Defining Science

By Michael Edmonds 19/02/2013 10


I was looking through the New Zealand Curriculum last week and came across it’s definition of science. I like it.

“Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modelling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to devleop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations. Scientific progress comes from logical, systematic work and from creative insight, built on a foundation of respect for evidence.”

While it is a longer definition than others I have seen I like it for a number of reasons.

First it points out that scientific progress comes not just from logical, systematic work but also from creative insight – that brilliant capacity to take what is known and extrapolate and think what if ….. For me it is these eureka moments that really make science exciting.

Second, I love the phrase “built on a foundation of respect for evidence”.

I wonder how many students actually see this definition and have it explained to them? It is fantastic.


10 Responses to “Defining Science”

  • As one of the writing team – thank you, kind sir! A lot of work went into getting that right. (Although, like you, I do wonder how many students are actually aware of it.)

    • Ahh, so I can thank one of those involved directly – well done Alison.
      I think it would be a very useful exercise for teachers to give it to their students and dissect the definition, section by section, looking at real world examples of each section. I’ll have to keep this in mind when I visit schools this year.

  • I like that the emphasis is on method- that is, science is a method or way of discovering things. I’ve encountered the perception that science is somehow, just about outcomes. You know, the whole “science is bad because it produced the Atom bomb” type of logic. It’s useful to bring it back to science is just a reliable way of discovering stuff out.

  • I had wondered that myself, Allan. I suspect that sometimes it tends to be just the ‘levels’ sections of the documents that are used in developing curricula at the school level.

  • That’s a lovely definition. Well done to you, Alison – pass it on to your fellow authors, too.

    Following the theme I’ve put up a quick post featuring a graphic I recently saw illustrating their idea of how science works (from the Berkley Understanding Science resource).

  • I too love that last phrase regarding respect for evidence.

    As someone who has been through secondary science (and maths and social studies) teacher training (and not come out as a teacher) I was under the impression that these blanket definitions at the front of the curricula were more for the teachers or resource designers than for the students. Especially for social studies, the whole point was trying to communicate these ideas to your students through intelligently designed (!) resources and teaching, rather than to use them as a definition of the subject. If you tried to tell a kid the definition from the social studies curriculum (from memory), their eyes would soon glaze over. “What does it MEAN???” So I guess in that way, unfortunately this lovely definition didn’t reach the students (not under my short time teacher training anyway – it might be different if you had a whole year with a class).

  • Great definition! But…

    One of the things that these definition often don’t capture is the Darwinian nature of science – generate (variations) , test (experiment), replicate (teach) if succesful. Because its an endless loop, all parts rest on all other parts.

    Ref: Plotkin – Darwin machines and the nature of knowledge.

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