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- Where Are We Now? The Motivation for Change EDUCATION IN SCIENCE FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY The growth of scientific knowledge during the twentieth century has been without precedent in human history; science and technology permeate our culture. Some degree of familiarity with how scientific knowledge is obtained, with certainty and uncertainty, with the living and nonliving world, with basic mathematical ideas (numeracy), with how an understanding of nature and of the human body contributes to healthy lives and a safer world in short, the basic foundation that is referred to as scientific literacy has become an educational necessity. In an increasingly technological society competing for world markets, the need of businesses and industries for the scientifically literate will continue to expand. Population growth has placed new strains on the environment- massive pollution of air and water, deforestation and extinction of species, global warming and shifts in climate, and alterations in the ozone shield. We are engaging in the greatest uncontrolled experiment in human history, and the outcome is far from clear. Some are reassured by those economists who are confident that there will be technological fixes to such problems. Others more taken by the briefness of human experience since the industrial revolution, the accelerating pace of change, and the ecological concept of a finite carrying capacity are far less sure. What is certain, however, is that these issues are here to stay; and a necessary step to their resolution in a democratic society will be increasing the scientific sophistication of elected officials and the public. As we approach the twenty-first century, science must be accepted as a basic subject that must be taught in an understandable fashion to all students. 5
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6 FULFILLING THE PROMISE BIOLOGY IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL Learning is cumulative. Poor background in or an inappropriate attitude about a particular body of knowledge impedes or even prevents understanding. Even bright, college-educated adults often retreat to strictly rote learning of isolated facts when confronted with unfamiliar or threatening material. The progress of young learners doubtless is even more sensitive to background and attitude. Attempts by an instructor to promote learning of sophisticated concepts at a time when the students are still at an early learning state tend only to frustrate, and frustration leads to poor attitudes and phobias about the subject. The logic of the educational system is that learning achieved during the elementary years (generally grades K-5 or grades K-6) is built on during middle school; learning achieved in middle school (generally grades 6 and 7, grades 6-8, or grades 7 and 8) is built on during high school; and so on through college. But what happens if the elementary-school years do not result in the basic learning on which achievement in middle school and high school is predicated? Can a student perform at the expected level of, say, tenth- grade biology if the previous 9 or 10 years of schooling has not provided a substantial foundation in life science? The national condition of high-school science" as mentioned in Chapter 1 and as described in more detail later in this chapter indicates that the answer is no. As we argue in detail later in this report, the high-school biology course should be a synthetic treatment of important concepts and of how these concepts can shape our understanding of ourselves and our planet. If, as is true today, most citizens will never take another course in biology, or indeed any science, the high-school biology course will need to leave all students with knowledge and skills to help them interpret a complex world. But few students enter the high- school course with the background and perspective needed for such a demanding outcome. Instead, they arrive with poor attitudes toward science and often a need for remedial instruction, and, as noted earlier, they leave knowing little more than when they arrived. Their previous schooling not only has devoted little time to the study of science, but has usually been misdirected toward rote learning and textbook-centered lessons. The poor degree of learning at even the strictly factual level has been documented by national and international comparisons (IEA, 1988; Mullis and Jenkins, 1988; Lapointe et al., 19894. The message is clear: If science literacy is to be achieved, science must be allocated as much time in elementary and middle schools as has historically been allocated to reading, writing, and mathematics. In today's world, science is an educational "basic," and it must no longer be regarded as optional or as a special "enriching" experience to be presented only if time permits. Failure to educate and excite students in science in the early years is a primary reason for the inadequacy of the learning of science in later years. Thus, no reform of science education is likely to be successful until science is taught effectively in elementary school. Which scientific topics are emphasized and when must be based on the developmental state of the learner. Matching the curriculum to the interests and
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THE MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE 7 abilities of the children will improve learning. Furthermore, the major objective of elementary-school science courses should be to foster positive attitudes about and respect for the natural world, rather than to acquire detail. Children in grades 3-6 might be especially sensitive, because it is in those grades that "likes" and "dislikes" become established. Boring or nonunder- standable science classes during those years can permanently destroy an interest in science. Conversely, exciting experiences can lead to science-related career . . .eclslons. The elementary-school years present an opportunity for teaching about the natural world that the nation's schools have failed to grasp. Much that we know about learning, however, suggests that our success in teaching science in later years will remain limited until we capture the imaginations of children in elementary school. Later in this report, we offer specific suggestions for teaching biology to children in elementary school. BIOLOGY IN THE MIDDLE GRADES Biology in the middle grades is titled "life science" primarily to distinguish it from biology courses in high schools. Students in life-science courses are 13 or 14 years old, typically in the early adolescent phase of biological and social development. The life-science course is likely to be their first in a single discipline and taught by someone designated a science teacher. The Rationale for Middle Schools A word about the history of middle schools will be helpful in putting their curricular goals in perspective. Junior high schools were founded in 1905, because of the recognition by psychologists, biologists, and educators that the biological and social factors that identify the early adolescent are sufficiently distinctive to justify a distinctive educational program. Until the middle 1950s, the life-science course drifted toward a diluted version of high-school biology or was a maze of discrete topics distributed throughout general-science textbooks. The initial educational objective of meeting the developmental needs of early adolescents vanished and was replaced by the notion that life science in junior high schools should manage to prepare students for high-school biology. Even after 50 years, a life-science curriculum thought to be essential for the education of early adolescents still had not emerged. In the late l950s, educators recommended a reorganization of the junior high school and the formation of middle schools, omitting the ninth grade (Conant, 1960; Van Til et al., 19611. The advocates of the middle school reasserted the belief that the curriculum of the new school organization should fit the developmental needs of the early adolescent the same educational concept that had given rise to the junior high school (Eichhorn, 1966~. Middle schools consist of various grade combinations below the ninth grade (e.g., grades 6 and 7, grades 6-8, and grades 7 and 81; the ninth grade is part of the high school.
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8 FULFILLING THE PROMISE The projects for improving science curricula supported by the National Science Foundation during the 1960s and early 1970s developed a new series of science courses that were tailored for the traditional junior high school. Those courses were designed to represent better the "structure" of particular disciplines and to foster the development of skills in scientific inquiry. But because they did not address the needs of the adolescent, they were not consistent with the rationale for the middle-school curriculum. Projects developed particularly for early adolescents that were based on modular materials and that involved students in investigating natural phenomena were unable to penetrate the market and become established as alternatives to existing junior-high-school materials (Clark, 19694. The middle-school movement lost its identity during the 1970s as it became a forum for addressing problems of segregation, shifts in enrollment, and the use of buildings. Serious educational problems of the early adolescent were dealt with on an ad hoc basis, if at all. Moreover, the innovative science courses of the 1960s lost their significance with the insertion of minicourses focused on specific topics, such as the metric system, energy problems, space, environmental sciences, and safety. The ideal of addressing the needs of early adolescent students was once more forgotten. By the middle 1980s, it was evident that a middle-school life-science curriculum tailored to meet the biological, social, behavioral, and cognitive needs of early adolescents did not exist. Early Adolescence Today Students in middle schools (and the remaining junior high schools) today come from different elementary schools. No middle school can be assured that its students will have a common background in science, or even any formal instruction in science. The conventional wisdom among teachers in the middle grades is that, "if you expect children to know some science, it is best you teach it." In addition, the socializing forces that influence the growth and develop- ment of early adolescents today are different from those of past generations (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Institute of Medicine, 19891. For example, by the time students enter a middle or junior high school they have spent more time viewing television than being in school. Recent changes in family structures and other social factors have resulted in a gener- ation of young people who list lonesomeness as their major problem in life. Stress, depression, suicide, early pregnancy, use of illegal drugs and alcohol, and health problems are on the increase in early adolescent years. The potential for maladjustive behavior in early adolescence should not be ignored in developing a new life-science curriculum. Science Curricula in Today's Middle Grades There are two dominant patterns to science curricula in the middle grades (both in middle schools and in junior high schools). One includes a general
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THE MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE 9 science program that extends over a 3-year period. It dates back to 1915, when it was first introduced into junior high schools primarily to motivate students to take more high-school science courses. Topics in the biological, earth, and physical sciences are taught at each grade level in a more or less unified approach. The second pattern includes a series of discrete, year-long, discipline-bound courses in life science, earth science, and physical science. Those courses were developed under the National Science Foundation (NSF) Curriculum Improvement Program of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. NSF, in conjunction with publishers and schools, is now supporting financially the development of new programs in life, earth, and physical science. It appears that about half the middle schools have a general-science cur- riculum and the other half discipline-based courses (Weiss, 1987~. In addition, a course in health science is required of middle-school students in most school districts; typically, those who teach it have no training in science. Teacher and Student Perspectives on Life-Science Courses Many teachers perceive the purpose of teaching life science as preparing students for the next grade or for high-school biology (Moyer, 19891. They view students as without motivation to learn, deficient in reading ability, and lacking a background in science. Many students view the life-science course as uninteresting and requiring the memorization of many names. On completion of the course, the typical student reaction has been "never to take another science course unless made to do so." Textbooks for Life-Science Courses Approximately 25 life-science textbooks are currently on the market, and they differ little conceptually (Moyer, 19891. Some are written to be continuous with a publisher's elementary-school science series, and others stand alone as a course offering. Their subject matter is essentially a dilution of the traditional high-school biology course. Not surprisingly, they reflect the problems that beset the high-school texts: they are vocabulary-oriented, often containing more than 2,000 biological terms and unfamiliar words. Conclusions The middle-school science curriculum is adrift. It is unable to build on a coherent exposure to science in the elementary schools. And it has failed to address the challenge that is implicit in the educational philosophy behind middle schools: to meet the specific educational needs of the early adolescent (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989~. In a sense, it has simply borrowed from the high-school curriculum, and it is hard to identify any successes.
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10 FULFILLING THE PROMISE BIOLOGY IN HIGH SCHOOL The Importance and Teaching of Fundamental Concepts At one stage in its development, the study of biology was largely descriptive and based on natural history. Comparative anatomy and the classification of organisms provided vehicles for students to learn a large amount of terminology. For at least a generation, that approach to biology has been inadequate. A mature theory of evolution has stood up well in its broad outlines for more than a century, and recent findings in molecular biology have moved biology to the very forefront of experimental science. Biologists may be on the threshold of tackling successfully two of the most intractable and basic problems presented by living things: how a fertilized egg grows into an adult organism and how a collection of nerve cells learns and remembers. Biology is a mature discipline underpinned by basic explanatory concepts about how matter is organized in cells and organisms, how genetic information is encoded and transmitted across generations, how parts of organisms are related functionally, how organisms interact with each other and with the environment, and how different kinds of organisms change over time. Students leaving a high-school biology course should have some understanding of those concepts. The high-school course in biology, normally taken in the tenth grade, is seen by many as the first "serious" science course that students take. Currently, it is also the last formal exposure of many students to science. We have touched on some of the reasons why interest in science is hard to sustain. Previous exposure to science, minimal as it is, has burdened the subject with mystique. Instead of being seen as the way to infer relationships and causes through observation and trial (experiment), which most people engage in to various extents in other parts of their lives without thinking about what they are doing as "science," science is viewed as arcane, difficult, practiced only by the very talented, and unrelated to the real world of the average person. For most students, instead of dispelling those notions, the tenth-grade biology course simply reinforces them. The course also does little to develop scientific reasoning, teach cause and effect, encourage skepticism about correlations and inference, or suggest the value of experimental observation. Those conclusions are supported by a variety of studies, such as that of O. R. Anderson (1989~. Moreover, on the basis of the 1985-1986 science tests for 17-year-olds conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (alluded to in Chapter 1 and discussed further in Chapter 4), Mullis (1989, p. 98) concluded that, "given that most high-school juniors have taken biology, their understanding of the life sciences appears quite limited.... On the basis of their lack of knowledge, skills, and understanding and their inability to apply those they do possess, it is likely that our high-school juniors do not grasp the larger concepts that most science educators believe to be the foundation of a strong education in biology, including systems and cycles of change, heredity, diversity, evolution, structure and function, and organization." In summarizing responses of tenth-graders to items on an attitude scale that is part of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, Miller (1989) found that , ~.
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THE MOTIVATION FOR CHANGE 11 only 35% of students agreed that science would be useful to them as adults, 39% were not sure, and 25% said that it would not be useful. Most (59%) of those tenth-graders were enrolled in a biological-science course. Miller emphasized the importance of the biology course in the more general attitudes of students toward science and the role of these attitudes in selecting science courses in the future and in continuing an interest in science out of school. In an important reflection of the problem of high-school biology, college students (many of whom become teachers) do not fare much better than high- school students. Cronin and Almquist (1988), in a survey of more than 2,100 students on more than 40 campuses, found that 38% of the students polled disagreed with the scientific explanation of human evolution and 45% agreed with a statement that some human races are more evolved than others. Teachers are also a part of the problem. Another study reported that only 12% of Ohio biology teachers surveyed correctly defined the modern theory of evolution and that more than one-third advocated the teaching of creationism in public schools (Epstein, 1987~. Those data and many others could be cited indicate that the understand- ing of science by both students and teachers is deficient and demonstrate the need for more effective teaching and learning at all stages in the educational process. Textbooks Textbooks are used by more than 90% of biology teachers (Weiss, 1987, p. 311. In many classrooms, the textbook defines the nature of the course. But most professional biologists who examine high-school texts are appalled at what they find. Most of the texts are far too long and poorly crafted. They contain too much new and unnecessary vocabulary and too little clear exposition of fundamental concepts. They are often boring, and they are also sometimes either misleading or incorrect. In Chapter 4 we explore the writing and marketing of textbooks in greater detail; for the moment, it suffices to say that the textbooks are part of the problem. Teachers According to a recent study (Weiss, 1987, p. 40), 76% of teachers are satisfied with the texts now in use. That suggests that a disturbingly large segment of the approximately 37,000 biology teachers are comfortable with a mode of teaching that relies heavily on the use of inadequate textbooks and is obviously failing to serve the needs of most students. The teachers should not bear full responsibility, however. Foremost among the causes (discussed at length in Chapter 5) is the process by which teachers are trained and their expertise sustained through their professional lives. Discussions of teacher training tend to become polarized, with advocates of subject matter pointing accusing fingers at schools of education and charging that the education of teachers is weakened by an overemphasis on pedagogy. As we argue in this
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12 FULFILLING THE PROMISE report, this is a simplistic view of the problem. The science faculties in colleges and universities have not conveyed the meaning of science to future teachers in a manner that is helpful in precollege classrooms. Nor have they played a sustained and effective role in inservice education. There is ample blame for everyone in the system. The opportunities for intellectual "retooling" in a rapidly changing science like biology, as well as opportunities for sharing experiences with other profes- sionals (once available to science teachers in summer institutes sponsored by the NSF), have withered. We consider in Chapter 5 the role that such inservice opportunities can and should play. Conclusions By any reasonable measure, most high-school students graduate without knowing even the rudiments of basic biological concepts. The students therefore leave school with deep misconceptions about biology that may seriously affect their lives.
Representative terms from entire chapter: