Teaching Science as a Practice

Richard Duschl noted that the volume of recent reports on the reform of science education demonstrates the attention now focused on the topic. Improving science education has become a “cultural imperative,” essential to the nation’s future as a prosperous and democratic state, he said, but he observed that there are several pedagogical challenges. Students are generally not motivated by the economic arguments at the heart of such reports as Rising Above the Gathering Storm (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2007) or Tough Choices or Tough Times (National Center on Education and the Economy, 2006). Reaching students and helping them to develop as science learners depends instead on instruction that is rich in core knowledge and the practices that are essential to science, such as argument and critique, modeling and representation, and ways in which knowledge is applied. And science is a broad subject, encompassing physics, chemistry, life sciences, and geographic and earth system sciences. Although these subjects all require many of the same tools and technologies, identifying the most important skills and knowledge that students should acquire is not easy.

A recent report offered a vision of science in the context of K-12 education. Taking Science to School (National Research Council, 2007) describes science as a social phenomenon, in which a community of peers pursues shared objectives and abides by shared conventions that shape their work, Duschl said. Specifically, science involves practices in which students must learn to engage, such as:

•  building and refining theories and models,

•  collecting and analyzing data from observations or experiments,

•  constructing and critiquing arguments, and

•  using specialized ways of talking, writing, and representing phenomena.

Science has evolved, Duschl observed. Not only have technologies become more sophisticated, conceptions of the essential nature of science have also changed. During the first part of the 20th century, Duschl suggested, the focus of science was to test hypotheses and use deductive reasoning to learn from such experiments. Beginning in the 1960s, the focus shifted to the building and revision of theories. In the past two decades, scientists have grown more interested in building and revising models, which are logical representations of the relationships among phenomena that are observed—as opposed to theoretical explanatory frameworks. Regardless of such conceptual distinctions, science has yielded major achievements with both theoretical and practical importance—such as

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