The pedagogic importance of the history of science
History of science is an academic discipline with approximately a century of existence. Its aim is to understand the evolution of scientific practices and theories in their social and cultural contexts, as well as their mutual influences. Increasingly sophisticated researches have allowed us to form a broader picture of the history of various scientific fields, but this knowledge is useful not only to academics or to people curious about the lives and work of famous scientists. History of science can also play an important pedagogical role in science education, since it provides a means to develop other abilities in science students aside from the capacity to know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world.
Understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge. This is the most obvious contribution of the history of science. It is only by relying on the research of academics that have spent their lives studying scientists and their practices, as well as the ways in which their theories are proposed, supported, accepted or abandoned, that students can have a rigorous picture of the changes scientific knowledge undergoes through time. Science courses need to incorporate historical examples or to explain how scientific theories and practices evolved through time so that science students understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge.
Generating and evaluating scientific evidence and explanations. While studying how knowledge was built through time in order to address a scientific problem, students are bound to come across the observations that scientists have made in their daily practices and the conclusions they drew from them. Why did a scientist become interested in a problem? How did he or she experimentally approach it? What kinds of evidence were used to propose logical explanations? The intrinsic nature of a historical approach favors classroom activities that directly stimulate the students to think scientifically.
Participating productively in scientific practices and discourse. In the process of understanding and explaining the research of past scientists, students can be trained to articulate and present their ideas in a scientific language. Additionally, some historically important experiments can be either adapted for exploration in the school’s lab, or used as an inspiration to personal science projects that will be later shared with the school’s community.
To be sure, a full historical approach to scientific concepts such as evolution or genes, for example, is not suitable to students at any level of learning. Given the complexity of the approach, it will likely be more productive in high school and college education. It is also important to state that the use of a historical approach does not mean that history of science should replace science teaching. Scientific courses were created to teach science, and that remains a valid and socially useful function. There are concrete strategies that enhance science teaching by incorporating knowledge from the history of science, and some of them have already been characterized by educational researchers while developing an approach to learning termed imaginative education.
What is imaginative education and how can it help science education? See next page