Why do we teach science?

There is a new generation of science standards on the way. The Conceptual Framework for New Science Standards has been developed by a committee selected by the National Research Council, with funding from the Carnegie Foundation. The Framework will guide the development of new standards, which will be written by Achieve, a non-profit organization established some years ago by the National Governors Association.

The new Framework does not answer the question “Why do we teach science?,” but does inform us what students should learn. I have read the report, and there is no discussion of why we teach science. Here is an opening paragraph from the Draft Framework in which what students should learn is explained:


This framework lays out a set of goals for what students should learn in science and in engineering. These goals for science and engineering education are informed, first and foremost, by a view of the essential elements of science and engineering that must be conveyed to all students. The first step in identifying these elements must be an exploration of what we perceive science to be, of the distinctions between science and engineering as practices, and of the diversity of practices engaged in by scientists and engineers.

Why do we teach science in the first place? This question is always been important, but much of the reform going on in the US today has not addressed the question directly. What one has to do is examine the goals of a particular curriculum or reform report, and then infer what the authors would say if asked, Why do we teach science in first place?

For example, the National Science Board, in its September 2010 report on Preparing the Next Generation of STEM Innovators stated that the development of the Nation’s capital through schooling was an essential building block for the future of innovation.

The report’s authors outline recommendations in three areas including opportunities for excellence, casting a wide net to attract individuals to science, and create an environment that will foster innovation. The rationale for the NSB report is embodied in these two stated rationales:

  • The nation’s economic prosperity, security, and quality of life depends on the identification and development of our next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) innovators
  • Every student in America should be given the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

In their view the economic prosperity of America, and science for all appear to be rationales for teaching science.  As you will see later in this piece, the “economic argument” is only one of several arguments that help us answer the question: Why do we teach science?

In doing research for this piece, I came across R. Steven Turner’s paper on science education. Turner, in his keynote speech to the CRYSTAL Atlantique Annual Colloquium, addressed the issue as seen in the title of his talk: Why do we teach science, and why knowing matters. In his address, Turner explored four different arguments that could be used to answer the why question. The arguments are identified as:

  • The Economic Argument
  • The Democratic Argument
  • The Skills Argument
  • The Cultural Argument

Why we teach science is embedded in these arguments.  Much of Turner’s paradigm for looking at why we teach science is based on work by Robin Millar of the University of York, and author of several works on science education.  A brief discussion follows for each argument.

Which of these arguments represents why we teach science in your view?  Is there one argument that dominates school science today?  Is there one or more that dominates the reform agenda of science education?

The Economic Argument–the pipeline view in which students are channeled upward to post-secondary schools to study science, technology and engineering. The goal is produce more scientists and engineers to meet the supply demands in science-related fields. The problem is that crises in manpower shortages has been greatly exaggerated and only 2/3’s of people majoring in science actually take jobs in science. Comparative data used from TIMMS and PISA achievement scores has undermined science teaching and is used in policy debates as if the results are flawless. The argument goes that if we can boost the test scores of 15 old boys and girls, the nation’s economy will grow. This results in more of the same curriculum and more time in class. The new national framework for a subsequent set of science standards is a good example of reform rooted in the economic argument. Content of science is emphasized and comparisons with the 1995 science standards shows little difference.

The Democratic Argument–in this view we teach science to prepare students to be informed citizens and knowledgeable consumers. The curriculum would be quite different than the economic/standards-based design. It would focus on the technological and real-world applications of science.  Science curriculum would focus on what students would need to know to participate in key controversies of the time, global warming, energy, environmental issues, and health.  The democratic is another name for the humanistic argument advocated by science educator Glen Aikenhead, especially in his book Science for Everyday Life: Evidence Based Practice.  The humanistic argument is the central argument in the STSE movement (science, technology, society, environment).  The STSE movement is not the dominant paradigm used in science curriculum, although one can find “STSE Standards” in the NSES publication.  After examination of the new framework, STSE is still not considered “main stream” by the developers of the NRC New Generation Framework for the Science Standards.  Yet the research, as reported by Aikenhead, and others, supports the inclusion of STSE curriculum in school science, and that it does contribute to positive attitudes among students who take science courses.  The Democratic Argument offers a view of the science curriculum that is more student-centered, and related to life-experiences of students within the context of science.

The Skills Argument–The Skills Argument suggests that the mere study of science instills certain transferable skills that are important to students’ understanding of science.  The skills argument is the process of science argument that is strongly advocated by science education researchers, and by organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association.  Indeed, the skills argument claims that students should be involved in hands-on activities, analyze data, and plan open-ended investigations.  The skills argument is the argument that suggests that teachers should use an inquiry-approach to teaching and help students learn how to practice inquiry.  Much of science teacher education is oriented around an inquiry-approach to science teaching, and students of science education are steeped in the theories of Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, Bruner, and others who advocated this approach.  Indeed, if you peruse the journal Science Education or the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, inquiry appears as a dominant term in any search.  A good discussion of the science as inquiry approach is the testimony that Professor Julie Luft gave to the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The inquiry-approach is not without problems.  In fact, survey data shows that inquiry teaching is not the dominant pedagogy used in science classrooms.  The lecture/presentation approach is the most frequently used method of teaching science.  Inquiry-oriented teaching requires a reorientation to teaching, and one that requires teachers to employ small team learning, as well as encouraging students to explore science and to ask questions.

The Cultural Argument–The cultural argument suggest that the history and philosophy of science should play an integral role in science curriculum.  Presently, lip service is played to this approach.  Robin Millar argues that we must reduce the amount of content that dominates the science curriculum, and in its place present to students a coherent and cohesive world picture of science that tell students stories of sciences great stories from quarks to superclusters and genes and gerontology.  The cultural argument could produce a curriculum that would interest students, and might reduce the general trend which is the more science courses students take, the less they like science.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.