A Changing Society
Recent national reports on school reform refer to science education as a critical factor in our economy and the nation's future. The need and call to reform science education are clear. However, the problem is complicated by the necessity of relating the curriculum to a changing society at the same time that science itself is undergoing a transformation.
Growth in scientific knowledge alone has been tremendous. The sheer amount of knowledge complicates efforts to keep school curriculum current with research. Science courses currently are organized to reflect the knowledge and strategies of individual scientific disciplines, and the growth in knowledge and curricular materials has become unwieldy. One widely used, seventh grade life science textbook, for example, contains 2,500 technical terms and unfamiliar words.
Moreover, since the 1940s, the classical image and ethos of science have been changing radically. Science has become an integral part of our social, economic, and political decision-making processes. Furthermore, science and technology have become broadly integrated. It is no longer possible to draw clear lines between science and technology and their influences on our everyday lives.
These changes have implications for science education in the schools. School courses obtain their knowledge base and the interpretation of that base from parent disciplines. The educational justification for teaching any school subject is that it contributes to the personal development of individuals, fosters social responsibility, and benefits the quality of life. In other words, an acceptable science curriculum has cultural as well as scientific validity. Today's science curriculum falls short of this measure.
A fair degree of consensus now exists about directions for science education reform, and the national reports recognize this. (1) Regard science as a core discipline; (2) teach it in a social context; (3) balance science and technology while emphasizing their relationship to society and human affairs; (4) concentrate on critical thinking skills and responsible decision making; and (5) frame courses around persistent social problems like energy, the environment, and health. College courses have done this since 1970. Science education in elementary and secondary schools, however, has not followed suit.
Raising the level of scientific and technological literacy depends more on the subject matter of science curriculum than any other factor. Yet, most of the actions currently being taken to improve science education or increase the rigor of science courses serve only to reinforce a curriculum and teaching practices that gave rise to the urgent calls for reform in the first place.
What is missing in efforts to transform science education in the United States is a conceptual framework, with associated policies, that justifies the need for change and provides a map for the direction that should be taken. Such a framework would be consistent with the changing culture of science and technology; it would be likely to promote social progress and to improve the quality of life; and it would have meaning for the work and leisure lives of individuals. The work to establish a consensus around such a framework is still to be done. We need a vision to move us beyond the solutions of the national reform reports and to begin the necessary transformation of science education.