Why Do We Teach Science, Anyway? The Democratic Argument

There are at least two interpretations that emerge when we explore why we teach science from the democratic argument.   The first interpretation is that we should be teaching science to help students become informed citizens in an increasingly technocratic and scientific world, and provide them with the tools to intelligently discuss, vote on, and make decisions about “modern life, politics and society.” (Turner, p. 10.)  But we also interpret the democratic argument in the context of democratic schools–that is schools in which students and teachers participate equally in shared decision-making on matters related to the organization of school, the curriculum and related matters.

In am going to focus on the first argument here, namely that school science should be in service of helping students become informed citizens.  In science education, there is an interesting history of curriculum projects and efforts at the school level aimed at a science education that are context-based. (See Judith Bennett for synthesis of the research on context-based science)  Helping students become informed students is also the subject of Science-Technology-Society Environment (STSE), environmental education, social responsibility, public understanding of science, humanistic science, and citizen science.

In the democratic paradigm of science education, contexts and applications are the starting places for learning about science, which is in contrast to the traditional approach to science teaching, which chiefly attends to the structure of the disciplines of science, and its subject matter knowledge in curriculum design.  This is clearly a very different approach than is used in the design and construction of standards in science.  The 1996 NSES and the Conceptual Framework for a New Generation of Science Standards start with the key concepts or core ideas in the disciplines of science: earth science, life science, and physical science ( engineering and technology were added as a fourth area in 2010 Conceptual Framework).  If you want to find examples of STS or Context-based science standards, you have to mine the standards to find instances of STS.

The democratic argument creates a curriculum that potentially is more interesting to students.  In fact, in a synthesis of research on S-T-S Context-based science programs, Judith Miller and colleagues reported that:

detailed research evidence from 17 experimental studies undertaken in eight different countries on the effects of context-based and STS approaches, drawing on the findings of two systematic reviews of the research literature. The review findings indicate that context-based/STS approaches result in improvement in attitudes to science and that the understanding of scientific ideas developed is comparable to that of conventional approaches.

This is an important finding.  In a very large study involving more than 40 countries, researchers of the Rose Project (The Relevance of Science Education) surveyed the attitudes of thousands of 15-year old students to find out the status of science education.  Under the direction of Svein Sjøberg, & Camilla Schreiner (University of Oslo), the Rose Project seeks to address:

mainly the affective dimensions of how young learners relate to S&T.  The purpose of ROSE is to gather and analyze information from learners about several factors that have a bearing on their attitudes to S&T and their motivation to learn S&T.  Examples are: A variety of S&T-related out-of-school experiences, interests in learning different S&T topics in different contexts, prior experiences with and views on school science, views and attitudes to science and scientists in society, future hopes, priorities and aspirations as well as young peoples’ feeling of empowerment with regards to environmental challenges, etc.

The findings in the ROSE study are important to the democratic argument because the researchers sought to find out about students attitudes about the science curriculum and science in their lives and society. As the researchers claim, developing a positive attitude about science is an important goal of science teaching, and it would appear important to know what attitudes students hold.  Most large scale assessments of students focus on the “knowledge” students have as reported by TIMSS and PISA.  ROSE researchers point out that

It is a worrying observation that in many countries where students are on top of the international TIMSS and PISA score tables, they tend to score very low on interest for science and attitudes to science.  These negative attitudes may be long lasting and in effect rather harmful to how people later in life related to S&T as citizens.

Designing a science curriculum around STSE not only will further the democratic argument, but it might contribute to more positive attitudes of students about science.  In Bennett’s research, it was found that in context-based science programs, students achieved at the same content levels as students in more traditional science courses.  We could argue that context-based program might serve not only the students, but contribute to an improvement of science teaching in general.

Moving ahead with a context-based or STSE approach to science curriculum is not without problems.  Are there significant context-based themes that could be used with young students, say in grades K- 4?  Is this approach more applicable to students in middle and high school?   There is also the problem with teacher education.  Some researchers suggest that teachers are more reluctant to move away from the content of their discipline, and entertain social and contextual issues as a basis for curriculum.

But there are many examples of context-based science programs that are successful with students and teachers.  ChemCom (Chemistry in the Community) is one example—a high school chemistry course that is context based, SEPUP (Science Education for Public Understanding), Project Learning Tree, and Project Wild, just to name a few.

Students need to see relevance and connection between their lived-experiences and the science content (or any content for that matter) that they learn in school science.  The democratic argument for why we teach science appears to foster these connections.

Coming next: Why do we teach science? The Skills argument.

Why do we teach science?–the economic argument

In yesterday’s blog post, I raised the question: Why do we teach science anyway?  Do we teach science to help students become curious and to wonder about the world around them?  Do we teach science because various committees and professional societies think that studying science has something special to teach students about the world, and how to solve problems in the world?  Do we teach science because our nation’s economic prosperity depends upon innovation and discoveries made in science and to maintain a supply of scientists and engineers?

In that post I identified four arguments, each of which will form the content of this and three subsequent posts in the next week.  When we explore the answer to the question–Why do we teach science? –the answer will depend upon the argument we are using to support our answer.  The four arguments are as follows:

  1. The Economic Argument
  2. The Democratic Argument
  3. The Skills Argument
  4. The Cultural Argument

The economic argument is by far the dominate reason why we teach science, especially in the more advanced and prosperous countries.  For science research and science education, the work of Vannevar Bush took center stage prior-to and after WWII.  He headed the Department of Scientific Research and Development during WWII, and was for a time, head of the Manhattan Project, which developed the Atomic bomb.  Bush advanced the role of government in research and development, he was responsible for the creation of the National Science Foundation (1950).  He became NSF’s first director.  But as importantly as these roles, he wrote a report to the President (Truman) in July 1945 entitled Science, The Endless Frontier. This report was written to answer a set of questions posed by President Roosevelt.  Following are the questions Roosevelt proposed:

  1. What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?
  2. With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?
  3. What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?
  4. Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

Bush’s report became an important document in shaping America’s conception of science, especially in the role that government should take in advancing scientific research and development.  New discoveries, and progress in technological innovation would be key to national security and defense.  The report called for support in the form of scholarships in science and engineering enabling a wide scope of students to work towards a Ph.D.

The economic and security reality of science was readily seen in the aftermath of WWII, and as a result science education was seen as taking a new role in the developing a pipeline of science and engineering talent.  In 1950, the NSF was created and headed by Bush, and soon after science education researchers began to write and critique the present science curriculum.  It was evident the curriculum needed to change, and NSF took the lead in impacting secondary science education by creating at MIT the Physical Science Study Committee which ended up producing one of the most important high school science curriculum projects, the PSSC—a new high school physics course.  The PSSC course advanced the knowledge of science in physics by creating a laboratory oriented program—a text, a laboratory manual, and a set of corresponding lab materials were developed for teachers to use to involve students in inquiry learning.  The NSF also decided that high school mathematics and science teachers needed advanced training in science, and so they created the Summer Institute concept, and thousands of teachers participated in these 6- or 8-week summer programs.

In 1957 things really changed.  The Soviets launched the first satellite (Sputnik I), and this event began a period of reform efforts in science and technology education in America characterized as “crises” and in some cases “hysteria” that America was falling behind in science and technology, and that efforts needed to be taken at a National level to resolve the crisis.

Pipeline ideology emerged after WWII in that the government felt that there was a manpower shortage shortage in science and engineering, and that the school science curriculum was outdated, and that teachers needed more training in science, mathematics and technology.  This ideology has characterized the way the Federal Government, and State Departments of Education have approached reform and change in science education over the past 60 years.

The Economic argument for why we teach science is rooted in the nation’s perception of how it compares to other nations in science, technology and engineering.  The Sputnik Era naturally focused in on the hysteria that America was way behind in the “Race to Space” and that the Soviet System of science and mathematics education must be superior to science and mathematics in the USA.  The Race to Space led to enormous appropriations to the National Science Foundation to develop “new curricula” in science and mathematics, K-12.  It also led to proliferation of Summer Institutes for science and math teachers, and Academic Year Institutes for science and math teachers to were paid to leave their teaching position and pursue a full year of coursework in science and mathematics.  Thousands of science and mathematics teachers participated in these summer and year-long institutes, all supported by the NSF.  Millions of dollars were spent on developing new curricula in science, starting with the PSSC course leading to long line of “alphabet soup” science courses in chemistry, biology, earth science, and elementary science.  The courses emphasized a laboratory approach (inquiry-approach) and conceptual approach to science, and there was great excitement within the science and science education communities.  Although these programs advocated an inquiry and hands-on approach to teaching, the survey data on the nature of classroom behavior in science classes revealed the lecture/demonstration approach based on traditional science textbooks was the dominant player, even with the infusion of millions of dollars into science education reform.

America did “win” the space race to the moon, but critics soon began to emerge and to claim that America would be at risk if education in the nation did not improve and change.

In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education released the report, A Nation at Risk.  The report began with these two paragraphs that left an indelible image in the minds of politicians and reformers:

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.

This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

The “rising tide of mediocrity” was the phrase that called into question the way science (and other subjects) was being taught, and whether teachers had the competency to teach science and mathematics in a way that would result in America’s students and future workers could compete against citizens from other nations.

Jane Butler Kahle, a prominent science education researcher, characterized this period of reform as “courses and competency” and it led to a new set of requirements for students to graduate from high school, and encouraged states to require more science and mathematics courses for all students.  Sights were set on moving American students to the head of the class in comparisons with students in other countries.  In an influential report, Educating Americans for the 21st Century, the authors stated the basic objective for American education:

to provide all the nation’s youth with a level of education in mathematics, science, and technology, as measured by achievement scores and participation levels, that is not only the highest quality attained anywhere in the world, but also reflects the particular and peculiar needs of our nation.

Here is the first pronouncement that student achievement scores will be used in comparisons with other nations to measure the effectiveness of American science education, but it clearly implies a national view that the needs of our nation must be at the forefront of education.

Student achievement, as measured by bubble tests, is now the fundamental way to measure the effectiveness of schools, systems and individual teachers, and the strength of this argument had its roots in the 1980s and 1990s with this Federal report.

In 1985, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) created Project 2061 (the date when Halley’s Comet returns), a massive science education improvement project focusing on scientific literacy.  It’s first publication was an outline of the goals of science education and was published under the title Science for All Americans (Oxford, 1989).  As a long term project for improving science, mathematics, and technology education, Project 2061 is still an active player in the current reform efforts in the nation.

Project 2061 led the way, and was the foundation upon which the National Science Education Standards (NSES) were developed in 1996. The Standards in science had a profound impact on school science, and led to the development of some new textbooks, but perhaps more importantly the Standards became the benchmark upon which various states developed their own standards.

The economic viability of the nation has been relentlessly defined by politicans and educators, but especially U.S. governors, and corporate bodies that have used their vast resources to invest in a number of “innovations” including the creation of private charter schools that have been able to get state funding, the establishment of Common Core Standards in Math and Reading (Language Arts).  These standards were written by Achieve, an organization established by the National Governors Association.  All but two states have adopted the Common Core Standards.  The Common Core Standards speak to the economic argument in that these backers and developers of the Standards were concerned that some states did not have “rigorous” content and achievement standards, and that a single set ought to be developed, and all students should be held to this one set.

To get the country out of the Great Recession, the U.S. Government established the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009).  This $700 billion program provided about $100 billion for the U.S. Department of Education.  Setting aside part of the money, the Secretary of Education, created the Race to the Top Fund, which would enable the states to compete against each other to obtain part of the $4.5 billion Race to the Top Funds.  As part of the criteria for submitting a proposal (each state had to present a single proposal) each state had to adopt the Common Core Standards.   In the first round, only two states were funded.  Six months later, an additional 9 states were funded receiving grants from $200 million to more than $500 million.

The economy, according to the developers of these present reform effort, depends upon the “rigor” and quality of education in our schools.  Most of the reform effort supports charter schools, the use of high-risk tests to not only measure student learning, but to measure teacher effectiveness.  Using the “value-added” concept, the reformers have put into place assessment techniques that will hold schools and teachers accountable for student learning.

So why do we teach science?  The economic argument is a powerful answer to this question.  We teach science in the schools to help the nation produce enough scientists and engineers who will work in science and engineering careers, produce innovation, and wealth.

Why do we teach science?

There is a new generation of science standards on the way. The Conceptual Framework for New Science Standards has been developed by a committee selected by the National Research Council, with funding from the Carnegie Foundation. The Framework will guide the development of new standards, which will be written by Achieve, a non-profit organization established some years ago by the National Governors Association.

The new Framework does not answer the question “Why do we teach science?,” but does inform us what students should learn. I have read the report, and there is no discussion of why we teach science. Here is an opening paragraph from the Draft Framework in which what students should learn is explained:


This framework lays out a set of goals for what students should learn in science and in engineering. These goals for science and engineering education are informed, first and foremost, by a view of the essential elements of science and engineering that must be conveyed to all students. The first step in identifying these elements must be an exploration of what we perceive science to be, of the distinctions between science and engineering as practices, and of the diversity of practices engaged in by scientists and engineers.

Why do we teach science in the first place? This question is always been important, but much of the reform going on in the US today has not addressed the question directly. What one has to do is examine the goals of a particular curriculum or reform report, and then infer what the authors would say if asked, Why do we teach science in first place?

For example, the National Science Board, in its September 2010 report on Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators stated that the development of the Nation’s capital through schooling was an essential building block for the future of innovation.

The report’s authors outline recommendations in three areas including opportunities for excellence, casting a wide net to attract individuals to science, and create an environment that will foster innovation. The rationale for the NSB report is embodied in these two stated rationales:

  • The nation’s economic prosperity, security, and quality of life depends on the identification and development of our next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) innovators
  • Every student in America should be given the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

In their view the economic prosperity of America, and science for all appear to be rationales for teaching science.  As you will see later in this piece, the “economic argument” is only one of several arguments that help us answer the question: Why do we teach science?

In doing research for this piece, I came across R. Steven Turner’s paper on science education. Turner, in his keynote speech to the CRYSTAL Atlantique Annual Colloquium, addressed the issue as seen in the title of his talk: Why do we teach science, and why knowing matters. In his address, Turner explored four different arguments that could be used to answer the why question. The arguments are identified as:

  • The Economic Argument
  • The Democratic Argument
  • The Skills Argument
  • The Cultural Argument

Why we teach science is embedded in these arguments.  Much of Turner’s paradigm for looking at why we teach science is based on work by Robin Millar of the University of York, and author of several works on science education.  A brief discussion follows for each argument.

Which of these arguments represents why we teach science in your view?  Is there one argument that dominates school science today?  Is there one or more that dominates the reform agenda of science education?

The Economic Argument–the pipeline view in which students are channeled upward to post-secondary schools to study science, technology and engineering. The goal is produce more scientists and engineers to meet the supply demands in science-related fields. The problem is that crises in manpower shortages has been greatly exaggerated and only 2/3’s of people majoring in science actually take jobs in science. Comparative data used from TIMMS and PISA achievement scores has undermined science teaching and is used in policy debates as if the results are flawless. The argument goes that if we can boost the test scores of 15 old boys and girls, the nation’s economy will grow. This results in more of the same curriculum and more time in class. The new national framework for a subsequent set of science standards is a good example of reform rooted in the economic argument. Content of science is emphasized and comparisons with the 1995 science standards shows little difference.

The Democratic Argument–in this view we teach science to prepare students to be informed citizens and knowledgeable consumers. The curriculum would be quite different than the economic/standards-based design. It would focus on the technological and real-world applications of science.  Science curriculum would focus on what students would need to know to participate in key controversies of the time, global warming, energy, environmental issues, and health.  The democratic is another name for the humanistic argument advocated by science educator Glen Aikenhead, especially in his book Science for Everyday Life: Evidence Based Practice.  The humanistic argument is the central argument in the STSE movement (science, technology, society, environment).  The STSE movement is not the dominant paradigm used in science curriculum, although one can find “STSE Standards” in the NSES publication.  After examination of the new framework, STSE is still not considered “main stream” by the developers of the NRC New Generation Framework for the Science Standards.  Yet the research, as reported by Aikenhead, and others, supports the inclusion of STSE curriculum in school science, and that it does contribute to positive attitudes among students who take science courses.  The Democratic Argument offers a view of the science curriculum that is more student-centered, and related to life-experiences of students within the context of science.

The Skills Argument–The Skills Argument suggests that the mere study of science instills certain transferable skills that are important to students’ understanding of science.  The skills argument is the process of science argument that is strongly advocated by science education researchers, and by organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association.  Indeed, the skills argument claims that students should be involved in hands-on activities, analyze data, and plan open-ended investigations.  The skills argument is the argument that suggests that teachers should use an inquiry-approach to teaching and help students learn how to practice inquiry.  Much of science teacher education is oriented around an inquiry-approach to science teaching, and students of science education are steeped in the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, Bruner, and others who advocated this approach.  Indeed, if you peruse the journal Science Education or the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, inquiry appears as a dominant term in any search.  A good discussion of the science as inquiry approach is the testimony that Professor Julie Luft gave to the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The inquiry-approach is not without problems.  In fact, survey data shows that inquiry teaching is not the dominant pedagogy used in science classrooms.  The lecture/presentation approach is the most frequently used method of teaching science.  Inquiry-oriented teaching requires a reorientation to teaching, and one that requires teachers to employ small team learning, as well as encouraging students to explore science and to ask questions.

The Cultural Argument–The cultural argument suggest that the history and philosophy of science should play an integral role in science curriculum.  Presently, lip service is played to this approach.  Robin Millar argues that we must reduce the amount of content that dominates the science curriculum, and in its place present to students a coherent and cohesive world picture of science that tell students stories of sciences great stories from quarks to superclusters and genes and gerontology.  The cultural argument could produce a curriculum that would interest students, and might reduce the general trend which is the more science courses students take, the less they like science.

Teaching in America: It Should Not Be About Winning

There was an opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday by Thomas Friedman entitled Teaching for America. On the front page on the Times website, the article title was Teaching to Win.

Friedman’s article is supportive of current reform efforts, and the charge that the nations schools have put us in a hole (according to Friedman). Friedman suggests that the solution to our educational demise to raise the profession of teaching by rewarding excellence in teaching. Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, is beginning a “national teacher campaign” designed to recruit new talent.

Friedman says this about the current situation:

Duncan, with bipartisan support, has begun several initiatives to energize reform — particularly his Race to the Top competition with federal dollars going to states with the most innovative reforms to achieve the highest standards. Maybe his biggest push, though, is to raise the status of the teaching profession. Why?

Tony Wagner, the Harvard-based education expert and author of “The Global Achievement Gap,” explains it this way. There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.

If you look at the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (like Finland and Denmark), one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes. As Wagner put it, “They took teaching from an assembly-line job to a knowledge-worker’s job. They have invested massively in how they recruit, train and support teachers, to attract and retain the best.”

These are not new ideas. Actually Colleges of Education have been dealing with these issues for decades, and have indeed put into practice many of the suggestions that the current reformers are making. Teacher education does indeed focus the preparation of teachers where it should be, and that is the classroom working with experienced mentor teachers. It’s one thing to talk about a “national academy of teaching” when in fact teaching and teacher preparation takes place locally in schools with real teachers, and professors who collaborate with mentor teachers to work with teacher education students.

Our work at GSU in alternative teacher education (ATE) and in the TEEMS program that grew out of our research in ATE, a constructivist and humanistic model engaged student interns in a field based training program. Our goal was to create an environment in which interns worked with each other in teams to develop the highest level of professional development and provide opportunities for creative teaching, and reflective practice.

Teaching for America, Friedman’s title for his article, is a kind of nationalistic mantra, and one that differs quite a bit from the notion of Teaching in America. Much of the reform going on today centers in on the connection between student achievement and the economic prosperity of our nation. The current recession was not caused by low test scores in the nations schools, but by a combination of factors quite distant from schools: Wall Street, Banks, Fraudulent Mortgages, Government Spending, and Two Wars.   The reform efforts today are rooted in efforts to use student achievement as the baseline for assessing schools and teachers.   If you want to find an interesting account of Teaching in America you might want to read Professor Charles Hutcheson’s research and subsequent book.

The Race to the Top Fund ($4.5 billion) created a frenzy of proposal writing in most of the states resulting in only 12 “winners.” Teaching should not be about winning some kind of race, but should be characterized by work that opens doors, and uncovers opportunities for students.

Climate Change: How the New Congress Will Help the Earth Get Hotter

When the new Congress convenes in January, 2011, it will get hotter in the House & Senate with an influx of Representatives and Senators (all Republicans) who continue the conspiracy that global warming is a hoax, and that humans are not contributing to the warming of the Earth.  This group of elected officials (especially in the House) will try and block any attempts at government projects and laws aimed at regulating carbon emissions, and other factors that are causing the earth to get hotter.

If you are teaching science, especially courses dealing with the environment, earth science, science teacher education, science-related social issues, then you will have an opportunity to involve your students in not only the scientific exploration of climate change, but how politics and “fossil-funded” organizations can influence public perception of scientific facts, and prevent the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and deflect any attempt at developing a national strategy of offset the effects of global warming.

On the website of the Center for American Progress, the authors give us a glimpse of the climate change that will blow into Washington, D.C.:

In January, 2011, the 112th Congress will open session, with a huge contingent of Republicans who have explicitly rejected the threat of manmade global warming pollution. These climate zombies express the classic variants of global warming denial: that the planet is not warming, that cold weather refutes concerns about global warming, that man’s influence is unclear, that climate scientists are engaged in a hoaxscam, or corrupt conspiracy, and that limiting greenhouse pollution would have no impact on global temperatures. Of special note are the conspiracy theorists who argue that hacked emails from climate scientists prove corruption, calling for kangaroo trials against practicing researchers.

If you click on the map shown below, it will bring to the “active” website where you can click on any state and find out how Congressional members think about climate change and global warming.

Click on the map which will take you to the map where you can investigate the climate change and global warming opinions of members of Congress

An interesting activity would be to have students find out what representatives from their state think about climate change, and why.  How do these representatives explain the facts of temperature change, glacial melting, the rise of sea level, and the changes that occurring to biological systems around the earth.