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.