Why does science teaching not change? Need to modify purpose.

In my previous post, why should we teach science, I argued, as many other have before me, that teaching science as rote memorization of facts is not a worthwhile endeavor.  Yet, science instruction has amazing potential to develop students critical thinking capabilities.  In this post, I take on the task of trying to explain why teachers and the science education institution is so resistant to change.

Why do science teachers teach the way they do? Perhaps because teaching science in a way congruent with science education reform is a daunting task. The National Science Education standards for Science Teaching are that teachers will:

A) plan an inquiry-based science program.

B) guide and facilitate learning.

C) engage in ongoing assessment of their teaching and of student learning.

D) design and manage learning environments that provide students with the time, space and resources needed for learning science.

E) develop communities of science learners that reflect the intellectual rigor of scientific inquiry and the attitudes and social values conducive to learning science.

F) participate in the ongoing planning and development of the school science program.(NRC, 1996)

If teachers are to create learning environments congruent with these standards it could mean abandonment of common assessment techniques and teaching styles (Baum, Cooper, Neu, 2001). Teachers are faced with enough problems each school year without having to abandon the way they have been teaching their entire career.

One problem is the “mile wide, inch deep” dilemma faced by educators. Being expected to cover huge volumes of topics is unreasonable if the students are to retain, or be able to apply any of what is “learned”. This flies in the face of Teaching Standards B and D, teachers do not facilitate learning; they facilitate movement to the next topic. This unfocused curriculum for science education creates a splintered vision and does not allow students to really explore what interests them within a particular subject (Schmidt, McKnight, Raizen, 1999). By forcing students to move onto the next topic, just so we can fit them all in, we stifle the curiosity that students may have about the subject. Not only could this mean that students are shutting down inside toward science, but it gives them a false idea of what a scientist actually does. One would be hard pressed to find a research scientist with mastery of all disciplines, but could easily find a professional who is very focused in their area of expertise. If the real-world scientist is so focused, why do we force our students of science to be so unfocused?

Science educators are not doing a very good job of removing the vocabulary based, rote memorization boredom from their classrooms. Only an average of 12% of class time has been used for meaningful activities such as demonstrations, discussions and simulations (Goodlad, 1983). Teachers may realize that their techniques are not ideal, but the curriculum they are faced with does not allow the teachers the time necessary to support authentic learning, or even the time to allow student inquiries to lead to more in-depth discussion of topics. The number of topics covered in a year keeps the maximum number of time spent on one topic to 13 class periods. However, all topics are covered in the curriculum with none being left out (Schmidt, McKnight, Raizen, 1999). The teachers are ruled by the fact they only have 180 days to meet the mark, but the mark is not set to provide students with the best understanding, but instead to help students be exposed to rather than actually learn the most information.

Returning again to the question of why science should be taught, I find the situation bleak.  In light of the current state of science education where rote memorization and huge numbers of topics are covered, we might as well not teach science.  Sure, students may learn a few new terms, but without understanding those terms we have created an ignorant person who thinks they know what they are talking about (Watson and Konicek, 1990). This situation could be worse than an ignorant person who knows they are ignorant. However, helping students to think critically can be priceless to every student, and science is a great forum in which to teach critical thinking. The goal of scientific literacy for all does not need to change; rather educators’ definition of scientific literacy needs to become more in line with the ideas put forth by the NRC. Complete knowledge by all may be out of reach, even for the brightest students; however, appreciation of science is possible, and through this appreciation students can gain valuable intellectual traits that they can apply to their everyday life such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and curiosity.

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17 Responses to Why does science teaching not change? Need to modify purpose.

  1. dtitle says:

    It’s about assessment really. As long as Regent exams, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and others like the Colorado Student Assessment Program test science facts, no science teacher will do otherwise. If your students fail these tests how long will you be teaching? Imagine the parent uproar and knee jerk reactions by administrators. No wonder we teach the way we do.

    If you want science to be abut the process, as all education should be, the you have to have these people assess the process. No teacher will do otherwise if this is never accomplished. You should be writing the assessors of student knowledge, not the teachers. If the assessments change I’ll bet you dollars to donuts the teachers follow en masse.


  2. mrsfollis2 says:

    “One would be hard pressed to find a research scientist with mastery of all disciplines, but could easily find a professional who is very focused in their area of expertise. If the real-world scientist is so focused, why do we force our students of science to be so unfocused?”

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying and I think they are really valid concerns. I do, however, have concerns with the notion that students should not be asked to learn many facets of the scientific curriculum. We do not ask this of history (pick the time period you find interesting, ignore the rest) or English (you can choose one genre, and I won’t ask you to expand your mind at all by reading others) so why should science education be a buffet of choices with no staples?

    Just playing devil’s advocate. Otherwise, I enjoyed your post!


    • jerridkruse says:

      An excellent point! I do not mean to say that students should be able to pick whatever they want to study, rather, we (as educators) need to carefully choose which concepts are fundamental to science and focus on real understanding of those few, but fundamental, topics rather than a complete list of all known science ideas being memorized. In most cases, if the idea is truly fundamental, it connects to several other content areas within the sciences (for example, particle motion can be used in earth science, physics, weather, chemistry, etc)


  3. mrsfollis2 says:

    Hmmm.. then perhaps the larger problem is the fact that teachers are not treated as professionals-to choose what is important and worth teaching. It is nearly impossible to effectively teach material you don’t have a passion for. On the other hand, this issue has it’s roots in the college teacher prep programs as well as society’s view of teachers. (Example: college student announces to peers they plan to become an engineer or go to law school, students congratulate. next student announces they would like to be a teacher. funny faces all around, “but you could do so much MORE..”)
    I should note that here at my private school, outside of AP courses, teachers are allowed to choose their material without question-well, unless it appears necessary to investigate deeper…

    FWIW, lots of ppl w/science backgrounds/interests in my life, but I always hated it. Most of my classes were rote memory and bored me to tears.

    There must be a way to change this efficiently w/out waiting for the entire educational system to selfcorrect… but I don’t know what it is.


  4. jerridkruse says:

    You make many valid points. I am not passionate about content, but am passionate about teaching kids to think critically and learn how to learn. I don’t think many teachers would disagree, but the question is “Do our actions in our classrooms, match up with our goals for our students?” My next post will be based on what it is I want for my students.


  5. Harley Witt says:

    Science needs to be interactive. Find me a game for every science subject and I’ll show you students that enjoy science. Why isn’t there a published list of all the k-12 education with links to games for every lesson (for free). Well, I can only do so much after work to do my part with my website but I predict we have just scratched the surface on blending education with gaming. Not stuff like second life, more like streaming games using Unity3D. :)


    • jerridkruse says:

      Harley, while I share in your enthusiasm for engaging kids, I do fear that if school is treated as only a “fun” activity, or games are only used, that we lead kids to believe that only “fun” things are worth doing. In my experience, the most rewarding and worthwhile activities are not fun in the sense that games are fun – yet are enjoyable when reaping rewards. So, while I do not disagree, I do think we ought to use caution.


  6. Matt R. says:

    Here’s an idea: Merge math and science into one course of study. We could call it “Investigative Studies.”


    • mrsfollis2 says:

      I love this. I also think that history and literature are instrinsically linked. I try to be as interdisciplinary as I can in my classroom because it helps make things automatically more relevant for students. They are doing this at the middle school level in increasing numbers. While I’m not sure that HS classes should be combined, I think the teachers should strive to collaborate between the subjects more.

      Great stuff on this blog. I will continue reading! :)


  7. jerrid says:

    Matt, interesting you should say that, my brother in law is a math teacher and has been approached to start a class just like you describe.


  8. Matt R. says:

    I think there is a lot validity to the idea. I think we segregate our teaching too much. Our students move from one disconnected idea to another throughout the school day when in reality our disciplines are interwoven and part of one large picture, especially true with Math and Science. Are they not both the study of observable patterns? Math is the language of nature. Perhaps there should only be a few disciplines in our schools? Culture, Language and Communication Studies combined with Investigative/Problem Solving Studies, with relevant technology interwoven throughout of course :)

    Should we start our own charter school?


    • jerridkruse says:

      Yes, probably the only way to get rich in education. :) or write a really popular, but probably bad, book.


    • Matt R. says:

      The more I think about the idea of consolidating our disciplines, the more excited I get! What would it be like if our students only had two or maybe three courses of study? There is an obvious overlap/connectedness/redundancy between and among our current disciplines. Imagine how much more efficient our schools would become by consolidating. Advantages I see from a consolidated “big picture” approach:

      1) More efficient, the same ideas aren’t taught in two separate subjects, allowing students to see the connection between the disciplines.
      2) When you combine two or more “subjects” into one course of study, you can have two or more teachers per classroom for the same price. Reducing the teacher/student ratio alone would improve quality of instruction.
      3) Ease of school day scheduling/stress load for the students. My first thoughts of a school day may be:
      *exploratory course (art, FCS, shop, etc..)
      *Culture/Communications Studies (LA, Reading, History/Geography)
      *Mid-morning break/time for remediation
      *Return to Culture/Communications Studies
      *Break for lunch
      *Investigative Studies (Math/Science)
      *Afternoon break/time for remediation
      *Return to Investigative Studies
      4) Co-teaching teams would consist of content experts (A certified math teacher teamed with a certified science teacher) to maximize the richness of the course.

      I could go on but you get the picture. Thoughts?


      • I love the idea… AP/IB would have to disappear as would Pre-AP. I’m afraid the govt. funding is not available for the type of progressive education suggested. There are foundations interested in this type of education. Also, think about how to assess this type of paired learning.


  9. Pingback: How People Learn: Part 2 - Constructivist Learning Theory | Ecology of Education

  10. liza says:

    I know this is four+ years old but I couldn’t resists

    Regarding this part
    “By forcing students to move onto the next topic, just so we can fit them all in, we stifle the curiosity that students may have about the subject. Not only could this mean that students are shutting down inside toward science, but it gives them a false idea of what a scientist actually does.”

    As a researcher and science teacher I could not disagree more. While scientists specialize, they do so after having the rock solid foundation in the biological, and physical sciences. Without that foundation we would be unable to grasp many of the factors that are affecting our speciality.

    Example, I study invasive species. On the surface it seems like biology alone would be all I would need to know. But it would be impossible to understand why we see what we see with invasions without understanding physics (for example fluid dynamics frequently determine how and which species arrive in certain areas), chemistry (many species compete on a chemical level) and geography (in order to predict who might become invasive in a certain area).

    If we don’t go a “mile wide” than how are kids going to know enough to understand WHY things happen?


    • bernie says:

      Actually, your suggestion is more in line with the desirable approach. Unfortunately the “mile wide” approach being discussed means the covering of a bunch of content with seemingly little connection or no push to understand the connections in between them. When material is covered at this surface type of level, I’m pretty sure that students are not going to be able to retain much past that course. And the lack of retention certainly does not help the researcher make the connections you are mentioning. An integrated, problem based, case based, or inquiry based approach to learning would likely be better at covering the most fundamental content and then showing students the various contexts in which it is applicable at an early stage in their science education. I am a recent grad. who was a biology and chemistry major and can vouch for the fact that these methods are more effective. You can cover lots of material, but expect a deeper understanding.

      In addition the “mile wide” type of assessments are weak and give the wrong message about science (some multiple choice exams in intro. sciences are often reduced to “applied memorization” or trickily phrased vocabulary tests)
      Seriously, compare this: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B456FmeCw42BRXFxdXlnMm1rbjA/edit (from Georgia Tech gen. biology with a “rigorous instructor”)
      to this: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B456FmeCw42BMkEwLVN2bnV0VDA/edit (a gen. biology exam from an instructor at my alma mater, Emory University).

      Both courses actually use similar methods. The former uses some case studies and also has students do more interactive learning type of models (they make videos and things like that: http://jchoigt.wordpress.com/intro-bio-topics/). The latter uses an extremely rigorous case method (much more so than the former. The case studies are weekly, have both in class and homework components and also significant writing assignments for all students. The syllabus is here for a more thorough description: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B456FmeCw42BMTZiMTU0YzgtZDllYy00MGQ3LWJiMzEtYjc0ZTc2MjFlZWQ2/edit).

      I would conclude that the assessment that the latter gives is more appropriate or “useful” in terms of holding students to higher expectations. It’s one thing to have certain practices in class and another to assess it properly. I’d prefer the latter in my development as an aspiring scientist. The normal introductory course is indeed a “mile wide” and does not use methods to enrich the experience and thus you get much less rigorous assessments than even the first case.

      Seriously, do you really think that most students who go through the stereotypical introductory course (which have significantly lower level exams than either of these) will be able to retain a significant portion of the content and then go one to see the overlap of the blandly taught content across scenarios in various scientific disciplines? I would guess not. I would instead guess that the advanced courses often end up doing a significant amount of review because no one remembered much from the intro. course (this is seen in organic chemistry for example, where students fresh from general chemistry cannot draw a Lewis Structure if it were to save their lives. Nor do they actually understand the structural context of acidity/proton transfer, all things learned in gen. chem). And then secondly, after all that is done, they have to squeeze in time or will to introduce students to higher cognitive abilities. By this point, the introductory course is almost a waste. The standard “mile-wide” introductory course will indeed “expose” students to a field, but most will certainly not “learn” (retain at the least) the ideas at even a decent level. This inadequacy no doubt delays the more rigorous applications in the advanced courses. It’s difficult to expect students to be able to remember and rigorously apply concepts that they learned in less than a week before multiple choice tests (or short answer tests that only have simple fact recall/definitional prompts) that they took the previous year. The current paradigm makes many intermediate and even advanced courses a “relearn” and then apply sort of situation. If the bar was higher at the introductory level, it could go higher elsewhere.


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