Liberalism and science education’s role

I am writing this from 34000 feet in a Delta jet using the airlines free access to it’s wifi. I am also reading a book, The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris. The book is the story of how science and the rise of liberal democracies are linked. Science emerged poking holes in authoritarian and monarchist countries and helped emerging liberal democracies to foster freedom–Ferris argues that science was and continues to be the “new” ingredient that sparked liberal democracies.

One of my favorite quotes by Jacob Bronowski is “the greatest discovery made by scientists is science itself.” In the context of Ferris’ book, we see how powerful Bronowski’s statement regarding the discovery of science is for the emergence of liberal democracies.

One claim that Ferris makes to those countries that might want to foster a liberal democracy is they must also foster science and technology. And it is “liberty” that is essential for science and democracy to flourish.

In recent posts I have raised the question “Why do we teach science?” To have science education as a partner in fostering science in a democratic society, teachers need to be free to create environments where innovation and change underscore the nature of the science curriculum. The increasing control on public education by the Federal government and state governments as well is precipitating a crisis in teaching.

There a lot to explore here, and I’ll come back to this in the days ahead. In the meantime, “fasten your seat belts.”

Why do we teach science?: Voices from the classroom

My students are not passive learners of science, they ARE scientists. They embrace the idea that they are empowered to own their learning. In addition to creating a love of learning within my students, I am intentional about equipping students with wonder, teamwork strategies, and problem-solving skills for jobs that may not exist yet. Kareen Borders, Lakebay, WA

One of my goals is that students see physics everywhere through activities and projects. Students are surprised that they are encouraged to play with toys in a physics class. Sometimes students build things like windmills and motors; sometimes they dissect things like disposable cameras. Sandee Coats-Haan, Liberty Township, OH

Opening doors, allows any student with a desire to enroll in my classes. High standards, yes, but I try and inspire students through my willingness to spend evenings and weekends tutoring them. I strives to make science relevant. For example, environmental students participated in service learning activities such as habitat reconstruction. Marian DeWane, Boise, ID.

As a scientist and educator, this voice from the classroom continually investigates ways to refine her classroom practices in order to excite and engage students in scientific inquiry. She has become an inspiring role model for both staff and students for her persistent quest for improvement and her student-centered teaching. As a master teacher, she has facilitated support classes for more than 300 first-year teachers.  Jessica Gogerty, Des Moines, IA

Over the past week or so, I’ve explored the question “Why do we teach science, anyway?”  Using a paradigm from Canadian and U.K. educators, I explored the question from four vantage points: Economic, Democratic, Skills, and Culture.  Today, I thought I would turn my attention by listening to what science teachers have to say about why they teach science.  What do these voices tell us why they teach science.

The statements shown above are comments made by, and about four different science teachers, each of whom was selected as one of the 103 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.  In each of the comments made above, the voice of the teacher when thinking about why they teach science has to do with inspiring and encouraging a love of learning science.  These teachers bring their passion into the classroom and work with their students to encourage inquiry, project work, and innovative thinking.  In each of these cases, teachers are very involved in projects not only with their own students but with their colleagues.  Many of of these science educators teach other science teachers to help them bring this same king of enthusiasm to teaching science.  No mention is made that they teach science to keep America competitive with other countries.  No mention is made that the nation’s economy is dependent upon science and engineering, the reason to teach science is produce more scientists and engineers.

No, these teachers see a more powerful role for science in our schools, and that is “in equipping students with wonder, teamwork strategies, and problem-solving skills for jobs that may not exist yet.”

Why do we teach science?: The Cultural Argument

In four of the last five posts, I’ve explored the question, Why do we teach science? from four points of view. Using a template by R. Stephen Turner, I’ve presented the arguments for teaching science from economic, democratic, and skills points of view. In this post, I want to use the cultural argument as the answer to why do we teach science anyway.

Turner introduced the cultural argument this way:

Science is, beyond dispute, one of the great intellectual enterprises of
modern, especially western, civilization.  The vision of nature embodied in modern science defines the universe for us, informs our vision of our human essence, and speaks to the hopes and fears of our world.  Science plays a roll for us today somewhat like the great mythologies of the civilizations of the past: it provides the great narrative of truth, meaning, and essence that we live by.  The proper goal of school science, according to the cultural argument, is to bring students to understand that great story and the enterprise behind it, so that they might not remain ignorant and alienated strangers to modern, scientific culture.

As such, Turner refers to Robin Millar’s plan in which he suggests that:

we must re-conceptualize the science curriculum as the opportunity to tell science’s great stories about nature, the universe, and our bodies.   We must present students with coherent and cohesive world-pictures, tell them stories that transmit science’s great visions   – its great contemporary visions – of the world as narrative accounts, from quarks to superclusters and genes to gerontology.

According to Turner, Millar advocates “jettisoning” much of the content that is defined in the current textbooks, and standards in science.  We might look at the Turner/Millar cultural argument as the humanistic science argument advocated by science educators such as Aikenhead, Bryce, and many others.  Aikenhead has outlined the research and made suggestions for humanistic science curriculum in his book, Science Education for Everyday Life.  As Aikenhead points out, the present day science curriculum is out of date (educationally), but not politically.  The new generation of science standards which will be written next year will reinforce the out dated science curriculum—one that dots on the canons of science in biology, chemistry, physics and earth science.  This curriculum, unfortunately, has not worked for the majority of students in school, and it does not prepare the “pipeline” students who will pursue careers in science and engineering any better.

Bryce, in a research paper published in Cultural Studies in Science Education, makes the claim that “resistance to more humanistic forms of science education is an endemic and persistent feature of university scientists as well as school science teachers.”  Although Bryce did not discuss it, the 1996 National Science Education Standards, and the Conceptual Framework for a New Science Standards reinforce the claim, as each document focuses in on the canonical discipline of science.

Bryce’s article

is about the relationships between the science that science teachers teach and the science that science educators write about. It is also therefore about how classroom practitioners and science education researchers view each other, a relationship which is normally seen one way; that is, through researchers’ views of science teachers. I will argue that more consideration needs to be given to how practitioners stand in relation to what many consider they ought to be doing; to their view of things; to why (ironically) many teachers are not well disposed to teaching science for everyday life, instead preferring to teach science with an orientation rather more internal to the subject itself, suffused with its own ‘tribal’ identities.


The cultural argument of science curriculum would ask curriculum designers and teachers to consider the history and philosophy of science, and try and bring to students experiences in which they learn how science discoveries are made, to focus on the struggle that people working on a particular problem had, and what these problems were.


There is a great deal of resistance in moving away from the traditional way in which science is taught in school science, and at the university.  Bryce helps us understand this when this remark is made:




The impediments are well understood and range from the demonstrated lack of teacher confidence in pedagogies involving more open- ended activities and discussion of ethical and social issues arising from new biotechnologies; through the pressures from assessment which remains stubbornly focused upon canonical content; to the models of science which teachers work with, their ideologies and philosophies—notably steeped in positivism and realism.


The cultural argument represents a humanistic approach to science curriculum.  Although it is not the dominant approach used in school science, there is a rich body of research to support the movement to bring a cultural approach to the table.

Bryce, T. (2010). Sardonic science? The resistance to more humanistic forms of science education Cultural Studies of Science Education, 5 (3), 591-612 DOI: 10.1007/s11422-010-9266-6

Bill Gates has all the Anwers: Just Ask Him

There are two articles that you might want to read either before or after you read this post. The first article was in the New York Times and is entitled: Teacher Ratings get a New Look, Pushed by a Rich Watcher.  The other article is actually a blog post and is entitled Bill Gates Listens to the Wrong People.

The multi-billionaire Bill Gates is pouring more than $335 million into teacher evaluation research.  The money is being used to revamp several large school district’s personnel departments; it sets out to use digital video tapes of teachers in an attempt to evaluate the teachers, to try and find out if there are specific teacher behaviors that might be correlated with student achievement.  As the New York Times article points out, Gates believes that his money can be used to find out what makes one teacher more effective than another.  So, Mr. Gates idea is to find out what characterizes “extremely good teachers” by video taping them, examining very closely the classroom behavior of these teachers, and use these teachers as “exemplars” of good teaching.  According to the article

The goal is to help researchers look for possible correlations between certain teaching practices and high student achievement, measured by value-added scores. Thomas J. Kane, a Harvard economist who is leading the research, is scheduled to announce some preliminary results in Washington next Friday. More definitive conclusions are expected in about a year.

The other article, written by Diane Ravitch, questions the motivation of Gates, and wonders why do American educators listen to what Gates has to say about teaching, teacher performance, tenure, class size and teacher pay?  Money.  Gates is everywhere telling us that he really knows what education needs.  As Dian Ravitch points out,

Since Gates is a multibillionaire, he can’t possibly understand what it means to work in an environment where you might be fired for disagreeing with your boss. Nor can he possibly understand that schools are collaborative cultures that need senior teachers who are ready and willing to help newcomers. He can’t imagine that school is different from Microsoft or other big corporations. Let’s be honest. CCSSO and The New York Times pay attention to what Gates says because he is so rich. If he didn’t run the biggest foundation in the world, if he wasn’t one of the richest men in the world, would anyone care about his opinion of education? Really, who would care what he said if he were the chairman of the Whatzit Corporation and sold widgets?

If you have not visited Diane Ravitch’s and Deborah Meier’s blog, I urge you do so.  It is entitled Bridging Differences, and is made up of letters Diane and Deborah write to each other.

Trying to link student academic achievement to teacher behavior is not a new idea.  Researchers have been studying teacher and student behavior using video tapes, classroom observations and portfolios for decades.  The central problem that researchers report about teacher effectiveness research is the lack of agreement about what constitutes good or effective teaching.  Bill Gates, especially when he gives interviews, or is making a presentation talks as if he really knows what is effective teaching.

By and large the policy driving the assessment of teachers is the model of teacher effectiveness based on student test scores.  Gates, and other funding entities are quick to assume that teacher effectiveness is a relatively easy attribute to observe.  Yet, researchers Goe, Bell and Little suggest that not only is teacher effectiveness difficult to define but make this point:

just because it is possible to match teachers to their students’ test scores and use this relationship as a measure of teacher effectiveness does not mean that this is the only way to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

I find it amazing that Gates has ignored a very large body of research on teaching, and teacher effectiveness, and acts glib when he talks about “effective” teachers.  I honestly don’t think he has a clue.  If Gates did pursue a scholarly view of teacher effectiveness, he would find the following teacher evaluation (effectiveness?) methods, each of which has been researched:

  • Classroom Observation
  • Principal Evaluation
  • Instructional Artifact
  • Portfolio
  • Teacher Self-Report Measure
  • Student Survey
  • Value-Added Model

Each of these methods has strengths, but each also should be approached cautiously.  The value-added model (VAM), a model that Gates and others have grabbed onto has not been shown to be reliable.  VAM is used to determine teachers’ contributions to students’ test score gains.  According to Goe, Bell, and Little:

Little is known about the validity of value-added scores for identifying effective teaching, though research using value- added models does suggest that teachers differ markedly in their contributions to students’ test score gains. However, correlating value-added scores with teacher qualifications, characteristics, or practices has yielded mixed results and few significant findings.

Why Do We Teach Science? The Skills Argument

In the last two posts, the economic and democratic arguments have been discussed, respectively.  We now turn to a third argument, the “skills argument.” According to R. Stephen Turner, the “skills argument” is second to the economic argument as the reason we teach science.

According to Turner, the skills argument provides the rationale that the study of science results in the development of certain “transferable skills” that are important to an informed citizenry.  For science teachers the skills argument is associated with pedagogies that include hands-on activities, involve students in analyzing and interpreting data, and also in designing and conducting open-ended investigations.  If you were interview science teacher educators at university levels, you would find not only agreement on these pedagogies, but that their science teacher education programs include these approaches.

Many science educators would argue that the term “skills” as used here ought be called  “inquiry-based learning.”  Both “skills” and “inquiry” will generate thousands of hits if you search the two main journals in science education, the journal Science Education, and The Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST).  For instance searching the term “inquiry” generated 1709 hits in Science Education, and 1422 hits in JRST; the term “skills” generated 2723 hits in Science Education, and 1780 hits in JRST.  Furthermore, you will find the term “inquiry” used in many textbooks in science written for teachers and teacher educators.

Inquiry was also an important concept in the National Science Education Standards (1996).  In 2000, the NRC published Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards, a 200 page document that defines inquiry teaching, and provides evidence that inquiry is a viable teaching strategy.

Many science teachers would claim that we teach science to help students develop the skills associated with scientific inquiry (observation, measurement, analyzing data, predicting, making hypotheses, testing theories, designing investigations).  Even textbooks have integrated some aspects of inquiry by including “laboratory” and hands-on activities within the texts that students should perform.

The skills or inquiry-based argument for teaching science is also connected with learning theories that have been an integral part of the science education community.  Science education has been influenced by the learning theories of John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, Ernst Glasersfeld, and Lev Vygotsky.  In all of these theorists works, inquiry takes a prominent role in attempting to explain human learning.  For example, social constructivism, which has emerged from the works of Bruner, Piaget, Glasersfeld and Vygotsky, has many of the elements of inquiry-based learning.  For many science teachers, the theory of social constructivism paints a picture in which students make meaning of the world—in short, students construct meaning.  Inquiry learning fosters such a notion because it draws on the theory of constructivism.  In this view, knowledge is not like a brick—it can’t be passed on directly to a student—but it is more like a building, which is built up indirectly, through experience and interaction.

The skills argument is more than simply teaching transferable skills, but goes to the heart of science, and that is the notion of inquiry-based learning.  For many science teachers, science is synonymous with inquiry, and it ought to be a focal point of the science curriculum.  It ought to be the reason we teach science.

Coming next will a discussion of the cultural argument for teaching science.