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Scientists and Science Education Reform: Myths, Methods, and Madness

James M. Bower
Co-Director: Caltech Precollege Science Initiative
Associate Professor of Biology
California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California

Over the last several years, the deplorable state of public science education and the perceived consequences for our nation's economic and intellectual vitality has attracted not only the attention of educators and politicians, but also an increasing number of professional scientists and engineers. As a consequence a remarkable number of science professionals are becoming or are already involved in attempts to improve public science education. While, in principle, this increased involvement of the scientific community is encouraging, it is also the case that scientific training often includes little or no focus on science education itself. Instead, it is simply assumed that a PhD in experimental science is adequate preparation for ones eventual educational responsibilities. Based on ten years of involvement in elementary science education reform, I can assure you that this is not the case.

For the last eleven years, myself and my Caltech colleague Dr. Jerry Pine have been involved in a close collaborative partnership with the Pasadena Unified School District in an attempt to introduce and support high quality inquiry based "hands on" science teaching for all children. As of the fall of 1993, all 650 K-6 teachers in this large urban school district teach 4, 10-12 week science units each year. These units emphasize an open ended experiment-based approach to understanding science. We have also developed a substantial professional development program in science for all teachers in the district as well as an extensive materials support system. Program extensions are now being made into middle and high school classrooms as well as preservice teacher training. Over the last five years, we have also transplanted this project into two additional school districts, one in California and one on the island of Maui. As a result of these successes, in the fall of 1994, the National Science Foundation established a center at Caltech intended to transfer our model for systemic reform to 14 new school districts in the state of California. At present we are working with 9 new school districts located throughout Central and Southern California.

 

"Myths" of science education reform

While I believe that our efforts to change science teaching in public schools have met with some success, this success absolutely required that I, as a scientist, reexamine many of the most basic educational assumptions I had developed as a result of my own science education. While I started these projects 10 years ago with enthusiasm and a sense of great need, I realize in retrospect that I was, in fact, poorly equipped for my role as a partner in change. I knew essentially nothing about education in general, or science education in particular. Many of the assumptions I had made about the change process, as well as what good science education looked like, were flat wrong. I also had little or no real understanding of the structure of school districts, teacher capabilities, or the effort really required to produce lasting change in public science education. Ten years later I continue to learn important lessons regularly, guided by our school district collaborators.

Nevertheless, based on the initial success of the Pasadena projects, I am increasingly asked to evaluate other science reform efforts involving scientists. From this exposure it has become clear that many of the incorrect assumptions I myself initially made are often evident in the plans of other science education reform efforts involving scientists and scientific organizations. In fact, these assumptions appear to be strong enough that scientists often invent nearly identical science education reform programs often with limited success. The purpose of this article is to explicitly identify some of these "common myths of science education reform". While several of the points made will probably be regarded as controversial, at a minimum this listing will expose potential reform advocates to several important program design issues. After all whatever the final structure of a particular program, no program, just as no research project, should be created or run in a vacuum.

 

Myth 1 - The problem with public science education is that a large percentage of teachers are incompetent.

It is remarkable how widespread the view is that teachers, especially in early grades, are minimally functioning human beings. It is also remarkable how rapidly this notion disappears when one becomes seriously involved with teachers and the worlds they live in. Teachers in California public schools are now expected to manage the learning of 30-40 students per classroom with almost no outside help, and almost no budget. It is absolutely remarkable that more of them do not quit outright. The reason they do not, in our experience, is that almost all of them have a deep personal commitment to student learning. With such a commitment, and a rational approach to science education reform, we have found that the vast majority of teachers enthusiastically participate in improving the quality of science education.

 

Myth 2 - Teachers are under motivated to teach science because they do not understand how exciting it is.

When surveyed teachers actually report that they already consider science to be one of the most exciting contemporary fields of study. However, attempts to transfer the excitement of science through lectures never give teachers the opportunity to experience the thrill of doing science themselves. Instead, science is presented as the purview of the elite. Even programs that combine "science excitement lectures" with later "hands-on" experiments usually reinforce unproductive attitudes. For example, in most cases, the "hands-on" activities are do-it-yourself "cook-book" demonstrations of the sort professors design for their own undergraduates. These are usually primarily intended to assure that everyone gets the same, right answer. This type of lab is in sharp contrast to inquiries which give teachers opportunities for real open-ended scientific discovery. Obviously, they also reflect that fact that in "real science" the answer is often not simple, singular, stable, or in many cases even known.

 

Myth 3 - The primary reason teachers do not teach science well is a lack of science content knowledge.

It is perhaps not surprising that many programs run by scientists focus on increasing the scientific content knowledge of teachers. In my view this directly reflects the structure of undergraduate and graduate level science education which is most often predicated on the assumption that a strong understanding of science content is a necessary prerequisite for eventual success in research. While I personally doubt that this is true even in higher education, in the context of K-12 science education reform, there is no question that an inordinate upfront focus on science content only reinforces the inadequacy many teachers already feel about their own science content knowledge. This, in turn, reduces the likelihood, especially in younger grades, that teachers will actual teach science.

When the focus of science education is changed from science content, to science process, the hesitation of teachers to teach science greatly diminishes. As teachers understand that the skills they need to teach science are not substantially different from those necessary to teach other subjects, their willingness to engage their students in real scientific inquiry increases dramatically.

 

Myth 4 - Supplemental teacher training is necessary because too few teachers especially in the early grades, have been required to take science classes in college.

We have found that a teacher with adequate materials, enough time, and good classroom and science experiment management skills can actually provide their students with an excellent science education with remarkably little science content knowledge. In fact, in general, the more college science courses a teacher has taken, the more likely they are to model their teaching on the lecture-based approach of most university science professors. Accordingly, teachers with fewer college lecture-based science courses are often more amenable to fundamental change to inquiry teaching methods than are those whose examples for science teaching come from college and university professors. In our experience, as these teachers become involved in real science experiments in their classrooms, they inevitably seek additional science content knowledge. However, in this case the information they seek is directly related to their own needs as science teachers, not to lists of "what all teachers (or students) should know" generated by others.

 

Myth 5 - The key to scientist involvement with teacher training is to provide complex information in as digestible a form as possible.

It follows from my previous statements that distributing simplified scientific information is about the last thing that a scientist should do. Watered down lectures only serve to reinforce in teachers the sense that they are not really capable of understanding scientific principles, reinforcing the insecurity that many teachers already feel about science. As I have also stated, scientific information in this form is almost worthless to teachers in any event. Young students, unlike those in college and graduate school, have not yet learned what questions not to ask, and therefore will rapidly expose holes in the knowledge of a teacher trained to be a "mini-expert". In fact, these students regularly expose holes in my own scientific knowledge. On the other hand, if the role of the teacher is as a guide to students in their own scientific investigations, then the lack of detailed knowledge of the teacher is a source of motivation and ownership by students. Of course, this change also substantially alters the role of the scientist in educational reform. The "classroom management" skills now required to organize time and materials or help students work in cooperative groups are not something that most scientists know anything about. However, what scientists do know about is how to conduct investigations. Accordingly, in our programs the primary role of the scientist is to model inquiry, not to fill in teacher backgrounds. Just as we are comfortable guiding our graduate students to explore subjects for which we do not yet know the answer, teachers should be comfortable guiding their students' explorations.

 

Myth 6 - The problem with science education is a lack of good curriculum and therefore we must develop it.

If the emphasis of the reform project is on grades K-6, this statement is absolutely wrong. Over the last several years, numerous companies have begun marketing excellent early science curriculum. In fact, I believe that, at this point, there is almost no need for further curriculum development in K-6. Instead, reform programs should focus on how to implement and support the use of this existing curriculum.

Beyond the elementary school level, however, there is as yet almost no good, readily- available inquiry-based curriculum. This is one of the many reasons that I believe reform efforts should begin in elementary school. The vast majority of what is available in higher grades is either fundamentally lecture based, or based on "cook book" hands on activities intended (as in our undergraduate laboratories) to assure that every student gets the "right" answer. As I have stated, enforced "correct" answers should have no place in real science education.

This said, however, the answer to this problem is NOT to have reform efforts develop their own curriculum. Curriculum development is a much more costly and time consuming process than most scientists believe, requiring long-term revision, field testing and evaluation by a highly-talented, motivated, and educated development team. A reasonable estimate of the cost of developing a real 12-week curriculum module for elementary school, for example, is $400,000 and three years. Curriculum developed in the context of reform efforts is often mostly of the demonstration variety that does not support good inquiry teaching. Further, an emphasis on curriculum development tends to underestimate the far more difficult problem of curriculum support and implementation. Many millions of education dollars spent on "grass-roots" curriculum development programs have not corrected the perilous state of science education in our schools.

 

Myth 7 - One reason to develop new curriculum is to introduce modern scientific techniques derived from current laboratory experiments.

It is my view that the drive to make curriculum "modern" is misplaced. While understanding the political and social implications of modern science is clearly important, a specific focus on this objective often indicates a hidden agenda. For example, a teacher training program in modern biology might be intended to directly counteract the effectiveness of animal rights activists. Such political considerations, when they are primary, often directly undermine the open inquiry process that is supposed to define scientific methods. It also places science training programs at risk of using the same tactics as those they are attempting to counteract. Further, modern experiments and experimental techniques are often not accessible to deep process knowledge or active exploration; instead, they infrequently come across as being more magical than scientific. Classroom activities developed from research laboratory experiments, in particular, are very often only simple demonstrations of previously presented science facts. Such activities bear little resemblance to real experimental science and seldom support inquiry-based learning.

In my view, any subject considered as a base for science curriculum should be evaluated for its value in teaching and learning, not solely for its degree of contemporary content. While questions of relevance are often important to teachers and students, especially in higher grades, we have found that any real scientific investigation, correctly conceived and supported is regarded as a valuable experience.

 

Myth 8 - Training a few highly-motivated teachers will produce "trickle down" reform when they return to their schools.

Regardless of the emphasis on content or process, the most common form of educational reform project is one that assumes that a small number of highly-trained teachers will transfer their abilities and enthusiasm to other teachers in a school or district. Again, this approach to educational reform reflects the hierarchical structure of science education in universities. In fact, there is little evidence that individual training courses have much effect outside the classroom of the trained teacher. Teachers that have elected to take these courses are often regarded as "special teachers" by other teachers, in effect isolating them from their colleagues, and reducing their effectiveness as reformers. Further, real teachers seldom have the means or time to support or transform the teaching techniques of their colleagues.

If systemic change is the objective, then it must be the specific target not an assumed side benefit. In Pasadena, our initial focus on all teachers, not just the recognized mentor teachers, in a single school produced the local proof of concept necessary to convince the rest of the district to make the change. The fact that the majority of teachers in the initial school were enthusiastic about the program, in effect, certified for the other teachers in the district that this was something that they too could do. As we now move into other school districts, the primary problem is slowing down the implementation, not convincing other teachers to try it.

 

Myth 9 - If teachers are motivated enough during training, they will find a way to obtain the material necessary to teach science in their classrooms.

Over the last several years, there has been a clear migration away from lecture-based instruction towards more hands-on approaches. Unfortunately, however, most programs supporting this change still do not take into account the need to provide material support to teachers back in their own school districts. In fact, far too many university-based programs seem to assume that participation in a summer workshop will provide the necessary teacher motivation to change classroom instruction. There is little evidence that this is true. Instead, to be effective a program needs to take into account, at the outset, that in-district support and follow-up will be necessary for success. This is particularly true with respect to science instruction materials. Very few public schools in the 1990s have budgets that can support the materials necessary to teach science well. Teachers often do not have the political clout necessary to obtain what minimal money is available. For most of our teachers today, teaching is a lonely and personally expensive occupation. If a program intends to maintain a lasting commitment from the teachers it has trained, direct and continuing school district support is essential. The lessons of the last 30 years make this absolutely clear. The wonderful hands-on materials developed in the 60's remained completely unused without support for the material and professional development needs of teachers. Unfortunately, this means that school districts as well as project coordinators have to deal with the nuts and bolts issues involved in supporting real experimental science at the beginning and throughout a project. Without this support it is well known that good science teaching can not be sustained.

 

Myth 10 - Reform can be accomplished with existing resources if they are simply allocated more efficiently.

In my view, this is perhaps the greatest myth of education reform. While it may be the case that 30 years ago resource allocation could fuel reform efforts, it is no longer the case today. Public school districts, especially those serving poor children (i.e. districts that can not rely on direct parental financial support) have been cut so close to the bone that there is little money left to support even the existing curriculum. With cuts in social services, these school districts are rapidly becoming social service agencies, rather than educational institutions. The basic health and safety of their students inevitably takes priority over something as relatively esoteric as science education, let alone its reform. For this reason, no matter what else happens, if public schools continue to be denied the resources they need, no reform effort will be sustainable, and the cultural, educational and political spiral we find ourselves in now will continue. As an advocate for science education reform, I now also spend considerable time evaluating educational projects in third world countries. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish schools in these regions of the world with our own public schools. As the richest and most economically vital country in the world, there is no excuse for this situation.

 

What can I do as a scientist?

While the forgoing list of "don'ts" might be daunting, in fact, I believe that scientists should be encouraged to get involved in science education reform. Scientists can play a critical role in the process of reform, even if the role they actually play is somewhat different from the role they imagine they should play. The following partial list is based on our experience with several school districts and the many scientists involved in our programs.

Program Validation: Perhaps surprisingly I believe that the largest contribution the scientific community can make to science education reform is related to the popular perception of scientists rather than their scientific knowledge directly. Through involvement in a reform program, scientists can certify the validity of a program. For teachers, parents, administrators, students and even funding agencies, the involvement of real working scientists in a science education program can lend essential political support for a project. While this political clout may be a result of what, in my opinion, is the mistaken public impression that professional science content knowledge is a critical component of any science education reform effort, it provides scientists a tremendous opportunity not available to many other sectors of society (or members of the traditional educational community). Of course, this makes it especially important that we use the opportunity wisely.

Teacher support: The involvement of working scientists can have a profound effect on teacher optimism. Changing teaching style and/or adopting new curriculum requires tremendous energy and commitment on the part of the teachers involved. Through supportive participation in the process, scientists can provide crucial emotional support for teachers and also advocate for teachers within a program, school district, and/or community.

Resource acquisition: To be a professional scientist in today's world, it is necessary to have exemplary grant-writing and communication skills. Such skills, or the time to use them, are often lacking in school systems. As the current financial conditions of most public schools make the need for outside funding of reform projects critical, scientists can provide an extremely valuable service as grant writers and administrators. Without outside funding, today's reality in public education virtually assures that innovative programs can not exist.

Modeling the scientific process: While scientists must be very careful in the use of their content knowledge, real science whether in the laboratory or the classroom depends substantially on the application of good scientific process. By scientific process I do not mean the famous four steps in the scientific method that are drilled into the heads of children from grade 3. Instead I mean the real scientific skills of investigation, critical thinking, imagination, intuition, playfulness, and thinking on your feet and with your hands that are essential to success in scientific research. We have found that trained scientists, properly prepared and with attitudes adjusted, can easily apply these skills independent of their particular area of expertise. In fact, in our programs we intentionally assign scientists to teacher training groups outside their area of expertise to reduce the likelihood that fun and exploration are replaced by a quickly offered factual answer. In our experience, when scientists and teachers are mixed together in inquiry teams where no one has the answer (or better yet, where a "correct" answer does not even exist), the result can be extremely valuable for teachers. There is no more effective means to convey the excitement of science than to let teachers and their students really do science where doing is dependent on involvement in an open-ended, inquiry-based, student-driven exploration of almost any subject.

 

In Conclusion

All Teachers, All Children: The myths I have considered in the previous sections are obvious and understandable given the type of science education most scientists themselves have encountered. However, there is another myth that is perhaps more sinister and deeply buried than these and that is that only a select subset of our society can really be involved in scientific exploration. In this view the rest of our society simply become consumers of scientific facts. Those programs that focus on exceptional teachers or on the so-called gifted, reinforce elitist views of who can and can not do science. Our experience in the elementary school grades of the urban and predominantly minority Pasadena Unified School District suggests that every teacher and every child can benefit from high-quality science instruction when given the opportunity. For these reasons, I believe that effective reform of precollege science education in our nation depends on supporting the professional development of all teachers in service to all students. To do this, it is necessary to explicitly design programs that involve entire school systems, all teachers, and all students. Any other approach effectively reinforces science as an elite subject for elite teachers and special students. We are already living with the educational and political consequences of this attitude.

Educate and Reform Thyself: While most of the above discussion concerns scientist involvement in the public schools, perhaps the most important personal consequence of my involvement with science education reform has been a growing awareness of how poorly I have taught my own students (c.f. Bower, 1995, Systemic reform from the inside out: Look who's changing now. The Catalyst, #3, NRC Press, Washington, D.C.). Prior to involvement in this project, I knew remarkably little about good science education. After ten years of involvement with precollege science, I have become profoundly aware of the negative effect the poor teaching of science in colleges and universities has on the rest of the educational system. In many ways, colleges and universities set the standards for the entire educational system. So, while I wish to encourage scientists to contribute to the public schools, the most significant consequence for students of this involvement may very well be fundamental reform in the way we educate our own students. After all, the curriculum we ourselves control should be the easiest to change.

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