PISA: Can this test measure the outcomes of progressive science education

Long title, sorry.  But, Volume 46, Issue 8 (October 2009) of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching was devoted to Scientific Literacy and Context in PISA Science.  The entire issue was devoted to this theme.  In one of the articles in this volume (Scientific Literacy, PISA, and Socioscientific Discourse: Assessment for Progressive Aims of Science Education), the authors used the term progressive science education in the way George DeBoer used in many years ago to summarize movements in science teaching that included public understanding of science, humanistic science education, context-based science teaching, STS, and socioscientific issues science education.

How can the aims of progressive science education be measured?

According to some, The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), suggests that their test, which assesses 15 year-old students in nearly 60 countries, can do so.   The PISA assessment in science (there are also PISA tests in Reading and Mathematics), which is described in the first article in this volume, purports to assess

  • scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge
  • understanding of the characteristic features of science
  • awareness of how science and technology shape
  • our world willingness to engage in science-related issues

The last administration of the science test was 2006, and more than 40 countries participated in the test. You can see sample test items here to get a feel for the nature of the test questions used on the PISA science test.

I was happy to see a little bit of criticism in two of the articles in the research journal, but overall I felt as if the journal was endorsing the PISA assessment.  It’s the criticism that I was interested in exploring, especially since science education around the world is very much structured around standards, and the resultant high stakes science achievement tests that are used to measure student progress, and now, teacher assessment.

Some of the authors pointed to an article written by Douglas Roberts, in which he differentiates between two different kinds or visions of science teaching.  Vision I emphasizes subject matter itself; Vision II emphasizes science in life situations in which science plays a key role.

According to many of the authors of this NARST issue, PISA has developed an assessment system that aligns “very well” with Vision II.  And indeed, if you go ahead and look at the sample of test items from the last PISA science test, there is the air of application, and use of science.   In this view, Vision II be seen as progressive science education, and if, indeed, PISA claims to be able to “measure” these kinds of outcomes, then it would indeed be an attractive instruments for science education.

But in my view, its simply another large scale test, that really does not assess how students use science in lived experiences.  Svein Sjøberg challenges the wisdom of PISA’s claim to measure students’ real life experiences and science.  Sjøberg is a professor of science education at the University of Oslo, and director of another large scale project that assesses students attitudes about science.  In his research on PISA, he points out that:

The main point of view is that the PISA ambitions of testing “real-life skills and competencies in authentic contexts” are by definition alone impossible to achieve. A test is never better than the items that constitute the test. Hence, a critique of PISA should not mainly address the official rationale, ambitions and definitions, but should scrutinize the test items and the realities around the data collection. The secrecy over PISA items makes detailed critique difficult, but I will illustrate thof the items with two examples from the released texts.

Sjøberg provides more details.   I’ll talk more about this in the days ahead.  I’ll also come back to some of the criticism that was included in two of research papers in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.  In the meantime you might enjoy reading some of the abstracts in the JRST volume, and Sjoberg’s article.

Science Education from People for People

In a recently published book, Science Education from People to People, (Kindle edition here) the contributing authors have created a book that builds up perspectives on science, scientific literacy, and science education “grounded in the lives of real people and that are oriented toward being for real people (rather than disembodied minds.)”

In this book, the authors want “science education to be for people rather than about how knowledge gets into the heads of people–be it by means of construction, transfer, or internalization.

In my own thinking, this book contributes to our understanding of a humanistic science education.  In the introduction to the book, the editor of the volume, Wolf-Michael Roth, many educators are no longer concerned about the so-called pipeline problem (throughput or filling the pipleline with scientists & engineers), but

want a science education that has a lot to say about the “tremendous experiences” and competence everyday people (including students) have and how science education could assist everyday, ordinary, and just plain folk in and with the problematic situations they face in their ongoing lives.

The educators who contributed to this book are concerned with science education and social justice, and ask how science can be made to be relevant to students, and to members of society, more generally.

The book provides research to support many of the notions described in Glen Aikenhead’s book, Science Education for Everyday Life, and the humanistic perspectives espoused in this weblog.  One of the themes that comes through in Roth’s new book is science education should be for the people.  The lives of students should be a starting point for teaching, and it opposes the general tendancy of doing science education as if the science could be imposed from the outside.  To these science educators, science will be seen relevant by students once they see and understand how their own possbilities of acting and being in the world expand.

In the chart below, you will find a contrast between two paradigms for the way in which curriculum is organized.  The notion of education about (the environment—substitute biology, physics, science) is the way in which we teach science today.  The focus is on the content of science, and strive to organize curriculum around the “abouts.”

An alternative way to do this is to teach for (the environment, e.g. biology, physics, science), and in this approach science teaching is seen in its relation for people.  I think it supports the ideas in the Roth book.

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.  This chart is based on Michel, 1996. Environmental education: A study of how it is influenced and informed by the concepts of environmentalism. Doctoral Dissertation. La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The ideas outlined in Roth’s book are challenging, yet point us toward a science education that is humanistic, and that is for people rather than strictly for science’s sake.  You can link here to see the table of contents of the book, and peruse the content of the research.  The ideas in this work ought to be central to our thinking about 21st century science education.  What do you think?

Transforming science teaching through social activism: Is it a viable goal?

There was a very interesting new comment made on an earlier post entitited Should science teaching be political: A Humanistic Question.  In that post I explored the ideas of researcher Wildson dos Santos, who had published an article: Scientific literacy: A Freirean perspective as a radical view of humanistic science education.

In the comment made, and in the view of dos Santos, science education is challenged to rethink the nature of scientific literacy as more than simply an understanding (as measured on end-of-course and other types of high-stakes examinations) of canonical science as defined in the National Science Education Standards.

There are  science teachers who believe that science education should be transformative—that is, an experience in which students become involved in socio-political action—indeed, become involved in social activism.  One such teacher is Barbara Broadway, who was a high school chemistry teacher in a Dekalb County (GA) school.  One of the projects I recall that she was engaging her students had to do with an exploration of the water chemistry of small stream near their high school.  She was not only interested in having the students learn how to sample and analyze water from the stream, but take action on the results of their study.  In the first year of this study, her students identified a number of heavy metals in the stream that shouldn’t have been there.  They decided to sample water at locations upstream from their school, and during their investigation, they found that a company was dumping wastes directly into the stream—they found the source of the heavy metals.  The social action in this case was NOT going to the local newspaper and reporting the results.  No, what the students & their teacher did was to go directly to the company and share the results of their research.  In this case, the company admited they were dumping waste directly into the stream, and would indeed stop the activity. The students, with their teacher, were at the center of a socio-political action, and in this case experienced the fruits of their research.

This is a good example of humanistic science education, as described by science education researcher Glen Aikenhead in his book Science Education for Everyday Life.  In the case cited here, we see S-T-S, context-based science teaching in action.  The comment that was made on dos Santos’ research is relevant here, and I quote a part of the comment (which you can read in full here):

However, in applying the ideas of Freire and dos Santos to a US public school context, it seems we need to focus more heavily on the development of critical consciousness in the local context than dos Santos does in his article. While I very much agree with dos Santos call for a focus on studying issues around the world, I think that the strongest initial buy in we can get from students is to first meet them where they are by valuing and honoring their knowledge, culture, interests, and linguistic assets that they bring tot he classroom. I think we too often ask students to tell us how they think the science we’re teaching them applies to their lives (and get blank stares) and should make efforts to start from their understanding or context and then move with them into the science that applies to them. This requires some level of uncertainty and being a learner alongside the students.

Humanistic science education draws on a number of theoretical fields of study.  One that I emphasize here is the field of critical pedagogy, which has been heavily influenced by the work of Paulo Freire.   According to critical pedagogy teachers (progressives, humanists), the classroom becomes the environment were new knowledge, grounded in the experiences of students and teachers alike, occurs through meaningful dialog, and activity.  Being heavily influenced by John Dewey, much of the work that those of us who worked on the Global Thinking Project was focused on helping students become “citizen scientists,” or fighters for the environment, as Dr. Galina Manke, School 710 and the Russian Academy of Education, put it.  To some degree, this group was interested in a reconstructive curriculum, one that advocated a student-centered approach.  Our “critical pedagogy” approach is contrasted with the traditional model shown in Table 1.

The Traditional Model The Global Thinking Model
• Traditional, mechanized thinking   

• Individualistic–although students may at times work together in groups, interdependence typically is not a goal.

• Dependence–teacher-directed instructional model establishes a dependent social system.

• Hierarchical—choice-made-for-you. Rarely do students choose content or methodology for their investigations

• Emphasis on literacy: knowing facts, skills, concepts

• Emphasis on content; acquiring the right body of knowledge

• Learning encourages recall, and is analytical and linear

• Innovative, flexible thinking   

• Cooperative–students work collaboratively in small teams to think and take action together

• Interdependence–a synergic system is established in groups within a classroom, and within global communities of practice.

• Right-to-choose—students are involved in choice-making including problem and topic selection, as well as solutions; reflects the action processes of grassroots organizations

• A new literacy insofar as “knowledge” relates to human needs, the needs of the environment and the social needs of the earth’s population and other living species

• Emphasis on anticipation and participation; on inquiry, learning how to learn, and how to ask questions

• Learning encourages creative thinking, and is holistic and intuitive

Table 1. The Paradigm Shift from the Traditional Model of Teaching to the Global Thinking or Critical Model of Teaching

The goal of the GTP curriculum, which was localized in each classroom, but was connected globally via the GTP Website, was to create a transformative environment where students would be engaged in social-activist projects.  For a little more than a decade, the teachers and students who were involved in the GTP explored their own environments, uncovered problems, and attempted to be involved in socio-political solutions through communal activities.

This is a “critical day” in that it is the 100th day of President Barack Obama’s presidency.  Are we poised for a period of reform in science education where social activism and the transformative potential of science teaching might be invoked?  It should also be noted that the media is full of itself by its penchant to grade our President’s first 100 days in office.  Let me publically give my President high marks, and an overall grade of “A.”

Now that you know my bias, I am concerned that the US Department of Education will continue the course taken by the previous administration—-more of NCLB.  Most states in the nation use high-stakes tests to assess the progress of students and teachers.  This over emphasis on tests and achievement scores puts the artistry of teaching at risk, and lessens the potential for “critical reform.”  

In the wake of this, is there any possibility for “critical” reform?  

What do you think?

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

Using informal learning to help students cross borders in science class

Non-school learning was a term that John Dewey used for “informal experiences” that he felt helped learners acquire attitudes, values, and knowledge from daily experiences. Many students come to science class from a cultural world-view that makes learning science much like the crossing of a cultural border. As I discussed in the last post, science teachers and researchers have explored the concept of border crossings in science education, and have suggested that there is a need to develop curriculum and instruction with the idea of border crossings in mind.

According to Dewey, learning environments that tend to be more informal in nature than formal use elements of non-school learning that in the end bring the students closer to the [science] curriculum, perhaps making border crossings less hazardous. In this context, learning is tied to “use, to drama of doubt, need and discovery” (see Fishman & McCarthy: John Dewey and the Challenge of Classroom Practice). In formal learning settings, scientific ideas & concepts are presented as if they were bricks, and we are tempted to try and pass out ideas, because like bricks, they are separable. Concepts are taught without a context, without connections, & without relevance to the students. Yes, there are some students who will learn science very well in formal environments. But as I pointed out in last post, there are more students who will not benefit from such formality. They would benefit more from an informal learning environment. Working on topics of their own choice, collaborating in cooperative groups, or discussing the relevance of the content—each of these ideas will contribute to the informality of the classroom.

The National Academies Press has just released a new book, Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. You can read the book for free on online. The book lends credence to the value and importance of non-school learning, but more importantly offers many theoretical and practical suggestions that could be applied to the formality of schools.

Resources that you might want to explore:

InformalScience.org: an online community for informal learning in science.

The Center for Informal Learning and Schools: An NSF project at the Exploratorium in San Francisco

Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education: Informal science education supports people of all ages and walks of life in exploring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.