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Comparing students’ and scientists’ approaches to science

Students need to understand, at some level, the complexities of working science so they can draw on that understanding for socio-scientific decision-making in adult life.

The teacher is the mediator between the world of the student and the world of the scientist.

The role of the teacher is to help students learn where the products of science came from (that is, how those products originated as specific types of knowledge). Teachers need to simulate, as realistically as possible, the things scientists do.

Students need to understand, at some level, the complexities of working science (what scientists do) so they can draw on that understanding for socio-scientific decision-making in adult life.

Some students develop a sufficiently keen interest in science to extend investigations into questions of their own choosing. Others, whose only personal experience of ‘doing’ science takes place in core curriculum classes, will most likely take into adult life quite different images of science than the more actively-engaged students.

The following are examples of areas of comparisons between the scientists’ work and students’ (these are necessarily broad generalisations).

Area of comparison The scientists' approach The students' approach
Perceptions of purpose
  • Scientists hope to contribute to new knowledge through their scientific inquiries.
  • Scientists address authentic questions and have both an intellectual and an emotional stake in the answers they generate.
  • Students may hope to just complete the task and ‘look busy’.
  • Students often follow a ‘recipe’ for practical work which may lead to the belief that scientists already know what will happen, and use experiments to confirm their expectations (unless they make a mistake in the design and/or in carrying out the process).
Starting points
  • Scientists have deep knowledge of their field, of conflicting theories, of previous investigations (their own and others’) and of multiple possibilities for interpreting their evidence.
  • Scientists are skilled in their use of instruments and materials.
  • Students may have a beginner’s knowledge of the basic theory relevant to the investigation; and a beginner’s experience of:
    • managing the relevant variables
    • recognising what is happening
    • using measuring and observing tools and conventions.
  • Students are unlikely to have any knowledge or experience deeply connected to all the potentially relevant theory in the field of enquiry, nor to previous similar experiences.
The planning process
  • Scientists bring to the task their sense of purpose, urgency of their questions, and deep knowledge of the field.
  • Planning is often intellectually and practically challenging and compelling.
  • Scientists are likely to draw on the work of their peers; debating/arguing/challenging explanations and evidence.
  • Scientists may use a range of trials and detailed theoretical justification before deciding how to control variables.
  • Scientists may take much longer to devise a robust plan than it takes to carry out the final investigation.
  • Students often struggle, for even a seemingly simple investigation, to:
    • make sense of what is being asked of them
    • formulate hypotheses
    • undertake anticipatory planning.
  • Students generally prefer to ‘get on with it’ than spend time planning.
Actions undertaken
  • Scientists take whatever actions they perceive will maximise their chances of finding answers that will be convincing, both to themselves and to their peers.
  • Scientists aim for a robust result, and, if necessary, rethink, adapt and modify plans as the investigation unfolds.
  • On-going sequences of exploration are often impractical in the school situation, so each practical experience may have to stand alone.
Making meaning
  • Data gathered may not make immediate sense, or may require an understanding of the theory behind the design of the data-gathering instrument.
  • Even apparently ‘straight-forward’ evidence may be fiercely debated as to its meaning, depending on the theory used to interpret it.
  • Students may assume that the correct meaning of scientific data will be obvious by doing the experiment. (School science experiments are typically designed to produce ‘evidence’ whose meaning seems immediately apparent and easy to interpret.)
When it 'doesn't work'
  • Scientists use their deep experience of the field to help rationalise the most appropriate of a range of responses to anomalous data (findings that don’t fit the hypothesised pattern), that is, scientists discount or ignore anomalous data; hold anomalous data in abeyance; make minor changes to the theoretical basis of the design; change their theory as a result of what they find.
  • Students tend to associate anomalous data with mistakes, or with incomplete/missing evidence.
  • Students may think that scientists use their personal opinions to decide which data to accept or reject.


Hipkins, R. & Booker, F. (2002). You can’t investigate in a vacuum. Set: Research Information for Teachers, 3.