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Working toward a stronger conceptualization of scientific explanation for science education


  • Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding organizations.


Scientific explanation plays a central role in science education reform documents, including the Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the National Science Education Standards, and the recent research report, Taking Science to School. While scientific explanation receives significant emphases in these documents, there is little discussion or consensus within the science education community about the nature of explanation itself. However, debates about scientific explanation have been a mainstay for philosophers of science for decades. We argue that a more clearly articulated conceptualization of scientific explanation for science education is necessary for making the vision of science education reform a reality. In this essay, we use major philosophical theories of scientific explanation as lenses to examine how the science education community has constructed the idea of explanation. We also examine instructional practice in school science settings, including our own classrooms, where teachers and students are working to explain natural phenomena. Using these examples, we offer suggestions for preparing both educators and young learners to engage in explanatory discourses that are reasonably accountable to authentic epistemic practice in science. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed95:639–669, 2011