I think one of the problems with science, and one of the issues The Next Generation Science Standards are trying to discuss is the focus on “facts”. From Kindergarten through High School and even beyond, science classes are mostly memorizing names, vocabulary and dates; leading to issues with understanding
By focusing on the progression of science, and ignoring the missteps and mistakes along the way, many students believe in the linear progression of scientific progress. It also leads to the impossible belief that to progress science, one would have to match and surpass the genius of the giants who came before. After all, what is the point of learning science if all the undiscovered stuff was beyond all but the most advanced student.
A second issue deals with the complexity of science. With many scientific disciplines; there are more exceptions than rules. However, in order to meet the earlier content-based standards, exceptions must be ignored. The content has been over-simplified to the point of lying to the students. Many of my students honestly believe that the scientific method is the only way to come to scientific knowledge, and if you can’t control for an experiment the data will be useless. The narrow scope of science breaks down the engagement with the content. Students don’t realize the ways they do science during their day.
To solve the issues with a content based curriculum. I think we need train future students in the process of science, and not science as a body of knowledge. Science needs to be a verb. Not a noun.
When you ask any teacher what they hope a student to gain for their class many would answer with a variation on the following: I hope they become critical thinkers, or I hope they learn to enjoy my content, or I hope they gain an appreciation of the way science interacts with their life. I would fathom very few teachers would say their greatest wish is for their students to have a precise and full knowledge of formulas, dates, and complex vocabulary.
I know as a science teacher, I couldn’t care less if my student remembered the step by step process and enzymes involved in photosynthesis. Most of my students will never need to know this in their daily lives upon leaving my classroom. But I do want my students to look at a tree and wonder how it works. Or to know that plants are the way energy from the sun is changed into the chemical energy of sugars. I want them able to take claims such as “all carbs are bad for you”, and think about that statement critically.
So why do we continue to teach them the complexities of content?
We should be teaching them science as a process of understanding the way the natural world works. The students have all the worlds collective knowledge at their hand. We need to teach them how to use it.
Now I am not saying we need to be 100% inquiry based or constructivist in our teaching. I’ll save that for a later post. But we could go a long way engaging students by allowing them to take part in the scientific process. We can lessen our reliance on dates, names, and vocabulary and do more to encourage participation in scientific pursuits. Show them the processes in action. Allow them to interact with demonstrations, and not sitting passively.
Science should be a verb.