Click for next page ( 2

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement

Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 1
1 Introduction The wish to educate every citizen is at the foundation of American democ- racy. It constitutes a goal that has taken root in many other countries, and it is one of our national contributions of which we are justifiably proud. There is currently great concern, however, about the quality and effectiveness of our public education system. That concern was focused in the 1983 report A Nation at Risk by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, and it has since intensified with the growing awareness that a citizenry with an understanding of the role of science and technology is the key to our nation's future economic security. This committee was assembled by the National Research Council's Board on Biology to confront a piece of the problem-the state of the high-school biology curriculum but we quickly recognized how interlocked are the prac- tices that maintain the present unsatisfactory state of precollege science educa- tion. We also saw that the teaching of biology provides a paradigm, not only illustrating what is generally awry in conveying science to children, but also providing unique opportunities for improvement. Our children's knowledge of science is often compared unfavorably with that of students in other countries (IEA, 1988; Lapointe et al., 1989), but we do not have to look over our shoulders to find cause for alarm. A recent test of biological information taken by approximately 12,000 American high-school students (Mullis and Jenkins, 1988) yielded an astonishing result: fully half the students who had not taken a course in biology did as well as or better than 40% of the students who had taken such a course. Clearly, a great many children are learning almost nothing in their biology courses. About 75-80% of high-school students take a course in biology, usually in the ninth or tenth grade. Only about 30% of the students continue with science

OCR for page 1
2 FULFILLING THE PROMISE by enrolling in chemistry, and only half of those carry on further by studying physics in the twelfth grade (Welch et al., 1984~. This precipitous decline in enrollments suggests that something is orofoundlv wrong in how we inspire -~~oo~-~ ~r - - - - ~ interest in science and convey knowledge about science to the next generation. Simply mandating an additional year of science for high-school graduation will not improve science education. Because in most schools biology occupies a pivotal place in the curriculum at the start of the high-school sequence of science courses, it is the logical course to examine first to understand our failures. Furthermore, the nature of the subject presents unique opportunities. Biology has important things to tell children about themselves and should therefore be intrinsically interesting to them. Our lack of success in adequate instruction is especially troublesome, because for most students we are failing to relate the science of life to the ~ . . experience or lvlng. What are appropriate goals for science education in our schools? What degree of scientific literacy can we reasonably expect of most children? In general terms, science education in kindergarten through twelfth grade should enable students to: Apply the methods of scientific observation and evaluation in decision- making. Distinguish observations from inference, compare personal "theories" with scientific theories, and understand the functions of hypothesis and theory in science and how theories are developed and tested. Understand the limitations of small numbers of observations in gener- ating scientific knowledge. Deliberate thoughtfully with peers and adults about the outcomes and meanings of investigations and about how conceptual contradictions can be resolved through reinvestigation. In particular, biology education in kindergarten through twelfth grade should enable students to understand: Basic concepts of biology. How to lead healthy lives through a knowledge of how their bodies work and can be abused. The diversity, evolution, and interdependences of the biosphere and the students' role as future stewards of the environment. The role of biotechnology and its impact on their lives. The committee has developed some firm conclusions about what is wrong with biology education and how it has failed to fulfill these goals. We are convinced, however, that successful efforts to improve the classroom teaching of biology must address numerous interacting forces that maintain the inadequate status quo. Nothing short of a massive attack at a variety of points will produce the desired result-a citizenry with a much firmer understanding of humankind and of the natural world in which we all live. This report discusses the following issues:

OCR for page 1
INTRODUCTION 3 Exposure to science usually does not begin early enough in the schools, and it is generally of such poor quality that students learn to dislike science. In the elementary grades, there is a great need for teachers to introduce children to the active exploration of natural phenomena in a manner that does not kill future interest in science. The middle-school life-science course is usually a junior version of the tenth-grade biology course and shares many of its defects. Several models for its redesign are under development and should be watched closely. Given the age and interests of middle-schoolers, the new curricula with a focus on human biology seem particularly promising. The present high-school biology curriculum is much too inclusive, burdened with vocabulary, and short on concepts. Most students see it as boring or irrelevant. Present modes of instruction are mostly unsuccessful in presenting science as a process of discovery by which we learn about the world, and the use of laboratories is inadequate. In many classrooms, the textbook defines the curriculum, but most textbooks are poorly structured and often inaccurate or misleading. In attempting to cover large amounts of material, they are superficial and uninteresting and fail to convey an understanding of biological principles. Standardized testing has become the primary method of assessment, and the results are commonly and inappropriately used to gauge the perfor- mance of both programs and individual students. Moreover, because the tests emphasize name recognition, they drive some of the less desirable features of the curriculum. Opportunities for effective inservice and preservice preparation of teachers are seriously inadequate. State and local agencies, either through inaction or through education- ally misguided decisions, often reinforce the errors of the present system. Various infrastructural elements in the educational system detract from the professionalism of teaching; these elements work against both the recruit- ment and retention of able teachers and the exercise of initiative and imagination in the classroom. . The shifting demographics of the nation by the year 2000 one-third of our schoolchildren will be members of minority groups present teachers with intensifying pedagogical challenges. Children do not arrive in school as blank slates on which anything can be written. If they are to learn effectively, their instruction must be related to the world they know and must be free of attitudes and expectations based on ethnic or other stereotypes. Teachers will have to deal with increasing cultural, social, and economic diversity among their students, and the underrepresentation of minority groups in the teaching profession is becoming worse. There are no mechanisms or long-term support for developing and evaluating science curricula. There is a general lack of leadership in the reform of science education at all levels. For example, not only have most of our major colleges and universities failed to design effective science curricula for their conscience

OCR for page 1
4 FULFILLING THE PROMISE students, but even more have failed to recognize the need for scientists to support precollege science education. In the pages that follow, we consider in detail the above issues and the many interactions among them. Some of our recommendations can be implemented immediately, at least in pilot programs, by individuals and groups willing to take the initiative. Others will require the generation of consensus through concerted efforts by many individuals with vastly different responsibilities. Substantial improvement in vitalizing science education will not be achieved by tinkering with the system. It will require recognition that the problem is complicated and will require the contributions not only of teachers, but of those who teach the teachers, teachers unions, educational administrators, makers of tests, publishers of textbooks, members of school boards, parents, politicians, and scientists. Major financial commitments will have to be made by foundations, industry, and federal, state, and local governments. A great deal is at stake, and there are important roles to be played by everyone. The moment for effective action is now. Much is being said about the inadequate state of public education, and, more important, many models for improving the teaching and learning of science are now being tried at the local level. There is thus much cause for optimism. However, we face a great national challenge that requires national leadership. In Chapter 8 we present an agenda and an opportunity for the community of scientists to participate.