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Scientism, creationism and teaching about the nature of knowledge in schools

Berry Billingsley, Canterbury Christ Church University Keith S. Taber, University of Cambridge Mehdi Nassaji, Canterbury Christ Church University

Given the harm associated with misinformation and the difficulties of working with complex real-life problems, are young people getting enough help in school with how to handle apparently conflicting claims or explanations?

Recently we published a paper in the Curriculum Journal which investigates students’ beliefs about a contentious topic that is well known to educators and scholars: namely what to believe about the origins of life and the universe (Billingsley et al., 2020). This topic is a useful one for research because it is likely to be familiar to students. In addition, it is associated with a mixture of religious, scientific and unscientific claims together with several ‘big questions’ that cannot be resolved using science alone.

The pandemic has seen an explosion of commentaries contesting the way in which politicians have said they are following science when making decisions (Erduran, 2020). These publications have fueled an already vibrant research agenda discussing the complex ways that science and school science interact with citizenship, socio-scientific issues and truth (Evagorou & Dillon, 2020). What would help in these debates, we argue, is more epistemic clarity for students about why some questions are more amenable to science than others. Our research, more broadly, seeks to discover the extent to which students can think critically about the nature of knowledge in relation to life’s big questions and real-world problems. This kind of thinking is what we call, ‘epistemic insight’ (Billingsley, Taber, Riga, & Newdick, 2013).

‘Our research … seeks to discover the extent to which students can think critically about the nature of knowledge in relation to life’s big questions and real-world problems. This kind of thinking is what we call, “epistemic insight”.’

We surveyed 1,717 students who were at two different points of their secondary school education to discover their perceptions of what science and religion say about the origins of the universe. The survey was administered in seven schools to whole classes of students in year 7 (age 11) and year 9 (age 13). The findings of the survey indicate that students’ confidence in the answers that science provides is high for both age groups – a finding that we are pleased to see. At the same time, however, there are several findings that support our hypothesis that epistemic insight tends to be neglected. In particular, in year 7, 37 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘One day we may be able to explain the whole universe using science alone’. This increased for students who are two years older in year 9 to 45 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing. Other indicators of weak epistemic insight include the finding that 29 per cent of respondents across year 7 and 9 strongly agreed or agreed that ‘Religion is a set of beliefs that can be proved or disproved scientifically’. While a few public thinkers do espouse such scientistic notions (for instance, that all aspects of experience fall within the purview of the natural sciences; that in time science will explain everything), such views represent only one pole of a broad range of thinking.

Our research informs the design of resources for teachers and teacher educators (see Epistemic Insight). The resources develop learners’ appreciation of the nature of science and other ways of knowing in the contexts of big questions and real-world problems. We recommend that teachers introduce more epistemic language into their teaching with some examples being, ‘What are the similarities and differences between science and history?’ and ‘What makes this question a good one for science?’ A session designed to respond to this paper’s conclusions could explain that science informs our thinking, without being able to provide definitive pronouncements about how to explain the origins and existence of the universe. This could lead to a discussion about the role of science in some other complex questions such as, ‘Which restrictions should societies use to prevent the spread of viruses?’ Entrenched subject compartmentalisation dampens and squeezes out opportunities for cross-disciplinary teaching in secondary schools and secondary school teacher education. Here we conclude by saying that finding ways to overcome this challenge is pressing.


The blog is based on the article ‘Scientism, creationism or category error? A cross-age survey of secondary school students’ perceptions of the relationships between science and religion’ by Berry Billingsley, Keith S. Taber and Mehdi Nassaji, published in the Curriculum Journal on an open access basis.


References

Billingsley, B., Taber, K. S., & Nassaji, M. (2020). Scientism, creationism or category error? A cross‐age survey of secondary school students’ perceptions of the relationships between science and religion. Curriculum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.83

Billingsley, B., Taber, K. S., Riga, F., & Newdick, H. (2013). Secondary school students’ epistemic insight into the relationships between science and religion: A preliminary enquiry. Research in Science Education, 43(4), 1715–1732. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-012-9317-y

Erduran, S. (2020). Bringing nuance to ‘the science’ in public policy and science understanding. Science & Education, 29. 487–489. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00137-3

Evagorou, M., & Dillon, J. (2020). Introduction: Socio-scientific issues as promoting responsible citizenship and the relevance of science. In M. Evagorou, J. A. Nielsen, & J. Dillon (Eds.) Science teacher education for responsible citizenship (pp. 1–11): Springer.

 

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