Rather than fostering unthinking reliance on existing theories to explain the world, science education should show how real world data has led to laws and theories, as well as how our understanding has changed over time. This historical approach is one way to respect the agency of the student as a knower.

Unfortunately, much current science teaching tends to begin with theoretical knowledge and then show how observed phenomena are consistent with this knowledge: the theory is fundamental and the purpose of science education is to show how the theory can be used to better understand phenomena. This is backwards. It promotes the habit of surrendering personal intellectual sovereignty to experts, as if reality is not accessible to human reason, and the role of the student is to rely on experts rather than strive for personal understanding. This approach may help to form compliant technicians. But it will be difficult for students educated in this way to become scientists. They will lack the perspective necessary to understand the world and advance our thinking.

Science education should proceed in a manner that supports scientific thinking. A good place to start envisioning what such an education looks like is the scientific method. The scientific method proceeds by first making observations and gathering data, then organizing this information into laws and finally seeking causal explanations stated as theories; deductive hypotheses tested by experiment then have their role, but the process of theory-formation cannot be neglected. Correspondingly, science education should begin with fostering an encounter with the real world. From this starting point, students go through the reasoning process that leads to laws and theories. This dynamic plays out differently for different ages of students.

Young children

Young children need to spend time observing and interacting with nature and simple machines. While much of this should take place at home, a good school can foster projects and activities that help. Whether at home or at school, young children should be taking walks through fields and forests. They should go on creeking expeditions. They should keep a nature journal where they draw and record what they observe. They should be given simple tools – like hammers, saws and screwdrivers – and encouraged to build things, from book shelves to tree forts. They could split wood using axes and wedges. These sorts of things give them the experiential basis for later scientific learning about plants, animals, the environment, materials, friction, pressure and torque.

An ideal science classroom for young students would be part workshop, part habitat for plants and animals and part laboratory. Students could make things such as rope, cloth, dyes, lye, bows and arrows, jerky, glue and soap. They could move heavy things using levers, rollers, inclined planes, and pulleys. They could take apart and reassemble a bicycle. They could care for animals, raise chickens, study rocks (flint, obsidian, sandstone, limestone, salts, pigments; igneous (volcanic), sedimentary and metamorphic rock) and plant a garden (first inside then outside in the spring). And a good introduction to the use of laboratory equipment could be weighing a beaker of water and a sample of salt both before dissolving the salt and after doing so.

Some might object that this vision of science education for young children is overly romantic, or perhaps that it lacks rigor. Shouldn’t children learn science from a textbook and class notes taken while sitting at their desks? In response it is fair to say that young children do need to read materials as part of their science education (although perhaps texts that differ somewhat from most current textbooks). They also need to spend some time taking class notes and interacting as a class with the teacher. But it is arguably more important that they have rich experiences of the real world. If they do not have an experiential knowledge of nature, materials, motion and tools then they will be severely disadvantaged when trying to later understand laws and theories based on observations and data gathered about real world objects and phenomena.

Middle years

The experience of interacting with the real world gradually leads students to recognize patterns. The human desire to understand and order knowledge of reality leads, especially as the child ages, to middle school students open to learning about laws and theories. Hands-on projects are still important, especially when these projects are designed for scientific discovery. A middle school student could design and build a machine to measure the relationship between gas pressure and volume. As a gas is compressed it makes sense that it pushes back with increasing pressure. If a device is well crafted it may be possible to gather measurements that can be analyzed to derive Boyle’s Law (P1V1=P2V2).

As students get older they are better able to learn in a traditional classroom setting. This need not mean that experiential knowledge of the real world is necessarily downplayed, replaced by formal academic instruction. Not every encounter with the real world needs to be a hands-on experience. Especially as the child matures, it is appropriate to learn about real world phenomena through topical units. Students could study about the challenges mountain climbers face at high elevations: changing boiling temperatures of water, becoming increasingly more difficult to breathe and the need to carry extra oxygen. A teacher could capture student interest by giving a brief history of the attempts to summit Mt. Everest. On the topic of pressure, students could also learn about submarines and deep-sea exploration. A history of the use of projectiles in warfare from catapults to cannons to rockets would provide ample fodder for understanding such things as Newtonian physics and the chemistry of rocket fuel combustion. On the topic of combustion, students could learn how most fires, including a campfire and a stovetop gas fire, involve the reaction of a hydrocarbon fuel with the oxygen in the air, yielding carbon dioxide and water as well as releasing heat energy. Knowledge of the Manhattan Project could only help students better understand relativity and particle physics.

Teaching the history of scientific discovery should have a privileged place in science education, especially from the middle school years on. As already noted, there is significant educative value in teaching where scientific laws and theories come from. Students who understand the history of this thinking are better able to think scientifically themselves. Good teachers will not merely teach the history of science as an academic exercise consisting primarily of dates and events. They will tell the story of scientific discovery by explaining the evidence that scientists were grappling with and encouraging the students to think through the process whereby conclusions were reached. The best teachers will provide students with the experience of “standing alongside” famous scientists from history as they thought through evidence in a new way, as horizons of understanding expanded. Rather than simply presenting a chemistry class with the periodic table in its current form, a teacher could recreate the challenge Dmitri Mendeleev and others faced as they attempted to better understand the patterns displayed by the known elements. A student who understands the questions which the periodic table answers will be better prepared to understand and use this helpful scientific model.

Older students

The historical approach to learning science should continue in high school and even beyond. Scientific knowledge is almost always better learned when someone understands the context in which it was developed. Even so, older students are ready for a deeper dive into theory. And they are ready to begin grappling more with the analytical and mathematical side of scientific problem solving. Many high school and undergraduate college textbooks do a good job helping students learn how to solve complex problems, especially through providing helpful practice exercises. Both calculus and statistics are important tools that those interested in focusing their studies in the sciences will need to learn, along with technical knowledge of experimental design and such things as the difference between correlations and causes.

Moving forward

Modern science is all about understanding the order in the natural world. It proceeds from observations of natural phenomena to models with varying degrees of explanatory power. Broadly speaking, this way of thinking is very much a human way of thinking. It is not that different from the way people make judgments on a daily basis. It is possible to teach modern science in a way that is informed both by what science is and by how we learn. The good news is that these two objectives match harmoniously: to approach reality with a scientific mindset is to approach reality in a very human way.

We have argued that this means that science education, both the curriculum used and the teaching of that curriculum, should begin with phenomena and proceed to theory. When scientific theory is presented as fundamental, in the sense of both what comes first and as the given from which we start, we do a disservice to students and also violence to scientific knowledge and its advancement. Students must be treated as rational agents capable of evaluating evidence for themselves, capable of being sovereign knowers. Students need to learn first about the real world, both through directly experiencing real things and through learning the exciting human story of science. For younger students, with less capacity for abstract thinking, this means lots of hands-on experiences and a training in observing and recording observations. For older students this means learning the theory “alongside” the scientists who originally followed the evidence. This admittedly means rethinking several aspects of science education and developing new curriculum materials informed by this vision. But what is at stake is nothing less than promoting scientific thinking in the next generation of scientists. If we fail in this task we risk stagnation: those who have the ability to develop into the thinkers who will advance knowledge for the benefit of society will instead be trained to be merely competent technicians.

The Heights seeks to launch a collaborative effort to improve science education.  We seek this for ourselves and our own science offerings, for other schools in the liberal arts tradition, and for STEM focused schools.  To learn more about this initiative, please click here or contact Michael Moynihan, project coordinator, at mmoynihan@heights.edu.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd, rev. ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920; New Advent, 2008): I, Q1, article 2.

Michael Moynihan

About the author:

Michael Moynihan


A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan earned B.A. degrees in history and science pre-professional studies with a concentration in the Honors Program from the University of Notre Dame. He graduated Summa Cum Laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America, he joined the faculty of The Heights School in 1995. He has taught chemistry, Advanced Placement chemistry, eighth grade science, ethics, math and religion, has coached The Heights’ cross-country team and founded The Heights Mountaineers program. Michael was named Head of the Upper School in 2002. He and his wife, Angela, have eleven children, with four sons here at the School.