Marie-Claire Shanahan teaches science education at the University of Alberta, and blogs about her own research and about the state of science education (and science education training: science education education if you will). Her latest post summarizes her findings from reviewing science teaching guides going back over a century:

Educators, critics, and scientists often argue for improving science education by teaching the processes of science, emphasizing critical thinking, and actively engaging students in doing science. Almost always, this is argued to be a great improvement over “traditional” approaches to science teaching that prioritize the rote learning of facts–an approach that is said to have dominated in the past. The problem is, it’s always a different past that we’re talking about – for us, it’s maybe the 80s, for those involved in writing the book, maybe the 40s. …

Modern science education – to go further, the inclusion of science in school curricula at all – owes a lot to Louis Agassiz and Nature Study education. … One of Aggasiz’s most famous arguments was the students should “study nature not books”. They should engage in the processes of science (Agassiz emphasized the power of observation) and learn to analyze evidence and draw their own conclusions. …

At the turn of the 20th century, science was not a typical part of the school curriculum. Standardized curricula that flowed from elementary to high school were really just beginning to be created in North America in the 1890s. Including science in these plans was seen as modern choice, a way to prepare for the future but also to challenge the rote approaches of a classical education. Instead of memorizing Latin conjugations, students should be learning things that would help them live better and survive economically. Sound familiar?

So what happened? Greater efforts to standardize education and concerns about teacher education and training (among other things) created the same kind of push/pull that we see today. A flexible science education that emphasizes engaging in science in the local environment became a difficult thing to do when inspections, prescribed texts, and standardized exams became the norm.

The barrier that prevents active, critical and process oriented science teaching has never been the fact that it’s a new idea. It’s not. When you scratch the surface of these arguments it turns out to be a rabbit hole. There is no past where rote teaching of scientific content was thought to be the best approach. This past is a rhetorical one.

The challenge this presents is that arguments presented in this way can’t lead to change because the actual challenges are covered up. When those challenges (e.g., (standardization pressures, assessment practices, changing curricula, to name just a few)) are invisible, they become a lot harder to address. A more fruitful approach might sound like this: “ We recognize that many teachers, scientists, and science educators have been asking for the same things for a long time. For many reasons it’s been difficult to realize this vision of science education. Let’s see what we can do to address the underlying issues.”

This can’t happen if the real reasons are constantly covered up by the rhetoric that this is new and non-traditional. So what do you say, can we leave that reason alone for a bit?

The whole post is well worth reading: a fascinating historic look at the place of science education in North American schools as well as a thoughtful analysis of how we currently teach science, how we seem always to have thought we ought to be teaching science, and why we haven’t been able to make a reality of that ideal.

So what are the underlying issues, and how do we address them? In my own (limited and perhaps skewed) experience, the conversation tends to focus on pre-service teacher training, and lack of resources for hands-on teaching. The solutions proposed often involve razing every school of education and starting from scratch. At which point everyone starts arguing and then they all go to the bar.

Shanahan’s point is well-taken, though, that there are various structural reasons why we teach science how we do. It’s hard to stick to a standardized curriculum if you’re having students design their own experiments, or if you encourage students to explore the outdoors in a relatively free manner. The need to cover specific topics can require narrowing the scope of these investigations, pushing lab exercises away from the (often unpredictable) practice of hypothesis-generation and hypothesis testing toward duller but more controllable lab demonstrations, or cookbook experiments where the teacher knows that a right answer exists and knows what it is.

Similarly, the rising importance of standardized testing and the use of these tests (and the statewide standards they’re based on) to hold teachers and schools accountable encourages rote learning. While I’ll grant that it’s surely possible to devise tests which assess a student’s ability to develop a hypothesis and design and experiment to test it and to evaluate the results, it’s far cheaper and easier to administer and score multiple choice tests focusing on retention of certain factoids from textbooks. If that is the sort of learning we reward, that’s the sort of teaching we can expect.

Shanahan also rightly highlights the problem of prescribed texts. In practice, many master teachers have come to supplement their assigned textbook with so many other exercises and resources that the book itself is essentially ignored, it still shapes how they think about teaching, and about science. A unified textbook tends to emphasize what I think of as the science-as-encyclopedia mindset. For over a century, science educators have been wanting to shift away from that idea of science as a collection of facts, and to emphasize the science-as-process mindset. But textbooks rarely teach a scientific mindset in any consistent way. Indeed, the existence of a textbook is in some sense antithetical to that mindset.
Many states’ published science standards emphasize the importance of teaching science as a process, but the inherent limits which Shanahan lists – including the focus on standardization embodied in those documents – undermine that focus. The essays praising inquiry-based learning that often open the standards don’t affect which textbooks are adopted or how the tests are written, and so those exhortations are easily ignored.
Compare how we teach science to how we teach English (or at least, how we did in the schools I attended). We use grammar textbooks because the rules of grammar are established (though they change over time). But in learning about literary techniques like metaphor or about the ways that stories and essays are structured, we don’t just rely on a textbook. We hand out novels and short stories and essays and plays. We don’t just read essays about Shakespeare, we read the Bard himself, and the teacher helps students puzzle through the structure of the play and the way he’s using language to get the desired effect. We teach students to do literary criticism. English teachers might use texts that include excerpts which represent the major themes, but what primary or secondary school teacher would think of teaching English without having the students read literature and analyze it themselves?

In science classes, you may not see the primary scientific literature until an upper-level college science class, and may not do a real scientific experiment until that point, either. Working from textbooks and canned experiments is the equivalent of giving students a copy of the Hamlet Cliff’s Notes and asking them to read a section of the play and regurgitate the Cliffs’ Notes explanation. The results for science education are predictable.

I have to believe that students could work through annotated versions of scientific papers, and analyze those scientific results the way that a scientist would. The language and concepts could be tricky at times, but no more more so than Shakespeare, and good teachers could help students navigate the trickier bits. I could easily envision a textbook consisting of important historic papers (including those whose authors were wrong, but which influenced later and better work), so that students would not just learn the end result of science, and not just how science is done in the lab and in the field, but how scientists think about new results and devise new hypotheses and test them.

Assuming someone wrote such a textbook, how would we get teachers to use it? It wouldn’t necessarily be aligned to the particular information required by state standards, nor would it necessarily prepare students to do better on standardized tests. Running science classes as discussions rather than lectures would make a lot of teachers uncomfortable, and could require massive retraining.

It would surely be possible to introduce this style of learning without a wholesale revolution. Even reproducing a handful of scientific papers in textbooks would make it easier for students and teachers to see how science works. Science and English teachers could even co-teach classes with those papers, to emphasize the interdisciplinary aspects of those lessons and to give cover to any science teachers who weren’t comfortable with that style of classroom management.

The ongoing effort to unify the state standards – the framework of which emphasizes the importance of teaching science-as-process – could allow better tests to be developed and deployed which would better assess students’ science skills (and not just factoid retention). Better tests and strong standards could press policymakers and administrators to give teachers leeway to explore different ways of teaching.

And of course, parents and scientists could get interested in helping teachers make this shift. Locally, that could mean bringing the issue up in parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings, offering to help teachers develop such lesson plans and labs, and to sell that pedagogical shift to administrators. They could interrogate their state boards of education about how the state’s standardized tests assess scientific thinking. They could make sure local school boards and science supervisors and superintendents are on board, and that the textbooks they choose reflect that choice. They could make sure it’s easy for teachers to take students outside, ideally without requiring permission slips just to go out into the schoolyard or to a nearby park.

For over a century, we’ve known how science should be taught. These ideas aren’t new, and they shouldn’t be scary.


  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    November 20, 2011

    In the 1990s, universities became concerned about lack of success in teaching science, in terms of retention. Retention is having students stay enrolled and graduate with degrees. There were, at the time, surveys of student satisfaction and concern with science courses. Only one I recall was that students criticized physics courses as involving too much problem solving. Geeza Whiz!

    I agree with a colleague who held that teaching biology was just story telling. Knowing what we know is important, but I think it is also important to understand how we came to know: the story, I suppose, and why we thought it important to learn what we know.

  2. #2 Lyle
    November 21, 2011

    But there are a couple of experiments from the CBA approach to chemistry I took 40+ years ago. One that works in pretty much any science is the black box. Put some object in a box, and from the weight the way the box handles and the like derive a hypothesis on what is inside.
    The other that was a capstone of HS chemistry, was given a set of 40 solutions you are given 20 of them and asked to figure out between their reactions with each other and some standard chemicals what they are. I recall that I ended up doing it the way a computer would, build a chart of what happens when you mix each with each other, and proceed from there.

  3. I appreciate your comments following Marie-Claire’s quote, and the analysis you provide. I have been teaching science for two decades, at a university level and also lab courses, where I have had some freedom and flexibility.

    Then I moved to online teaching. As part of the job requirement, I’ve had to partake in some courses in education. I found myself in agreement with some of the ideas but then absolutely appalled at how certain pedagogical ideologies can take wonderful, creative ideas and concepts and dissect them into measurable parts, removing all freedom and imagination. I find it distasteful and I expect this is what standards do to students in the primary and secondary classrooms.

    There is also the unfortunate circumstance where a teacher who knows physics inside and out is often forced to teach another area of science they are less comfortable with, such as biology. Suddenly, paralyzed with insecurity, the teacher must run to the comfort and predictability of a textbook just to get through the school year.

    There is much more that is wrong about science education in America and your suggestions are reasonable and implementable. Let’s hope someone listens. Thanks for sharing.

    I am paying “blog calls” to each @scio12 attendee to say “Hi” and give your blog a shoutout on twitter (I’m @sciencegoddess). I look forward to seeing you in January!

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