Jacques DéSautels and Marie Larochelle

Department of didactics, psychopedagogy and technology, Faculty of Education, Université Laval & CIRADE (Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur l'Apprentissage et le Développement en Éducation, Université du Québec à Montréal), Canada

Teacher: What's an example of a longitudinal wave?

Mike: Uh, a telephone call?

Teacher: Say that out loud.

Mike: When you call someone on the telephone.

Student: Good God! (Students laughing)

Teacher: What is it that goes through the wire when you call somebody?

Student: Electricity.

Teacher: OK, now --that, uh, is not a longitudinal wave. Uh, sorry about that. It's uh --I know you might think that the electricity goes from my house to yours. It really doesn't. The electricity goes back and forth. Uh --you might not believe this, but the individual electrons in a wire travel slower than you can walk.

From longitudinal wave lesson

(quoted in Lemke, 1993, p. 148)

Willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciouly, all science teaching practices embody an epistemological posture, among other things. This posture is what orients in part the process by which students fabricate representations not only of the nature and socio-cognitive impact of the knowledge being taught but of the value of their own variety of knowledge as well. A more or less emancipative relationship to scientific knowledge will thus develop. From this perspective, a key issue in the education of science teachers involves creating the requisite conditions by which teachers can: 1) critically and reflexively problematize their own epistemological posture; 2) consider other potentialities; and whenever possible, 3) break the vicious circle permitting reproduction of traditional school epistemology concerning science (Hodson, 1988).


By the time the series of interactions related in the quotation have ended, it is quite conceivable that the student named Mike had learned more than what was being explicitly taught him, even if this was not the teacher's intention. It is probable that he learned in particular that the knowledge which counts --i.e. scientific knowledge-- represents an ontological kind of knowledge, that is, knowledge that exists by virtue of itself, that has emerged from nowhere, so to speak. In effect, the language used by the teacher ignores not only the theoretical context which informs and gives meaning to the concepts of wave, electricity and electron but also, and most especially the deliberative activities by which scientists ultimately agree on the relevance of such concepts for solving the questions and problems they are tackling. Actually, the entire sequence of events appears to unfold as though there were a one-to-one correspondence between the concepts under consideration and a number of real entities that could be pointed out and which scientists have simply discovered and named: here we have a wave, here we have an electron (see Sutton, forthcoming). On another level, Mike will have also learned that he does not have the knowledge that counts, since he is not asked how it is that he arrived at this idea nor why he thought it was plausible to take up the example of the telephone call to illustrate the idea of a longitudinal wave. His knowledge is simply deemed irrelevant, indeed, the product of a misconception, since presumably the thing called electricity which travels in a wire is not itself a longitudinal wave. In circumstances such as these, and particularly if they are repeated on a daily basis from lesson to lesson, Mike is increasingly likely to disparage the knowledge he has developed in context, to gauge its worth according to official knowledge, and, in the process, develop an inhibiting, indeed alienating relationship to scientific knowledge. A clear illustration of one such relationship may be found in the comments of this other student, who articulates attitudes that are common to other students (Edmonson, 1989; Ryan & Aikenhead, 1992; Driver et al., 1993; Roth & Roychoudhury, 1993):

To me, scientists were geniuses, two or three times more intelligent than us. My idea was that they woke up one morning and said to themselves "Today, I have this problem to solve". They would then sit in front of a piece of paper and their intelligence would function by itself. They then produced scientific knowledge. (Larochelle & Désautels, 1991, p. 169)

The question remains of whether this situation has some bearing on the education of science teachers.


As studies and research in the field of teacher education lead us to believe, the mode of interaction which was touched on above is no isolated example but in fact reflects a certain form of socialization operating within the profession (Zeichner & Gore, 1990). A number of studies conducted among prospective and practicing science teachers suggest a family resemblance on at least two points. First, there is the same tendency to picture scientific knowledge as knowledge of something rather than as knowledge which is socially constructed and negotiated (Robinson, 1969; Guilbert, 1992; Tobin, Tippins & Gallard, 1994). Second, in keeping with this thingifying vision of science (Bachelard speaks of a chosisme or a thing-ism), teaching strategies are made use of in which telling and showing predominate, strategies in other words which are generally little prone to grant students' experience-based knowledge any sort of relevance (Tobin & Gallagher, 1987; Brickhouse, 1990; Geddis, 1988; Ruel, 1994).

Now, even though this vision of science and science teaching is open to criticism, it is reasonable to assume that the teachers who share it have good reasons for doing so on account of their own experience as learners in either a school setting or in teacher education programs. It is true that, most often, initial teacher education is narrowly discipline-based (Gallagher, 1991), offering scarcely any kind of opening on to the particularities or stakes of what one might term (after Wittgenstein) knowledge games (involving scientific knowledge or everday knowledge); nor, for that matter, does this education open more generally on to that most educational problematic of "how we know what we know." In conditions such as these, teachers, like students, assimilate the representation which is implicit in curricula, namely the empirico-realist version of cognition in general, and of the production of scientific knowledge in particular (Duschl, 1985; Hodson, 1985; Collins, 1989; Roberts & Chastko, 1990; Haggerty, 1992). As Ryan (1982) has pointed out, this is how the cycle extending from primary school to the university loops back upon itself, thus perpetuating a certain notion of science, both within school institutions and society at large.

This is also how a certain relationship to knowledge is perpetuated, in which science teachers teach the way they were taught and subscribe to the widely held interpretation according to which they have been given the single, simple duty of executing teaching programs, as thought these programs were simply concerned with factual matters and did not represent socio-political projects in action (Fourez, 1985; Muller & Taylor, 1995-a). But how is this vicious circle to be broken? How are future teachers to be encouraged to develop a capacity for critically appraising the whys and wherefores of their actions, to exercise reflexive, critical control over what they do and have others do --in short, to involve themselves in a form of reflexivity that is both epistemological and social in nature?


Helping teachers "to call into question" (Coutinho, 1977) the epistemological posture which partially orients their teaching practice is a process in keeping with a project of professional development that takes into account the various ideological and political stakes involved. As a regulative utopia for our own didactic practices, our project option is based on the concept of critical reflexive teaching. In an admirable article, Gilbert has defined this as "a form of teaching which is capable of taking account of the social and political contexts in which schooling takes place, as well as its technical and practical aspects; teaching which assesses classroom practices on the basis of their ability to contribute to the development of greater equity and social justice" (1994, p. 517). Obviously, this is not an easy project, particularly in light of the conceptual fragility of the models of professional development which have been offered until now; likewise, putting such a project into effect requires a great deal of modesty on the part of its artisans, as we ourselves learned during a recent study on the subject (Désautels et al., 1994). As immediately concerns our argument, the conditions which we present in an abbreviated form hereinafter should be viewed as working hypotheses for initiating breaks in the vicious circle previously alluded to.

In the socio-constructivist perspective we adhere to, all cognition, all learning, is intimately bound up with a context --hence, the resulting knowledge cannot be dissociated from the activities during which it emerged (Lave, 1988; Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). Once transposed into the area of teacher education, this option signifies that it is not enough to offer prospective teachers a series of teaching models, however much reflexive potential these models contain: we must also put them into practice. In other words, in our role as educators of teachers, we must develop practices (particularly of a discursive kind) which exemplify our position and foster the creation of a pedagogical context which is consistent with the desired reflexive actions.

Toward that end, we must upset the customary relationship to knowledge (rapport au savoir), which, as is most often the case, favors "schemas of docility" (Foucault, 1975) toward established knowledge. Course contents and educational activities ought to be conceived of in such a way as to consider prospective teachers' "spontaneous knowledge" of science, science teaching and science learning from the outset. They ought also to favor explication of spontaneous knowledge and the socio-cognitive positions that this contains, and, on the other hand, confront this knowledge with established knowledge, which stands to undergo a similar process of socio-cognitive psychoanalysis, so to speak. To take the example of specialized documentation concerning science education, it is of cognitive and social significance that students' knowledge should sometimes be considered as an immature or erroneous variety of knowledge (e.g. preconceptions, misconceptions), and then on other occasions as providing evidence of a logic which is every bit as respectable as scientific knowledge, only different, the offshoot of other assumptions and finalities (pupils' paradigms, alternative frameworks) (Gilbert & Watts, 1983; Hills, 1989). In other words, whatever the field involved, established knowledge does not emerge out of nowhere; it serves as standard-bearer for those who have developed it, representing their epistemological postures and their social positions.

However, it is important to add that, if it is difficult for teachers to break with their teaching habits in a school setting and deal with the confusion this may create among students who are used to being told the answer, it is no less difficult an endeavour within teacher education programs (indeed, in the short term, it is a fairly thankless experience). As we have observed during our own didactic activities, the past learning experiences of prospective teachers, coupled with the representations of science and science teaching that they have developed throughout schooling of a kind in which "success" has served as watchword, induces them in an educational situation to re-produce the same type of relationship toward educational authority and the knowledge being taught. In other words, these prospective teachers have learned a certain way of "punctuating" educational situations and defining their role therein; at that point, they are quite capable of making use of a certain reflexivity and holding forth most instructively on the importance of an emancipative relationship to knowledge, since this is what their professors want!

In short, it is no light undertaking to call upon prospective science teachers to "take a different sort of interest" in what they know (Stengers, 1992), to complexify their relationship to knowledge, and to open this relationship to other potentialities, to borrow Piaget's term; above all, it is an undertaking which cannot be accomplished in only a few weeks' time (Gunstone & Northfield, 1994). The stakes are all the more daunting in that, presumably, these prospective teachers will give up a familiar role as reciters for one which is more active, which exposes them to risks and in which the interest is not immediately apparent: a role, in other words, as author of one's own representations and knowledge, hence responsible for these representations and the actions they give rise to. In that connection, the mode of interaction which is favored in a teacher education setting is crucial not only for short-circuiting the traditional "professor-student" pattern, but for avoiding subjectivistic and "psychologizing" varieties of reflexivity. As many researchers have noted (Lampert, 1990; Bauersfeld, 1994), that is why the "classroom culture", and the pedagogical structuring process, ought to leave much room for re-creating, among peers, the deliberations, problems, risks and issues which underlie not only the production of scientific knowledge, but the informed appropriation of this knowledge by students.

Such, in our opinion, are several of the conditions which can contribute to breaking the vicious circle, owing to their capacity to enable future teachers, as learners, to evaluate in vivo the plausibility and fruitfulness of new modes of learning for organizing their own cognitive experiences (Désautels et al., 1993). There lies a possible avenue for encouraging these teachers to involve themselves in a mode of participation which could incite them to some day play an active and democratic epistemological role in their professional practices. But, as might be suspected, such a teacher education model supposes that the educators also assume responsibility for their own epistemology and that they question the kind of relationship to knowledge that they promote in what they say, do, and have others do.

Note: The authors would like to thank Donald Kellough, who, with vigilance and diligence, has provided us this translation.


Bauersfeld, H. (1994). Réflexions sur la formation des maîtres et sur l'enseignement des mathématiques au primaire. Revue des Sciences de l'Éducation, Numéro thématique «Constructivisme et Éducation, 20 (1) : 175-198.

Brickhouse N. (1990). Teachers' beliefs about the nature of science and their relationship to classroom practice. Journal of Teacher Education, 41 (3) : 53-62.

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. et Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1) : 32-42.

Collins A. (1989). Assessing biology teachers: understanding the nature of science and its influence on the practice of teaching. In Herget D.E.(ed.), The history and philosophy of science in science teaching (pp. 61-70). Tallahassee, FLA : Florida State University, Science Education and Department of Philosophy.

Coutinho, J. da Veiga (1977). Preface. In Freire, P. Cultural action for freedom (pp. 7-12). England : Penguin.

Désautels, J., Larochelle, M. & Pépin, Y. (1994). Étude de la pertinence et la faisabilité d'une stratégie de formation à l'enseignement des sciences. Research report, Ottawa : Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines du Canada.

Désautels, J., Larochelle, M., Gagné, B. & Ruel, F. (1993). La formation à l'enseignement des sciences: le virage épistémologique. DIDASKALIA, 1 : 49-67.

Driver, R., Leach, J., Millar, R. & Scott, P. (1993). Students' understanding of the nature of science: Résumé and summary of findings. Leeds/York, UK : University of Leeds (Centre for studies in science and mathematics education) and University of York (Science education group), Working Paper no 10.

Duschl, R.A. (1985). Science education and philosophy of science : twenty-five years of mutually exclusive development. School Science and Mathematics, 85 (7) : 541-555.

Edmondson, K. (1989). College students' conceptions of the nature of scientific knowledge. In Herget, D.E. (ed.) The history and philosophy of science in science teaching (pp. 132-142). Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University, Science Education and Department of Philosophy.

Foucault, M. (1975). Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison. Paris : Éd. Gallimard.

Fourez, G. (1985). Pour une éthique de l'enseignement des sciences. Lyon/Bruxelles: Chronique Sociale et Vie Ouvrière.

Gallagher J. (1991) Prospective and practicing secondary school science teachers' knowledge and beliefs about the philosophy of science. Science Education, 75 (1) : 121-133.

Geddis, A. N. (1988). Using concepts from epistemology and sociology in teacher supervision. Science Education, 72 (1) : 1-18.

Gilbert, J. (1994). The construction and reconstruction of the concept of the reflective practitioner in the discourse of teacher professional development. International Journal of Science Education, 16 (5) : 511-522.

Gilbert, J. K. & Watts, M. (1983). Concepts, misconceptions and alternative conception : changing perspectives in science education. Studies in Science Education, 10 : 61-98.

Guilbert, L. (1992). L'idée de science chez des enseignants en formation; une analyse quantitative et qualitative à partir d'un test. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education/La Revue canadienne d'enseignement supérieur, 22 (3) : 76-107.

Gunstone, R. & Northfield, J. (1994). Metacognition and learning to teach. International Journal of Science Education, 16 (5) : 523-537.

Haggerty, S. (1992). Student teachers' perceptions of science and science teaching. In Hill, S. (ed.) The history and philosophy of science in science education (Vol. I, pp. 483-494). Kingston, ONT : Queen's University.

Hills, G. (1989). Students'«untutored» beliefs about natural phenomena : primitive science or commonsense?. Science Education, 73 (2) : 155-186.

Hodson, D. (1985). Philosophy of science, science, and science education. Studies in Science Education, 12 : 25-57.

Hodson, D. (1988). Toward a philosophically more valid science curriculum. Science Education, 72 (1) : 19-40.

Lampert, M. (1990). When the problem is not the question and the solution is not the answer : mathematical knowing and teaching. American Educational Research Journal, 27 (1) : 29-63.

Larochelle, M.& Désautels, J. (1991). The epistemological turn in science education : the return of the actor. In Duit, R., Goldberg, F. & Niedderer, H. (eds) Research in physics learning: theoretical issues and empirical studies (pp. 155-175). Kiel, ALL : Institute for Science Education.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice. Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, ENG : Cambridge University Press.

Lemke, J.L. (1990). Talking science. Language, learning and values. Norwood, NJ : Ablex.

Muller, J. & Taylor, N. (1995). Schooling and everyday life: knowledges sacred and profane. Social Epistemology, 9 (3): 257-275.

Muller, J. & Taylor, N. (1995-a). Knowledge, the school curriculum and everyday life. In McKay, V. (ed.). A sociology of educating (pp. 203-229). Johannesburg: Lexicon Publishers.

Roberts, D.A. & Chastko, A.M. (1990). Absorption, refraction, reflection: An exploration of beginning science teacher thinking. Science Education, 74 (2) : 197-224.

Robinson, J.T. (1969). Philosophy of science : Implications for teacher education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 6 : 99-104.

Roth, W.-M. & Roychoudhury, A. (1993). The nature of scientific knowledge, knowing and learning: The perspectives of four physics students. International Journal of Science Education, 15 (1) : 27-44.

Ruel, F. (1994). La complexification conceptuelle des représentations sociales discursives à l'égard de l'enseignement et de l'apprentissage chez de futurs enseignants et enseignantes de sciences. Québec : Université Laval, unpublished Ph.D. thesis.

Ryan, A.G. & Aikenhead, G.S. (1992). Students' preconceptions about the epistemology of science. Science Education, 76 (6) : 559-580.

Ryan, A.G. (1982). Scientific literacy: Some thoughs on preparing teachers to teach it. A paper presented at the NSTA/SSTS/CASE Joint International Science Conference, Saskatoon.

Stengers, I. (1992). Le rôle possible de l'histoire des sciences dans l'enseignement. Montréal: Université du Québec à Montréal, Cahier du CIRADE, no 65.

Sutton, C. (1996). Beliefs about science and beliefs about language. International Journal of Science Education, 18 (1): 1-18.

Tobin K. & Gallagher J. (1987). What happens in high school science classrooms? Journal of Curriculum Studies, 19 (6) : 549-560.

Tobin, K., Tippins, D. & Gallard, A.J. (1994). Research on instructional strategies for teaching science. In Gabel, D.L. (ed.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning (pp. 45-93). New York : Macmillan.

Zeichner, K.M. & Gore,J. (1990). Teacher socialization. In Houston, R. W. (ed.), Handbook of research on teacher education (pp. 329-348). New York : Macmillan.


Section D3, About the epistmological posture of science teachers from: Connecting Research in Physics Education with Teacher Education
An I.C.P.E. Book © International Commission on Physics Education 1997,1998
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions

Return to the Table of Contents