Before delving into this research, one major caveat is in order. Almost all of the research investigating children’s thinking relevant to this strand has been conducted in the research laboratory, examining how their thinking develops over time irrespective of instructional history or opportunities to learn. It allows us to point to developmental trends and base-level competencies that can be expected in a given age span in normally developing children. However, inferences from this research base about the upper limits of children’s capability are inappropriate and are likely to yield underestimates. Furthermore, as almost all of this research attends to development and not opportunities to learn, it provides little insight into the kinds of experiences and conditions that facilitate children’s understanding of science and thinking about their own knowledge. A few studies have begun to explore the effects of teaching approaches on the development of epistemological understanding. We offer a limited discussion of this literature here. Later, in Chapters 6 and 9, we discuss in more depth studies that provide insight as to supportive classroom conditions and provide better proxies for what is possible when those conditions exist.
Before considering the research that may elucidate the intellectual resources and challenges that learning this strand might pose to children in the K-8 years, we briefly review approaches the field has taken to articulate the underlying model of building scientific knowledge. In this explication, we consider the goals of the enterprise, the nature and structure of scientific knowledge, and how knowledge is developed, with a focus on what is most relevant for student learning. (For a more complete discussion of our view of the nature of science, see Chapter 2.) While we acknowledge there is no simple correspondence with this model of science and the epistemic goals of the curriculum at any particular grade level, consideration of both relevant cognitive research and instructional design is informed by close consideration of the normative model.
Osborne and colleagues (2003) have proposed taking a consensus view to identify the ideas about science that should be part of the school science curriculum. They conducted a study to examine the opinions of scientists, science educators, individuals involved in promoting the public understanding of science, and philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science. They identified nine themes encapsulating key ideas about the nature of science that were considered to be an essential component of school science curriculum. These included science and certainty, analysis and interpretation of data, scientific method and critical testing, hypothesis and pre-