Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?


Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Common Figure 1. Carl Sagan and the Universe. Copyright sillyrabbitmythsare4kids, Creative Commons

Science has been prominent in the media recently.  Stories and programs including the Bill Nye-Ken Ham “debate” on origins, anti-science legislation in Wyoming banning  science standards that include climate science, a new science program on the Science Channel to be hosted by Craig Ferguson, and this weekend, the first of a 13-part series entitled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Tyson’s series is based on the Carl Sagan’s 1980 13-part TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.   Dr. Tyson is an astrophysicist, and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center of Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.  Dr. Tyson has been called this generation’s “Carl Sagan” through his exuberance and public communication of science.

In this post I want to reminisce on science teaching, especially from what I learned from the work (film, print, teaching, research, and public presentations) of Dr. Carl Sagan.  Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University.  Throughout my career I found Sagan’s philosophy important in my work as a university science educator, and want to share some of my thoughts.

51Fn+Y-IhnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sagan was a prolific writer, and throughout his career, he not only popularized science to millions of people, he also helped us understand the nature of science, and for science teachers, how that philosophy would contribute to our professional work.  One of his books, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (public library), became a kind of handbook on the philosophy of science teaching.  I am sure that Sagan didn’t intend it this way, but  it surely reached me in this way.

At the beginning of Broca’s Brain, Sagan says this about science:

SCIENCE IS A WAY of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge. Its goal is to find out how the world works, to seek what regularities there may be, to penetrate to the connections of things—from subnuclear particles, which may be the constituents of all matter, to living organisms, the human social community, and thence to the cosmos as a whole.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 344-346). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sagan also wrote that science is “based on experiment, on a willingness to challenge old dogma, on an openness to see the universe as it really is.  To him, science sometimes requires courage to question the conventional wisdom.”  Questioning established ideas, or proposing a radically different hypothesis to explain data is a courageous act, according to Sagan.  Quite often people who propose such ideas are shunned, or rejected by the “establishment,” including governments and religious groups.

To what extent to encourage students to question ideas, and even to propose new ideas?


Many years ago Rachel Carson wrote a book entitled A Sense of Wonder. It was one of my favorites, and I remember and have used one quote from the book many times: “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.” Carson’s passionate book conveys the feelings that most science teachers have for their craft, and their goal is to instill in their students, “A Sense of Wonder.”

Enter Carl Sagan and his views on wonder.

Although Carl Sagan died in 1996, his partner in film production and writing, and his wife, Ann Druyan published a book several years ago (The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God) based on lectures he gave in Glasgow, Scotland in 1985.  Now she is the Executive Producer and writer of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, based on her husband’s original Cosmos series.

To me Sagan was one of the most influential science educators of our time, and I am very happy that Dr. Tyson is hosting a new rendition of his television series.  By making his knowledge and personal views of science accessible to the public (through his writings, speeches, TV appearances, and film production), Sagan helped many see the beauty and wonder in the cosmos. You of course remember is famous, “billions and billions.” He encouraged us to look again at the stars, at the cosmos and to imagine other worlds, beings, if you will. He worked with NASA to make sure that the first space vehicle to leave the Solar System would contain messages that could be interpreted by intelligent life so that they might know of us—Earth beings.

In Varieties of Scientific Experience, areas are explored that we all want to know about. Areas that many have been forced to separate in their experiences—that is science and religion. Sagan, as much as anyone, was well qualified to give lectures on science and religion. He understood religion. He read and could recite scripture. He could argue religion with scholars in the field, and carried on debates on subjects that many scientists resisted.

In the introduction to the book, Druyan comments that for Sagan, Darwin’s insight that life evolved over eons through natural selection was not just better science than Genesis, it afforded us with a “deeper, more spiritual experience.” I thought it was interesting that Druyan also points out that Sagan, who always comments on the vastness and grandeur of the universe, believed we know very little of this universe, and as a result very little about the spiritual, about God. Sagan used analogies to help us understand this vastness. He was famous for this statement: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand in all of the Earth’s beaches! This is where billions and billions came from.

So what is this musing about. Science teaching is about wonder. It is about bringing to wide-eyed kids the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson wrote about, and Carl Sagan expressed in all of his work.

Thinking Big

Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source:
Figure 3. Carl Sagan. source:  Creative Commons

Sagan was one scientist who was willing to think big.  Lots of science teachers that I know also think big.  They bring to their students a world that is “far out” and challenging, and in this quest, pique their student’s curiosity.

Thinking Big in science teaching means we bring students in contact with interesting questions, ones that continue to pique our curiosity, and ones that are sure to interest students.  Where did we come from?  Are we alone in the Universe?  How big is the Universe?  Are we the only planet with living things?

A really good example of “thinking big” is NASA’s Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship. The Sagan program supports

outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists to conduct independent research that is broadly related to the science goals of the NASA Exoplanet Exploration area. The primary goal of missions within this program is to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Fellowship recipients receive financial support to conduct research at a host institution in the US for a period of up to three years. See NExScI at NASA.

Risk Taking

Carl Sagan was willing to take risks. Sagan took issue with two significant developments that occurred during the Reagan administration, namely the Strategic Defense Initiative (using X-ray lasers in space to shoot down enemy missiles), and the idea that nuclear war was winnable.  In the later case, Sagan developed the concept of a “nuclear winter” arguing that fires from a nuclear holocaust would create smoke and dust that would cut out the sun’s rays leading to a global cooling—perhaps threatening agriculture and leading to global famine.  He incensed the right-wing, according to Mooney & Kirshenbaum, and in particular William F. Buckley.  But Sagan held firm on his ideas, supported by other scientists, and even resisted accepting White House invitations to dinner.  Sagan’s criticism of SDI was supported by other scientists, especially Hans Bethe who authored a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The standards-based approach to science education does not encourage risk taking.  As Grant Lichtman in his book The Falconer (public library) has said, our present approach to science only encourages kids to answer question, not to question.  There is little risk taking in our approach to science teaching.   In an earlier article, I wrote this about Grant Lichtman’s philosophy of teaching:

One of the aspects of Grant’s book that I appreciate is that the central theme of his book is the importance of asking questions.  We have established a system of education based on what we know and what we expect students to know at every grade level.  The standards-based curriculum dulls the mind by it’s over reliance on a set of expectations or performances that every child should know.  In this approach, students are not encouraged to ask questions.  But, they are expected to choose the correct answer.  In Lichtman’s view, education will only change if we overtly switch our priorities from giving answers to a process of finding new questions.  This notion sounds obvious, but we have gone off the cliff because of the dual forces of standards-based curriculum and high-stakes assessments.

Lichtman writes:

Questions are waypoints on the path of wisdom. Each question leads to one or more new questions or answers. Sometimes answers are dead ends; they don’t lead anywhere. Questions are never dead ends. Every question has the inherent potential to lead to a new level of discovery, understanding, or creation, levels that can range from the trivial to the sublime.  Lichtman, Grant (2010-05-25). The Falconer (Kindle Locations 967-971). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.

Science and Society

Carl Sagan exemplified, just as Neil deGrasse Tyson is now doing, the important of science in a democratic society.  Science education has a responsibility for considering Sagan and Tyson’s philosophy that science should be in the service of people.  People need to understand science.  In Sagan’s view:

All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions. But I do not see how we can deal with the universe—both the outside and the inside universe—without studying it. The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern—if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table—we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us.  Sagan, Carl (2011-07-06). Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Kindle Locations 331-337). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Science is a Way of Thinking: So, Why Do We Try and Standardize it?  Do you think there is mismatch between Sagan’s view of science and the standards-based approach to teaching?  


Science Ideas Have a History: The Case for Interdisciplinary Thinking

Latest Story

Figure 1.  How was this tool used to "discover" the background radiation made by the Big Bang?  Figure 1. How was this tool used to “discover” the background radiation made by the Big Bang?

In a piece published on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Alejandra Dubcovsky, professor of history at Yale University, says  “to understand science, study history.

Indeed, science teachers have used some stories surrounding the history of science to help students understand the context of science, science research, and the relationship between science and society.

Science taught without a context becomes rote learning.  Helping students highlight connections between themselves, science, history and society provides a context for learning.  In the end, it’s a more powerful way to learn [science].

In Professor Dubcovsky’s view, there should be a dialogue between the humanities and STEM majors.  I agree with this position, and would, however, extend this to middle and high school students curriculum studies.

Dubcovsky gives us a powerful rationale for working toward interconnections between history and science.  She says:

Second, beyond the often-missed practical gains, I was developing a historical sensitivity. I realized, quite simply, that things had a past. The things we think of as inherent are, in fact, social and historical constructions, often with complicated and unpleasant roots. That sensitivity to the past and to the structures that shape our present is essential to all students and professionals.

She goes on to say that she wants future biologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and physicists to be aware that their disciplines have a history.  And I would add, this connection is as important at the middle and high school level because it underscores the value of interdisciplinary teaching, sorely needed in times when “disciplinary” thinking rules the day, e.g. content or discipline based core standards in language arts, math, and science.

Ideas Have a History

Don’t you like that notion.  Ideas have a history, and more than that, ideas are not pulled from a vacuum, but are connected.  One book I would point us to is Stephen Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From (public library).  And in the context of this post, good ideas (bad ones, too) have a history, and that connection makes for interdisciplinary thinking.

Figure 2. Cover of Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

Since every idea has a history, there is a plethora of “case studies” with literature, films, plays, music that can be brought to bear on the idea, thus humanizing the study of science.  In my writing, I’ve used the history and people behind great ideas to help students understand the values, beliefs, prejudices, and all the rest that can be brought to bear to understand the history of ideas–indeed our own history.

Here are some questions I’ve used to probe the connection between history, cultural beliefs, and science.

  • Why didn’t Rosalind Franklin receive the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA?
  • Albert Einstein, the pure scientist and thinker, sent the “Uranium” letter to President Roosevelt in 1939.  What was this letter about, and why did Einstein sign the letter?
  • Who was Benjamin Banneker, and what observations did he use to publish his almanac during Colonial America?
  • How did Charles Darwin’s religious views affect his work as a naturalist and the co-discoverer of the basis for evolution of life?
  • In what ways did Rachel Carson’s research and later publication of Silent Spring (library copy) show courage?  What forces were brought to bear to try to dispose of Carson’s ideas?
  • Francis Kelsey is known to me and others as the doctor who said no.  Her work as a government pharmacologist prevented the marketing of the drug, Kevadon (known as thalidomide).  What were the implications of her saying no, and what political and corporate forces did she push back?
  • Why did Galileo come under house arrest for supporting Copernicus’ sun-centered universe?  Who would bring Galileo to trial for writing a book entitled Dialog Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (library copy).

When I arrived at undergraduate school many years ago, I was accepted into the history department.  However,  before classes began, I decided to take a math and science examination.  I passed the test, and decided then to become a science/math major.  However, the study of history has always been a part of my interest.  In fact, one of the most important courses I took in high school was a course in modern political science.  It was taught as a research-based course full of dialog and collaboration.  Each of us had to write a series of research papers which were read not only by our teacher, but by a Boston College history professor.  You can imagine how thrilled we were when we got positive feedback on our writing from a college professor.

On this blog, I’ve written a number of posts on subjects that relate to how ideas have a history, and why it is important to help students explore ideas in this way.  Here are some ideas related to the intersection of the invention of air and Early American history.

The Invention of Air and Early American History

Seems like a strange connection between how air was analyzed , and early American history.  In earlier posts I’ve written about a humanistic science paradigm to reform of science teaching—one that attempts to think in wholes, and values interdisciplinary thinking, not only among fields in science, but across disciplines to include science, history, politics and religion.

Several years ago I purchased one of Steven Johnson’s books The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 12.06.48 PM
Figure 3. Cover of The Invention of Air by Johnson

After reading Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley, I realized that perhaps he (Johnson) was writing a story about someone who attempted to cross disciplines in the spirit of the humanistic paradigm.  The book describes  events that involve science, faith, revolution in 18th Century England, and into the early part 19th Century America.  At the center of these events, was Joseph Priestley, a minister and a scientist (natural philosophy).

Priestley had published more than 500 books and pamphlets, had won prestigious prizes in science (he isolated oxygen, and was the first to discover that plants expire oxygen), wrote important books in science, religion and politics.  Yet, in 1794, he was “the most hated man in all of Britain” according to Johnson.  He escaped to America that year, and settled in rural Pennsylvania, where he became the most celebrated scientist in the country, and became a very close friend of Thomas Jefferson.   While in England he joined with Benjamin Franklin and other intellectuals at The London Coffee House in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and laid the plans to write one of the most important books in science: The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments (1769).  The book was the result of collaboration with other experimenters of the day, among them Benjamin Franklin.  You can read the original book at the previous link, and I think you will find it interesting to the visit the site, and look the book over.

Priestley was also an educator (he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum of the University of Virginia), and published an important book on English grammar.  As a minister, he led a dissenting congregation in England, which led to the formation of the Unitarian church in England.  He wrote two major books on the history of Christianity, and indeed influenced Thomas Jefferson’s view of religion (see The Jefferson Bible).

During the period of Priestley life, paradigm shifts were happening in several fields, each of which involved Joseph Priestley.  For example, in science, Johnson suggests that Priestley helped bring about the organizing principle of the ecosystem through his experiments with plants, animals and air.  Today the ecosystem paradigm has been subsumed by Earth System Science, and provides a framework for work done today in various fields of science.  The American and French revolutions were underway during his lifetime, and Johnson depicts Priestley as important to America’s “founding fathers” especially John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.   He written years before he came to America An Essay on the (). the realm of religion he led a movement in England that led to the formation of the Unitarian church there, and influenced the thinking of the “founding fathers” in this realm as well.

Priestley was a progressive of the Enlightenment Period, and like many progressives suffered the wrath of those who didn’t agree with his philosophies.  In 1791, his church and house was burned to the ground destroying all of his property, and laboratories.  He later fled to America with his family.

There is such a richness in the human side of science and I hope that this post encourages you to consider the application and value of thinking across disciplines, and helping students see how they can relate to ideas that others struggled to develop.

What are some examples of “ideas have history” that you use with your students? 

Inquiry: The Cornerstone of Teaching–Part I

Fifth Article in the series on The Artistry of Teaching

Conservative and neoliberal paradigms dominate education, which have reduced teaching to skills, economic growth, job training, and transmission of information.

In spite of these authoritarian policies,  many K-12 teachers practice a different form of instruction based on principles of equity, social constructivism, progressivism, and informal learning.  The cornerstone of this approach is inquiry, and in this article, I’ll explore the nature of inquiry, and why it is the magnum principium of teaching.

Inquiry teaching requires that teachers take risks because the very nature of inquiry brings us into the unknown.  It is like crossing into a new environment.  Some researchers think of this as “crossing cultures,” and for a teacher embracing inquiry as the cornerstone of their approach to teaching, it means crossing into a classroom culture that is very different from the traditional classroom, that we are too familiar with.  For a teacher who is experimenting with their own willingness and courage to accommodate inquiry teaching, it is much like thinking about Lev Vygotsky’s (public library) theory of zones of proximal learning.  Embracing inquiry teaching requires courage and the close collaboration with trusted colleagues who are supportive and believe that in a social constructivist environment, teachers can push themselves into new zones of learning.

Normally, Vygotsky’s theories are applied in the context of K-12 student learning.  But in this article, I want to show that Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism (which researchers suggest is similar to inquiry) can be applied to the artistry of teaching.

The Age of Inquiry

My story of inquiry teaching began in 1960s as a science teacher in a small community near Boston.  The 1960s was the “Golden Age” in science education in the sense that the National Science Foundation invested tens of millions of dollars in curriculum development and teacher education.  The school’s science program was an “Alphabet Soup Science” curriculum made up of BSCS Biology, CHEM Study Chemistry, CBA Chemistry, PSSC Physics, and HPP (Project Physics).  These courses were four of the nearly fifty curriculum projects that were developed between 1957 – 1977.  I was personally involved in four of them, ESCP Earth Science, ISCS (Intermediate Science Curriculum Study), PSSC Physics, ISIS (Individualized Science Instruction System) as a writer, field test coordinator, student, and researcher.

One of the characteristics of these programs was an approach to teaching unified by the word “inquiry.”  Inquiry teaching, with an emphasis on hands-on and minds on learning was integral to NSF programs developed in the 1960s, and has continued to the present day.

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 5.44.03 PMHowever, in 1960s, they concept of equity, multiculturalism, and urban education was not part of the research and development scene. Beginning in the 1970s, especially with educators such as Dr. Melvin Webb at Clark Atlanta University, research and development on issues of equity and multiculturalism in science education began to emerge in new programs, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

Chicago. My introduction to inquiry teaching and learning was enhanced by participating in an NSF eight-week summer institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago on the PSSC Physics course.  For eight hours a day, five days a week, and for eight weeks, 35 teachers participated in laboratory sessions, lectures, and films on the PSSC physics program, the first of the NSF courses for American schools.  A team of teachers, including a professor of physics, a graduate student in physics, and a high school physics teacher taught the course. The PSSC course emphasized science laboratory work and hands-on investigations.  We did every laboratory activity in the PSSC text that summer, but more importantly we discussed how to integrate the idea of inquiry learning into our own teaching.  The three faculty in our program encouraged us to be activists, to ask questions about the science curriculum and the instructional approaches being used in high school science, and to encourage new approaches and ideas.

Nearly all the teachers, who were from 30 different states, were there because they were going to teach PSSC Physics in their school in the fall.  Not me.  I had taken a new job in a different town in Massachusetts (Lexington) and would be teaching earth science (I earned a B.S. in earth science in undergraduate school and really wanted to teach E.S.).  Later in the year I realized how important this intense study of physics would affect the way I taught earth science.  I adopted many of the labs in physics for the earth science course I was teaching, and began to adapt the activities in the text we used so that students were engaged in inquiry and problem solving.

Lexington. All the ninth grade teachers moved to a brand new high school science building the next year, and two of my colleagues in earth science  “piloted” a new NSF funded earth science project, ESCP (Earth Science Curriculum Project).  ESCP was a hands-on inquiry oriented program, different from the earth science program that was part of the high school curriculum.  I teamed up with one of the pilot teachers (Dr. Bob Champlain–Emeritus professor, Fitchberg State University) and planned a research study comparing the ESCP approach to the traditional earth science approach.  As it happened, Bob and I were working on our Masters degrees in science education at Boston University, and thus the study became our thesis study.  We didn’t find any significant differences (on a content test we administered), but qualitatively we saw many differences in terms of how students felt about learning science in the two contexts.  Students were naturally attracted to working with teammates in group activities, and enjoyed trying to solve problems that involved messing about, and trying different methods and techniques.

Columbus. I left Lexington in 1966, and moved to Columbus, Ohio to attend the National Science Foundation Academic Year Institute at The Ohio State University.  I joined with 40 other teachers of science and mathematics to take part in a one-year program of study in science and science education.  Several science courses designed for Institute participants integrated some aspects of inquiry, and were different from many of the other science courses we took.  There were nearly 20 full-time doctoral students in science education, and over the next three years we explored and studied the pedagogy and philosophy of science teaching  After three years of study, I finished my work on the Ph.D., and headed to Atlanta, Georgia, to take a job as an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University.

College Park, MD. Before going to Atlanta, I made a three-week stop in College Park.  My induction into what inquiry was all about, however, took place three weeks before arriving in Atlanta to begin my new job.  At the University of Maryland, Professor Marjorie Gardner, one of the leaders in science education in the U.S. then, invited me to a member of a team of three science educators from Atlanta, even though I hadn’t arrived in Georgia.  Each team that the attended the Leadership Institute at UMD was composed of a science teacher, a science supervisor, and a university professor.  Twelve teams from around the country participated in the first Earth Science Leadership Institute directed by Dr. Gardner.  The institute was designed as a total immersion in the ESCP Curriculum with special emphasis on inquiry teaching and learning.  Each day we did two to three hands-on activities from the ESCP program, participated in lecture/discussions with scientists who were brought in to focus on specialty topics in the ESCP, e.g., astronomy, paleontology, mineralogy, physical geology, meteorology, geology, oceanography, space science).  We also were involved in micro-teaching.  Each of us had to teach several “inquiry” lessons to groups of middle school students.  Lessons were video taped, and then in collaboration with other participants, each lesson was discussed from the point of view of our goal to carry out an inquiry activity.  Suggestions were made to change the lesson, which we then re-taught to a different group of students.  The important aspect here is that collaboration with colleagues was essential in moving each us into new conceptions and zones of activity.

A Cornerstone

Atlanta. Inquiry teaching became the cornerstone of my teaching at Georgia State University for the next thirty-two years.  Through collaboration with colleagues in science education, the sciences, educational psychology and philosophy, inquiry and experiential learning became fundamental characteristics of courses and programs we designed.

When I began teaching at GSU, half of my assignment was to teach courses in the geology department, but specifically to teach geology courses for teachers.  My first course, which was taught off campus at a professional development center in Griffin, GA, was an introductory geology course for middle school teachers.  Using only laboratory and experiential activities, teachers learned geology by inquiry and problem solving.  For the next two years, I taught courses in geology in Griffin, and an opportunity to explore the nature of inquiry teaching with professional educators.

One of the most important learnings that I took away from these early experiences teaching geology was
the joy that I saw in the eyes and minds of these teachers.  A few years later, I began to study the work of Rollo May, an American humanistic psychologist.  In his book The Courage to Create (public library), he speaks to us about what the artist or creative scientist feels.  It is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.  He explains that the artist (or scientist or teacher) at the moment of creating does not experience gratification or satisfaction.  Although he didn’t talk specifically here about teaching, later he does, and it is important to make a connection and bring teachers into the conversation.  This is how I see it.  The teacher, like the artist or scientist, uses creativity to create an environment of learning, much like an artist creates a painting, or a scientist advances a theory.  All are personal.  But May adds another dimension that I think is powerful.  He says this about the moment of creating for artist, scientist or teacher.

Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities (May, R., The Courage to Create, 1975, p.45).

Over the course of my career, I worked with hundreds of teachers, professors, scientists, and researchers with whom we constructed our knowledge of inquiry in particular, and teaching in general.  We teamed to create projects that brought together not only for adults, but students and their families.

The GTP Telecommunications Network linking schools in the USA and the Soviet Union, c. 1991
The GTP Telecommunications Network linking schools in the USA and the Soviet Union, c. 1991

Moscow & Leningrad. The activity that epitomized the essence of inquiry while I was at GSU was the design and implementation of The Global Thinking Project (GTP), a hands-across-the-globe inquiry-based environmental science project. Utilizing very primitive Internet technologies and face-to-face meetings, teachers from Atlanta and other areas of Georgia forged cross-cultural partnerships with colleagues in the Soviet Union (1983 – 2002).   In 1991 the GTP was implemented in 10 schools in the U.S. & the Soviet Union, after we transported 6 MacIntosh SE 20 computers, printers and modems, and installed them in six schools in the Soviet Union.

In the Global Thinking Project teachers from different cultures came together to develop a curriculum was inquiry-based and involved students in solving local problems, as well thinking globally about these problems by participating in a global community of practice.  Inquiry was at the heart of the project.  By working with a range of teachers and students, the project developed an inquiry-based philosophy that emerged from years of collaboration among American and Russian teachers that was rooted in humanistic psychology.

Inquiry teaching was envisioned as a humanistic endeavor by American and Russian participants.  They believed that students should work collaboratively & cooperatively, not only in their own classrooms, but they should use the Internet  to develop interpersonal relationships, share local findings, and try to interpret each others ideas.

For more than ten years, collaboration took place among hundreds of teachers and students, not only in the United States (led by Dr. Julie Weisberg) and Russia (led by Dr. Galena Manke), but including significant work with colleagues in Spain (in the Barcelona Region under the directorship of Mr. Narcis Vives), Australia (under the leadership of Roger Cross), and further collaboration with the Czech Republic, Botswana, New Zealand, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Singapore, and Canada.  With their work in the GTP, the following principles of inquiry emerged:

  • Innovative, flexible thinking
  • Cooperative–students work collaboratively in small teams to think and act 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 choice, 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; learning how to learn, and how to ask questions
  • Learning encourages creative thinking, and is holistic and intuitive

Inquiry as Magnum Principium

Inquiry is the sin qua non of experiential teaching and learning.  A method?  No.  It’s a foundational principle that is integral to democratic and humane environments that was espoused more than a hundred years ago by John Dewey.  In Dewey’s mind, this question must be asked when considering the way learning should occur in schools:

Can we find any reason that does not ultimately come down to the belief that democratic social arrangements promote a better quality of human experience, on which is more widely accessible and enjoyed, than do non-democratic and anti-democratic forms of social life? In Dewey, J., 1938. Experience & Education, p. 34. (public library)

At a deeper level, classrooms organized as democratic spaces encourage imagination, and it with free inquiry that teachers show themselves as Freiean “cultural workers.”  Freire says:

Teachers must give creative wings to their imaginations, obviously in disciplined fashion.  From the very first day of class, they must demonstrate to students the importance of imagination for life.  Imagination helps curiosity and inventiveness, just as it enhances adventure, with which we cannot create.  I speak here of imagination that is naturally free, flying, walking, or running freely.  Such imagination should be present in every movement of our bodies, in dance, in rhythm, in drawing, and in writing, even in the early stages when writing is in fact prewriting–scribbling.  It should be part of speech, present in the telling and retelling of stories produced within the learners’ culture. In Freire, P.,Teachers as Cultural Workers,  p. 51. (public library)

Becoming an inquiry teacher is a life-long phenomenon that emerges from the craft of teaching in the context of classrooms and schools that advocate professional collaboration and a pursuit of wisdom in teaching.  This is not ivory tower thinking purported by an emeritus professor of education.  It’s going on now in schools across the country.  Working together from the ground up, rather the top down, Chris Thinnes says on his blog how he and his colleagues work together to “formulate, analyze, prioritize, and activate driving questions that democratically identify the intersections of individual interest and shared priorities.”  You can go to Chris Thinnes blog, and read the kinds of questions he and his colleagues asked at their first meeting which focused on how a teacher creates an environment and climate conducive to learning.  It is this kind of democratically organized work that leads to teachers growing into cultural workers, inquiry teachers, and artists in their own right.

As way of introduction, here is what Chris said about the in-school meeting among all the staff to explore ways to improve teaching:

For a variety of reasons, I have been inspired for a number of years by the idea that our teachers’ professional learning and collaboration should be governed by the same principles and objectives as our students‘ learning and collaboration. To that end, each of six domains from the framework of our Goals for Learning (Create – Understand – Reflect – Transmit – Include – Strive) will be invoked as we establish language to articulate our core commitments to effective teaching practice; design driving questions that will facilitate further inquiry among our teams; identify teaching practices that should be visible to teachers, learners, and observers; explore resources drawing on a wide range of expertise outside our community; and create our own rubrics for self-assessment, reflection, goal-setting, peer observation, instructional coaching, and administrative evaluation.

Is inquiry the cornerstone of teaching?  What do you think?  What would you add to this conversation?


Boxed In: How the NGSS Impedes Science Teaching

The major journals of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) have published articles featuring and explaining to science teachers the nature of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  The journals include The Science Teacher, Science Scope and Science and Children.  For the past several issues, each journal has published articles that deal with different aspects of the NGSS, including what students should know about earth science, life science, and physical science, when they should know it, and why these standards will “help all learners in the nation develop the science and engineering understanding they need to live successful, informed, and productive lives, and that will help them create a sustainable planet for future generations.” (Krajcik 2013, p. ).

These are laudable goals, but the roll out of the NGSS later this year won’t necessarily change or lead to more “productive” lives or help students understand sustainable living or “deep ecology.”  The standards do include some environmental and ecology content, but the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that is at the heart of deep ecology simply is not part of the NGSS.  In a search of the NGSS draft document, the word ecology does not appear, sustainability was found in only six instances, while 61 instances of the term environmental were found, but most often in the context of environmental impacts or economics.  Concepts such as interdependence do occur, but only in relationship to connecting science, engineering and technology.  No connection to the biosphere.  Then, when the standards that do relate to sustainability are examined, students learn that sustainability is for humans and the biodiversity that supports them.  In a deep ecology context, sustainability would refer to all species of living things, and their importance would not be hierarchical.

The rationale for science described in the NGSS is not related to conception or philosophy of a sustainable planet, but is instead science in the service of the economic growth of the nation, job training, and economic competitiveness in a global society.  The science standards were designed by scientists and engineers, and so there is a heavy emphasis on scientific process and content instead of thinking about science curriculum that would be in the service of children and adolescents.

Boxed In

In another article in this month’s The Science Teacher, there is a chart that shows the architecture of the Next Generation Science Standards.  Think of the chart as a box–a science standards box. Its full of the multiple standard attributes including performance expectations, kind of on-deck behaviors ready to be morphed into assessments. The box is teeming with science & engineering practices, comments about disciplinary core ideas,and cross cutting content, and connections to the nature of science. Symbolically, the box is dense, perhaps so much that one has wonder what is really important. Is this atomistic breakdown of science what will help American education progressives lead schools into a more humanistic world? I don’t know.

Figure 1 shows the same box that appeared in The Science Teacher, but without the explanations of each part of the science box.  Notice that there are four sub-boxes, one shaded white (the performance expectations), blue (practices or process of science and engineering), orange (content) and green (connections).

Every set of performance expectations in the NGSS is presented using this box-like structure.  The NGSS is 105 pages long on the online pdf draft of the standards.  As you scroll through the standards, hundreds of performance expectations are grouped into the content or disciplinary core ideas.  The standards will be released this year, and will unfortunately, adopted by most states.

Figure 1. Science Standards Box including performance expectations, processes, content and connections


Let’s take a look at an example of an NGSS Box that appeared in NSTA’s March 2013 edition of The Science Teacher. The NGSS conceptual design is an oversized rectangular box in two dimensions. The box has all the elements that pertain to a grouping of content for 3rd graders in physical science.  At first glance theses NGSS boxes make you feel overwhelmed and boxed in.  Take a look.  First, the standards writers designed the whole shebang by writing the performance expectations in such as way that they can easily be converted to assessments.  In this case, this is what every 3rd grader is expected to master for this standard.  Below the expectations/assessment box, are 3 foundation boxes which include core disciplinary ideas (orange-earth, life, or physical science), cross cutting concepts (green), and scientific and engineering practices (blue). At the bottom, you will find a connection box which informs science teachers how this standard might be related to the common core, or to state standards.  You also find other items tagged on to this complicated scenario including connections to the nature of science, connections to engineering, codes and all of that.

NSTA ngss chart
Figure 2. What inside the NGSS Box: Source, NSTA journal, The Science Teacher, March 2013


What’s Next?

In research I’ve reported on here, the standards should be viewed as authoritarian documents that teachers had little to no part in policy decisions.  Indeed, in separate research studies reported here, the standards are impediments or barriers to learning not bridges to help children and youth understand their connection to science.  In the standards culture, students are pawns in an educational system that is in the interests of the nation’s economy and prosperousness of business and industry.

According to the 2012 Brown Center Report on American Education, the Common Core State Standards will have little to no effect on student achievement. Author Tom Loveless explains that neither the quality or the rigor of state standards is related to state NAEP scores. Loveless suggests that if there was an effect, we would have seen it since all states had standards in 2003.

The researchers concluded that we should not expect much from the Common Core. In an interesting discussion of the implications of their findings, Tom Loveless, the author of the report, cautions us to be careful about not being drawn into thinking that standards represent a kind of system of “weights and measures.” Loveless tells us that standards’ reformers use the word—benchmarks—as a synonym for standards. And he says that they use too often. In science education, we’ve had a long history of using the word benchmarks, and Loveless reminds us that there are not real, or measured benchmarks in any content area. Yet, when you read the standards—common core or science—there is the implication we really know–almost in a measured way–what standards should be met at a particular grade level.

As the Brown report suggests, we should not depend on the common core or the Next Generation Science Standards having any effect on students’ achievement. The report ends with this statement:

The nation will have to look elsewhere for ways to improve its schools.

Teachers will be in a bind when they are told to carry out the new science standards.  Wading through the boxes of performance expectations, and foundation components will give any science educator a headache, not to mention the near impossibility of thinking that every student should be exposed to the same set of content goals.

The rationale for the science standards is achievement-based. One way to look at the standards is that they use backwards engineering to define the field of science that teachers should cover in their science courses. A teacher writing on Anthony Cody’s blog explained backward engineered standards. Backward engineering means starting with an assessment, and then working backwards from it to write standards. She explains that “the goal of the Next Generation Science Standards is create a document that can market both teaching and assessment products to a captive education system, not offer a framework for good teaching of science.”

The new standards will not lead on a path that will improve learning.  It will however provide documentation for test development companies and consortia to design online assessments that will be used by bureaucrats to foster “data driven” educational reform.

What do you expect will be the affect of the Next Generation Science Standards on science teaching in American schools?




Krajcik, Joe (2013). The next generation science standards: A focus on physical science. The Science Teacher, 80 (3), 29 – 35.

Online Communities of Practice: Lessons from Yahoo

No doubt you’ve read the news reports telling us that Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, informed all Yahoo employees that they could no longer work at home. There were many people who felt that Mayer did not understand the value of having employees work at home. Some employees were outraged that they could no longer work at home. Yahoo is a very large Internet-based company, why in the world would the CEO order everyone back to work?

Tracy Grant, a columnist for the Washington Post wrote a piece about why working from home doesn’t always work. Her column focused on Marissa Mayer and telecommuting, and according to Grant, Marissa Mayer got it right. Grant has had a long experience at the Washington Post. In 1999, she was the newsroom’s first editor in charge of getting breaking news from reporters on “the new-fangled” thing called the world-wide web.

Communities of Practice

When companies like Yahoo enabled employees to work from home, they were extending to the Internet the community of practice that existed in Yahoo’s corporate headquarters. Working from home, employees could use tools such as email, instant messaging, video conferencing, social networking, and blogging to communicate with colleagues over the “net.” Grant points out the she worked from home as an editor at the Washington Post for years, but found that the quality of her work suffered.

The reason she gave for her work suffering was she was not in the office! She was not collaborating! She didn’t have the opportunity to run into colleagues in the hallways, or at break time. Another important point that Grant made was that serendipity was missing when you stayed at home to work. She realized that the whole (of a team) was greater than the sum of the parts.

Face-to-face communities of practice seem to have the advantage of serendipity. Some researchers have found that the lack of interaction in the workplace actually reduces the quality of one’s work by at least 5%. Researcher John Sullivan, a professor at San Francisco State University, suggests that more “innovation occurs when people meet and interact, stop and talk with each other, especially people who don’t normally work together.” Sullivan joins Tracy Grant in thinking that the move by CEO Mayer is smart one.

According to Sullivan, telecommuting stifles innovation.

The decision by CEO Mayer ought to stimulate discussion about online learning in higher education and secondary education. For the past 20 years, the idea of offering courses online whereby students can earn degrees at home has mushroomed. Remember the Stanford professors that enrolled more than 150,00 students in online noncredit and open enrollment courses on artificial intelligence. Online courses are available free from major universities. And online courses for middle and high school students have been available for more than a decade.

Should colleges and universities call in the troops that are taking their courses exclusively online? Should secondary schools re-evaluate the use of online coursework.

Face-to-Face, Hybrid and Online Courses

Higher Education

According to recent study (The Babson Survey Group), there are more than 6 million students enrolled in online courses. The study also reported that more than one-third of all higher education students take at least one online course and this figure is growing. However, as the researchers point out, there is still a debate about the effectiveness of online vs face-to-face instruction. As an alternative, courses that use a blended format of face-to-face and online learning are described as “hybrid”   Babson researchers define hybrid courses as those that use between 24% to 75% of the course to deliver content online and the other as face-to-face. They note also that hybrids can be courses that use one of the several online Learning Management Systems such as WebCt or Blackboard. WebCt, which I used for many years at Georgia State University in science education courses, is a course management system that enables instructors to use tools such as discussion boards, mail systems, live chat, document and web pages.

I talked with a friend of mine this weekend about online and face-to-face learning. He is enrolled in a university degree program that is 100% online, but he indicated that he is considering transferring to a university degree program in which nearly all of the courses are taught face-to-face. He’s been enrolled in the online program for about a year and a half, and has discovered that he is isolated from other learners, even though the courses use Chalkboard which enables students to do online collaboration. Indeed some of his courses require team learning projects, but he has not found these to be fulfilling. He’s doing we’ll in the courses, but feels he’s missing out on some of the attributes of getting a degree at a traditional brick and mortor university.

I asked him if he had choice would he take an online course or one that was offered in a face-to-face environment. “Face-to-face,” he said.

In a recent New York Times article entitled The Trouble with Online College, research is reported from work done by Columbia University’s Community Research College about online learning. Follow this link to access their online and technology research reports. For example, students who traditionally did not do well in face-to-face courses, did not do well in online courses. Males, younger students, Black students, and student with lower grade point averages struggled in courses such as English and social science. In another study which compared performances in online courses vs face-to-face courses, the results do not bode well for online instruction. The researchers found that completion rates were lower for students in online courses. Students’ grades also suffered, and the progress of the students moving along in a program of studies was undercut.

In an other study comparing online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses over a five-year period, researchers found that students with stronger academic backgrounds enrolled in online courses. However, students who took online courses were more likely to fail or withdraw and also less likely to return to school. Students enrolled in hybrid courses appeared to perform as well as students enrolled in face-to-face courses.

High School

At the high school level, millions of students are enrolled in online courses. In another Babson Survey Group study, researchers completed a two-year study of online learning by surveying a sample of school principals in the state of Illinois. In a comparison of results in Illinois with a national sample, areas of similarity included the following:

  • Online credit recovery courses are proliferating across the country as well as in Illinois.
  • Concerns about costs and course quality continue to dominate the opinions of the principals in both Illinois and across the country.
  • Quality concerns are not preventing the expansion of online learning.
  • High schools in Illinois and nationally use a number of external providers rather than develop courses in house.

Researchers also reported that credit recovery courses (making up coursework because of illness, being homebound, scheduling conflicts, academic failure) are becoming the major type of online course. And most of the providers of these courses are online private companies. Principals were somewhat concerned about the quality of online instruction, yet, the data show that online learning is popular, especially for lower-performing students. Maybe there is no other choice for these students besides dropping out.

The principals reported that the pedagogy is evolving differently than in college courses. Many students are getting assistance from teachers and and tutors while they enroll in online courses. And in some high schools, students “take” the online course in a lab or library, which enables students to communicate with adults, as well as peers.  Communication with others face-to-face appears to be an important finding in the Illinois study.

Online, Face-to-Face or Hybrid: Which Would You Choose

The Yahoo model of learning, at least based on the decision to bring employers back to the work place, appears to resonate with some of the findings in the Babson study. Collaborating with others face-to-face underscores the human need for team learning, and working with and assisting each other to pursue shared goals.

The effectiveness of fully online degree programs is not as solid as some educators would have us believe.  In a response to a U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis report on the effectiveness of fully online courses, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Thomas Bailey of Columbia University have found that the claim that online courses are superior to face-to-face does not hold.  It does not hold for students enrolled in fully online courses of semester length, and there is no evidence that we can generalize to the traditionally underserved population of students.  The researchers write in their report that:

the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.

What are your experiences with using online learning with your students?  Do you think fully online courses are more effective than hybrid or face-to-face from your experience?