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.