Humanistic Science Education

In the last post, I mentioned that organizations such as the NSTA support the notion of career education, which might be another way of saying that one of the purposes of studying science is the possibility of future work (in science and related fields). At first glance, this is not a bad idea. How can one argue against such a goal. Well….

Some educators would argue that focusing the teaching of science on careers might end up being the dominant demand and priority, and reduce science in the school curriculum to nothing more than becoming a vehicle for teaching these economically driven competencies.

We know that since Sputnik, the U.S. science curriculum has progressed through a series of phases of curriculum reform to meet the challenges as perceived by government agencies, schools and the public. One might look back and notice that much of the impetus for curriculum change has been born out of fear (of being behind technologically, or economically). And surely, one can look back at the results of the curriculum reforms that emerged during the last 50 years, and claim that progress was made. The problem is that most students have not benefited from the curriculum changes that were made, and I am not restricting myself simply to the U.S. The curriculum around the world in science does not vary very much by country. Most countries have developed “standards” outlining the important concepts and ideas that should be taught from the time students enter school to the time they exit.

The nature of science standards and the resulting curriculum were based on “the scientists” view of the world. Science education curricula has become a political tool to support a very narrow view of the purpose of teaching science. Students have not done very well in this curriculum. For most students the science curriculum has failed them. If you want to look at national and international test scores, you will find the evidence to support this trend.

Yet, alongside this traditional science curriculum has been a movement over the past century that is based on a different philosophy of curriculum. It started with John Dewey. To Dewey, school should foster environments to help students lead lives rich in worthwhile experiences. The curriculum should be student-centered, in Dewey’s view, and learning experiences should incorporate two dimensions: anticipation and participation. In this approach to curriculum and teaching an experience must be associated with or inspire anticipation. Teachers know this. For a teacher, student’s must be drawn in, and anticipate “what may be discovered, explained, revealed, or brought to pass” by the experience. Anticipation creates a kind of emotion that propels the student to want to participate in an experience to its completion. In this sense, curriculum would be student-interest-centered, with the teachers role identifying ideas in science that would create the duality of anticipation and participation.

There are number of theorists whose work has direct implication for this kind of thinking. I won’t go into detail about their ideas here, but simply mention them, and they are: Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, Ernst von Glasersfeld, and Lev Vygotsky.

What has emerged in science education is a major trend that is a departure from the traditional view of curriculum. Instead of starting with science concepts (as the Standards do), the starting points for teaching are contexts and applications for the teaching of scientific ideas. The traditional approach to science teaching attends chiefly to the structure of the discipline of science and its subject matter. We might call it scientist-centered.

This alternative trend gives priority to a student-centered point of view, and to citizens as consumers of science and technology in their everyday lives. Some have called this the science-technology-society (STS) approach; others, including Judith Bennett have used the concept context-based to describe this trend. Glen Aikenhead describes this approach to science education as the humanistic perspective. We might call it humanistic science education.

The evidence to support a humanistic science education is very powerful. Aikenhead’s book, Science Education for Everyday Life, provides an “evidence-based practice” approach to humanistic science. For example, in a synthesis of studies of humanistic science, Aikenhead reports that students are motivated to high levels if the science content being learned is associated with social or cultural relevance. Although this approach led to greater complexity, student motivation led to greater science understanding.

There are number of topics that science teachers have used to foster humanistic science environments. Some of these topics have led to curriculum projects, and published books. In Chapter 6 of The Art of Teaching Science, we outline a number of these curriculum projects, and also provide details on a number of themes, and how to teach them.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University, and graduated from Bridgewater State University, Boston University, and The Ohio State University, many, many years ago.