Controversies in science: to teach or not to teach?

Lynda Dunlop, Veneu Fernanda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Controversies in science are an essential feature of scientific practice: defined here as current problems that are unresolved because there are no accepted procedures by which they can be resolved or there are differing assumptions that affect the interpretation of evidence. Although there has been much attention in science education literature addressing socio-scientific and historical controversies in science, less has been paid to the teaching of contemporary scientific controversies. Using semi-structured qualitative interviews with 18 teachers at different career stages in England, we investigated teachers’ social representations of scientific controversies using the discourse of the collective subject (DSC). We found a lack of controversy in teachers’ responses. Whilst scientific controversies were seen as an essential feature of how science works, they were not viewed as essential in science education and were represented as a distraction and dealt with informally, outside the planned curriculum and in response to students’ questions. Subject knowledge was considered a barrier. We argue that teaching about carefully selected scientific controversies has the potential to contribute to teachers’ and students’ understandings of science and the nature of science. There are perceived to be few opportunities for teachers to exercise this in the English context. We suggest how the collective subject discourses might be used to open up a discussion about teaching controversies in professional learning situations. Materials to stimulate discussion of scientific controversies could be useful in future curriculum development in science, but these would need to address the barriers of subject knowledge, access to literature and conflict with assessment-related priorities and a perceived need to advocate for trust in science.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)698-710
Number of pages23
JournalScience & Education
Issue number6-7
Early online date16 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 16 May 2019

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