What is Teaching the Process of Science

Initial Publication Date: February 17, 2009

What is Teaching the Process of Science?

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This module was authored by Anne E. Egger, Stanford University, as part of a collaboration between Visionlearning and the SERC Pedagogic Service, and includes the products of a July 2009 workshop on Teaching the Process of Science.

students measuring temperature of compressed gas as it is released from can
Teaching the process of science means going beyond the content to help students understand how we know what we know and giving them the tools they need to think scientifically. Most importantly, it involves making explicit references to the process of science (Lederman, 2007 ) and allowing students time to reflect on how they have participated in the process (Schwartz et al., 2004 ).


During the 1990's, both the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Research Council (NRC) developed science education standards that included components of the nature and process of science (AAAS, 1993 ; NRC, 1996 ). The National Science Education Standards developed by the NRC include standards such as, "Scientists have ethical traditions. Scientists value peer review, truthful reporting about the methods and outcomes of investigations, and making public the results of work." As a scientist, you probably read that sentence and think it's an obvious statement. As an educator, however, do you include material that explicitly addresses that standard in your teaching the way you include the types of plate boundaries or the structure of an atom?

Despite the proliferation of definitions of the nature of science (see AAAS, 1993 ; Lederman, 2007 ; NRC, 1996 ), there is broad agreement that a complete understanding of science, often referred to as scientific literacy, involves developing an understanding of four major ideas:
  • the content of science – the theories, observations, ideas, and concepts that together form a body of knowledge about the natural world;
  • the process and development of science – how scientific knowledge was developed and how it continues to evolve;
  • the nature of scientific knowledge – the characteristics of scientific culture and the knowledge that results from the process of science;
  • how science influences society – how science influences our lives, including through technology, legislation, politics, etc.
Even a brief examination of most college science textbooks highlights the reality that textbooks focus almost exclusively on the first bullet – the content knowledge. We would never teach another subject this way. Consider teaching French by giving a student a French-English dictionary and Voltaire in the original. Instead, we build up the knowledge of grammar, sentence construction, and then gradually introduce more complex literature, with the ultimate goal of allowing students to actually read Voltaire in the original rather than translate one word at a time.

What does it involve?

Students conducting pH and conductivity tests in the field
Teaching the process of science therefore requires going beyond what is offered in most textbooks, but that doesn't mean it has to replace the content you want to teach.
  • In a lecture course, for example, "teaching the process" can mean reorganizing a lecture to show how our understanding of a concept has developed historically, emphasizing contributions from many scientists, and the complications and dead-ends along the way.
  • In a lab- or field-based course, "teaching the process" can mean designing activities that allow students to actually engage in a real process of inquiry.
  • In all cases, "teaching the process" means making explicit reference to those aspects you wish to teach - if students are creating posters to describe the results of their inquiry, you need to make an explicit connection to scientists presenting their research at professional meetings.
Wondering why you should bother? Keep reading...