Science Teaching and the Fringes of Integrity

Mick Nott and Robin Smith
Centre for Science Education, Sheffield Hallam University, England

It was interesting to read the article in SHiPS News (Vol. 3, No. 2) on researcher-scientists flirting with fraud. Readers may be interested to know that we have been exploring how teacher-scientists flirt with fraud and what this can tell us about the way that scientific knowledge is developed in the classroom.

Teachers of science frequently encounter labs or practicals "going wrong." "Going wrong" means a range of things from students getting unintended, conflicting or uncertain results to teachers' demonstrations "failing." We set out to look at how teachers cope with these experiences and what can be learned in such situations. Our findings suggest that there are insights that may be gained from examining how teachers respond to practicals which "go wrong."

We asked primary and secondary teachers of science, individually and in groups, to recount "going wrong" and account for how they coped with the experience. We found a wide variety of responses on the part of teachers of science.

We found that there were three main categories which we have called: (1) "Talking your way out of it"; (2) "Rigging"; and (3) "Conjuring."

"Talking Your Way Out of It"

There is a range of responses by teachers which involve critical evaluation of the practical. This critical evaluation is usually done orally by the teacher and the "going wrong" is the stimulus to start it. If the practicals go right, then it is rare for teachers to initiate a critique of the practical.

"Going wrong" initiates a critical process similar to the critical process of research science. The criticism can be of the equipment and/or the pupils' experimental ability but, interestingly, not their observational ability. Teachers say things like, "Well, you got the results there, but I would have expected..." So the observations the pupils make are to be trusted, but not their ability to make them!

It can also be a process in which teachers appeal to their views of the nature of science to explain "going wrong." We have found the following:

Teachers generally start the critical discussions with an authoritative statement, such as "That's not what I expected." Students are then supposed to generate criticism. When students' results conflict with each other, then teachers know that students may lose confidence. A common response is for the teacher to persuade the student that their results are reliable. The authority that the students are asked to accept is the evidence of their own experimental results.

Conflicting evidence from their own classmates is treated as equally reliable and valid. The purpose of an experiment is to test a hypothesis and the interpretation is to be based on the evidence. The pupils' written account must stay true to their results, even if they have grounds for doubting them. These grounds may be the conflicting evidence of their colleagues or the authority of the teacher as representing the archive of scientific knowledge. Students are also encouraged to be skeptical of each other's results on the grounds that their own results could be as good as anybody else's. This skepticism is seen as a good thing by teachers because it encourages them to think more and it is inferred that this skepticism will encourage criticism.

"School teachers have to secure the learner's agreement to believe matters of fact by ensuring that practicals do NOT `go wrong.'"

Discussion of such results was often put aside because of time and other demands on the primary teachers. There were also constraints because students, administrators and/or parents expected to see results and frustration might arise for students and their teacher. The frustrations arose either because the teachers didn't know what the answers were supposed to be or because they knew that the students' results were not correct and yet the norm of consensibility didn't allow them to feel confident to correct the students' perceptions.

A certain body of knowledge has to be taught and learned, which means that if the "particular (content) message" is contradicted by obstinate practicals, then there is a tension for the teacher.

Secondary Teachers have had to cope with teaching a given body of knowledge as enshrined for years in standardized tests. We found that secondary teachers have a range of strategies, in addition to "talking your way out of it."


Often secondary teachers would mention "rigging" or "tweaking" the practical. In many cases this meant ensuring that the apparatus was clean or reliable (e.g., circuit board connections had been abraded to provide good contacts, chemicals were fresh stock).

A frequently cited example was trying to get electrostatic experiments to work. Secondary teachers have various common and idiosyncratic procedures to get van der Graaf machines to spark and gold leaves to rise. These include the knowledge that you should never try this stuff on a humid day.

These examples illustrate a selectivity and stage management of the practical work which the secondary teachers, through their subject knowledge or pedagogical knowledge, learn to apply to get their practical to "go right."

We believe that the learning experience of "going wrong" stimulates more careful thought about the conduct and arrangement of the practical apparatus on the part of teachers. As a teacher's career progresses, the ability to "rig" an experiment so that it works every time progresses as well. Many teachers have acknowledged that they are better experimenters because of trying to get school apparatus to work!

When "rigging" takes place, the teacher has learned the do's and don'ts of a practical procedure so that every occurrence of the practical is in the "demonstrative" phase, not the "heuristic" phase. "Rigging" may require some elisions in front of the students as it seems to happen most frequently with teachers' demonstrations. But these elisions are a way for a teacher to show possession of a tacit knowledge that the students don't have. By demonstrating this tacit knowledge the teacher is demonstrating that s/he is a scientist and can do "demonstrative" practical work. "Rigging" is some-thing that teachers know--and students don't.


In some cases, secondary teachers seem to "conjure" when arranging practicals to "go right." This is not the exercise of insider and tacit knowledge, but appears to be much closer to the "forging" in scientific practice discussed in the earlier SHiPS article.

We have found chemistry and biology experiments in particular, where oxygen is bubbled into test tubes in prep rooms to "demonstrate" photosynthesis in the classroom. How water is added to vacuum flasks of germinating peas in the prep room to "demonstrate" links between energy and respiration in the classroom. Active reagents are compared to identical looking but inactive reagents to "demonstrate" the action of catalysts. Saturated rock samples that obstinately remained whole during freezing suddenly shatter when handled by the teacher. Glucose is surreptitiously added to the solution outside the Visking tubing to "demonstrate" the action of enzymes. And so on.

Here, the practicals--particularly demonstrations--"go right" by playing tricks on the students. The correct outcome, according to the paradigm, is produced fraudulently. Fraud occurs in science teaching as well as in scientific research. We don't condemn this behavior--both of us have done some "conjuring" in our science teaching! But several colleagues at a meeting to discuss this work expressed distaste and concern about the ethics of this as well as the hidden learning. However, when we have talked about this work publicly with secondary teachers, we have found that it resonates with the experience of the vast majority.

We have found "conjuring" to start early--e.g., during a one-year postgraduate teacher training course. Also, "conjuring" can start individually: teachers don't need to be trained to "conjure," but can spontaneously start on their own. Interestingly, school laboratory technicians appear complicit with it and this could be an interesting avenue to explore. We believe that we can offer a tentative explanation for it.

Teachers have a commitment to a particular paradigm--the science content as embodied in the prescribed curriculum, standardized tests and orthodox textbooks. The teacher's own knowledge may say that the theory is difficult to confirm practically, but the examination syllabus is clear on what the appropriate matters of fact are. Like fraudulent science researchers who have a counter-norm of interestedness, so the science teachers demonstrate a counter-norm of interestedness. They can maintain a particular knowledge claim and ally the students' support for that knowledge claim by producing the matters of fact necessary to support it.

Matters of fact are indisputable statements about the way the world is. For example, oxygen production from pond weed is a matter of fact necessary (but not sufficient) for the theory of photosynthesis. School teachers have to secure the learner's agreement to believe matters of fact by ensuring that practicals do NOT "go wrong." If the teacher fails to produce matters of fact, then the learning is impeded. Shapin and Shaffer point out that it is possible to have "good" and "bad" theories, but "when we reject a matter of fact, we take away its entitlement to its designation: it never was a matter of fact at all." If a teacher cannot produce the matter of fact of oxygen production form pond weed, then photosynthesis isn't supported as a theory and the learner has no obligation to believe in it either.

At certain times in teaching science, the generation of matters of fact cannot be left to chance by the diffidence of the teacher in a practical technique or the vagaries of school apparatus or even the weather. If the desired learning outcome is the matter of fact, and perhaps its concomitant theory, then the teacher may resort to "conjuring."

We can recollect from our own school teaching the personal discomfort and the disillusion of the students when the correct matter of fact failed to materialize. (It was even worse if an alternative matter of fact turned up!) "Conjuring" allows teachers to reduce the pressure of producing the experimental matters of fact necessary to support the knowledge claims in the science curriculum.

We view the first two categories as manifestations of norms of science education and the last category as a manifestation of counter-norms. This is not to imply that teachers who employ the last category are deviant. But it does involve a set of values at conflict with the first category.

There is a need to respond to practicals "going wrong." But the decision about what response to make is a dilemma for teachers. However, dilemmas are productive starting points for analysis of teaching and teachers' understanding of the nature of science. This one has certainly proved to be productive as a springboard for discussion with practicing teachers, trainee teachers and colleagues.

We would be particularly interested in hearing from and corresponding with practicing teachers about responses to practicals "going wrong." We would particularly like to hear about examples which highlight the categories of response we have identified or which suggest other categories of response. Write with comments to:

(A fuller account of this work appeared in the International Journal of Science Education.)

The SHiPS Teachers' Network helps teachers share experiences and resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology of science in the the science classroom.