Education Opinion

‘First in the World by 2000': What Does It Mean?

By Paul Dehart Hurd — September 16, 1992 9 min read

What’s wrong with science education that needs fixing? Scientists and laymen alike have described precollege science education as a “fraud,’' “obsolete,’' “archaic,’' “outmoded,’' “dead end,’' and “largely irrelevant.’' The present curriculum is perceived as placing students and the nation at risk.

President Bush in America 2000 and in public talks describes the need for a “new generation of schools’’ that set aside “traditional assumptions about schooling.’' He states that the task will require “a quantum leap forward,’' with “far-reaching changes’’ that are “bold, complex, and long-range.’'

Since 1980, there have been over 350 national reports by panels, commissions, and committees lamenting the condition of education in America and calling for changes. The repeated reference to the year 2000 and the 21st century in these reports suggests that as a nation we are at the end of something in our history and entering a new era. This period is characterized by a globalized economy, a world community, and a shift from an industrial to a knowledge-based society.

The issue is not whether schools are doing well with the programs they have now, but how well are they meeting the demands of social change and life in the future. The call is for a new contract between schooling and society, one that will benefit children living in the next century as well as serve the common good and assure social progress. Schools are in bad shape only when compared with the new perspectives of schooling.

The educational-reform movement has gotten off to a misdirected start. Much of what has happened so far consists of hundreds of legislative mandates calling for structural changes in schools. Examples are lengthening of class periods and the school year, more rigor and more testing, and reorganizing existing curricula. These are actions that serve to reinforce traditional practices and can do more harm than good in terms of modernizing science education. The “radical changes’’ called for in America 2000 have yet to be found.

Let me return now to my main focus: the reform of science teaching within the guidelines of America 2000 and the national educational reports. Science has been a subject in the school curriculum since Colonial days. No one knows just how the goals and curriculum framework first came into being. But for 200 years it has been assumed that science can be understood only in the way scientists understand science and should be taught as science is practiced. The choice of subject matter has been that best suited to illustrate the theoretical structure of selected disciplines, including basic facts, principles, and laws. In turn, this approach requires students to learn the technical language and symbols that scientists use to communicate research findings to other researchers. As the knowledge in each field grows so does the vocabulary students are expected to memorize. The result is their understanding of science becomes more and more diluted.

Those who seek the reform of science education see the prevailing science curriculum as isolated from the realities of our culture and the lives of citizens. The charge is that the 200-year-old science curriculum is largely irrelevant and should be replaced by modern concepts of science. Although there is not a consensus on the full meaning of “modern science’’ there are identifiable characteristics. Since the turn of this century the old boundaries that separated astronomy, biology, physics, geology, and chemistry have faded away. Replacing them are thousands of fields of specialized research represented by more than 70,000 journals, 29,000 of them new since 1979. Old disciplines have also become hybridized: for example, biochemistry, biophysics, biogeochemistry, and biotechnology. Science is a singular noun, but it stands for a wide range of research fields, thought processes, and investigative procedures.

During this century a marriage has taken place between science and technology. Robert Oppenheimer described the relationship as “two sides of a single coin.’' Today, science and technology operate as an integrated system for the production of new knowledge. Each fructifies the other. For example, research scientists conceived the laser, technologists used the discovery to develop a tool for bloodless surgery, the reading of bar codes on merchandise, and a hundred other uses. A technological achievement, the Hubble space telescope, is expected to make observations so extensive that temporarily our ignorance of astronomy will be increased by approximately 80 percent. It could take a century to determine what all the observations mean. Much of scientific research today is done by teams of scientists and technologists pooling their expertise and insights. Computers assist in recording and processing observations and in formulating interpretive models.

In this century, science and technology have become socialized. Research endeavors are now more socially than theory driven; witness the volume of research on finding ways of controlling the AIDS pandemic, improving agriculture, managing the natural environment, and maintaining a long and healthy life. Science and technology today lie at the center of our culture and economy, thus fostering enculturation as a goal of science teaching. The criticism of the present science curriculum is that it graduates students as foreigners in their own culture, unfamiliar with the influence of science/technology on social progress and public policy as well as on personal and cultural values. To meet the educational demands of a new century there is a growing conviction that the traditional purpose of school science, to educate students to be like professional scientists, is no longer tenable. The trend is to view science as public knowledge to be taught within a context of human affairs.

Although there has been little coherent progress in the reform of science teaching, new goals are being debated. One of these is the concept of scientific literacy. There are differences in how the concept is viewed. For some, scientific literacy is seen as a collection of facts everyone should know. However, the essential character of science is not embedded in its facts. If one simply knew all the facts ever developed in the sciences, the person could only be rated intellectually sterile.

A different view of scientific literacy and one more in harmony with modern science relates to understanding the interactions of science and technology as they influence human experience, the quality of life, and social progress. A scientifically literate person recognizes the unique character of science knowledge and is aware of its values and limitations in cultural adaptation.

Scientific literacy is a cognitive perspective toward knowledge and includes the ability to distinguish science from pseudo-science, theory from dogma, fact from myth, folklore, and conjecture, probabilities from certainty, and data from assertions. Scientific literacy has become a cultural goal for living in a society characterized by achievements in science and technology. America 2000 describes a literate person as one possessing the knowledge and skills essential to exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

There has been a public outcry for schools to emphasize the development of higher-order thinking skills. The curriculum-reform movement of the 1960’s stressed the teaching of inquiry or process skills. These are skills that have to do with how science/technology information is generated, classified, quantified, expressed, and interpreted. These processes are seen as lower-order thinking skills.

The appeal for higher-order thinking skills is related to the proper use of science knowledge in human and social affairs. These skills are for the most part qualitative. When science/technology information is brought into contexts where it is of service to people and society, elements of ethics, values, morals, bias, politics, judgment, risks, ideals, trade-offs, and aspects of uncertainty enter the thinking process. As science courses are now organized and taught in schools, higher-order thinking in the context of human experience is not an educational goal. America 2000 views these skills as essential in an era “in which citizens must be able to think for a living’’ and demonstrate responsible citizenship.

“Learning to learn’’ through one’s own efforts has emerged as a primary objective for the teaching of science. America 2000 describes this goal as transforming the United States into “a nation of students.’' UNESCO reports that of the 141 nations now in the process of upgrading their science-education programs, “learning to learn’’ is the one goal common to all. This goal is particularly relevant to science education when we recognize that in the sciences all knowledge is forever tentative and new knowledge is being developed at an exponential rate. The present school science curriculum fails to recognize that science concepts have an organic quality, changing and developing as new insights and data are generated--an “endless frontier.’' Students are not taught how to access knowledge likely to be useful in their lives.

School science curricula as they now exist are oriented to the past, under the guise of basics. America 2000 and a host of national reports emphasize an education appropriate for the 21st century. To keep pace with changes taking place in our society, our economy, and our ways of life as influenced by science and technology demands a future-oriented education. The purpose is not to predict but to help students shape the society where they will spend their lives. The National Committee on Education Reform in Japan states that all subject matter for schooling should be selected with the assumption that students will live to be 85 years old.

A future perspective to schooling entails providing students a sense of their place in the world and their responsibilities for human welfare and social progress. America 2000 speaks of this goal in terms of meeting the demands of living in the 21st century and assuming the obligations of responsible citizenship. It recognizes that an education viewed as preparation for the future calls for “revolutionary changes’’ in what is now taught and how.

A final note. Students were the first to recognize, in their own way, that the science they are learning is of little value for living and adapting in the modern world. The most common question students ask in science courses is “What good is all this going to do me?’' The usual answer is: You will need to know this for the next test, or in the next grade, or in college. Rare is the teacher who answers the question in terms of human experience.

Yes, the United States can be first in the world in 2000, but not by tinkering with existing curricula and trying harder with 200-year-old teaching procedures that fail to recognize recent developments in cognition. In America 2000 the first task recommended for change is “to set aside all traditional assumptions about schooling and all the constraints that conventional schools work under.’' The next step calls for a “reinvention of schooling.’' The vision for science teaching is one of relating modern science and technology to the realities of our culture, to social progress, to life as lived, and to the values we hold.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as ‘First in the World by 2000': What Does It Mean?