History and Philosophy of Science, Cognitive Science and Science Education: Issues at the Interface

Kala L.1  and Jayashree Ramadas

Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education

V.N.Purav Marg, Mankhurd, Mumbai 400 088.

Science education of the sixties was dominated by curriculum reform movements. These movements, originating in the USA and UK, were inspired politically by the launching of Sputnik. The curricula were motivated by the need to communicate the nature of scientific inquiry, which it was assumed would also facilitate the learning of science. Despite initial enthusiasm, subsequent evaluations revealed that the new curricula faced numerous problems in practice. Some of these problems were attributed to a mismatch between the intended and actual nature of science reflected in the curricula.[#!hodson-88!#] [#!duschl-88!#]

Early research in education was pervaded by behaviorist notions of learning. Learning was considered to be a passive accumulation of facts. It was with Jean Piaget's work [#!piaget!#] that the presently popular constructivist paradigm in education replaced the behaviorist notions of learning. A prominent constructivist, Ernst von Glasersfeld [#!glaserfeld!#], however, traces the origins of this theory back to the Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Vico, who wrote a treatise De antiquissima Italorum sapientia in 1710. One of Vico's basic ideas was that epistemic agents can know nothing but the cognitive structures they themselves have put together. Vico emphasized that `to know' means `to know how to make' and humans can know only what they have constructed. According to Glasersfeld, constructivism is a form of pragmatism. It shares with pragmatism the attitude towards knowledge and truth, but differs from it in its predominant interest in how this knowledge, `that enables us to cope', is arrived at.

From Piaget's perspective, cognition is an adaptive function. Glasersfeld believes that the technical sense of the term `adaptive' comes from the theory of evolution, but has been misinterpreted by later researchers. He reads Piagetian construction of a scheme as consisting of three parts- recognition of a certain situation (eg. for an infant, presence of a graspable item with a rounded shape at one end), association of a certain activity with that item (eg. picking it up and shaking it) and expectation of a certain result (eg. the noise it makes). According to him, Piaget's learning theory may be summarized to say that, learning takes place when a scheme, instead of producing an expected result, produces a perturbation. The perturbation, in turn, produces an accommodation that establishes a new equilibrium.

Piaget's constructivism led to a transition in the conception of learning as an active process that took into account the learner's interaction with the environment. His work also gave the child's world and views a special and important place. In science education, a new dimension of research, viz. the study of micro-genesis of specific concepts emerged. Although some of this research was carried out in the framework of Piagetian stage theory, more popular were studies of the understanding of specific concepts in science. These studies continued to focus on the child's theory-building, while looking at microstructures rather than the Piagetian stages. [#!driver-78!#] The methodology of clinical research, which involves questioning based on the learner's interaction with certain physical objects in specific tasks, came to be widely used. The subsequent years led to the accumulation enormous amount of empirical data on children's conception of the world.

By this time, curricula developed in the US and UK were facing stringent criticism from the philosophy of science quarters. [#!jwssr!#] [#!hodson-88!#] Many of these teaching schemes had been developed to present science as a coherent system of ideas and to convey the spirit of scientific inquiry. However, in practice the curricula reflected a rather simplistic view of the scientific enterprise which was rooted in the empiricist belief that all knowledge is based on observation.[#!driver-83!#]

The justification for applying ideas from the philosophy of science to science education, could be found in the `child-as-a-scientist' metaphor, which had been subtly present since Piaget. Since children could be considered novice scientists, researchers in science education thought that philosophy of science, which attempted to lay down the foundations for science and scientists, could similarly be used to interpret children's conceptions of science and provide guidelines for the same. As Jere Confrey [#!confrey!#] has pointed out, philosophy of science allowed researchers to critique the underlying `inductive' conception of science which permeated science textbooks in the form of `the scientific method', and also helped interpret the empirical observation that students enter instruction with a firmly held set of beliefs.

Among the philosophers of science, Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos and Toulmin have been the most influential in science education research. Science educators motivated by Popper emphasize the hypothetico-deductive method in science curricula. Kuhn's idea of a paradigm [#!tkuhn!#] to refer to theoretical and methodological commitments shared by a community of scientists, led to the idea that children were like scientists in their rigid beliefs regarding concepts in science. Science educators argued that to alter student's conceptions required intellectual transformations similar to those accompanying a scientist's moving from one paradigm to another.[#!hodson-88!#] [#!careybk!#]

Conceptual change in students was seen in the light of Toulmin's proposal to replace Kuhn's revolutionary view of science [#!toulmin!#] with an evolutionary view. According to Toulmin, it is not the intellectual doctrine adopted by an individual or a group at a certain point of time that concern questions of rationality, rather, it is the conditions on which, and the manner in which they are prepared to criticize and change those doctrines over time. Toulmin stressed that conceptual change is not the mere replacement of one theory by another. It is rather a variant of the theory which is selected. In order to understand the progress of science it is important to identify what affects the selection of this variant. Following from Toulmin's work, science education researchers have attempted to study conceptual change in children particularly in the domain of science and also attempted to design methods to foster conceptual change.[#!nussbaum-83!#]

Lakatosian notion [#!imre!#] of a `hard core' in the context of resarch programmes in science has been invoked by science educators to re-emphasise the distinction between belief and knowledge. [#!cobern!#] Feyerabend's [#!paulf!#] argument that science cannot be characterised by any single `method' has also been acknowledged by various science educators. These ideas however do not seem to have influenced the practice of science education research or curriculum development.

In the following paragraphs, we will briefly instantiate some themes from the philosophy of science that have found a place in science education and have led to various research studies. The themes fall under two broad categories: domain-specific (related to the conceptual content of science) and domain-general (related to the conceptualization of science).