Reflecting on Sputnik:  Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform
A symposium hosted by the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education

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WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED
AND WHERE WE ARE HEADED:
LESSONS FROM THE SPUTNIK ERA


George E. DeBoer
Colgate University

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center or the National Research Council. This paper has not been reviewed by the National Research Council.

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 Current Paper Sections Introduction
What we have learned
Where are we headed?
Developing Leadership
Conclusion

 

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J. Myron Atkin
Rodger W. Bybee
(George DeBoer)
Peter Dow
Marye Anne Fox
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

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Symposium Main Page

 

 Current Paper Sections Introduction
What we have learned
Where are we headed?
Developing Leadership
Conclusion

 

Other Papers J. Myron Atkin
Rodger W. Bybee
(George DeBoer)
Peter Dow
Marye Anne Fox
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

Center's Home Page

 

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INTRODUCTION AND HISTORICAL REVIEW

Forty years ago, the Soviet Union launched the earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, an event that energized a reform movement in science and mathematics education that had actually begun several years earlier. In the mid 1950s the National Research Council (NRC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as various professional organizations in science and mathematics, sponsored meetings and conferences to discuss ways to revise the science and mathematics curriculum. The interest in reform was stimulated by two related concerns. First, World War II raised questions about the adequacy of our technical expertise, especially vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the postwar years, and it raised questions about the quality of our educational system for preparing individuals for work in technical fields. Second, progressive education, which had enjoyed the support of the educational community for most of the first half of the 20th century, was being mercilessly attacked during the late 1940s and early 1950s for being anti-intellectual and for having failed to transmit the cultural heritage to the youth of this country (Smith, 1949, 1954; Bestor, 1953).

According to the critics, science and mathematics content was badly out of date and tended to be presented in an encyclopedic format, as bits and pieces of information to be memorized, or computational skills to be mastered, without developing a sense of the relationships between broader ideas. The subjects were not presented as coherent, integrated, conceptual wholes but as collections of fragments. A second concern was that the older courses misrepresented the nature of science and mathematics by failing to portray the essential character of rational inquiry in generating knowledge. These subjects were treated as sets of stable facts and principles, and adequate attention was not given to the historical development of the subject or the human dimension of scientific and mathematical inquiry. Finally, the connections that were made between scientific principles and social and technological applications in the name of personal and social relevance were seen as trivial and were thought to diminish the intellectual quality of the courses. (For further discussion of these issues see DeBoer, 1991 and Bybee & DeBoer, 1994.)

Because of the national security implications of our postwar tensions with the Soviet Union, the federal government entered the educational arena as it had never done before. A first step was taken by President Truman in 1946 when he established the President's Scientific Research Board to study and report on the country's research and development activities and on science training programs following the war. The Board began its report with these words: "The security and prosperity of the United States depend today, as never before, upon the rapid extension of scientific knowledge. So important, in fact, has this extension become to our country that it may reasonably be said to be a major factor in national survival" (President's Scientific Research Board, 1947, Vol. 1, p. 3). In a 1953 report published by the U.S. Office of Education, a committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said: "The present struggle for the very existence of our freedoms causes the need for the improvement of the instruction in science and mathematics to become increasingly important" (U.S. Office of Education, 1953, p. 1).

By the time Sputnik was launched in 1957, the country was ready for the kind of reforms that many scientists and mathematicians had been recommending. In this high stakes environment, mastery of the disciplines was touted as the way to achieve the intellectual rigor that critics said was missing. This was to be accomplished in part by deliberately excluding most of the social and technological applications from the science courses and focusing instead on the organized disciplines themselves. This emphasis on the structure of the disciplines was in direct opposition to the conventional wisdom of science educators in the first half of the 20th century who said that subject matter should always be taught in connection with its social and cultural meanings.

But the reform efforts were successful in many ways and they had a widespread effect on the science curriculum. In 1978, Suzanne Quick identified three innovations of the curriculum reform movement that had been integrated into mainstream commercially published textbooks during the 1960s and 1970s. The three innovations were: (1) updating and redistributing subject matter content to more accurately reflect the current state of a scientific discipline, (2) organizing content around a few conceptual schemes that are central to understanding a scientific discipline, and (3) using an activity-oriented approach to science education (Quick, 1978, p. 48). In addition, the courses achieved the rigor that critics found missing in the older courses, and they encouraged students to think and act like scientists within the structure that was established. What the curriculum reformers failed to do was to adequately take into account the importance of student interest or the pedagogical need to relate science knowledge to the experiential world of the students. Nor did they sufficiently consider the importance of readiness for learning or the need to postpone abstract learning until the student was capable of dealing successfully with such intellectual complexity. Each of these issues will be dealt with more specifically in the next section of this paper.

What we have learned.


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