ERIC Identifier: ED478714 Publication Date: 2002-09-00
Author: Haury, David L. Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Fundamental Skills in Science: Observation. ERIC Digest.
"We value our sight above almost everything else. The reason for this is that
of all the senses sight makes knowledge most possible for us and shows us the
many differences between things." Aristotle, "Metaphysics", Book I
see but you do not observe." Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in "A scandal in
Long before our ancestors invented writing, they created art representing
their observations, and detailed observations of the night sky were being
systematically recorded nearly 3,000 years ago (Kavassalis, 2000). Though the
early Greeks recognized the importance of our senses in constructing knowledge,
the primacy of observations was formally put to the test by Galileo who faced
charges of heresy for supporting the heliocentric theory of the universe.
Risking his life for the sake of ideas, Galileo not only believed in what he
observed through the newly invented telescope, he believed in the newly emerging
views of scientific knowledge based on reasoning and observations.
De Duve (2002) has characterized science as being "based on observation and
experiment, guided by reason" (p. 285), and this combination is what
distinguishes science from other paths to knowledge. Derry (1999) makes the same
point by saying that "well constructed scientific arguments, defending a
scientific conclusion, generally rests on two foundations: reliable empirical
evidence and sound logical reasoning" (p. 89). Martin (1972) was more explicit:
"Scientific theories are primarily tested against observation and accepted,
rejected, or modified mainly because of observational data. Observation is thus
generally considered to be the touchstone of objectivity in science; it seems to
be primarily observation that provides an independent standard for the
evaluation of theories and hypotheses. If it were not for observation, there
would be little reason for choosing between scientific theories and fictional
accounts, between science and pseudoscience, between warranted assertions and
fanciful hopes. "
goes on to caution, though, that "observation clearly cannot be maintained as
infallible or certain. The existence of perceptual illusion, hallucinations, and
other less dramatic perceptual errors proves that people can be deceived by
their senses" (pp. 112-113).
Despite the apparent centrality of observation to the development of
scientific knowledge, there has long been a debate about the exact role of
observation and its supposed contribution to objectivity in science. It is
acknowledged that observations can be both unreliable and theory-dependent
(Hodson, 1986). Martin (1972) has made the argument "that a trained observer
with certain knowledge and training can observe things that a person without
this knowledge and training cannot observe." Further, "a person's background
will influence what properties he [or she] visually attends to in a particular
object, or indeed whether he [or she] attends to any properties of the object at
all. Finally, the theoretical background of a scientist leads him [or her] to
observe noncognitively objects which the layman, because of his [or her] lack of
theoretical background does not observe at all" (p. 107).
Ironically, observations are seemingly at the heart of both stability and
change in scientific understanding. Writers associated with Project 2061 (AAAS,
1989) stated that "sooner or later, the validity of scientific claims is settled
by referring to observations of phenomena. Hence, scientists concentrate on
getting accurate data. Such evidence is obtained by observations and
measurements taken in situations that range from natural settings...to
completely contrived ones (such as in the laboratory). To make their
observations, scientists use their own senses, instruments...that enhance those
senses, and instruments that tap characteristics quite different from what
humans can sense (such as magnetic fields...Because of this reliance on
evidence, great value is placed on the development of better instruments and
techniques of observation, and the findings of any one investigator or group are
usually checked by others" (pp. 26-27).
Shermer (1997) identified observation as accounting for the difference
between science and pseudoscience and being the means by which scientific
knowledge changes over time. He claims "science is different from
pseudoscience...not only in evidence and plausibility, but in how [it changes].
Science [is] cumulative and progressive in that [it continues] to improve and
refine knowledge of our world...based on new observations and interpretations"
(p. 38). Derry (1999) points out that science needs better observations and more
precise measurements for progress in understanding to occur.
Though human senses are limited in range and are easily deceived, observation
remains at the heart of science and is the final arbiter in constructing and
testing scientific ideas. Observation in science is more than "seeing"; it
refers to skills associated with collecting data using all the senses, as well
as instruments that extend beyond the reach of our senses, and it is influenced
by the assumptions and theoretical knowledge of the observer.
OBSERVATION IN SCIENCE CLASSROOMS
For over three decades a
focus on "science process skills", including the skill of observation, has been
highly promoted in school science. Indeed, one influential elementary curriculum
developed during the science curriculum reform flurry of the 1960s-"Science: A
Process Approach"--was organized around the development of skills (AAAS, 1975).
More recently, curriculum standards in science related to observation have
typically appeared in sections related to learning through inquiry. According to
the National Research Council (NRC,1996), students in the earliest grades should
be expected to use simple tools--magnifiers, thermometers, and rulers--to gather
data and learn what constitutes evidence (pp.122-123). Strategies for helping
young students make detailed observations have been described (i.e., Checkovich
& Sterling, 2001), and ways of linking observations to familiar readings
have been offered (i.e., Angus,1996).
Students in the middle grades should learn to conduct systematic
observations, interpret data, use computers to collect and display evidence, and
base explanations on observations (NRC, 1996; p. 145). In high school, students
are expected to design and conduct investigations that involve the use of
equipment and procedures to collect data, the use of computers to analyze data,
and the development of models or explanations based on the evidence from
investigations (p. 175). As an example of how to engage students in constructing
a model from data, Cummins, Ritger, and Myers (1992) described an activity using
observational data of the moon to construct a model of the sun-earth-moon
system. More generally, "everyone should acquire the ability to handle common
materials and tools...for making careful observations, and for handling
information. These include being able to do the following" (AAAS, 1989):
Keep a notebook that accurately describes observations made, that carefully
distinguishes actual observations from ideas and speculations about what was
observed, and that is understandable weeks or months later.
Store and retrieve computer information using topical, alphabetical, numerical,
and key-word files, and use simple files of the individual's own devising.
Enter and retrieve information on a computer, using standard software.
Use appropriate instruments to make direct measurements of length, volume,
weight, time interval, and temperature. Besides selecting the right instrument,
this skill entails using a precision relevant to the situation.
Take recordings from standard meter displays, both analog and digital, and make
prescribed settings on dials, meters, and switches (pp.137-138).
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING AND RESEARCH
In the view of the
AAAS (1989), science teaching consistent with the nature of scientific inquiry
Engage students actively. Students need to have many and varied opportunities
for collecting, sorting, and cataloging; observing, note taking, and sketching;
interviewing, polling, and surveying; and using hand lenses, microscopes,
thermometers, cameras, and other common instruments (p. 147).
Concentrate on the collection and use of evidence. Students should be given
problems--at levels appropriate to their maturity--that require them to decide
what evidence is relevant and to offer their own interpretation of what the
evidence means. This puts a premium, just as science does, on careful
observation and thoughtful analysis. Students need guidance, encouragement, and
practice in collecting, sorting and analyzing evidence, and in building
arguments based on it. However, if such activities are not to be destructively
boring, they must lead to some intellectually satisfying payoff that the
students care about" (p. 148).
of resources to assist teachers in these tasks is a handbook (Gabel, 1993) that
includes a section on observation as a basic science skill to be taught in
elementary school. Another teaching guide (Pauker & Roy, 1991) includes
activities that present observing as a science process skill and thinking skill.
Similar resources are available in many commercially available instructional
Though curriculum standards and the professional literature of science
education promote attention to science process skills, and observation in
particular, the research on student conceptions of the role of observation in
science seems limited. Reviews of research have shown that when science process
skills are emphasized in the classroom, student proficiency on individual skills
increases, some transfer of skills to new situations is noted, and skills are
retained over time (Padilla, 1990). One study, however, (Haslam & Gunstone,
1996) provides evidence that students tend to view observation as a
teacher-directed process rather than a self-directed pursuit of evidence.
Student conceptions of evidence-based inferences also seem limited.
Surprisingly, many students do not see the process of observation as being
particularly relevant to the science learning process (Haslam & Gunstone,
1998). Evaluation studies associated with the current trend toward increased
proficiency testing in science will undoubtedly shed more light on student
performance in using the tools of observation and the level of skill development
in observation techniques. Still there will be open questions regarding the
extent to which students can purposefully observe in a self-directed manner to
gather evidence in support of their ideas. This is at the heart of doing
science, and we have little direct evidence of the extent to which students can
couple observations with reasoning to construct models and explanations of
Haslam, F., & Gunstone, R. (1996). "Observation in science classes:
Students' beliefs about its nature and purpose". Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (69th, St.
Louis, MO, April). [ED 396 909]
Haslam, F., & Gunstone, R. (1998). "The influence of teachers on student
observation in science classes". Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the
National Association for Research in Science Teaching (San Diego, CA, April
19-22). [ED 446 927]
Hodson, D. (1986). The nature of scientific observation. "School Science
Review", 68, 28.
Kavassalis, C. (2000, December). "The role of observation in the history and
philosophy of science". Online publication:
Martin, M. (1972). "Concepts of science education: A philosophic analysis".
Glenview, IL: Scott, Forseman.
National Research Council. (1996). "National science education standards".
Washington, DC: National Academy Press. [Available online at:
Padilla, M. (1990, March). "The science process skills". Paper 9004 in the
series, "Science matters-to the science teacher", published by the National
Association for Research in Science Teaching. [Available online at:
Pauker, R. A., & Roy, K. R. (1991). "Strategies for learning: Teaching
thinking skills across the curriculum through science. Analyzing information and
data". Teacher's Edition. Annapolis, MD: Alpha Publishing. [ED 388 505]
Wilson, C. (1996, April). A classroom who-dunnit to sharpen science skills.
"Teaching PreK-8", 26 (7), 52-54.
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