Science, Math, and History: The Historic Struggle to Marry Content and Pedagogy


Entangled, impossible to separate, that is what content and pedagogy have been and are in U.S. schooling. But not to reformers.

For decades, in science, math, and history policymakers, researchers, teacher educators, practitioners, and parents have argued over what kind of content should be taught in classrooms, playing down the inevitable presence of pedagogy or how the subject should be taught. Amnesiac reformers, pumped full of certitude, have pushed forward with “new science,” “new math” and “new history” curricula many times over  the past century believing that the content in of itself–particularly delivered by academic experts–will magically direct teachers how to put innovative units and lessons into practice in their classrooms.

Well-intentioned but uninformed, these reformers have ignored how knotted and twisted together they are. Knowing content is one strand and how to teach it is the other. Entwined forever.


Recently, educational researchers have acknowledged this age-old marriage by calling it “pedagogical content knowledge.” They have expanded it to include knowledge of how students learn, the context in which teaching occurs, and other areas. Alas, this idea has yet to crack the mindset of reform-minded policymakers.


Struggles over academic content among policymakers, parents, practitioners–I  use the popular word “wars”– have occurred time and again avoiding answers to fundamental questions of the very purpose of the subject. Consider science.

Determined reformers have battled for well over a century over the purposes for teaching science in elementary and secondary public schools. Is the purpose scientific literacy for all students because in a democratic and technological society, it is essential? Or is the purpose to prepare students for entering college and getting good jobs? Or is it to produce engineers and scientists that will keep U.S. militarily secure and economically competitive in a global economy?

From those competing, value-laden purposes have flowed, generation after generation, questions of content and pedagogy. Should teachers concentrate on teaching essential subject-matter (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) to unknowing students or have students act as biologists, chemists, and physicists, posing hunches, inquiring, and solving problems? Should teachers concentrate on students becoming scientifically literate to deal with complex real-world issues that cut across disciplinary boundaries or stick to traditionally separate subjects?

These either-or questions of purpose became curricular battles over what content should be taught but seldom how it should be taught. In 1910, John Dewey foreshadowed these struggles when he said that:  “science has been taught too much as an accumulation of ready-made material with which students are to be made familiar, not enough as a method of thinking, an attitude of mind….”  Dewey saw the split that continues to divide policymakers and academics eager to reform science teaching over a century ago. [i]

The history of science curricula and pedagogy in both elementary and secondary schools reveals time and again a preoccupation with students learning scientific disciplines in traditional teacher-directed, textbook-driven ways alternating with science content focused on engaging students in the practice of scientific investigation and applying science to daily life—between learning  “about”  science and “doingscience. Note how pedagogy–how the subject should be taught–inevitably creeps into  what content should be taught.

Consider this quote from a national prestigious commission on science education:

Science for the high-school students has been too largely organized for the purpose of giving information and training in each of the sciences, the material being arranged in accordance with the logical sequence recognized by special students of that science…. The common method of science teaching too often has been of presenting the so-called essential with their definitions and classifications and of subordinating or omitting the common-place manifestations of science in home, community, civic, and industrial situations which make it easily possible for the learner to practice science.[i]

 Year written? 1920.

In subsequent years, “common-place manifestations of science in home” and elsewhere popped up in chemistry, physics, and biology courses. Specialists urged teachers to get students to work on projects such as building electric motors, eradicating mosquitoes in a community, and delving into the chemistry of food. Content and method were married.

In biology, for instance, curriculum experts recommended that teachers have their students see how colonies of bacteria were present in humans and animals and how they grow and spread in science labs. They recommended that colonies of bacteria be linked in classroom discussions and assignments to such direct questions to students as: Why wash your hands before meals? Why brush your teeth? Why cover garbage cans? [ii]

Supporters of traditional science courses and ways of teaching dismissed such efforts to engage students as “kitchen chemistry” and “toothbrush biology.”  How much of “kitchen chemistry” and “toothbrush biology” entered classrooms, however, is not known. Teacher responses to these policy swings in what purpose should drive science content varied greatly then (and now). How much of the new content and pedagogy entered lessons is unknown. Yet during these decades, when science literacy and relevance to students’ lives were strong, “doing” science where the content and pedagogy were one and the same seemingly triumphed over learning “about” science. But not for long.

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, public officials and education policymakers screamed for schools to produce more scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. The purpose for science content and instruction again shifted. Schools were drafted to defend the nation in the Cold War. The National Science Foundation funded academic experts in science to guide a total revision of the science curriculum to marry the learning ” about” to the “doing” of science.

The 1960s saw the “New Biology,” the “New Chemistry,” and the “New Physics” where university professors wrote texts, created materials, and ran summer institutes where they provided the content of the sciences to eager teachers. Scientists urged teachers to have their students solve real problems that required hypothesizing, experimenting, and reaching conclusions based on evidence. Content came first and pedagogy second again (see el_school science).

Since then, revisions of K-12 science content, in response to changes in social, political, and cultural life, have occurred again and again, led by both teachers and academic experts.  Today, it is the new science standards.

Again, how much of these changes in science content approved by commissions and state policymakers drifted down into classroom practice is, at best, hard to say. That teachers adapted lessons from new textbooks, ardent professional development during summers and science institutes led by academics, and cheerleading from superintendents and principals goes without saying. Also, it goes without saying that how much of the “new” curriculum settled into classrooms varied tremendously.

Even amid shifting purposes for science in public schools, reformers, including university scientists, too often subordinated pedagogy to content in the mistaken belief that changing the content of what students study will magically alter what occurs in classrooms. Not only in science has this occurred but also in math, and history.

I take up math and history in subsequent posts.


[i] John Dewey, “Science as Subject-Matter and as Method,” Science (31), 1910, p.122.

[ii] Cited in DeBoer, A History of Ideas in Science Education, p. 97 of  Elliot Downing, “The Course of Study in Biology” in the National Society for the Study of Education, A Program for Teaching Science, 1932.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

16 responses to “Science, Math, and History: The Historic Struggle to Marry Content and Pedagogy

  1. Garth

    I always thought it strange that teacher training programs will consist of a large number of content courses and one methods (pedagogy) course per field. I remember taking a Methods of Teaching Secondary Science and Methods of Teaching Secondary Math. That was it. Student teaching is supposed to fill in the gaps but that really depends on the quality of the supervising teacher and the nature of the students. The student teacher often spends more time dealing with classroom management than teaching pedagogy. Personally I could have done with a lot less calculus and abstract algebra and more on how to teach freshman algebra in an interesting way. I am still trying to figure that one out. I now teach programming. There is a lot of conversation on what to teach, usually what language is best. There is almost nothing on how to teach. Pedagogy courses for programming or computer science are so rare they might as well be non-existent. At the high school level pedagogy is much more important than an over abundance of content knowledge.

  2. Larry: How does lab work fit into the discussion about teaching science? Are science courses even taught without labs these days?

    In my view, lab work in school is the quintessential intersection of content, method, and student learning. In a science course, a lab offers a student experience of the content via the scientific method. As I think back on my science lab experiences from the mid 70’s to the mid 80’s (junior high to high school to college), aspects of instructor demonstration, student discovery, group work, experimentation (on and off task), and other factors come to mind. Labs brought the content to life.

    • larrycuban

      My take on labs, Dave, is that they were introduced well over a century ago. Depending on the purposes that math served over the decades, labs were both “traditional” and “reform,” that is inquiry and “discovery” in various decades. Inherently, labs do not tilt toward one or another approach although historically they were intended to be student-centered. But not for long. Teachers using labs can (and did) employ traditional, textbook driven, canned labs right out of the teacher’s manual or the kind of the labs that engaged you as a student. And teachers, of course,can (and did) mix both approaches in labs.

  3. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:
    Closer to home, I believe primary and secondary mathematics courses need to include discovery-based experiences. Some do while many do not as differing sides in the “math wars,” past and present, influence a teacher’s teaching for better or worse.

  4. Bob Calder

    NGSS didn’t have principals and superintendents cheering alongside when it was constructed. The AAAS and the National Academy provided guidance. Labs have been mandated because testing has de-emphasized them. They are intended to be *non-canned* where there is no “right” answer. Evolution which has increasingly found a central place in all science has been spread throughout the content. Discovery is emphasized and above all, principles are central. Not lists of facts. Principals and superintendents will be disoriented. (17 labs *during* the year, NOT after testing and evolution content going from under 20% to over 35%, roughly doubling.)
    This is driven by the changes in how science proceeds. For instance the myth of the lone inventor in his garage may be replaced by the reality of collaboration. The central position of evolution may be finally acknowledged. Discovery and the reality of negative results may be introduced rather than the idiotic myth of finding what you are supposed to find.
    If you think our corporate overlords are upset that Susy can’t type and answer the phone, just imagine how upset the people that man the engines of discovery are when Susy thinks failed hypotheses should be discarded. (Given that discovery is accelerating far more rapidly than our mercantile sector and already overshadows it.)

  5. Pingback: Science, Math, and History: The Historic Strugg...

  6. The phrase pedagogical content knowledge was introduced in Lee Shulman’s AERA Presidential Address, as I am sure you know. Here, from page 6 of the published version in Educational Researcher, is something he wrote: “Whether in the spirit of the 1870s, when pedagogy was essentially ignored, or in the 1980s, when content was conspicuously absent, has there always been a cleavage between the two?” Things with respect to content have improved a little since then, but teacher content knowledge still is a major problem in mathematics education, and I assume in many other areas.

  7. Amanda

    Reading the comments on this post, I see that most have the same or similar experiences with this. Garth, mentioned about student teaching, and it got me thinking about my own student teaching experience. I have a degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood so I had two student teaching experiences. In my first, I was thrown into a school that has taken to scripted lessons for everything. In these scripts they told you what to say, what materials you needed and how to teach it. No thought on the teachers part at all, and this was supposed to make it easier on the teacher (I’m not exactly sure how, this was just what I was told). In my second experience, I was put in a school that handed me a copy of the standards with the ones I was to teach highlighted, and told to “have fun with it.” In this second school, there was no “interference” from other teachers or administrators as to how information was taught. After these experiences, I moved into the “real world” with no idea of how to teach. In college I was given four classes on how to teach early childhood, but only one on how to teach later elementary, and that class was more us doing the math instead of learning how to teach it. I think that teachers and many professionals see this problem, but then why aren’t more policy makers addressing this? Why are teachers continually thrown into classrooms with the instructions to “have fun” or no instruction at all? How does this translate to success for students?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on your two student teaching experiences. As to answering your last two questions, I cannot offer you an easy or simple answer since any answer has to deal with teacher education programs–varied as they are across the nation–and their different approaches of preparing novices for what is and preparing novices for how teaching should be. The very best of the teacher ed programs, in my opinion, lean toward the experiential side but combine both; the very worst focus entirely on how teaching should be.

  8. Pingback: Intégrer le TIC en pédagogie | Pearltrees

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