Explanation in Science and in Science Education

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:56 pm

I feel kind of dumb in only really coming to realise this properly now, after working with and writing about explanations for well over a decade, but there is a basic qualitative difference between explanations in science and in science education. They are different kinds of things that have different purposes.

I think perhaps Treagust and Harrison’s interesting work from 1999 and 2000, which was some of the first I read, might have got me off on the wrong track. It talks about the differences between verbal explanations of concepts in, for example, scientific papers versus in science lessons, as well as the differences between these science teaching explanations and ‘everyday explanations’.

They are useful directions, but those three things are all the same kinds of things: verbal explanations, given from one person to another (or a group) with the goal of helping the latter develop a deeper understanding. They all involve, to one extent and in way way or another, teaching.

I’ve been reading David-Hillel Ruben’s ‘Explaining Explanation’ recently, and come to realise that the kinds of explanations he is talking about, when he reviews the work of Plato, Aristotle, Mill and Hempel & Oppenheimer, is not the same thing at all. These ‘explanations’ are the very foundations of science, and are much more like ‘the energy states of the valence shell electrons in sodium metal and chlorine gas explain the reaction between them (given that the activation energy is present)’. In other words, an explanation takes in the various laws or theories of science and explains why something happens as it does.

Now, a particular scientist may well give a verbal or written description of that explanation to another scientist, but that is what Ruben might call ‘an explication of an explanation’: it is not the explanation itself. The explanation is often causal – ‘this happens because this set of antecedent conditions and properties is met’.

Of course, Ruben’s book is academic philosophy, and the water gets very deep very quickly. Do causal explanations have to be determinate and certain or can they be probabilistic? Some explanations in quantum theory, for example, are not deterministic. Are all explanations necessarily causal?

There’s plenty to think about, but just realising that there are these two quite different senses in which ‘explanation’ is used is pretty important if I’m going to write a book on the topic! As it happens, this kind of scientific explanation will be a relatively minor facet of the book, since the focus is on explanation and explaining (and the next post in the series will talk a bit about why that distinction is useful) in science education. I want to know how teachers can create better explanations for the purposes of helping students to come to understand scientific concepts.

Why is this important? Not to boost Australia’s scores on international standardised tests! But because scientific concepts transform our perspective on the world, and empower our students to make positive changes.

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