Education Letter to the Editor

Better Science Instruction Requires Clear Definitions

December 07, 2004 1 min read

To the Editor:

Thanks go to Sara L. Ford, the teacher quoted in the final paragraphs of your front-page article on science instruction (“NCLB Could Alter Science Teaching,” Nov. 10, 2004), for articulating a fundamental flaw in the debate between direct instruction and discovery learning. Her suggestion that individuals are too quick to label these instructional approaches cuts to the heart of one of the most critical challenges for science education researchers and their practitioner colleagues today: We have no shared understanding of the terms we use—“direct instruction,” “inquiry,” “discovery learning,” and “hands-on”—in our debates of effective science instruction.

For the past three years, we at the Center for Science Education, in Newton, Mass., have been conducting a synthesis of research that seeks to answer the question, “What is the effect of inquiry science instruction on student outcomes?” We are synthesizing all research conducted on this topic since 1984, and have so far reviewed more than 1,000 documents. One of the greatest challenges of our work has been finding a way to describe “inquiry” that accommodates the many ways it has historically been, and continues to be, used and understood.

Even when those in the field acknowledge that there are varied understandings of terms, as was done in your recent article, we continue to debate the relative merits of these instructional approaches as though our failure to clearly articulate terms did not matter. Our group has seen firsthand what one would hope would be obvious: Clarifying terms does matter. Without clear definitions, we will just talk past each other and will never understand what is and isn’t effective instruction.

At best, debates using undefined terms are unproductive. At worst, they undermine our ability to build a body of knowledge in the field.

Jeanne Rose Century

Senior Research Associate

Center for Science Education

Education Development Center Inc.

Newton, Mass.