Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Inquiry-based science: more right-brained epiphanies

The new National Science Education Standards content guidelines unwittingly summarize everything that is wrong with today's grade school science programs:


Knowing scientific facts Understanding scientific concepts and developing
and information abilities of inquiry

Studying subject matter disciplines Learning subject matter disciplines in the context
(physical, life, earth sciences) for of inquiry,technology, science in personal and
their own sake social perspectives, and history
and nature of science

Separating science knowledge Integrating all aspects of science content
and science process

Covering many science topics Studying a few fundamental science concepts

Implementing inquiry as Implementing inquiry as instructional
a set of processes strategies, abilities, and ideas to be learned

Activities that demonstrate Activities that investigate and analyze science
and verify science content questions

Investigations confined to Investigations over extended periods of time
one class period

Process skills out of context Process skills in context

Emphasis on individual process skills Using multiple process skills--
such as observation or inference manipulation, cognitive, procedural

Getting an answer Using evidence and strategies for developing or
revising an explanation

Science as exploration and experiment Science as argument and explanation

Providing answers to questions Communicating science explanations
about science content

Individuals and groups of students Groups of students often analyzing and
analyzing and synthesizing data synthesizing data after defending conclusions
without defending a conclusion

Doing few investigations in order to Doing more investigations in order to develop
leave time to cover large understanding, ability, values of inquiry and
amounts of content knowledge of science content

Concluding inquiries with the result Applying the results of experiments to scientific
of the experiment arguments and explanations

Management of materials and equipment Management of ideas and information

Private communication of student ideas Public communication of student ideas
and conclusions to teacher and work to classmates

A sea change from scientific knowledge to vague entities like "concepts," "abilities of inquiry," "process," "procedure," "manipulation," and "investigations." A seismic shift from scientific breadth and depth to the personal, social, technological, and historical.  A quantum leap to the conclusion that scientific disciplines (physical, life, and earth sciences) aren't interesting "for their own sake."

What about those students who like learning physics, biology, or geology?

Other changes, shifts, & leaps: From solo work to group work. From experimentation, observation, and inference, to "argumentation" and "communicating explanations." From communicating answers privately to teachers to sharing them publicly with classmates.

What about shy students and others who don't work well in groups?

What about those who excel at empirical observations and scientific inference, but have trouble using enough Language Arts to explain things to their teacher's satisfaction?

Many people have asked why ever fewer Americans are pursuing careers in science. Blaming everything from Creationism to anti-nerd stereotypes (more on this in a later post), they've overlooked that which has gone furthest out of its way to repel our most promising future scientists.


Lsquared said...

The philosophy behind these standards seems to be something like: most people don't need to do science, they need to be good appreciators and consumers of science. Let's design science class for them.

Unfortunately, it sounds like that means that the students who might become doers of science aren't getting what they need. I expect the pendulum will swing back eventually, but it is a dilemma what to do now if you are in a school that doesn't provide what your child needs.

lefty said...

Yes, I think you're right about the underlying philosophy.

I'm trusting in the pendulum, too, but I keep wondering where the future teachers of real grade school science are going to come from.

Perhaps we'll have to import them from overseas?