Sputnik Revisited: Historical Perspectives on Science Reform
The Sputnik-inspired Reforms of the 60's
One of the primary forces shaping the science reforms of the 1950's and 60's was the National Science Foundation. Founded in 1950, the NSF education effort prior to Sputnik had been confined to promoting science fairs and clubs and funding summer institutes for teachers. In 1955 the NSF annual report expressed growing concern about the shortage of high school students entering scientific careers, but was reluctant to lobby Congress for funds given the nations historic aversion to federal influence in school matters. While the Foundation had cautiously supported Jerrold Zacharias's early planning work on PSSC Physics at M.I.T., it took the launching of Sputnik released a torrent of federal funds. In 1958 the NSF increased its support for curriculum development at a rapid pace. In addition to supporting PSSC, they funded the School Mathematics Study Group at Yale and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Within the next two years they also launched two programs in high school chemistry: the Chemical Bond Approach Project and the Chemical Education Materials Study of the American Chemical Society. By 1960 the programs of the Education Directorate represented 42% of the NSF annual budget. Each of these projects, at NSF's insistence, was guided by a steering committee of prominent scientists and engineers.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Sputnik-driven reforms was the extensive participation of the university research scholars in the reform effort. For a brief period between the mid-1950s to the early 1970s some of the nation's most distinguished academics left their libraries and laboratories to spend time in pre-college classrooms. Nobel laureates sought ways to teach the very young how scientists and mathematicians think, and men who had worked on the Manhattan Project created "kitchen physics" courses for the elementary schools. Indeed the massive application of brain power to the problems of education, and the possibilities for change that arose during this period, are unique in the annals of American education.
Promoting high quality science and mathematics in the schools was not the only concern of the Sputnik reformers. Equally challenging was the issue of teaching methods that could promote good "habits of mind." One of the most influential products of the period was psychologist Jerome Bruner's The Process of Education, a slim volume of essays reporting the deliberations of the Woods Hole Conference of 1959. This gathering of scholars and teachers who had been working on many of the math and science projects was assembled by Jerrold Zacharias to review and share the early results. The conference produced a number of papers that discussed, among other things, the implications of cognitive research for classroom practice. One paper argued the case for intellectual "structure": "In teaching or in deciding what to learn there is a question of getting hold of that minimum array of information that can be structured in such a way as to yield the largest range of reliable inferences."2 In writing about the conference afterwards Bruner stressed the centrality of structure as a way of building intellectual "transfer" between the disciplines: "This type of transfer is at the heart of the educational process -- the continual broadening and deepening of knowledge in terms of basic and general ideas."3 Published in 1961, The Process of Education took the educational world by storm. It sold over 400,000 copies and was translated into eighteen languages.
Jerrold Zacharias, who co-chaired the Woods Hole Conference with Bruner, challenged Bruner's emphasis on structure, suggesting the richness of the pedagogical dialogue that took place at Woods Hole. Recalling Bruner's account many years later, Zacharias remarked, "Structure gives me the pip when you apply it to education. Jerry makes such a point that the way to remember something is to understand its structure; that's the way Jerry remembers, but that may not capture the interest of the kid."4 In an unpublished paper written in 1965 Zacharias pointed out that structures like Newton's Laws of Motion and Gravitation may be what science appears to be to the layman, but they are not what science is all about at the "cutting edge." "I have had the great good luck," he said, "to have lived through and participated in some of the great revolutions in physics, including the evolution of the great structure called quantum mechanics. But scientists are usually having their greatest sport when the structure is fuzzy, ambiguous, inadequate, or possibly just plain wrong."5 In the end both the importance of structure and the process of inquiry became central concerns of the science curriculum reform movement.
Although the Sputnik reformers largely ignored the educational establishment, classroom teachers were partners in the enterprise. Scholars may have shaped the conceptual design of the new programs, but gifted teachers translated the new ideas into effective classroom materials and activities. This collaboration between classroom teachers and research scientists was the hallmark of the curriculum reform movement of the 1960s, and it represented a fundamentally new way of stimulating educational reform. Educator John Goodlad later cited the decline of this scholar-teacher partnership as one of the major causes of the demise of the Sputnik reforms. According to Goodlad, "The ambitious strategy of bringing scholars and teachers together in the development of new instructional materials and subsequent follow-up in the classroom had some chance of success. But even this promising approach faced formidable obstacles in the structure of schooling."6 When teachers are treated as passive recipients of innovation rather than a vital participants in the enterprise, said Goodlad, reforms loose their power.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in the Sputnik reforms was the "top down" model for change that characterized their implementation. However participatory the development process, implementation usually followed a dissemination model better suited to consumer products than to educational change. Commercial products like drugs or automobiles naturally flow from the research laboratory to the commercial marketplace through well-defined distribution channels, but the industrial research, development, and dissemination model was poorly suited to the implementation of school reform. The educational innovators of the 1960s often found themselves in the hands of hostile and unreceptive publishers who had not participated in the enterprise, and who failed to invent alternative methods of distribution more suited to the new programs and products. The developers realized too late that changing educational practice meant more that creating innovative teaching materials and strategies. In also meant solving the problems of delivering professional development services and materials support to 15,000 autonomous school districts. Furthermore it meant selling the education establishment on the cost-effectiveness and practicality of the complex new programs. In short, there was little thought in the 1960's about how to implement what today we would call "systemic educational reform."
Nonetheless, the Sputnik-inspired science curriculum reform movement inspired a rich dialogue about learning and teaching that engaged some of the finest academic minds in the country. It also created some alternative models for instruction that are still worth examining by those interested in educational innovation. Some of these models have recently been resurrected in modern form.7 If the movement had lasted longer, it may have solved more of its implementation problems and had a wider impact on the schools. Unfortunately, however, by the end of the decade, federal support for curriculum innovation was beginning to wane. While President Lyndon Johnson saw educational reform as an important ingredient of the "Great Society," the nation's growing involvement in the Vietnam war shifted funding priorities in Washington. What finally killed the science reform movement, however, was the Apollo moon landing in 1969. When the world saw Neil Armstrong unfurl the American flag on the surface of the Moon, our "education gap" seemed as mythological as the so-called "missile-gap," and, ironically, Congressional support for science education began to fade. Before the mid-seventies the Education Directorate of the National Science Foundation had shrunk to less than 10% of the agency's budget, and following the election of President Reagan in 1980, the Directorate closed altogether. The Sputnik reforms were to prove as ephemeral as the technological threat that spawned them.
Copyright 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.