teacher in front of a classroom
teacher in front of a classroom

Opinion: Teach Philosophy of Science in High School

The pandemic has revealed the importance of preparing students to critically evaluate the conceptual foundations and real-world impact of science.

Nicholas Friedman

Nicholas Friedman is a medical student at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He previously taught high school philosophy with the University of Pennsylvania’s Project for Philosophy for the Young (P4Y).

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and
Stephen Esser

Stephen Esser is a philosopher and associate director of Penn’s Project for P4Y.

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“Evacuate the city. The latest numbers from the predictive model show that the hurricane might hit in two days and cause major devastation.” This was not the balanced approach of an emergency manager, a city council member, or a meteorologist. Rather, it was the insight of a ninth grade student conducting a mock disaster exercise in our class on the philosophy of science. To prepare students to thrive in a world driven by science and policy, we need to incorporate philosophy in the classroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear how strongly our lives can be influenced by rapid developments in scientific knowledge and changes in public health policy. Everyday our lives are affected by the latest predictive models of disease transmission, evolving data on vaccine efficacy, and guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing. All the while, the pandemic has underlined many Americans’ limited scientific literacy and distrust of science. A Gallup poll from summer 2021 found that only 64 percent of US adults have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science as an institution.

We need to improve K–12 STEM education. But improving STEM education is not simply a matter of adding lesson plans on microbiology and immunology, nor emphasizing hands-on laboratory work. What we need to do is to teach students about the fundamental nature of scientific practice—its strengths and limitations—and how science can both affect and be affected by society. In other words, we need to introduce students to the philosophy of science.

The concept of teaching philosophy in high school might seem strange. Philosophy often gets a bad reputation, conjuring up images of dense, impenetrable writing and of academics who care more about winning verbal disputes than discussing tangible issues. Admittedly, academic philosophy can often be esoteric and inaccessible, and the field has historically been guilty of vastly underrepresenting female and minority perspectives. But over the past several years, a wave of enthusiasm has emerged to expand whose voice is heard and to engage the broader public in philosophical discourse.

Little attention has been given, however, to expanding access to philosophy of science education. Philosophy of science examines how the scientific process works, when and why we should accept new scientific findings, and how scientific knowledge progresses over time. The discipline also explores the role of different stakeholders in science, how biases and values can influence the process, and how ethical considerations figure into research. These issues—not how to balance chemical equations or how to calculate the trajectory of a projectile—are what Americans are asked to grapple with every day as we are confronted with news on the pandemic. And recent studies suggest that knowledge about the nature of science may improve trust and acceptance of its findings.

At the University of Pennsylvania, with which we’re affiliated, Karen Detlefsen leads the Project for Philosophy for the Young (P4Y), a K–12 outreach effort. In 2018, as one of several initiatives, we led P4Y’s launch of a ninth-grade course called Philosophy and Ethics of Science at a Philadelphia public high school. We organized eight class sessions by key questions such as: How do we distinguish science from pseudoscience? What counts as valid scientific evidence? Can science answer ethical questions? We included case studies on ethical dilemmas and modules on crafting logical arguments. Since launching the course, we’ve held several iterations that have featured small group activities, organized debates, and role-playing exercises such as the mock hurricane disaster simulation. We’ve found that high school students are able to critically examine their intuitions and assumptions regarding science, and thrive on the challenge of being thrust into the seats of science and policy leaders.

As we continue to fight the pandemic and begin our recovery efforts, it is more important than ever to teach philosophy of science in high school and beyond. We advocate for curriculum reform, notably to include enhancements to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Published in 2013, NGSS is an educational standard that was developed by a multi-state consortium and since adopted by 20 states and the District of Columbia. As previously argued by Andrew Zucker and Pendred Noyce, the NGSS represents a substantial improvement over previous standards, but there remains room for further refinement, including a greater focus on the nature and history of science. Absent widespread reform, however, philosophy of science can be taught as a stand-alone class or weaved into existing science and humanities classes through school- and classroom-level initiatives.

Many would argue that high school curriculums are already stuffed full and that the focus now needs to be on how we can return to the classroom, not what will be taught in the classroom. We appreciate the challenges faced by educators during this pandemic, but also recognize that high school students crave the tools to make sense of new developments. Recapturing their attention, whether in the virtual or physical classroom, requires that we sincerely engage with them on the issues of the day. And although curriculum space is limited, we have seen outstanding success from motivated teachers and students in creating extracurricular philosophy clubs when given sufficient support.

To aid educators in expanding access to philosophy of science instruction, we have released our series of pre-college lesson plans online for all to freely use and modify to fit their needs. We’ve included brief supplementary background discussions to guide teachers, and believe the lesson plans can be used by any teacher regardless of their prior background, if any, in philosophy. When it isn’t feasible to modify a course’s curriculum, educators can still use the materials as guides to help frame their teachings and highlight philosophical topics.

The time is ripe to think strategically about how we prepare Americans to understand novel scientific and medical developments. A greater emphasis on philosophy of science can help students become critical, open-minded consumers of scientific information and prepare them for the challenges ahead.