Against Chronological Accounts of the History of Science


Ian Kinchin (2009) argues that chronological-linear teaching as instructors are ‘forced’ to by presentation software as PowerPoint, Flash, Impress and Keynote, hardly contributes to the student’s understanding (2008). Students are provided that way with shallow, inert, and decontextualised chunks of information, only to be memorized by heart. Some will make up stories only to serve recollection. Hardly the way we want the history of science to be processed cognitively! Handbooks are not helping here, being chronologically structured, at most thematically.

What most courses lack is vital to insight: bridges between concepts and relations between events, views on how things most probably came about. Information that is actually available in the author’s or lecturer’s mind. But it is concealed in black boxes with only the historical facts written on the outside followed by a date between brackets. People are not generally interested in what is in the box (Latour, 1987), although the content of the box gives the insights necessary to grasp history constructed by historians. In the black box lies the key to a profound comprehension of the metier: science without compromise. (Cornelis, 1998) As Dewey already wrote in 1910, “Just because the order is logical, it represents the survey of subject matter made by one who already understands it, not the path of progress followed by a mind that is learning.”

Teachers should present the material in a way that unveils how the information originated. They can offer mind maps parallel to the linear presentations. But they can also provide the data like it comes to their mind. That way, the link comes about in a natural way, analogically or through association. The idiosyncratic feature can be readily seen, which is evidently an advantage. Most probably, courses

By providing knowledge in a linear way, boxes are kept sealed. Opening the boxes reveals the craft, as well as adequate mnemonic devices. The account is idiosyncratically coloured, but it is known to the reader; an ‘objective’ chronological description actually covers too much up.


- Cornelis, G.C., 1998, “Is popularisation of science possible?”, Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston 10-15/08/1998. Online: , consulted 11/12/2010.
- Dewey, J., 1910, How we think, Boston, DC Heath & Co., p. 204.
- Kinchin, I.M., Chadha, D. & Kokotailo, P., 2008, “Using Powerpoint as a lens to focus on linearity in teaching”, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 32 (4), pp. 333-346.
- Kinchin, I.M., 2009, “Influencing learning styles with teaching strategies: A knowledge structures perspective”, Proceedings of the 14th Annual Conference of the European Learning Styles Information Network, Bulle-en-Gruyère, 17-19/06/2009, pp. 268-275.
- Latour, B., 1987, Science In Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
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Gustaaf C. Cornelis