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.

Paradigm shifts: Education about, in and for the environment

Education about, in, and for the environment represent three different paradigms useful in helping us view environmental education and environmental science programs and activities.  Based on research by Rachel Michel (1996), these three paradigms can briefly be described as follows:

  • Education about the environment is viewed as an approach in which information about the environment (concepts, facts, information) is transmitted by teacher to students. This approach reinforces traditional methods of teaching including lectures, reconstructive laboratory activities, and the recall of information. It is based on the older, traditional model of teaching.
  • Education in the environment focuses on using the environment as the medium for teaching and learning. Michel points out that this form of environmental education emphases experiential learning, and that experiences in the environment aids personal growth and moral development. Student projects tend to fall into a safe zone such as anti-littering campaigns, and environmental awareness activities.
  • Education for the environment, according to Michel, evolved from conservation education which focused on the preservation of basic resources and nature conservancy. This concept of environmental education expanded to include environmental protection, and the role that citizens began to take action (individually and collectively) in the solution of environmental problems. Michel claims that education for the environment could be interpreted as a response to the perceived environmental crisis. Michel also points out that education for the environment is the approach advocated by several international proposals including the Belgrade Charter (1976) and the Tbilisi Declaration (1978).

earth_handsI’ve included a chart that compares education about the environment with education for the environment.  The list of attributes of Education about the environment  are characteristics that describe the traditional approach to curriculum, and help us understand how many of our courses are organized and taught.  On the other end of the continuum we find education for the environment which Aikenhead would describe as humanistic science education.  The STS movement in countries around the world resulted in programs based on this paradigm.  

Education about the Environment Education for the Environment
• Reproductive curriculum          

• Predominately an emphasis on the sciences

• Employment of “traditional” teaching methods (lecture, recall, worksheets)

• Emphasis on cognitive skills

• Operates within the existing hierarchical, subject specific school organization

 • Reconstructive curriculum          

• Predominately an emphasis on social science

• Advocation of student-centered approach with emphasis on inquiry and problem solving.

• Emphasis on awareness, values, and attitudes as well as skills and knowledge. Advocation of practical action in the environment.

• Interdisciplinary approach



Figure 1 Comparison of Education About the Environment with Education for the Environment (Michel, 1996).  



Environmental education that is based on the “education for the environment” model embodies some of the principles of Deep Ecology (Devall & Sessions, 1985). Deep Ecology, coined by Arne Naess, is a deeper approach to the study of nature exemplified in the work of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson.  In this sense, teachers encourage their students to engage in projects that help them see the link between themselves and nature as well as advocating a wholistic approach to looking at environmental topics. Students might investigate the health of a nearby stream not only by making physical, chemical and biological studies, but also exploring the value of the stream to the total ecology of the area, explore further the causes of any pollution found in the stream, and indeed take some action on trying to resolve the problem. Perhaps teachers help students realize Commoner’s major “laws” of ecology which describe a deep ecology perspective (as cited in Devel & Sessions, 1985):

  1. Everything is connected to everything else.
  2. Everything must go somewhere.
  3. Nature knows best.
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or everything has to go somewhere.

Education for the environment conceives of students who are not only involved in learning about the environment, but “are provided with the knowledge, values, attitudes and commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment (Tibilisi Declaration, 1978, p.3, as cited in Michel, 1996). 

Many of the environmental education programs that have been developed over the past 20 years such as Project Wild, Project Learning Tree, Global Lab, Global Thinking Project (GTP), and GLOBE might be looked at from the paradigms of education in and education for the environment.  

Dr. Galina Manke and one of her students in a Russian park
Dr. Galina Manke and one of her students in a Russian park

Dr. Galina Manke, a science educator and researcher at Moscow Scholol 710 and The Russian Academy of Education, was one of the contributors of the Global Thinking Project.  She was responsible for teacher training in Russia for Russian science teachers and schools who implemented the GTP in their science programs.  One of the beliefs she held was that through programs such as the GTP, students and teachers became “fighters for the environment,” an apt phrase for the learning paradigm, education for the environment.   


Children & Nature Network

Teaching Students to Think Globally

Michel, Rachel (1996). Environmental education: A study of how it is influenced and informed by the concepts of environmentalism. Doctoral Dissertation. La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: A Revolutionary Paradigm of Teaching for Energy and Environment

In a democracy, there are differing views on how the government and industry should deal with energy, energy sources, and the environment.  I’ve visited the American Presidency Project, and there you can read the complete platforms of the Democrats and Republicans.  You have to go the Libertarian Party and the Green Party websites to read their platforms.  You might set up a project where your students visit these websites, and extract the respective party’s positions on energy, the environment, and science research.  How do the party’s differ in their understanding of the environment, and recommendations for the future?

Here are some quotes that I’ve taken from these parties’ platforms (Democrats, Green, Libertarian and Republican).  Match the quotes up to the parties.  I’ve included five quotes to make a bit more difficult! (Follow the linked word for the correct answer)

We realize that our planet’s climate is constantly changing, but environmental advocates and social pressure are the most effective means of changing public behavior.

Global climate change is the planet’s greatest threat, and our response will determine the very future of life on this earth.

We can — and should — address the risk of climate change based on sound science without succumbing to the no-growth radicalism that treats climate questions as dogma rather than as situations to be managed responsibly.

Strengthen and enforce laws that prevent toxic industries, toxic dumps and air pollution from targeting ethnic minority communities.

If we want things to stay as they are–that is, if we want to maintain our technological, economic, and moral leadership and a habitable planet, rich with flora and fauna, leopards and lions, and human communities that can grow in a sustainable way–things will have to change around here, and fast.

If you followed the links for each of the words in the above quotes, you now realized that the last quote is not from any of the political parties, but from Thomas Friedman’s book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need A Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America. Friedman’s book is a description of a paradigm for change that is green.  Code Green, Friedman’s way of describing this paradigm means this:

Green is not simply a new form of generating electric power.  It is a new form of generating national power—period.

I would use Friedman’s book not only in a university course, but it would provide very interesting STS topics for investigation for middle and high school students.  For example here are the titles of the first few chapters:

  • Where Birds Don’t Fly
  • Today’s Datde: 1 E.C.E. Today’s Weather: Hot, Flat and Crowded
  • Our Carbon Copies (or, Too Many Americans)
  • Fill’Er Up with Dictators
  • Global Weirding
  • The Age of Noah (this one might give you a problem)
  • Energy Poverty

Each of these topics could be turned into an STS project in which teams of students explore that particular chapter in Friedman’s book, and then suggest an action project that involves other students, or citizens in their community.  I’ve described STS Themes and How To Teach Them at the Companion Webiste for our book, The Art of Teaching Science.  It will give you some ideas on how to apply Friedman’s book to actual classroom activities.

What suggestions would you make to using Friedman’s book to teach the paradigm of “green?”

Additional Sources & Resources

U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works

House Committee on Energy and Commerce

United State Environmental Protection Agency