Teaching science through inquiry allows students to conceptualize a question and then seek possible explanations that respond to that question. For example, in my field of cell biology, cell membranes have to be selectively permeable—they have to let foodstuffs like sugars pass inward and wastes like carbon dioxide pass out, while holding the many big molecules that from the cell inside. What kind of material could have these properties and yet be able to expand as the cell grows?

It is certainly easy to remember another and more familiar type of science teaching from my childhood. In this approach—which remains depressingly common today—teachers provide their students with sets of science facts and with technical words to describe those facts. In the worst case, this type of science teaching assumes that education consists of filling a student’s head with vocabulary words and associations, such as mitochondria being “the powerhouses of the cell,” DNA being the “genetic material,” and motion producing “kinetic energy.” Science classes of this type treat education as if it were preparation for a quiz show or a game of trivial pursuit.

This view of science education has many problems. Most students are not interested in being quiz show participants. They fail to see how this type of knowledge will be useful to them in the future. They therefore lack the motivation for this kind of “school learning.”

Most important, this kind of teaching misses a tremendous opportunity to give all students the problem-solving skills that they will need to be effective workers and citizens in the 21st century.

Bruce Alberts

Excerpted from the Foreword in

National Research Council (2000b)

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