What we have learned and where we are headed: Lessons from the
Sputnik Era (continued)
What We Have Learned
Our experience with the curriculum reforms of the 1960s and subsequent reactions to those reforms in the years that followed taught us a great deal. The best indicators of what we have learned and of today's conventional wisdom concerning science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SME&T) education can be found in such documents as the Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics (National Council for the Teaching of Mathematics, 1989), Project 2061's Science for all Americans (AAAS, 1989), Everybody counts: A report to the nation on the future of mathematics education (NRC, 1989), Scope, sequence, and coordination of secondary school science (National Science Teachers Association, 1992), National science education standards (NRC, 1996), From analysis to action: Undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (NRC, 1996), and Shaping the future: New expectations for undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (NSF, 1996). Together these documents provide a comprehensive view of current thinking about science, mathematics, and technology education that can be compared to the ideas championed during the Sputnik era.
One of the most recent of these is the NRC's National Science Education Standards published in 1996. I will focus primarily on this document to show how science education is viewed today compared to the way it was represented in the curriculum projects of the 1960s. The first obvious difference is the reintroduction of the connections between the organized disciplines and their practical applications that had been part of the curriculum throughout the first half of the 20th century but that were removed during the reforms of the 1960s. There is, today, a much greater attention paid to the interrelationships between science, mathematics, and technology and to the personal and social relevance of the subjects, not just to the abstract structure of the disciplines as organized by practicing scientists. This applied material includes issues of personal and community health, the significance of rapid population growth, and the many factors affecting environmental quality. The mathematics curriculum, too, emphasizes to a much greater degree practical applications and problem solving, and mathematics that is functional in one's everyday life. Even working on technological problems and designing practical solutions to those problems is now included in the science curriculum. The emphasis on applied science and mathematics is a major change from the disciplinary approach taken during the Sputnik era.
We also believe now that it is possible for education to be both rigorous and student-centered at the same time. Curriculum reformers of the 1960s were responding to a barrage of conservative criticism of progressive, child-centered education. What was needed was rigor and discipline, the critics said. To them, student interest had little relevance when national security was at issue. The organized subjects could provide the needed discipline, both in their content and in their methods. Students would act like scientists in the laboratory and would master the complex interrelationships of concepts and principles that had been elaborated by scientists over the years. Unfortunately, learning the structure of mathematics or chemistry or physics meant learning the discipline the way that scientists understood the subject. It meant learning content as it was understood by the adult mind. John Dewey called this the "logical ordering of experience" and warned educators of the difficulties children would have understanding material that was organized around the subject matter itself, unconnected to students' actual experiences and interests (Dewey, 1902). He contrasted this logical ordering of experience with a more effective psychological approach in which existing student understanding plays a major role in what is taught and how it is learned. Today curriculum reformers present a logically organized outline of the disciplines, but they also take a much more student-centered approach to teaching and learning. The image is of students and teachers working together in setting goals, planning instruction, designing and managing the learning environment, and assessing the learning outcomes. What we hope to achieve through this is a community of learners who are genuinely engaged in asking questions and solving problems that have personal and societal significance and that come out of the real concerns of the students themselves. The belief today is that this approach will produce greater intellectual engagement than will a study of the discipline itself.
Our ideas about inquiry have also changed since the term was so prominently used during the curriculum reform movement of the 1960s. At that time the word "inquiry" was used to describe both a significant aspect of the nature of science as well as a specific approach to teaching. In this latter sense, inquiry was synonymous with "discovery" and "inductive" approaches to teaching and learning. Inductive and discovery approaches assume that students generate meaning more or less independently by closely and purposefully examining a variety of learning materials. This view of learning mirrors a particular view of science that some have criticized as too narrowly inductive and empirical. In that approach, it is believed that truth can be revealed through raw observation. Existing ideas, theories, and biases are given relatively little significance. During the reform movement of the 1960s there was the tendency to define inquiry quite precisely in terms of a set of process skills, often with the implication that these skills could be learned independently of the content of science. Today, inquiry still receives serious attention in the NRC's National Standards but it is presented as a much more general process of investigation, both as conducted by scientists and by students in the classroom. Inquiry means asking questions and attempting to answer them through various means of investigation. Investigations may involve the use of simple instruments, experimenting, logical analysis, and searching for information from existing sources. Inquiry is carried out on researchable questions of genuine interest to students in the context of the content that is being studied at the time.
Equity issues are also prominent in the 1990s approach to curriculum reform in a way that they were not in the 1960s. In the postwar years, gifted education was thought of as a way to solve the problem of shortages of qualified personnel in technical fields (U.S. Office of Education, 1953, Brandwein, 1955). Giftedness was seen as a valuable national resource that was being underutilized. The equity argument was dealt with by saying that gifted students were actually being treated unfairly since they did not have the opportunity to develop to the best of their abilities. Given the sympathetic treatment that gifted and talented programs were receiving in the 1950s, it is not surprising that the NSF-sponsored curriculum projects were geared toward the upper end of the ability spectrum. Balancing excellence and equity is always a challenging task, and often one or the other suffers. Today, however, there seems to be a genuine interest in providing a high quality education with explicitly high standards for everyone. Thus we have AAAS's Project 2061 advocating "science for all Americans" and the NRC's "Call to Action" claiming that "all students should achieve scientific literacy" (NRC, 1996, p. ix). In keeping with this equity orientation, the National Science Education Standards does not differentiate goals for differing ability students. It is expected that all students can be involved in these courses at a meaningful level and contribute significantly to classroom interactions. Whether or not this can actually be achieved depends on what we mean by equity and how committed we are to engaging students of all ability levels in science, mathematics, and technology education in ways that are appropriate for them. Related to this is the issue of readiness for learning which has taken on much greater significance in the years since the NSF reforms. A common criticism of the curriculum reformers of the 1960s is that they did not sufficiently consider the need to postpone abstract learning until the student was capable of dealing with such intellectual complexity. Today, given the influence of Piagetian ideas, stages of intellectual development and readiness for learning are given much more attention.
Even though there are significant differences in the way we look at science, mathematics, and technology education today compared with 40 years ago, many of the ideas that were important then are still important today. One is the idea that "less is more." Numerous attempts were made during this century to organize content into conceptually integrated packages that could be studied in depth so as to avoid the fragmentation that results when facts and information are presented in encyclopedic fashion. (See, for example, the Thirty-first Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 1932.) Although most of these early efforts had limited success, the curriculum reformers of the 1960s were very successful in writing narrative accounts of science that were more compelling, more in-depth, and more sophisticated than what could be found in existing textbooks. Today, this same approach is followed. Project 2061's Science for All Americans is probably the best example of a narrative summary of science, mathematics, and technology that is both comprehensive and interesting to read. And for all of today's programs, even when content is broken down into benchmarks or standards that could seem to isolate and fragment knowledge, the statements of expected outcomes are always part of a larger theme that is elaborated in integrated summary statements. This in-depth, less-is-more approach has found its way into almost all discussions of science, mathematics, and technology education today.
A second idea that was prominent both in the 1960s and today is that leaning is an active process. During the first half of the century, activity-based education tended toward the solution of practical and socially relevant problems that were of interest to the students. During the period of NSF-reform, students were expected to practice the kinds of activities that scientists engaged in because this was seen as an effective way for them to master content and because it would provide them with an accurate view of the process of scientific investigation. Giving students a sense of the scientists' spirit of discovery as they learned the content would ensure that the knowledge acquired by them would be related to the essence of the discipline itself since active investigation is the source of scientific knowledge and inseparable from it. Today, the NRC's National Science Education Standards lists "Learning Science as an Active Process" as one of four guiding principles. According to the NRC, "Learning science is something students do, not something that is done to them. In learning science, students describe objects and events, ask questions, acquire knowledge, construct explanations of natural phenomena, test those explanations in many different ways, and communicate their ideas to others" (NRC, 1996, p. 20). This approach to active learning is related to the ideas of present day pedagogical constructivists who argue that meaning is actively constructed by students when they are personally engaged with the subject matter, usually in cooperation with others (Driver, 1989; Solomon, 1989). According to this view, activities are not for the purpose of learning how to behave like scientists or how to solve socially relevant problems, but to maximize intellectual engagement with the subject being studied.
Copyright 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.