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Science as explanation

Students need to develop understanding that science explanations are:

  • tentative, but evidence-based
  • subjective, because of human inference
  • developed by scientists who use creativity and imagination to interpret their observations and make inferences that are socially and culturally embedded
  • used by scientists to ultimately construct laws and theories to explain the world.

Science as explanation has been neglected by many teachers, who have instead focused on the sharing of science facts in the belief that students cannot produce their own explanations for what they observe, and link these to ideas from their science.

Bereiter and Scardamalia (2008) confirm that even year 1 children can produce a whole range of “theories” in response to an observation or problem.

As human beings we have always tried to explain the world we live in, and we will continue to do so. In the same way, students begin to explain their observations and suggest links to ideas they already have about the world.

Teachers need to find out students’ ideas and help to reframe them within a scientific context.

The challenge for teachers is how to develop students’ ability to ask critical questions that can be explored through observation and measurement, and for which explanations can be suggested that can be backed by scientific evidence.

The matrix developed for science as explanation can provide a useful tool for teachers to begin this process.

NoS elements of science as explanation

The key NoS elements that are internationally accepted as important for children to understand are:

… scientific knowledge is tentative, empirical, theory-laden; partly the product of human inference, imagination, and creativity; and socially and culturally embedded.

(Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002, page 499)

In The New Zealand Curriculum most of these elements are found within the achievement objectives for the nature of science strand:
“understanding about science”, “investigating in science”, and “communicating in science”.

Developing science as explanation

Students need learning experiences that will build their ability to:

  • make comprehensive observations that include both qualitative and quantitative evidence
  • think critically to construct testable questions
  • plan and carry out tests to collect evidence to address their questions
  • use this evidence to suggest explanations for their observations
  • compare their suggested explanations with existing science ideas and be prepared to reconsider their explanations in the light of new information
  • explain why research needs to include controls and variables
  • explain why research conclusions are tentative
  • discuss why peer review of research is necessary and why results from their investigation should be compared with other students’ results and published data.

Teachers should always explain why a particular investigation or experiment is being carried out.

Examples of changes in scientific thinking

An explanation-checking process

Here are some questions that students could use to evaluate their explanations.

  • Does the explanation make sense?
  • Do the suggested ideas relate well to the evidence/observations?
  • Do the explanations link to known facts and observations of science?
  • Are there any gaps in the explanation?
  • Has any evidence been ignored?
  • Are there any other possible explanations?

Through answering these questions, students will begin to understand that the discovery of new techniques and new information may change scientific knowledge over time – an important element of nature of science for students to accept.

What students need to be able to do

Level 6

At level 6, students need to be able to explain how assumptions and inferences lead to the explanations they make for their investigations, and that their explanations are tentative and subjective, being based on their current understanding of science concepts. This could involve being able to explain why scientists debate their ideas using current scientific understandings to develop explanations for evidence from their investigations.

Level 7

At level 7, students should be able to use evidence from a range of sources to summarise their key explanation(s) for a scientific idea or investigation, and explain how and why the scientific idea may change over time. This understanding needs to include the importance of peer review and debate.

Level 8

At level 8, students should be able to discuss their understanding of a theory, using evidence from a range of sources (including investigations) and demonstrating how inferences and the tentative nature of evidence have changed this theory over time.

Science Learning Hub resources:

  • Meet Fred the Thread – The world’s thinnest caterpillar, a native of the Waikato peat bogs. Scientists had to go on quite a detective hunt to figure out what sort of species Fred actually is.
  • Fred the Thread (video clip) – In this clip, Dr Robert Hoare describes how his colleague Dr Corinne Watts discovered Fred.
  • Naming organisms (video clip) – A brief explanation of the Linnaean system of classification and the reasons for classifying organisms.
  • Naming Fred (video clip) – This clip explains how and why Fred’s scientific name was chosen.


Bereiter, C., and Scardamalia, M. (2008). “Teaching how science really works.” Education Canada, 49(1), pp. 14–17.

Lederman, N., Abd-El-Khalick, F., Bell, R. and Schwartz, R. (2002). “Views of nature of science questionnaire: Toward valid and meaningful assessment of learners' conceptions of nature of science.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(6), pp. 497–521.

Last updated April 30, 2013