The Conundrum of Adolescence, and the Middle School Science Curriculum

Sixth Article in the Series on The Artistry of Teaching

Does neoliberal education reform consider the nature of adolescence and the advances in our understanding of how humans learn?  Is it necessary for every American human adolescent to learn the same content, in the same order, and at the same time?  Why should every student be held accountable to policies and plans that don’t consider their needs and their interests?

These are some of the questions that many educators ask themselves every day as they open their doors to their students who come from homes where there might be not enough food on the table, their father is un-employed, their mother is fearful that she might be deported, or their neighborhood school was closed during the summer and now they are in a different school.

Five articles were recently published on The Artistry of Teaching.  Teachers know, but apparently policy makers don’t know, that teaching is not tidy. It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  It requires a deep understanding of the nature of human learning, the needs and aspirations of children and youth, and a recognition that these students are living a life that is real and not-imagined, and school should be  experiential,  providing activities and projects that are meaningful, risky, and collaborative.

Teachers who do this practice a form of artistry.  Furthermore, artistry in teaching is practiced by educators who know how to mingle theory with practice. Teaching isn’t only the application of strategies or techniques, it’s an art form that involves high level thinking, on-the-spot decision-making, and creativity. As we have suggested on this blog, the magnum principium of teaching is inquiry, which is a democratic and humane approach to teaching and learning.

For more than thirty years I worked with teachers and students who wanted to teach at the middle school and high school levels in science, mathematics and other fields, but principally science.

One of the programs that we designed was TEEMS (Teacher Education Experiences in Mathematics and Science).  It is a four semester program for people who have a degree in engineering, mathematics, or science leading to initial teacher certification in Georgia.  Students also graduate from TEEMS with a Master’s Degree in Education.  The program mingled theory with practice, and was based on Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism in which science and mathematics teacher education students were involved in a clinical and reflective program of deep understanding of educational theory and experiential learning in clinical experiences.The TEEMS program started in 1992 and is still the teacher education program to prepare all secondary teachers (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) at Georgia State University.

This is a “slideshare” program based on one of the multimedia presentations designed for the TEEMS interns and that I want to share here.  I’ve included it in this sixth article on the Artistry of Teaching to show that teacher education students need not only backgrounds in science or mathematics, or history, or literature, but they need to embrace the content of the learning sciences.  The Learning Sciences (public library), which is an interdisciplinary field, involving among others cognitive science, educational psychology, anthropology and linguistics, is the kind of knowledge that teachers use to do the art of teaching.

Adolescence and Middle School Curriculum

This particular slide show, which I titled Adolescence and Middle School Science, is a critique of the middle school science curriculum in the context of the nature of adolescence.  There is a lot of content here, and when I used this in my course, the TEEMS interns had already spent a semester in clinical practice.  During the presentation, interns were organized into small cooperative teams, and throughout the slideshare, we would stop and explore the implications of and our knowledge of, the “content of adolescence” and application to science curriculum.

In this slideshare, we looked at the middle school science curriculum in the context of adolescent students.   In grades six through eight, no matter where you travel in the USA, kids are going to take a course each year in earth science, life science, or physical science.  I spent several years (in the 20th Century) teaching earth science at the ninth grade level in Lexington, MA.  The curriculum used then is not very different from the earth science curriculum of the 21st Century.

Is there a problem here?  I think there is.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 2.50.33 PMCurriculum tends to start with the content of science math, English/language arts or social studies, and not content of the lived experiences of students in class.  This is not a new dilemma.  It’s been around for a century.  But there have been educators, starting with people like John Dewey or Maria Montessori who believed that learning should not only be experiential, but that it should engage students in real problems and issues in their own lives.  Content should be in the service of students, not the other way round.

So, in the presentation, we face this conundrum, and suggest some ways that curriculum should be:

  • Structured more in terms of student interests
  • Social concerns
  • Human agenda
  • Human ecology

Science should be for people, and in that light, we suggest these directions:

  • Select those concepts and principles in science relevant to students’ daily life and adaptive needs
  • Do not based curriculum on preparing more scientists
  • Science must be put into the service for people and society
  • Connect students with today’s world
  • Develop life skills that improve the quality of living


Enjoy the presentation.  Teaching certainly isn’t tidy or easy.  But it is an art form practiced by lots of educators.

What are your ideas about the relationships among students, their needs and aspirations, and the curriculum? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think?

We Teach Science Not Because It Nurtures the Child’s Imagination, but Because It Might Help Get a Job

Reform in science education for the past two decades is based on the ideas that American students receive an inferior education in mathematics and science, and as a result will not be able to compete for jobs in the global marketplace.  In this scenario, the purpose for teaching math and science is to get a job.  Standards-based reform coupled with high-stakes testing has created a model of education in which science achievement is the only worthy goal.  According to these reformers if American students don’t do well in science (and math) they won’t be able to compete in the global economy.  They won’t be able to get a job.

These same reformers use the international test results from TIMSS and PISA, but conveniently ignore the most reliable data, which is collected by the NAEP.  As for the TIMSS and NAEP data, comparing one country to another is questionable, but if you want to compare students with similar academic backgrounds, then U.S. students score right near the top.  As for whether American students are doing poorly in science, the data from NAEP shows that science (and math) scores have NOT been falling in U.S. schools. And the data shows that the achievement gap between white and black students is narrowing, but at the level that is not acceptable to many.

Figure 1. NAEP Science achievement scores, 1969 – 1999.

It is very convenient for some groups to make the claim that the U.S. is falling behind in math and science. But the evidence is that student learning in science, mathematics and reading has either improved or remained stable over the past thirty years, and during that time the achievements in science and technology have been breathtaking.

Even using faulty and questionable data, reformers, such as those at Achieve, continue to say over and over again that America does not have a first class education system, and in order to have one, then all students should be held accountable to same set of goals (standards) in science, math and reading/language arts.  Hog wash.

Here’s the Thing

The child’s sense of wonder is stymied by a curriculum designed to test the science skills (read Standards) that experts think will lead to a competitive science-related job.  The curriculum, based on authoritarian and arbitrary standards, actually becomes an obstruction to the child’s inquisitiveness and the teacher’s best pedagogical abilities and know-how.  Rachel Carson, who most know because of her book Silent Spring, wrote other books, including A Sense of Wonder.  Her remarks on a child’s sense of wonder is apropos today, as seen in this quote from her book:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

For example, in the field of science teacher education, most of my colleagues have developed inquiry and constructivist teacher preparation programs over the past two decades.  The graduates of these science education programs not only understand the content of science, but also understand the nature of science teaching from the framework of leaning theory steeped in inquiry and constructivist learning.  The child’s sense of wonder is at the forefront in these programs.

However, even with teacher education programs that are field- and inquiry-based, as most are, graduates face a wall of resistance when they begin their career.  Wonder and inquiry are left in the stock room, and replaced with a compendium of standards to be transferred to students in preparation for high-stakes tests.  If it’s on the test, then it fits the curriculum.

You already know that the Next Generation Science Standards‘ revised draft edition will be released this fall by Achieve.  We concede that Achieve is the voice of authority for the math, reading/language arts and science standards in American education.  Commissioned years ago by the National Governors Association to write standards in math and reading, Achieve has spread its standards over K-12 education landscape, with kudzu strength.  It has virtually no accountability, yet this organization sets the goals for K-12 schools, and by 2014 most of the states will adopt computerized assessments to measure the standards.  Schools are held accountable but not the policy makers lurking behind organizations that are pushing this top down take over of schooling.

There will be almost no room for teaching students how use their imaginations and sense of wonder in any of their science courses, K-12.  Although it is difficult to snuff the imagination and  curiosity of early elementary students, it seems as if we’re heading on a path that will be successful in this attempt.   The fact is, the more science courses that students take, the less they like science.  How will it be possible to turn around a trend like this when American science education is based on an arbitrary list of standards that are being developed without any context for student learning?

American mathematics and teachers are by nature inventive, and readily solve problems in their classrooms every day. If anything is in teachers’ ways of continuing creative and innovative teaching, it is rules imposed by NCLB on our schools. The requirements lessen the opportunity for learning. On this blog, we have cited peer-reviewed research that indicates that the high-stakes testing, and authoritarian standards impedes learning, and prevents teachers from doing what they are prepared to do, and that is help students uncover their love of mathematics and science.

Major organizations, including the Carnegie Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education, have provided resources (financial and intellectual) to support the work of Achieve.  Using assessments completed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative tank of bureaucrats, Achieve boasts of its research-based work.  Truth be told:  none of the published research, which you can find on Fordham’s website, is not the result of the peer-review process, the accepted standard in the  research community.  All the research reported on the Fordham Institute site is in-house work, lacking the scrutiny that research work should be held to.

Standards-based and high-stakes testing does not promote creative or imaginative learning.  What place would imaginative teaching and learning have in a system that promotes academic scores on a multiple choice examination, that soon will be totally computerized?  None.  We have put into place a system that will encourage rote learning, and traditional or conservative pedagogy.  We have entered an age of authoritarianism in which the curriculum of American schools is dictated by organizations that have little to no accountability.  Education goals have become market-driven even in an age when the research does not support any of the contentions made by the authoritarians.  Unfortunately, American political parties show no differences in their attitude toward, or program recommendations for teaching, learning, and teacher education.

Henry Giroux puts it into context and indicts both major political parties:

Both parties support educational reforms that increase conceptual illiteracy. Critical learning is now reduced to mastering test-taking, memorizing facts, and learning how not to question knowledge and authority. This type of rote pedagogy, as Zygmunt Bauman points out, is “the most effective prescription for grinding communication to a halt and for [robbing] it of the presumption and expectation of meaningfulness and sense.” (Zygmunt Bauman,”Does ‘Democracy’ Still Mean Anything? (And in Case It Does, What Is It?)” [i]Truthout [/i](January 21, 2011). Online:;view=item&id=73:does-democracy-still-mean-anything-and-in-case-it-does-what-is-it).

Encouraging a Sense of Wonder

Inquiry science teaching by its very nature is a humanistic quest.  It puts at the center of learning not only the students, but also how science relates to their lived experiences, and issues and concepts that connect to their lives.  Doing science in the classroom that is inquiry-based relies on teachers and administrators who are willing to confront the current trend that advocates a standards-based and high stakes testing paradigm.  The dominant reason for teaching science is embedded in an “economic” argument that is rooted in the nation’s perception of how it compares to other nations in science, technology, and engineering.  This led to the development of new science curricula, but it also led the wide scale use of student achievement scores in measuring learning.  Student achievement, as measured on “bubble tests,” has become the method to measure effectiveness of school systems, schools, and teachers, not to mention the students.

There is a disconnect between the standards approach, and the implementation of an inquiry-based approach to science teaching.  We need to pull back on the drive to create a single set of standards and complementary set of assessments, and move instead toward a system of education that is rooted locally, and driven by professional teachers who view learning as more personalized, and in accord with democratic principles, constructivist and inquiry learning, and cultural principles that relate the curriculum to the nature of and needs of the students.

To sum this post up, here is a quote from Kareen Borders, a high school science teacher who received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 2011:

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.

I think Kareen speaks for most of the science education community.

What do you think?  Are we emphasizing achievement at the expense of other and perhaps more important goals of teaching?