Science Needs A 'Lived' Curriculum

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Historically, efforts to achieve a social context for science education have been under way for 350 years.

More than a quarter-century ago, in 1970, the advisory committee for science education of the National Science Foundation recommended that both the education of scientists and that of citizens should be in a social context. Since that time, there have been hundreds of reports pointing to the need to reinvent school science education. The response has been a rash of slogans, fads, and rhetoric, mostly quick fixes within traditional contexts of science education. There are even those who would like to nullify the whole reform effort by "getting back to basics."

Historically, efforts to achieve a social context for science education have been under way for 350 years. This purpose was first described by Francis Bacon in 1620, when he wrote, "The ultimate goal of scientific effort is to equip the intellect for a better and more perfect use of human reason." The subject matter that should be chosen, he said, is "that which has the most for the welfare of man." Thomas Jefferson noted in 1798 that the sciences are "the hope and the treasures of nature and hands must be trained to use this knowledge wisely." Jefferson viewed knowledge as having scholarly and practical sides and believed that schools should teach the practical side. When teachers responded that there were no science textbooks with this emphasis, Jefferson asked the U.S. Congress for money to write science textbooks with a practical emphasis. Congress refused the request. Two hundred years later, we are again faced with the same problem.

What complicates the problem today is the failure of most teachers and educators to recognize that over the last 25 years a new image of science has evolved. Disciplines have been replaced by research fields, and most research is done by teams of investigators. A team represents a cognitive system that is phasing out the traditional notion of scientific inquiry. Much of scientific research is strategy or problem oriented rather than theory stimulated. For example, the Hubble telescope has made a wealth of observations, and it may take scientists a century or more to find theoretical explanations for them. A blending of science disciplines is taking place, such as biophysics, biochemistry, and biogeochemistry. The most active areas of research today are cross-disciplinary. Other changes are the movement of centers for science research from universities to industry and the multiauthorship of research reports.

Changes in the practice and culture of today's science go unnoticed. Professional science educators, as well as most scientists, pay little attention to what these revolutionary transformations in science ought to mean for a citizen's education in the sciences. The traditional science curricula are for the most part meaningless for students who appear to recognize this factor and who are leaving science in increasing numbers in schools, colleges, and universities.

To meet the demands of a changing social and economic world requires subject matter that students recognize they can use.

To reinvent science curricula we must recognize that the nation is moving into a learning society and a knowledge-intensive era. This move has made "learning to learn" a goal for all school subjects. For the sciences this indicates a focus on the new interpretation of what is meant by scientific literacy. The view now seen is one of developing higher-level thinking skills, such as decisionmaking, forming judgments, and resolving problems. Each of these skills depends upon acquiring a variety of cognitive strategies; for example, recognizing risks, ethics, values, and the adequacy of appropriate information. This shift in emphasis is from scientific inquiry to the optimal utilization of science knowledge in human affairs, including social and economic progress.

Accompanying the nation's entrance into a knowledge-intensive era is the introduction of a new system of electronic communication. This new system is altering research practices in the sciences as well as the learning of science. While the movement is still in its infancy, it already provides access to a greater source of up-to-date information than can be conveyed by textbooks, lectures, and laboratory exercises combined. Electronic simulations make it possible for students to self-pace learning and compare their insights with others', an experience in collaborative learning.

For 350 years, and to this day, the primary goal of school science education has been career preparation. When students ask, "Why do we have to learn this?" the answer is, "You will need to know it in the next grade or in college." Traditionally, what are to be learned are the theories, laws, and principles of discrete disciplines, and a technical vocabulary. The result is that school science textbooks have become beautifully illustrated dictionaries. Adults, when asked what they learned in secondary school science, typically reply that they "have forgotten all those words."

It is not enough to say what the objectives of science education should be. To meet the demands of our changing social and economic world stimulated by advances in science and technology requires a lived curriculum. This is a curriculum that can be experienced by the student, a body of subject matter that students recognize they can use. Such a curriculum is in harmony with the findings of the cognitive sciences for improving learning.

If we expect our students to be the 'best in the world' and to help shape the future, science curricula of a different sort than we now have are required.

Congress has made it clear (HR 4078, 1992; HR 2884, 1994) that it expects all school subjects to be connected to today's workplace. This is not in the sense of job training or vocational training; it is, by contrast, at the cognitive level ofproblem-solving, decisionmaking, and cooperative learning for whatever the job. These are basic competencies that enable students to achieve optimal productivity and mobility in the workplace.

Our nation is now experiencing the early impact of a global economy. If we expect our students to be the "best in the world" and to help shape the future, science curricula of a different sort than we now have are required. Hundreds of national reports by organizations, foundations, and government agencies target the need to reform and modernize science education. Yet we have no national ongoing center, think tank, or agency that seeks to provide a national vision of modern goals for education in the sciences. We also have hundreds of years of experience showing us that scientists and educators working alone cannot bring about a new vision of science education.

Throughout the history of precollege science education, scientists as a whole have resisted efforts to portray their research findings in a social context that could benefit citizens as nonprofessionals. Scientists seek to be recognized by their peers, not by citizens. Precollege science teachers are educated in the context of a career scientist, not as a social interpreter of science.

Efforts to socialize and humanize science and technology and to recognize this sphere as part of our culture are now making a bit of progress in the general education programs of colleges and universities. There are national and international science-technology-society, or STS, groups seeking to spell out the role of science and technology in human affairs and in the social and economic progress of the nation.

The first step to inventing new science curricula is the linking of science and technology to the welfare of students and to the economic and social progress of the nation. The standards and benchmarks of science that now exist will need to be examined for those that are dysfunctional in these terms. To achieve this vision of science education requires extensive research by specialists in the natural and social sciences and economics, cognitive scientists, as well as philosophers and sociologists of science, working in harmony with experienced classroom teachers and professional science educators.

Failure to establish a center where this cooperation might take place leaves the science-reform movement where it started and stagnated for the past 200 years of schooling in America. This combination of expertise is essential for developing the integrative factors that relate science and technology to the individual, society, and our culture.

Vol. 17, Issue 12, Pages 36, 48

Published in Print: November 12, 1997, as Science Needs A 'Lived' Curriculum
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