The Revolutionary Nature of How Science Works

A Guide for Primary Science Teachers

Just like the citizens of a city built in an earthquake zone, scientists carry out their daily work without thinking about catastrophic failure. Scientists act and talk as though the scientific knowledge they are building won’t be shaken to its foundations. But it will… and they know it will.

Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, calls the practices and routines of everyday scientific work: normal science. It is the gradual, steady accumulation of knowledge.  We like to think that this will continue until everything that can be known is discovered. But that’s not how it works. 

The history of science shows, again and again, that just when we thought we were getting close to knowing everything, there comes a huge revolution in scientific thinking. This happened when Copernicus argued that the Sun was at the centre of the universe (instead of the Earth), when Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ and when Newton realised that the gravity we feel on the Earth is the same as the force acting between the Sun and the planets. These revolutions change everything. Thomas Kuhn called this process: revolutionary science.

In primary science, we often present ‘how science works’ as the steady accumulation of more and more accurate knowledge – Thomas Kuhn’s ‘normal science’. We don’t often talk about the revolutions in scientific thinking, even though these revolutions lead to the greatest ideas humans have ever had… and remind us that everything we believe we know from science can change.

Why teach this to pupils?

When we listen to scientists speak, they often give the impression of certainty. But the most important feature of science is that when the evidence tells us that our ideas are wrong, we change our ideas. Scientific revolutions are not only in the past. Like the citizens of the city in an earthquake zone, we must be aware that the next ‘big one’ could come at any time. Perhaps one of your pupils will bring it about.

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