Escaping the rhetoric of “the past” in science education

“Science students are rarely exhorted to question the present state of scientific knowledge. Somehow, it appears that boys and girls learn to accept the dogmatic assertions of teachers and textbooks. In the sense that all scientific data and conclusions are tentative, such acceptance is truly antiscientific. Every high-school science student should have an opportunity to explore at least one conceptual scheme so intensively that he begins to sense the limitations of what we know and observe about natural phenomena. He should understand that it is always proper to ask within what limits of error science data or concepts are accepted as correct.”[i]

In my office I have a small collection of historical science and science education textbooks. I haven’t spend much time trying to build a collection or anything but I like old books so I’ve been picking them up from retiring professors and used book sales since I was in grad school. Until recently, I wasn’t doing much with them (other than flipping through them over lunch occasionally) but I started posting some quotes from them on Tumblr, usually with a short comment.

This morning I went to do the same thing with the quote above. It’s from an old teacher education textbook called Quality Science for Secondary Schools published in 1960. In the midst of typing though, I paused, starting to feel like my comments were the same for almost all of the quotes: Arguments about good science education don’t seem to change, regardless of the year they were written.

Educators, critics, and scientists often argue for improving science education by teaching the processes of science, emphasizing critical thinking, and actively engaging students in doing science. Almost always, this is argued to be a great improvement over “traditional” approaches to science teaching that prioritize the rote learning of facts–an approach that is said to have dominated in the past. The problem is, it’s always a different past that we’re talking about – for us, it’s maybe the 80s, for those involved in writing the book, maybe the 40s.

In December, I made a similar argument in response to an article in Newsweek by Sharon Begley. She made a passionate plea for science education to emphasize scientific processes and critical thought. I agree with many of things that she said but she framed this as a new and, in her words, heretical argument. Archival material from the local provincial science teachers’ association says something different:

Alberta Teachers Association Science Council Conference 1961

Thursday Afternoon Presentation and Discussion:
Consultant and Guest Speaker: Dr. Paul deHart Hurd,
Professor of Science Education, Stanford University, California USA
Topic: Recent Trends and Developments in Science Education
“Future emphasis will be on methods of science as opposed to verification of facts.”

These ideas were already the future of science education in the 1960s.

But what about before that? Were the authors of Quality Science for Secondary Schools justified in favourably comparing their new approaches to “traditional” approaches? Turns out they weren’t.

Modern science education – to go further, the inclusion of science in school curricula at all – owes a lot to Louis Agassiz and Nature Study education. Scientists, like Agassiz, educators and child psychologists (then a new area of research), were passionate about improving education, making it accessible and relevant for more students (for a variety of sometimes competing reasons, but I won’t go into detail about that here). One of Aggasiz’s most famous arguments was the students should “study nature not books”. They should engage in the processes of science (Agassiz emphasized the power of observation) and learn to analyze evidence and draw their own conclusions. One of Agassiz’s students was David Starr Jordan (later the president of Stanford University) who wrote in his summer field school notebook:

“There is no part of the country where in summer you cannot get a sufficient supply of the best specimens. Take your text from the brooks, not from the booksellers. It is better to have a few forms well known than to teach a little about many hundred species.”[ii]

Excellent idea! Encourage students to actively explore the natural environment instead of learning endless terminology from textbooks. Wait a second, when did Jordan write this?


At the turn of the 20th century, science was not a typical part of the school curriculum. Standardized curricula that flowed from elementary to high school were really just beginning to be created in North America in the 1890s. Including science in these plans was seen as modern choice, a way to prepare for the future but also to challenge the rote approaches of a classical education. Instead of memorizing Latin conjugations, students should be learning things that would help them live better and survive economically. Sound familiar?

So what happened? Greater efforts to standardize education and concerns about teacher education and training (among other things) created the same kind of push/pull that we see today. A flexible science education that emphasizes engaging in science in the local environment became a difficult thing to do when inspections, prescribed texts, and standardized exams became the norm.

The barrier that prevents active, critical and process oriented science teaching has never been the fact that it’s a new idea. It’s not. When you scratch the surface of these arguments it turns out to be a rabbit hole. There is no past where rote teaching of scientific content was thought to be the best approach. This past is a rhetorical one.

The challenge this presents is that arguments presented in this way can’t lead to change because the actual challenges are covered up.  When those challenges (e.g., (standardization pressures, assessment practices, changing curricula, to name just a few)) are invisible, they become a lot harder to address. A more fruitful approach might sound like this: “ We recognize that many teachers, scientists, and science educators have been asking for the same things for a long time. For many reasons it’s been difficult to realize this vision of science education. Let’s see what we can do to address the underlying issues.”

This can’t happen if the real reasons are constantly covered up by the rhetoric that this is new and non-traditional. So what do you say, can we leave that reason alone for a bit?

[i] National Science Teachers Association (1960). Quality Science for Secondary Schools. NSTA Press (p. X).

[ii] Kohlstedt, S.G. (2010). Teaching children science: Hands-on nature study in North America, 1890-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (p. 21)


13 responses to “Escaping the rhetoric of “the past” in science education”

  1. The problem, I fear, is that it is easy to teach facts but hard to train someone to think critically and to understand how science operates.

    (And by hard I do not mean impossible or beyond the reach of the average teacher, but rather that it takes a lot of effort.)

  2. My high school physics course began by going out at night, with a telescope, and plotting the course of the planets. Whose movements then were compared against Ptolemy’s astronomy, with its equants and epicycles. Later, we learned Newton’s theories. Though, of course, we all knew already that Greek astronomy was wrong. And wondered why we were bothering with it.

    In retrospect… This was really a neat introduction to physics. 1) We went into the field, and measured. Science doesn’t begin in a text. It begins with the world, taking measurements. 2) Greek astronomy was real science. And did damn well. Yes, in light of modern science, it was wrong. But… 3) Most all science is wrong in some respect or another. You make do with what you have in hand, and then do better tomorrow.

  3. Thoughts on History of Science in a Science Curriculum…

    In “A Better Rationale for Science Literacy” Bruce Wightman reviews some of the standard reasons for studying science: surveys of basic science literacy show a lack of knowledge about scientific issues; basic scientific knowledge is importa…

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