The Race to the Top: A Humanistic Perspective

There was a very interesting article in the current issue of the journal Science Education by Peter Fensham of Queensland University, Australia entitled The Link Between Policy and Practice in Science Education.  In the article, Fensham argues that the science education research community “has a rather spectacular record of naivete about educational policy and politics, and even about the politics of science education itself.”  He describes how we have been naive about the development of new science curriculum materials (we develop them as if the shear quality of the materials would ensure their adoption), not recognizing the “contested” nature of science in the curriculum, and exaggerating the generalizability of science education research findings.

He also compared the Anglo-American tradition of teaching discrete subjects, the content of which fit nicely into policy that presents the structure of school curriculum into a vertical fashion with an alternative conception of schooling that conceives curriculum as a horizontal structure of stages. These two ways of looking at the way the science curriculum provides alternative lenses to view the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund.

Thinking Vertically

As is presently conceived, the Race to the Top policy advocated by the Department of Education uses the policy of structuring curriculum in a vertical fashion.  I guess in a sense, education becomes a race, but the policy really means that the goal is push American students to top of the achievement ladder.  In my own view, this is really another way of phrasing the concept of No Child Left Behind.  In the vertical conception of science curriculum Fensham says:

This vertical structure readily accommodates long sequences for learning of content  knowledge from the major science disciplines (biological sciences, chemical sciences, earth sciences, and physical sciences) plus some sequenced attention to one or more scienti?c processes. The type of content for learning is set from top to bottom in a logical, developmental fashion for each science discipline. It is natural, within such a vertical structure, that there will be a recurring research interest in scope and sequence of detailed content and in progression in learning.

In fact, Fensham points out that many of the major reforms in the US, England, Australia, and many other countries in science education, such as Project 2061 of the AAAS, are based on this vertical conception of schooling.  And according to Fensham, this structure

also, of course, builds in a high probability of failure at some point up these long ladders for learning, which only an elite group of students will have the stamina and inclination to keep climbing. It quite naturally promotes what Roberts (2007) has recently called Scienti?c Literacy Vision I, for which meaning is derived by looking inward at the canon of orthodox natural science.

Fensham explores this point further by suggesting that the vertical structure tends to devalue other intentions for science teaching, such as meeting the differental needs and interests of students as they move along through schooling.

Thinking Horizontally: A Humanistic Perspective

Fensham then changes direction, and suggests that the same years of schooling can be examined or looked at as a horizontal structure.  From this perspective, each stage (see below) can have its own specific curriculum emphases or purpose for science teaching.

It is immediately evident that this is more conducive to a science education that is primarily about the needs and interests of the learners and how these change as the learners get older. It also ismore able to accommodate second-chance learning, with students reengaging in a subsequent stage when the curriculum’s emphasis for science is different.

The development of science education through schooling when its policy structure is horizontal. Source: Fensham, Science Education, 93: 6, p.1085
The development of science education through schooling when its policy structure is horizontal. Source: Fensham, Science Education, 93: 6, p.1085

In this perspective, instead of racing to the top, each stage would have its own merits and goals, and the content would be more closely aligned to student’s lived experiences.  Fensham points us to the recent 21st Century science curriculum project in Britain that is based on promoting students’ needs, and fits nicely into the horizontal perspective of curriculum.

The Race to the Top from a humanistic perspective, as I see the horizontal conception, would not be a race at all.  It would instead be a project that would encourage innovation and creativity amongst K-12 teachers, university specialists, curriculum developers, and adminstrators to build and implement (in science) a science program that is based on everyday life.

What do you think about Fensham’s ideas?  Do they fit with the way we should perceive the science curriculum?