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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 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

 

Symposium Agenda

 

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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

 

Symposium Agenda

 

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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

 

Symposium Agenda

 

Center's Home Page

 

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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

 

Symposium Agenda

 

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Email questions or comments to csmeeinq@nas.edu

What we have learned and where we are headed: Lessons from the Sputnik Era (continued)
George E. DeBoer, Colgate University

Where are we headed?

In many ways it seems that we are very much on track in our thinking about science, mathematics, and technology education. Educational leaders have taken the best ideas of the progressive era and the Sputnik era and modified them to produce statements about education that speak to a rigorous engagement with organized content within a context that is sympathetic to issues of personal and social relevance and to student interest. But more needs to be done. In the space remaining I would like to point to some areas of science, mathematics, and technology education that still need improvement and how we might achieve our goals.

In the August, 1997 issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Bill Kyle addresses the need to improve undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education at the postsecondary level (Kyle, 1997). He refers to two recent reports: one is the NRC's (1996) From analysis to action: Undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and the other is the NSF's (1996) Shaping the future: New expectations for undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Both reports note the critical but unmet need for all college students to acquire "literacy in these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry" (Kyle, 1997, p. 547). Advocates of scientific literacy say that our students must be able to make informed decisions as citizens regarding science related issues and work collaboratively to solve science related problems that affect society. The call for scientific literacy has been made continuously by science educators since the phrase was first introduced by Paul DeHart Hurd in 1958, although it was blunted somewhat during the reform movement of the 1960s because of the emphasis on mastering the disciplines (Pella, 1967). With that exception, some form of scientific literacy has been an explicit objective of science teaching throughout most of the 20th century.

Our failure to achieve the important goal of scientific literacy and to impart functional knowledge to our students is as important now as it has ever been. There is today a very significant anti-science attitude in this country and a growing belief in the claims of pseudo-science (Sagan, 1996). To many people it is simply more interesting and easier to base their beliefs on limited evidence. Claims of the effectiveness of alternative cures for disease and herbal health remedies are accepted credulously. It is surprising how much play supernatural explanations for physical occurrences get even from very well educated individuals. It is upsetting how often scientific integrity is abused by individuals who invoke the images of science to sell products or make assertions having questionable validity (Toumey, 1996). And the mass media is too quick to report uncritically on scientific findings and to sensationalize their reporting. Often the political context in which scientific research is carried out has become so entangled with the research itself that people are beginning to doubt scientists' motives and wondering if scientists can any longer remain disinterested, impartial, and objective in the conduct of their research or the interpretation of their findings. Everyone seems to have a personal agenda or to be tied to a funding source that has a special interest. Others question the universality of rational scientific thought and argue that science is not objective but rather socially constructed and linked to the cultural norms of the society in which it is conducted. As evidence, they say that different cultures produce sometimes incommensurably different scientific modes of investigation and world views. This is followed by the claim that in a multicultural society these differing views should not be dismissed but should be considered just as valid as the modern scientific view. (See Wagner, 1991, 1997 for a discussion of the multicultural and incommensurability issues.)

The impact we are having in developing an understanding of the nature and role of science in our world is extremely limited. Neither schools, nor the mass media, nor the scientific community itself has been able to present science so that it is understood and appreciated by the general citizenry. The National Science Board, in its annual surveys, consistently shows that for the majority of Americans, an understanding of the nature of science is almost nonexistent (National Science Board, 1996). Some would even question whether this is an achievable goal at all (Shamos, 1995). Can anything be done? I would like to make four suggestions, each of which point to what I will call a more humanistic approach to science, mathematics, and technology education. I propose a humanistic approach because I believe it is the only way to genuinely engage students in the study of science, mathematics, and technology so that they become knowledgeable about their importance in our world. A humanistic approach effectively connects science to those things that make us uniquely human, to the ways we think about the world and to the ways we live our lives. It is intended to prepare individuals to live intelligently and to engage thoughtfully and critically with the most important issues of the day. Its purpose is to liberate human beings by giving them responsibility and choice. A humanistic curriculum is authentic and meaningful because it is built around genuine questions that people have about the world. It is holistic and organic, not fragmented. It recognizes the worth and dignity and fullness and complexity of human beings, and it promotes actions that demonstrate respect for natural processes and a concern for the humane development of individuals in society. Although in many ways the reform documents of the past decade take a humanistic stance and promote the same kind of actions that I am proposing here, still more needs to be done to move us further and more forcefully in that direction.

1. The study of science, mathematics, and technology must be made more enjoyable and interesting.

Science, mathematics, and technology education must be made much more enjoyable and interesting if we are to have any success at all in our efforts at scientific literacy. Science is perceived by many to be distasteful and hard to learn. I believe it is distasteful to many people because the approach of science is to analyze our experience with the world into parts and particles that have very little meaning for the way we actually live our lives. Thus, science is often criticized as being coldly analytical and objective, and without passion. These technical subjects are hard to learn because they are still too often presented as dry disconnected facts or as abstract mathematical formulas. Although we obviously have the mental capacity to break the world we experience down into smaller and smaller parts, we live and find most of our satisfaction at an organismic level. Science, mathematics, and technology must be presented in ways that make sense to people and connect with the actual lives they live. We need to keep relating the parts and particles back to the organic level, especially as they connect with human beings if we are going to make science interesting to larger numbers of people. These subjects should also take into account the emotional and aesthetic experiences of human beings and should focus on those aspects of nature to which we have a direct existential relationship. They should deal with the connections between human beings and the natural world--our alliance with nature, the ways we encounter nature, and the responsibility we have for the maintenance of a viable natural world (Bunder, 1997).

2. Science, mathematics, and technology education should be used for personal intellectual development and not to accomplish the society's political goals.

Instead of using the educational system to accomplish specific instrumental goals of the society, a humanistic approach maximizes personal intellectual development. Prominent political goals in this country have included the desire to achieve military and economic supremacy in the world and to be first on international tests of science and mathematics knowledge. One critic of this approach says: "Everywhere we hear that our nation's future depends on a scientifically educated populace, that our children must work harder and do better if 'we' are to retain our competitive edge, that Americans should not settle for anything lower than first place. But what about the lives of children? What about the things that really matter to students--and, for that matter, to all of us? Are we just chess pieces to be pushed around in a world game of competitions" (Noddings, 1992, p. xii)? The same issue is raised by Bill Kyle who objects to the awkwardness of such flag-waving at a time of rapid globalization. He says: "I questioned whether a central goal of undergraduate SME&T education ought to be the notion of perpetuating a perceived national preeminence in science and technology....The purpose of education in a global context is not to perpetuate nationalistic ambitions. Perhaps the focus of a renewed SME&T education could be upon how such an education could contribute to a vision of education that facilitates global democracy espousing a dialogic and critical learning process" (Kyle, 1997, p. 548).

It is one thing for a free democratic society to compel its students to attend school in order to give them a broad general education that will help them to engage with the world in an intelligent way, to recognize their responsibilities to each other and to the maintenance of the natural world, and even to learn what we think it means to lead a virtuous life. But it is something very different for that society to educate these students to achieve specific nationalistic aims. Regardless of our personal ambitions for national supremacy or for global democracy, we must always keep in mind that the only legitimate goal that we can have for our students is their own personal growth as it relates to the world in which they live. Their autonomous development is what will make them true citizens in a free society.

3. Teachers and local school districts should have the autonomy to interpret broadly stated aims of education in terms of local conditions and the cultural norms of the community.

Education in the United States grew up around a rational, technical, management model of curriculum and instruction whose purpose was the efficient transformation of society (Westbury, 1995). Since the early years of the 20th century, educators have attempted to specify in great detail what is important to know and how to get students to learn it so that societal goals can be met. Teachers are asked to take on the role of educational technicians whose responsibility is to present the curriculum package and to measure its outcomes. When expected learning outcomes are not achieved, teachers are blamed for not delivering the curriculum to the students or for not demanding more of the students. There are two problems with this approach to teaching and learning. The first is that it restricts the choices that students can make. If everything is specified and "essential," there is little room for choice on their part. The second is that it fails to make adequate use of the knowledge and expertise of individual teachers by limiting their autonomy to act as responsible professionals. Both of these issues can be addressed by rethinking the notion of what we consider essential knowledge and how much should be left to the personal preferences of students and teachers.

We have let go of a lot of what we consider essential knowledge in recent years, but we need to let go of even more. There is simply too much to choose from. There are hundreds of versions of science courses that could be taught in high school, each with a different approach and focus, but each legitimate in its own way. We must take the "less is more" philosophy seriously and get to the place where only the broadest outlines of the subjects are considered essential. Individual teachers and school districts should then have the freedom to address these broad goals in the way that they feel is most suitable for their own students. Teachers need to be able to offer the learning experiences that their students can understand and find success with. This is one important way to give teachers the autonomy they need as professional educators and as broadly educated individuals themselves. Their job is not to mechanically pass on material that has been predetermined for them but to represent the most important aspects of the culture to their students as they see fit. This is the "frameworks" approach at its best--experts identify the overarching themes and critical concepts within the disciplines, but local schools fill in both the details and the ways to accomplish them.

Documents such as the National Science Education Standards and the Benchmarks for Science Literacy of Project 2061 are rightly presented as significant voices in the conversation concerning what makes good science education. They are very important statements of some of the most salient features of science, mathematics, and technology, and effective ways of teaching those subjects, but they are not the last word. Thus, they should be used as guides, not as blueprints for curriculum development. One thing we have learned from our previous experiences with science education reform is that when experts create plans without adequate involvement or perceived need by the participants, success is limited (Yager, 1995). Nor should we look at consensus as a virtue. A democratic society is a work in progress, not a finished product. New ideas are essential for maintaining a dynamic society. We can maximize the development of new ideas by ensuring that individual teachers and local school districts have as much responsibility as possible to create their own courses.

4. We should make greater use of student-directed learning.

With respect to students' participation in their own learning, the NRC's Standards discusses at considerable length a model of shared responsibility for teaching and learning in their chapter on "Science Teaching Standards." According to this model, teachers begin with the questions that students have and build instruction around these questions jointly with them. This will insure intellectual engagement in a way that coercion never will. At all levels of education, students represent a rich resource of life experiences that they can share as well as creative ideas about how teaching and learning can effectively occur. Given responsibility for organizing the classroom, they can devise strategies that work for them. Student-directed learning is more than student-centered learning. It gives students, in cooperation with the teacher, the freedom to organize the classroom and to decide on the content that they are to learn. Student-directed learning is an educational ideal that has not been given an adequate chance to prove itself. It is commendable that the NRC's Standards takes such a strong stand on this issue. It is another place where science educators will have to let go of some things that they consider important since students will not always choose the topics or the methods that the experts are most comfortable with. But I think the important question to ask is whether the content and methods that we are now choosing are working. Do they make sense to the students? Students must be given choices to study what is of interest to them and what they can be most successful at. Choice leads to success by providing the opportunity for genuine intellectual engagement. One of the most dispiriting things we can do to our students is to ask them to engage in activities with which they cannot be successful, either because of a lack of ability or lack of interest. Especially painful to observe is the still too common practice of requiring students to memorize lists of facts, not only because little learning takes place, but because it is disrespectful of a person's real ability to make sense of and appreciate the natural world.

In summary, a humanistic approach to science education grants students and teachers the freedom they need to grow together toward a deeper understanding of the role of science in our contemporary world. It offers an awareness of the methods of science, a sense of the enormous influence that science and technology have had on the physical and intellectual landscape of the modern world, an understanding of some of the major theories that have been offered to explain the phenomena that we observe in the natural world, and an appreciation for the limits as well as the power of scientific thinking to describe human experience. A humanistic approach to science education presents a particular way of thinking and the knowledge that has been generated by those methods. It is not fragmented. It is holistic and it is organic. It always comes back to the big questions. It is humanistic because its primary interest is in how studying the natural world and the developments that have come from it affect all of humanity.

Developing and Sustaining Leadership in Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education


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