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The ‘Understanding about science’ strand

This substrand of the nature of science in the New Zealand curriculum document is the nuts and bolts of the nature of science. It is about science as a way of thinking. It is about scientific knowledge and how it is developed.

Understanding about science achievement aim

  • Learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.

Levels 3–4  achievement objectives

  • Appreciate that science is a way of explaining the world and that science knowledge changes over time.
  • Identify ways in which scientists work together and provide evidence to support their ideas.

Levels 5–6 achievement objectives

  • Understand that scientists’ investigations are informed by current scientific theories and aim to collect evidence that will be interpreted through processes of logical argument.

Knowledge systems

Science can be described as a particular way of thinking, developing thinking with a particular lens, a particular way of knowing the world. There are other ways of knowing the world. For example, a scientist will look at the stars as an astronomer, but an artist can look at these same stars and use their body of artistic knowledge to paint a masterpiece like Van Gogh.

A poet, with the body of knowledge of poetry, may look at the stars another way:


Stars (Haiku)
Myriad diamonds thrown
Clinging to blue velvet sky
Evening jewelry.
(Cynthia Buhain)

An economist could look at stars and see the economic potential of fusion energy as a virtually inexhaustible resource.

Each is a particular way of knowing with a particular knowledge system and particular practices.

Science as a knowledge system

Science is an explanatory system – it seeks to explain natural phenomena. Scientific explanations are not about the spiritual, emotional, economic, aesthetic and social aspects of human experience.

The nature of science refers to aspects of this science knowledge system such as:

  • what science is
  • how science works
  • how scientists work
  • how science describes and explains
  • how science establishes knowledge claims
  • how data becomes evidence
  • how science develops and changes over time
  • the reliability of scientific knowledge
  • the interaction between science and society.

The features of scientific knowledge

What makes science, science? What makes maths, maths? A particular set of values and principles underpin each discipline. There are values, such as curiosity, in every discipline (maths, philosophy, science, history and so on), but they are played out differently in each discipline. The value that makes science most unique is the empirical nature of science. Scientific explanations are empirically  based – they are based on observation of some kind and are testable.

Scientific knowledge has other particular characteristics also. For example, its development requires imagination and creativity. Also, scientific knowledge has a distinctive language.

These and other defining characteristics of scientific knowledge are explained, with examples from the Science Learning Hub, in the articles Describing the nature of science, Tenets of the nature of science and Myths of the nature of science.

Peer review

Another feature of scientific knowledge is that it must survive rigorous scrutiny by the scientific community. This is called peer review. Peer review can be initiated at conferences or by publication in scientific journals. It involves scientists exploring, discussing and critiquing the proposed explanation. The explanation may be accepted as science knowledge when there is general agreement that it is a valid way of explaining the world around us. It is this public consensus-making of scientific knowledge that attempts to decrease bias, since scientists can never be totally objective.

On-going inquiry

Scientific knowledge is developed by a process of on-going inquiry, sometimes over many months, years, decades or even centuries.

The processes by which science is developed

A common myth is that all scientists follow the scientific method. This is not so. There is no one single method or pattern that all scientists follow. Scientists can make observations, ask questions, gather data, interpret data, build on the work of other scientists, use models, carry out experiments – and they will carry out such processes in many different ways.

In order for science to progress, scientists will use whatever method suits the particular circumstances, the nature of the problem, the theory available, the facilities for observation and experimentation and their own personality and imagination, so there will be a myriad of starting points in scientific investigation and many different ways of carrying out any investigation. This makes perfect sense when you think of the many different fields of science, for example, ecology, biology, astronomy, meteorology – too diverse for there to be a single universally applicable method.

However, the absence of a single method doesn’t mean that scientists have no methods. There are common practices and shared values such as concern for clarity, accuracy, consistency with evidence and so on, but the particular methods chosen will be highly specific to the context.

The processes by which science is developed are described in the article The ‘Investigating in science’ strand.

The interaction of scientists with society

One final aim of this particular strand of the curriculum document is that students will learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.

Science both influences society and is influenced by society. The influence of scientific knowledge on society can be easily seen in areas such as  energy, agriculture, medicine, transportation, defence, communication, leisure and exploration. Society, in turn, influences science.

This relationship between science and society is discussed in the article Tenets of the nature of science.