Revising Science Curricula Yet Again (Part 2)

The recent publication of a new science Framework and the slow motion birth of national standards in the U.S.–44 states have already adopted Common Core Standards in English and Math–announces to the world yet another version of what science knowledge is important for students to learn.  Not too many policymakers (and wannabe reformers), fearful of India and China awash in engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, know about previous “new” science frameworks.

Because advancing science (and technology) carries so much policy talk and political symbolism with it in the U.S., knowing about earlier cycles of re-making science curricula–especially in secondary schools–become important in raising questions about why repeated revisions appear decade after decade. Here is the story.

For over a century, there have been continuous efforts to alter both the content and classroom practice of science education for secondary school pupils. In 1893, the prestigious National Educational Association’s Committee of Ten, endorsing a science sub-committee’s report largely produced by university faculty, recommended that the secondary science curriculum be formally arranged into separate subjects such as biology, physics, and chemistry. Schools implemented those recommendations.

Shortly afterward, another generation of curricular reformers, focused on integrating science content, linking science concepts to community life, teaching practical reasoning and problem solving, and stressing the role of school in improving society–tried to overhaul separate science subjects. Student projects that solved daily life problems would tie together physics, biology, and chemistry.  What classrooms needed were small groups of students learning together rather than teacher lectures, more student involvement in the community than reading only textbooks. By the 1930s, these progressive ideas had become mainstream thinking.

In the late-1950s,  a Cold War-driven renovation of the science curriculum, again done by academics in different disciplines produced new courses and textbooks—“New Biology, “New Physics,” New Chemistry.  Its success in altering both the subject matter and classroom practice in the 1960s and 1970s  has been debated by scholars ever since.

In the early 1980s, prompted by a string of national reports on the perceived deterioration of public schools—Nation at Risk (1983) in the face of global economic competition–led to states mandating students to take more science in school and new projects altering the science curriculum. Again, university academics dominated the commissions but far more practitioners and informed citizens participated in the curricular deliberations than in earlier reform movements.

Then in the 1990s, more revision of science curricula. In “Science for All Americans,” the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) vigorously sought “scientifically literate” students who could practice  science in their daily lives. Without reference to earlier efforts of progressive educators who shared a similar purpose, AAAS endorsed a wholesale overhauling of the official, taught, learned, and tested curricula–remember Project 2061 and benchmarks of scientific literacy? The AAAS was less interested in marginal alterations; they sought fundamental changes in what science content was taught, how teachers taught the content, what students learned and what was tested.

In this swift trip through the last century of reforming science curriculum, two distinct purposes have vied for attention: first, to have students know bodies of organized scientific knowledge and, second, to create a science for living. Of the two aims, the former has dominated curricula since the late 19th century, although the latter purpose has been evident in periodic bursts of reform, especially during the past century.

The dominance of content divided into separate scientific disciplines is (and has been) obvious in most U.S. secondary schools where science lessons are taught in 45- to 50-minute periods, and where teacher-centered instruction is geared to dispensing scientific information to 25-35 students. The quest to link scientific knowledge to daily life-the second purpose-emerged strongly in the curriculum during the progressive spurts a century ago, in the 1930s, and 1990s, occasionally penetrating classroom practice. Schools experimented with reorganizing their age-graded structures, revised schedules, and invented curriculum linkages between classrooms and daily life—“kitchen chemistry”–that differed substantially from what most secondary schools were doing (see the Eight Year Study, 1942, for example). Over time, such efforts disappeared.

And now with the newly published Framework there is another progressive impulse in revising curriculum toward linking scientific content to daily life. What has become obvious in the periodic drumbeat of rhetoric and cyclical prescriptions for science curricular reform is that the official curriculum contains progressive assumptions dating back a century. However, in the desire to alter the structures of the age-graded school (e.g., block schedules) and dominant teacher-centered activities, what has eluded reformers is an awareness of how powerful organizational influences have frustrated such structural and pedagogical changes in the past. The absence of serious attention in these documents then and now to strategies in countering the powerful influences wielded by district, school, and classroom organizations, traditional practices, and teacher beliefs suggests again that amnesia about earlier (and similar) reforms will create more rather than less complications in altering the taught, learned, and tested science curriculum. And more disappointment also.


Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “Revising Science Curricula Yet Again (Part 2)

  1. Sue Boudreau

    How interesting, Larry. I really appreciate your whistle-stop tour of ed reform. I absolutely agree that the theory and ideals of issues-oriented, inquiry-based science is extremely difficult to implement given the 7 period day, the content-based state standards and most importantly, the culture of teaching and of the district. It means giving up some level of control to students and that can be rather scary, especially when teachers are not comfortable in their subject area.

  2. Cal

    This was just a great post.

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