Research Summary

Developing children's views of the Nature of Science through role play

Role Play Improves Understanding of the Nature of Science

International Journal of Science Education

The nature of science (NOS) generally refers to the understanding of how scientific knowledge is developed and the values and beliefs associated with this process. The NOS has received attention from educators and researchers alike, as evidenced by the growing body of research around the topic and increased emphasis on the NOS in science education reform. The authors of this paper note a lack of research exploring both the views of the NOS of elementary school children and the use of role-play activities in science education. To help address this research gap, the authors conducted role-play activities with young children and investigated the effects on participants’ views of the NOS.

In reviewing the few studies that examine role playing and science education, the authors found that role play did have a positive effect on science learning. By its very nature, role play is play, and children have an innate desire to play that can lead to increased learning. In role play, students construct their own meaning and employ skills and behaviors from multiple domains (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor), all of which are involved in science learning. Dramatic activities also are more interactive and less authoritarian than traditional science education methods, which involve memorizing facts and participating in structured lab exercises. As the authors also note, successful role-play activities are not free-form activities, but rather they incorporate explicit, scaffolded, teacher-led reflection and discussion.

To test their theory that role play would enhance elementary students’ views of the NOS, the authors implemented role-play activities with a group of 18 children, ages 10-11, at a university in Turkey. The authors designed a 10-day program consisting of a three-hour session of role-play activities each day. The participants acted out a variety of scenes from important times in the lives of two scientists, Isaac Newton and Marie Curie. Throughout all 10 sessions, the researchers (who served as the instructors) asked explicit questions to encourage critical thinking about targeted aspects of the NOS.

To assess potential changes in the participants’ views of the NOS, the authors administered a questionnaire both before and after the role-play program. The researchers selected seven aspects of the NOS to target: tentative, empirical, multiple methods of investigation, subjective-theory laden, sociocultural-embeddedness, creative-imaginative, and image of a scientist. Each question focused on one aspect of the NOS. The researchers categorized the children’s responses to each question as either “naïve” or “informed” and computed percentages of correct responses for each aspect of the NOS.

Pre- and post-assessment results showed that participants developed more informed understanding of all seven aspects of the NOS targeted in this study. The characteristic of the NOS that saw the biggest move of participants from naïve to informed views was the idea that science does not have to follow one set scientific method, but can result from multiple methods of investigation. Some of the most interesting results related to questions about the children’s images of scientists. In terms of gender of scientists, the authors found that the children, even after the role play, “had a strong occupational male bias for engaging [in] science even though they mention gender is not an obstacle for doing science.” Another question asked about the place where scientists study. In the pre-test, the majority of the children said scientists work in a lab, but after the role play, a significant percentage of the children described scientists as working in a variety of settings.

The authors concluded that role play positively influences elementary students’ views of the NOS. The authors point out that the discussions with children after role playing are key to the strategy’s success and suggest that “teachers in the class should pay particular attention to a whole class discussion in a well-organized manner through the explicit prompts.” The teachers should “allow children to express their understanding in a collaborative fashion.” The authors suggest future studies to explore the replicability of their results with other groups of children and explore which variables of the role-play program contribute most to the change in views.

The Bottom Line

Teaching about the NOS requires different strategies than those often found in traditional science education. This study found that role plays can help lead students from naïve to more informed views of the NOS. The interactive nature of role playing can capture students’ interest and provide an engaging way to explore new viewpoints and information. Concurrent and follow-up discussion, as well as instructor-led reflection with explicit questions to help expand critical thought, are essential to effective role play.