I’m reading Larry Cuban’s new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, which has a chapter on the history of science education reform. (Note the subtitle, Change without Reform in American Education.) He quotes Jonathan Osborne, who points out that the goals of science education appear to be contradictory. Are we aiming to produce scientifically literate citizens or future scientists and engineers?
I thought about it for few minutes, and came down on the side of scientific literacy. Well, but certainly we do need future scientists and engineers. Why can’t we have both?
If you read some of my blog posts, one of the issues I’ve been grappling with is college science teaching. Post-secondary instruction drives the whole show. Future K-12 science teachers quite naturally try to reproduce the curriculum they experience in college. Lectures, Q&A sessions, laboratory investigations, exams, quizzes, etc. A very strong body of evidence supports the notion that college science coursework is not much like what scientists actually do in their work. Science studies show real scientists engage in flights of imagination and visualization, personify inanimate entities such as electrons, and work out tough problems in dreams. College students become scientists when they join lab groups as apprentices, usually as graduate students, although undergraduate research is becoming more common.
Beth Warren and Ann Rosebery show how young children really do think like scientists, using their imagination for example, wondering out loud what it feels like for a plant to grow, comparing plant growth to the experience of outgrowing your shoes. Well meaning teachers, enculturated into school science by 16 years of “science education,” typically squelch such flights of fancy in order to prepare students for the difficult and dry science they will encounter in the future.
But the difficult and dry science of high school and college is not science! In fact, professors I know complain that students who come to them don’t know how to think, imagine, or solve novel problems. By and large, school science is not preparing anybody for knowing and doing real science. Youth who later become scientists have to unlearn habits of mind which are not productive of innovation and critical thinking.
I have in front of me the latest edition of the Harvard Education Letter. In the cover article, “Changing the Face of Math,” Laura Pappano provides a good argument for reform mathematics focused on engaging youth in complex, open-ended problem solving connected with their lives. “What if our national problems with math…are more about fuzzy-sounding stuff like relationships, emotion, and identity than, well, actual math?” Students disengage from rote memorization and rote memorization of procedures does not prepare them for doing mathematics in the future.
This brings me back to the dilemma raised by Jonathan Osborne, a leading voice in science education. What if we’re looking at it wrong? Is there some other way to think about science education that does not involve a competing and mutually exclusive goals for the population of US high school students?
I believe we need a paradigm shift. What does challenging, emotionally accessible, interesting science education look like? We pretty much know, actually. It doesn’t happen because we are hesitant to abandon an admittedly flawed system which has in the past produced some pretty good results. However, continuing to exclude students of color and girls from the STEM workforce is not acceptable. Furthermore, continuing to exclude students of color and girls from the power of STEM knowledge is not acceptable.